Third installment of review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible

Third installment of review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible September 30, 2011

Now I turn to Chapters 5 and 6–both great chapters with which I mostly agree.  I think Chapter 5 especially is extremely helpful and all evangelicals should consider Smith’s (not entirely original) proposal.  It won’t fix the problem of PIP, but it will go a long way toward resolving numerous difficulties we run into when we try to treat the Bible as a flat terrain without highs and lows (not of inspiration but of authority for belief and life).

Chapter 5 is entitled “The Christocentric Hermeneutical Key.”  With this chapter Smith turns to proposed partial solutions to the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism (PIP).  However, I think his proposal in this chapter is valuable independently of the PIP problem.

Here’s how Smith sets up the chapter’s argument: “what is needed to improve on biblicism is some kind of stronger hermeneutical guide that can govern the proper interpretation of the multivocal, polysemous, multivalent texts of scripture toward the shared reading of a more coherent, authoritative biblical message.  Such a stronger hermeneutical guide would also, of course, have to be consistent with, if not directly derived from, Christian scripture and tradition.” (95)

His proposal is this: “The purpose, center and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ. … Truly believing that Jesus Christ is the real purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture causes one to read the Bible in a way that is very different than believing the Bible to be an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it seems to address.” (97-98)

To that I can only say Amen!  I have been promoting a Christocentric hermeneutic to my students for many years.  Smith is not being original here and doesn’t claim to be.  Luther practiced such an approach with his litmus test for biblical interpretation.  For him, that is especially God’s Word to us that promotes Christ (“was Christum treibt”).

Smith makes clear that he is not advocating a kind of allegorical or typological approach to Scripture that “sees” Christ in every verse of the Old Testament (for example–the tabernacle in the wilderness and every part of it a type of Christ).  Rather, his approach is this: “If believers want to rightly understand scripture, every narrative, every prayer, every proverb, every law, every Epistle needs…to be read and understood always and only in the light of Jesus Christ and God reconciling the world to himself through him.” (99)  Again, to that I say Amen!

Smith rightly appeals to great theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Barth, G. C. Berkouwer, Geoffrey Bromiley, Donald Bloesch, and to contemporary theologians (some evangelical) such as John Webster and Kevin Vanhoozer.

One problem I have with Smith’s examples of Christocentric hermeneutics is his appeal to the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message of the Southern Baptist Convention.  He says it includes the phrase “all Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.” (108) However, he fails to note that the 2000 BF&M dropped the following sentence from the 1963 BF&M (which is still the consensus statement of the Baptist General Convention of Texas): “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”  Dropping that sentence seriously weakened the phrase the 2000 BF&M kept.  It is one thing to say Christ is the “focus” of divine revelation and something else entirely to say he is the “criterion” for interpretation of Scripture.  The 1963 criterion phrase was dropped purposely, in my opinion, in order to strengthen the kind of biblicism Smith decries as impossible.  So, if Jesus Christ is not the criterion by which the Bible is interpreted, what will be that criterion?  No doubt the framers of the revisionist 2000 BF&M would say it doesn’t need one because it is wholly perspicuous.  But, of course, that’s simply naive.  I suggest that for them, the unacknowledged criterion is themselves–i.e., their vision of Baptist tradition.  I agree with Smith about this and it applies, in my opinion, to the moves made by the SBC in its revision of the BF&M and to its leaders approach to the Bible: “The reality is that it is not possible to take fully seriously a Christocentric hermeneutic of scripture and to hold to biblicism.  One or the other must give.  In most cases to date, the biblicist tendencies overwhelm Christocentric gestures and intuitions.  Nobody ends up explicitly denying that Christ is the purpose, center, meaning, and key to understanding scripture.  But in actual practice Christ gets sidelined by the interest in defending every proposition and account as inerrant, universally applicable, contemporarily applicable, and so on, in ways that try to make the faith ‘relevant’ for everyday concerns.” (109)

What Smith doesn’t say (or say enough about) is that in these cases what takes the place of Christ as the criterion of biblical interpretation is not nothing but some tradition–whether the “ancient Christian consensus” as in paleo-orthodoxy or the “received evangelical tradition” as in conservative evangelicalism/neo-fundamentalism or the magisterium of the Catholic church as in Roman Catholicism.  My question to Smith would be: Can you really practice what you preach in this chapter as a Roman Catholic?

I agree with Smith (at least the Smith of this chapter!) that a “canon within the canon” is inevitable and it ought to be Jesus Christ (was Christum treibt).  If it isn’t him, it will be something or someone else.  And I probably agree with Smith now (after the book was written when he joined the RCC) that there is always and must be a “canon outside the canon”–some tradition that guides us in interpretation.  Where I disagree (probably) is that this canon outside the canon must be binding on our interpretation of Scripture.  I say it (for me The Great Tradition of Christian teaching heralded by the church fathers and restored by the Reformers) always gets a vote (in matters of doctrinal controversy) but never a veto.  Jesus, however, gets a veto!  That is to say that if a doctrine conflicts with the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ, however many verses can be piled up to support it, it cannot be true.

Perhaps Smith’s most radical claim in this chapter (and perhaps in the book) is this: “The Bible is of course crucial for the Christian church and life.  But it does not trump Jesus Christ as the true and final Word of God.  The Bible is a secondary, subsidiary, functional, written word of God, the primary purpose of which is to mediate, to point us to, to give true testimony about the living Jesus Christ. … Biblicism borders on idolatry when it fails to maintain this perspective.” (117-118)

Again, I respond with a hearty Amen!

Smith goes on to deal with objections to Christocentric hermeneutics and he handles them very well.

Let me use Smith’s chapter and the approach it takes to explain WHY I AM NOT A CALVINIST AND CANNOT BE ONE.  I am constantly besieged by critics who claim my theology–Arminianism–is exegetically weak.  What I think they are saying is that they can pile up more verses for their theology than I can for mine.  EVEN IF THAT WERE TRUE (which I’m not about to concede), it wouldn’t settle the issue between us.  The Bible is not a textbook of truth in the way they handle it.  It is inspired testimony to Jesus  Christ who reveals God’s character perfectly.  I see them trying to look behind Jesus Christ to some God whose character is different from Jesus’.  And then they impose that mostly Old Testament view of God onto Jesus Christ and the New Testament.  My first and utter loyalty is to Jesus Christ.  I agree with Zinzendorf who said “If it weren’t for Jesus I wouldn’t believe in God” only I would alter it to “If it weren’t for Jesus I wouldn’t love or worship God.”  Thank God for Jesus!  When I look at most Calvinist attempts to prove their theology (and here I mean high, TULIP, double predestination Calvinism) what I see is an interpretation of Scripture that leaves Jesus behind; God’s character is derived from a chain of biblical passages interpreted in such a way that they are not only NOT consistent with the character of God revealed in Jesus, they positively CONFLICT with the character of God revealed in Jesus.  I know this sounds shocking to biblicist ears (as Smith defines biblicism), but I agree with Wesley who said of the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 “Whatever it means, it cannot mean that!”  Why not?  Because of Jesus Christ.

Now don’t jump on me for sentimentalizing God and Jesus.  Sure, God revealed in Jesus is intolerant of evil and judges it.  But he is a God who loves his human creatures, created in his own image and likeness, and wants them all to be saved and has done everything in his power to save them.  If they are not saved it is because they prefer to remain in the “far country” than to return home to the waiting father with his open arms.

Next time…Chapter 6 “Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity”

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  • Tim Reisdorf

    Roger, Thank you for only reviewing one chapter this time. It has lots of meat on it.

    I was first introduced to the idea of a “Canon within a Canon” in your class many years ago. While it can be useful in resolving issues, I would contend it wrongfully skews interpretation. Of course, this would almost always revolve OT books. Take, for example, the book of Job. “I know that my redeemer lives . . .” (Job 19:25) is often taken to refer to Jesus. I would contend otherwise – that Job is referring to his own integrity (personified, in this figure of speech). Introducing Jesus into Job’s argument here is strange, incoherent, and out-of-bounds by most methods of understanding literature. Yet, it is acceptable if you have this magical “Canon within a Canon” to guide the interpretation.

    The core of the issue, I believe, revolves in our understanding of how the NT writers understood and wrote about the OT. They took liberties (or rather, had traditional ways of interpretation) that most of us would reject (midrash, pesher, etc.) If we try to follow their examples, we could make the Bible mean anything we want – but we trust that the apostles and Holy Spirit had truth in their comments about OT passages. (see R. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period)

    I guess, in the end, I would abandon a tidy systematic theology in order to be true to the texts. Some see ways around that dilemma, but I cannot.

    • rogereolson

      I did distinguish between a Christocentric hermeneutic and typologizing the Jesus in the OT. Barth accomplished it.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        While I agree with you that the typology is best left to the apostles, I can’t see how the Christological grid pulled over the OT can remain true to the OT texts. “Whatever it means, it cannot mean that” ought to reflect the understanding of the original readers/authors. Wouldn’t it be better to understand Christ and Christology with an OT grid pulled over it? That seems much less “magical” to me.

  • PSF

    Thanks Roger, very well said. I have also seen what you have experienced from high Calvinists with respect to the another doctrine, namely the doctrine of hell. The charge of “sentimentality” or the dualistic charge of elevating “God’s character” over the biblical texts is directed against those who hold non-traditional views (e.g., conditional mortality / annihilationism) because they feel them to be inconsistent with the character of God as revealed in Jesus. However one finally assesses such positions, the character-vs.-biblical text dichotomy seems wrong and seems to depend precisely on the kind of biblicism that fails to take the Jesus Christ seriously as the hermeneutical criterion.

  • Great review of these two chapters. They were two of my favorite chapters in the book. I agree with what you are saying about TULIP Calvinism as well, though I am not an Arminian.

  • Bev Mitchell

    After finishing Smith’s book I began reading Thomas Torrance’s “The Mediation of Christ” along with your very good current discussion. Reading your third installment and Torrance together is very enlightening. As you say, none of this is particularly new, but ideas do have to be presented in  many different ways. Torrance’s overall theme of revelation and reconciliation being inextricably linked fits so well with the admonition to ‘read all Scripture through the witness of Christ’. In fact, to me they are saying exactly the same thing.

  • Matt

    At the risk of sounding very syrupy, posts like this one are why your blog is very refreshing indeed. In one verse, John 1:18!!!

  • Caleb G

    I have used that phrase before (If it weren’t for Jesus I wouldn’t believe in God) but I did not know Zinzendorf said it many years ago. Do you have a specific reference for that quote? I guess few things are original (like a Christocentric hermeneutical key to reading scripture aka Barth). I have gone back and forth on the issue of Calvinism vs. Arminianism, and you nailed one of the difficulties I have with Calvinism, namely the God revealed by Jesus doesn’t look like the God of Calvinism. Many Calvinists would dispute this, but I am calling it how I see it.
    I admire and in many ways hold to an anabaptist reading of Scripture for this reason. But I struggle with how to do this without becoming a Marcion. Any thoughts on how this can be avoided?

    • rogereolson

      Marcion wanted to expel the whole OT from the biblical canon. Neither Anabaptists or I want to. We just read the Bible backwards–the OT in light of the new which makes us have to put question marks over some of the reports and injunctions of the OT. Nobody I know (even fundamentalist covenant theologians) takes everything in the OT literally or thinks it is all applicable to today.

      • Nicolas

        like forcing the rape victim to marry the rapist, just to keep things tidy (Dt 22:28-29) or cutting off the hand of a wife who tried to help her husband in a fight (Dt 25:11-12) ???

  • Blake

    This sounds much like the underlying premise that got Rob Bell all the flack:

    “That is to say that if a doctrine conflicts with the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ, however many verses can be piled up to support it, it cannot be true.”

    Mohler will be cranky yet again.

  • Chris Green


    First, let me say along with everyone else how much I appreciate your thoughtful and detailed review of and response to Smith’s book. This is a helpful exchange for me, on many levels.

    Second, I have a question that quickly leads to something of a friendly pushback/counterclaim. You argue that Christ should be the final criterion of interpretation for all of Scripture, OT as well as NT–and with that I wholeheartedly agree. However, you also say (if I’m reading you rightly) that one unavoidably has EITHER Christ OR a tradition in this role of interpretive criterion. That seems to me just a new form of the old “Scripture-is-perfectly-perspicuous” arrangement produced by the very biblicism you reject.

    So, my question: instead of assuming that the text is unmistakeably clear on doctrine, are you not merely assuming that Jesus’ character is perfectly clear so that when read in light of this all-illuminating light Scripture is easily read rightly?

    And my counterclaim, then: try as one might, there’s simply is no saving the Protestant hermeneutic. I admire your Barth-like attempts to hold to the supremacy of Scripture, and I share with you most if not all of the basic convictions and concerns that compel you to make such attempts. But to say “tradition gets a vote but only Jesus gets a veto,” clever as it is, cannot make much real interpretive difference. You can say with Wesley that Calvin’s reading of Rom 9 cannot be correct “because of Jesus” and to that I say the heartiest Amen! However, Calvin and his cronies simply counter by saying that our Jesus is not the Jesus of Scripture, that we’ve devised an idol for ourselves out of the stuff of our (extra-biblical) traditions. At least for now, in this time before the End, the Jesus who gets the interpretive veto has always already been “voted in” by a tradition.

    • rogereolson

      But my point is that I, for one, do not acknowledge any tradition as supremely authoritative such that I have to bow to its interpretation in spite of my own interpretation. I’m not sure I agree that the Jesus I love and worship and serve has already been voted in by tradition–whatever Calvinists may say. I think theirs has. This is why Smith’s proposal really does nothing to solve the problem of PIP. Nor does joining the RCC.

      • Chris Green

        So — and I really mean this as a question and not as a snarky comeback! — how does one get to this Jesus without the help of a tradition? I mean, if one were able to get to Jesus apart from tradition, how would it be done? Also, can you spell out for me a bit more how it is that your position differs from that of the hyper-individualist fundamentalists/biblicists (like, for example, Lewis Sperry Chafer) who insist that they just take the Bible for what it says and therefore see Jesus for who he really is? Or, put another way, how are you able to have such clarity about things as over against the Calvinists on the one hand and the Catholics on the other hand?

        • rogereolson

          What’s your suggested alternative? What tradition is required to get to Jesus rightly? If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know I’m a pietist. With Zinzendorf and many other pietists I think we can have a relationship with Jesus Christ that illumines Scripture’s meaning. That doesn’t require individualism; Jesus people belong to his body, the church, and help each other interpret Scripture rightly. But the church can be wrong; sometimes it has been very wrong. So obviously a person might have such a relationship with Jesus Christ that his or her interpretation of Scripture rightly stands against the stream of tradition and even of the community.

          • Tom Montelauro

            I am trying to understand what Stanley Grenz (with whom I thought you agreed) and others have written against modernist foundationalism. If you believe that your personal “relationship with Jesus Christ” enables you to correctly interpret Scripture as well as to correct church tradition, it seems as though you have resorted to a kind of individualist foundationalism based upon direct spiritual relationship.

          • rogereolson

            I don’t recognize that as foundationalism. And I have always said (with Stan and others) that an individual’s insights into Scripture ought to be checked by the church. But tradition gets a vote but not a veto. Luther was right to stand against over one thousand years of church tradition and authority.

    • Timothy

      Can there not be a circular or spiral relationship between Jesus as hermeneutical key and the text of the Bible? My favourite Calvinist preacher (and I am not a Calvinist at all but he was very good) argued that our systematic theology had to be in continuous review by the scriptures but that our reading of the scriptures was also inevitably influenced by our systematic theology.
      This is also why the theological task is a never ending one.

  • Chris Green

    By the way, I should’ve said that in my reformulation of your axiom – “the tradition gets a vote but only Jesus gets a veto” – I meant “Jesus” as shorthand for the scriptural canon-within-a-canon interpreted christocentrically.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    “But he is a God who loves his human creatures, created in his own image and likeness, and wants them all to be saved and has done everything in his power to save them. If they are not saved it is because they prefer to remain in the “far country” than to return home to the waiting father with his open arms.”

    If, indeed, “[God] has done everything in his power to save them,” then they will be saved. He has the ‘power’ to bring them home from the far country however much they may resist.

    Psalm 106:8 (KJV)
    Nevertheless he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make his mighty power to be known.

    • rogereolson

      But love is never coercive within a relationship.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        You say that with an authority that makes me believe you got it from the Bible, but I’m not sure that it has its origin there. Did not God coerce Pharaoh to harden his heart? Did not God “incite David against [Israel]” in taking a census? I hear what you’re saying (and tend to agree), but counter-examples are corrosive to absolutes.

  • rey

    The Old Testament doesn’t say one word about Christ. Yes, I know Christians have forced it to by misinterpreting everything and taking it out of context. But in reality, Moses wrote nothing about Christ, nor did any of the prophets. The key to interpreting scripture then, is morality, not Christ.

  • rey

    “Let me use Smith’s chapter and the approach it takes to explain WHY I AM NOT A CALVINIST AND CANNOT BE ONE……I know this sounds shocking to biblicist ears (as Smith defines biblicism), but I agree with Wesley who said of the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 ‘Whatever it means, it cannot mean that!’ Why not? Because of Jesus Christ.”

    AMEN! Yet, even moreso, Paul’s spew in Romans 9 cannot be true because he misuses the Old Testament.

    First, God’s loving Jacob and hating Esau has absolutely nothing to do with salvation and only with physical benefits, and thus cannot be used to establish the idea of predestination to eternal salvation or damnation.

    Second, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart in any other way than by showing Pharaoh mercy, for it was every time that God instantly removed a plague when Pharaoh asked Moses to have it removed, that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened in response to God backing off from his punishment.

    Thirdly, in that passage where God says to Moses “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” this is that passage where God allows Moses to see his “hinder quarters” and he says this to justify giving Moses alone this special privilege. As for “I will harden whom I will harden” this is never said in the OT but it Paul’s misinterpretation of the Pharaoh story.

    Fourthly, Paul misuses the potter/clay metaphor. In Jeremiah when God sends Jeremiah to the potter’s house, the message is that just as the potter has an intention to make a good vessel out of clay but changes his mind when the lump of clay that fights him, and makes it into a chamber pot, so also if God decides to build up a nation, but the nation becomes evil, God will change his mind and destroy the nation. And in the opposite direction, if God purposes to destroy the nation but it repents, then he will build it up. Rather than using the potter/clay metaphor from Jeremiah lawfully, Paul twists it beyond recognition.

    So, yes, Romans 9 cannot mean that because of Jesus Christ. But moreso, if it does mean that, it nevertheless cannot be true because it is a gross misusage of the Old Testament, and is a clear case of twisting the Old Testament to teach insanity.

    • Timothy

      Although I accept that your interpretations of what Paul said in Rom 9 from the OT is wrong, I think Paul can be defended against the interpretations you ascribe to him. If we attempt to understand Rom 9 while using the OT passages in a responsible manner, I think a far better understanding, a far more plausible interpretation, will emerge.
      For an account of how Paul’s use of the OT was far more sophisticated than he is normally seen as having, see RB Hays, Echoes of Scripture. For an account of what Rom 9 might look like see NT Wright’s Romans commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      If Paul is guilty of a gross misuse of the OT, would you also say the the Holy Spirit who urged Paul to write that was also in error?

      But the way that Paul used the OT here was similar to the way he used the OT in other letters, and these were well accepted methods of interpretation (or teaching) in his time. The same is true with many of the NT writers. Hosea’s “Out of Egypt I called my son” was taken by Matthew to refer to Jesus. It can be true (while not Hosea’s original intent), but we cannot duplicate his methodology.

      For more on the variety of interpretations of OT in the NT times, please see Richard Longenecker’s book mentioned in an earlier comment.

      “… it nevertheless cannot be true because it is a gross misusage of the Old Testament, and is a clear case of twisting the Old Testament to teach insanity.” I cannot go as far as you go. We will run into troubles if we pick and choose what we like in the Bible – discarding what we don’t like. You have to be a Textual Critic to be able to do that! 🙂

  • Greg M

    On the approach of understanding God (especially God as revealed in the OT) through the criterion of Christ, I think though that Scot McKnight has made a good point in his recent King Jesus Gospel book that for the first Christians, it was the OT that helped interpret Christ (thus the repeated “according to Scriptures” phrase in 1 Cor 15 and similar claims Jesus himself made in Luke 24).

    Without this important qualification, one could have a view of Jesus untethered to the OT witness that is then to used to reinterpret the God revealed in the OT.

  • Les

    While I had issues with some of Smith’s earlier chapter, I found this chapter to be helpful to the point of being inspirational. I wholeheartedly agree with his call to read the Bible christocentrically, but I am still working out what this means in practice. I know it does not mean obsessing over typology, but does is mean reading the Old Testament like Christopher Wright, seeing Christ as the goal and climax of God’s story of redemption, focusing always on what God is doing to bring about that goal? This is the usually the paradigm I use and it does, by definition, see everything as it relates to Jesus. But are there other examples of books and/or scholars (besides you, of course, Roger) in which we can see this hermeneutic being modeled?

    • rogereolson

      Karl Barth?