Part 2 of the Review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible

Part 2 of the Review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible September 28, 2011

Now I turn to Chapters 3 and 4 of The Bible Made Impossible.  Chapter 3 is entitled Some Relevant History, Sociology and Psychology and Chapter 4 is Subsidiary Problems with Biblicism.

First, let me say that, contrary to the impression some have gotten, I am not at all dismissive of Smith’s overall argument; I happen to think it is worthy of serious consideration.  Otherwise I would not be engaging it in such detail.  Nor do I disagree with it entirely; I have qualms about some parts of it.

Second, I think there is at least one cause of PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism) Smith overlooks that will inevitably plague any text and its interpretation: presuppositions people bring to the text that the text itself does not directly address.  I’ve written about some pre-biblical philosophical and theological presuppositions previously here.  One is nominalism versus realism with regard to universals generally and with regard to God’s nature specifically.  Does God have an eternal, immutable character that governs his actions or is God entirely free from any constraints on his power and what he wills?  Someone might try to argue that the Bible settles this, but I don’t think it does.  Luther certainly read the Bible and took it seriously and thought voluntarism (nominalism applied to the doctrine of God) was the right way to read it.  Others read the Bible, take it seriously, and think realism is the right way to read it.  The Bible doesn’t settle the matter.  To expect ANY text settle all possible ways of reading and interpreting it in advance is unrealistic.

Now, I realize Smith might say one thing wrong with biblicism is its expectation that the Bible can be read and understood without presuppositions or that it settles all such issues so that only one set of presuppositions can reasonably be brought to its interpretation.  Perhaps some biblicists think that.  But my point is that NO TEXT–and that includes any interpretive tradition or magisterium–can possibly settle all such potential presuppositional issues in advance.  There will always be ambiguity in any interpretation precisely because of this matter of perspectives caused by philosophical presuppositions.  So no proposed solution to PIP can be comprehensive.  PIP is inevitable.

Okay, on to Chapter 3.  There Smith discusses philosophical assumptions behind modern evangelical biblicism and what is called Scottish Commonsense Realism in particular.  He traces the influence of SCR on the Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield and through them on contemporary conservative evangelicals such as Wayne Grudem.  He concludes that, since SCR has been discredited and replaced by critical realism, “the philosophical assumptions on which Hodge and Warfield built their theologies of the Bible are seriously problematic.” (59)  Since modern and contemporary evangelical biblicism is largely based on the theologies of Hodge and Warfield, then, biblicism is itself problematic.

Next Smith discusses sociological and psychological conjectures as to why PIP is not more troubling to biblicists.  He goes through a laundry list of reasons and concludes that “the general psychological structure underlying biblicism is one of a particular need to create order and security in an environment that would be otherwise chaotic and in error.” (64)  I think he could replace “biblicism” in that sentence with “fundamentalism” and it would be just as true if not truer (depending on how closely biblicism is tied to fundamentalism).

No doubt some philosophically trained or minded evangelicals will want to critique Smith’s treatment of SCR.  No doubt some will object that his reasons for why PIP does not trouble conservative evangelical biblicists more are mere conjectures.  But he admits the latter.  His argument doesn’t seem to be scientific so much as impressionistic.  The point is that he thinks these are reasons and you might too, if you consider them.  I’m not a biblicist in Smith’s sense and I’m not as troubled by PIP as he is.  But I don’t think it’s for any of the reasons he suggests.  Although, one specific reason might apply to me.

Smith’s second reason (p. 61) is because, he says, many evangelicals are simply in denial about the depth of PIP; they claim the differences among evangelicals are minor compared with their areas of agreement.  He rejects this reason and says that “Disagreements among biblicists (and other Bible-referring Christians) about what the Bible teaches on most issues, both essentials and secondary matters, are many and profound.  If biblicists hope to maintain intellectual honesty and internal consistency, they must acknowledge them and explain them.” (62)  I simply don’t agree.  I find that evangelicals do agree on the essentials of the faith–matters Christians have historically considered cornerstones of orthodoxy.  And when someone comes out and denies, say, the deity of Jesus Christ or the Trinity, evangelicals ostracize them from the evangelical movement.  Sure, some may attempt to ostracize others over non-essential matters as well (e.g., inerrancy or premillennialism), but that isn’t true as a general rule.  Most evangelicals are ready to accept as fellow Christian believers all who adhere to the few cornerstones of historic Christian orthodoxy.

I think the reason I’m not more troubled by PIP is because I have come to terms with it as inevitable.  What I’d like to know is how Smith handles PIP.  Oh, yes, he joins the Roman Catholic Church.  (No sarcasm intended.)  That a respectable move even if I disagree with it.  I still consider him a Christian and possibly even an evangelical Christian (thought I think that would be in spite of some traditional beliefs of the RCC rather than because of them).  What I think is that he will eventually discover PIP there as well.  Who interprets papal pronouncements and conciliar decrees?  Obviously they’re open to varying interpretations.  Just because that particular church has a mechanism for expelling people who stray too far does not mean PIP doesn’t exist within it.  It just means it can enforce conformity when it chooses to.  But what if those with power to enforce are wrong in their interpretation of the Bible?  Then nothing is really gained except artificial uniformity.

Chapter 4 deals with “subsidiary problems with biblicism.”  Some of these are: “blatantly ignored teachings” of the Bible (68-69); “arbitrary determinations of cultural relativism” (69-72); “strange passages” (72-74) and “populist and ‘expert’ practices deviate from biblicist theory” (75-78).  Let’s take the first one and consider it.  Smith argues that biblicists routinely flout clear commands and teachings of Scripture such as “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (68)  One has to wonder if he really thinks serious biblical scholars have never examined these commands and explained why they are not universally applicable.  Surely he knows better.  But he seems to think biblicism REQUIRES that commands such as this be adhered to to the letter and not qualified–even by serious hermeneutical reasoning.

Smith admits that this argument does not in and of itself prove biblicism impossible.  It may be, he suggests, that biblicists simply disobey such commands.  But he doesn’t think that all there is to it.  He thinks there are commands in Scripture that biblicism, as a theory of the Bible, should take literally and that biblicists, if they really believe in their theory of the Bible, would at least admit they are disobeying.  Instead, he says, biblicists simply ignore these commands.  They “simply [go] in one ear and out the other.” (68)  I think that oversimplifies more sophisticated evangelical biblicism.

I think many of Smith’s criticisms of biblicism strike against folk religion and unsophisticated fundamentalism.  But evangelical scholars who adhere to most, if not all, of what Smith calls biblicism early in the book have offered reasons for considering these commands culturally conditioned.  But he thinks the reasons offered are “arbitrary.” (69)  I just think he gives evangelical biblical scholars very little credit OR he would just say they are not biblicists insofar as they find and offer good reasons for considering these commands culturally conditioned and not universally applicable.  Again, I think William Webb, author of Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (IVP Academic, 2001) is a biblicist (even if not exactly fitting Smith’s profile) who offers sound reasons for considering some biblical injunctions culturally conditioned.

Smith admits midway through the chapter that “none of these empirical observations necessarily discredit biblicism.  It could be that biblicist theory is correct and that actual, empirical biblicist practices and experiences are often compromised.  Life sometimes works this way.” (78)  But Smith doesn’t think that’s the explanation.  Rather, he says, “biblicism is impossible to practice in actual experience–because of, among other reasons, the multivocality and polysemy of the texts.” (78)  Again, I wonder who exactly he means by “biblicists” here.  Apparently, they would have to be literalists–what one of my seminary professors called “wooden literalists.”  (I never quite figured out what the “wooden” meant unless “inflexible.”)  In other words, old fashioned, unreconstructed, unsophisticated fundamentalists–such as I grew up among.  Yes, one reason I left them is because I found their theory of the Bible, such as it was, impossible to believe consistently and impossible to practice.  But at times Smith SEEMS to want to include ALL conservative evangelicals among his impossible biblicists.  He specifically names Wayne Grudem a couple times.  While I disagree with Grudem’s view of the Bible, I’m not sure it’s as unsophisticated as Smith makes it out to be.  That is, I don’t think even Grudem is as literalistic as Smith suggests biblicism has to be or at least he offers reasons for not greeting fellow Christians with a holy kiss.

Another example Smith gives as a “subsidiary problem with biblicism” is “the genuine need for extrabiblical theological concepts.” (82-84)  Here’s his explanation: “Biblicism suggests that all of the pieces of the Christian doctrine and morality puzzle are right there in the Bible as propositions to be pulled out and put together in their logical ordering. … Yet a bit of reflection on orthodox Christian theology makes clear that numerous absolutely crucial doctrinal terms are not themselves found in the Bible but were invented or appropriated by the church during the patristic era.” (82) His examples are the terms Trinity, homoousion and creatio ex nihilo.

Again, I would argue that only the most unsophisticated evangelicals steeped in fundamentalism or folk religion (or both) think the Bible contains every important theological term.  I grew up in a very unsophisticated evangelical and even fundamentalist church and home and went to a college steeped in that tradition and I knew from a relatively young age that the Bible did not contain the term “Trinity” but it was something we were to believe anyway.  Why?  Because even though the Bible does not use the term, the concept it names is found in the Bible.  At least all the ingredients for it are there such that it is inevitable as one reflects on them.

Now, Smith seems to think even that kind of thinking is inconsistent with biblicism.  Maybe it is–as he defines biblicism.  But again, that just raises the question who actually believes in that kind of biblicism?  I do agree that many evangelicals, mostly ones I would call fundamentalists or folk religionists, are inconsistent about these matters.  In other words, as Smith is pointing out, they say one thing in their doctrine of the Bible but practice something else and claim consistency.  That is a problem.  But I find that MOST non-fundamentalist evangelicals, even ones I consider conservative, do not actually make the claims for the Bible Smith says they do.  Or they qualify them so severely (e.g., inerrancy, harmony, etc.) that the words they use are not really meant in their ordinary meanings.  (For example, progressive revelation and accommodation are standard qualifications of harmony.)

Smith concludes Chapter 4 thus: “When we confront biblicism’s many problems, we come to see that it is untenable.  Biblicism simply cannot be practiced with intellectual and practical honesty on its own terms.  It is in this sense literally impossible.” (89)  Again, I agree insofar as biblicism means rigid literalism, claims to absolute perspecuity such that all reasonable people will agree about its meaning exhaustively, technical inerrancy, etc.  It’s just that I don’t think most evangelicals who call themselves biblicists adhere to these beliefs about the Bible in unqualified ways.

What I do think is that SOME conservative evangelicals, including some biblical scholars and theologians, pay LIP SERVICE to beliefs about the Bible (to keep constituents off their backs) that they KNOW are not true.  I’ve been around in this evangelical movement for all my life and I’ve seen it frequently and perhaps done it myself at times.  For example, I know evangelical scholars who teach at very conservative institutions who DO NOT believe in inerrancy IN ANY WAY similar to their constituent pastors and lay people but who pretend to in order to keep their jobs or not rock the boat.  Now there’s a very real problem.  And there are SOME conservative evangelical theologians and biblical scholars and certainly pastors and denominational leaders who do seem to adhere to biblicism as Smith describes it.  It is impossible IF TAKEN THAT STRICTLY.  But I think most non-fundamentalist evangelical scholars and many, if not most, non-fundamentalist pastors and administrators gave up that kind of UNQUALIFIED biblicism long ago.

In spite of all my qualms and questions, I think Smith is putting his finger on an important problem that especially conservative evangelicals are reluctant to face and deal with.  It’s this: The grassroots of evangelicalism are much, much more conservative and unsophisticated in their biblicism than evangelical scholars and many evangelical scholars have to cater to that when they know better.  They are biblicists themselves, in a highly qualified sense, but they know that unqualified biblicism of Smith’s description is impossible to reconcile with the phenomena of the text and impossible to live out consistently.  They know that sophisticated hermeneutical moves are necessary to preserve biblicism and that it is necessary to qualify concepts like “inerrancy” almost to death (perhaps to death!).  But they don’t tell their constituents out of fear of a backlash and losing their jobs.  It happens.  I won’t name names, but anyone who pays close attention knows of recent examples.

So, yes, unqualified, unsophisticated biblicism as Smith describes it is impossible, but I just don’t think most evangelical scholars and leaders really believe it.  They preach it to the choir to keep the choir happy with them.  And that’s a real problem.  But there is a biblicism that is not that unsophisticated and unqualified and its not impossible even if it does raise some difficult questions and issues.  The alternatives, however, are worse.

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