Final installment of the review of Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible

Final installment of the review of Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible October 5, 2011

Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Chapter 7 “Rethinking Human Knowledge, Authority, and Understanding” and “Conclusion”

Smith here argues for evangelicals to “break from modern epistemological foundationalism once and for all, but without sliding into a problematic postmodernism.” (149)  As he sees it (and he’s not alone) modern and contemporary evangelical theology has “bought into foundationalism whole hog.” (150)  This is what Mark Noll and others have ironically labeled the “evangelical enlightenment”—evangelical theologians’ tendency to mimic the epistemology of the Enlightenment which is now being discredited.

For readers not familiar with foundationalism, Smith defines it (as he means it, anyway) on page 150: “a conviction that rational humans can and must identify a common foundation of knowledge directly up from and upon which every reasonable thinker can and ought to build a body of completely reliable knowledge and understanding.  Such a foundation upon which all knowledge is to be built must stand indubitably against all challenges, must be universally accessible to all rational people, and must unfailingly produce the kind of reliable knowledge sought after.  When such a foundation is secured, then the resultant knowledge that will be built from and upon it will be for all rational people absolutely certain, completely truthful, and universally binding.”

Smith argues that this Enlightenment-based foundationalist rationalism is no longer believable and must be replaced with critical realism.  I have argued here before that Lesslie Newbigin rightly argues the same.  For Smith, anyway, critical realism takes more seriously than foundationalism the inevitable interpretive nature of all knowing—perspectivalism without subjectivism or relativism.

The same point is made by theologian Gary Dorrien in his excellent book on evangelical theology entitled The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (Westminster John Knox, 1998): “Evangelicals are prone to fret that everything will be lost if they have no ground of absolute certainty or no proof that Christianity is superior to Islam or Buddhism.  This fear drives them to impose impossible tests on Christian belief.  Inerrancy or the abyss!  It also drives them to invest religious authority in a posited epistemological capacity that exists outside the circle of Christian faith.  The truth of Christianity is then judged by rational tests that are not only external to Christian revelation but given authority over revelation.” (201)

I whole heartedly agree with Smith and Dorrien and have said so in Reformed and Always Reforming and other books and articles.  Of course, not all evangelicals fall prey to foundationalism, but those that adhere strictly to the theological method of the Old Princeton theologians Alexander, Hodge and Warfield tend to.  Even Carl Henry’s presuppositionalist method, often accused of fideism by evangelicals more enamored with evidentialism, is based on a kind of foundationalist mentality.  Smith rightly calls evangelical theologians (and others) to abandon these attempts to secure certainty through rational means; they lay a burden on the Bible that it simply cannot bear as an ancient text with all the markings of human culture and personality, etc.

Of course, this move away from foundationalism won’t go far to solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism (PIP), but it will help evangelicals avoid embarrassment and foolishness.  Biblicism does not depend on foundationalism; it can exist independently of it.  But Smith believes much evangelical theology (as opposed to folk religion) has rested its case for certainty on the shaky ground of Enlightenment rationalism.

The second section of Chapter 7 is entitled “Not starting with a theory of inspiration.”  Smith does not argue for abandonment of inspiration or any theory of inspiration, but he argues that too often evangelicals begin with a presupposed theory of what inspiration must mean and then continue to force that onto the Bible.  It’s a deductive process of determining what the Bible “really is” divorced from a careful, inductive study of the phenomena of Scripture.  He’s said something like this before in the book.  Here, in this section, he offers some alternatives to such a deductive approach such as learning from non-evangelical sources (such as the church fathers) and non-American evangelicals (e.g., Brits and Europeans) how they view Scripture.  He rightly concludes (even though I’m not sure how this fits with the subtitle of this section) “American evangelicals have no need to be biblically or ecclesially self-sufficient, must less superior to other believers around the world.  By listening—critically but also appreciatively—to the voices of genuine others, evangelicals stand a chance of learning more and perhaps better about what the Bible is and how it can best be read and understood.” (156)

I think this may be another watershed among evangelical scholars—those mostly conservative, neo-fundamentalists whose theological heroes are almost exclusively North Americans (Edwards, Hodge, Strong, Boettner, et al.) and those who really believe it is to our benefit as North American evangelicals to listen to and critically appropriate the insights of the church fathers (including the Greek ones and not only Augustine!), the medieval theologians, the radical Reformers (not just the magisterial Reformers), and contemporary non-North Americans such as Newbigin, Wright, Moltmann, Volf (now a North American but with roots in Eastern Europe and education in Germany), et al.

Smith’s third section of Chapter 7 is entitled “Understanding different ways of doing by saying” and deals with speech act theory.  This is perhaps the most technical section of the entire book and some readers will no doubt get lost in the philosophical discussion of various forms of communication such as “locutionary” acts, “illocutionary” acts, and “perlocutionary” acts.  This view of Scripture, which is promoted by Kevin Vanhoozer, among others, regards the Bible not as a collection of factual propositions (although it contains propositions) but as God’s communication to us by acting upon us with various kinds of speech acts.  In other words, as I have often argued, the main purpose of the Bible is not information (although it contains information) but transformation.  Smith rightly says “Scripture, in short, can be approached as something quite different from a holy life handbook, an error-free instruction manual, or a compendium of divine oracles about life’s various and sundry issues and challenges.  Instead of those…approaches…which are so often used for humanly driven, therapeutic purposes and so are inadequate to a truly evangelical approach, the view developed above puts us, the readers, back into the position of being acted upon by God through the words of Scripture.” (162)  I have no criticism of this section of Chapter 7; I whole heartedly agree and recommend interested people look into Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine for more on this.

The last two section of Chapter 7 are “The many dimensions of ‘biblical authority’” and “A historically growing grasp of the meaning of the gospel.”  The first of those two sections talks about the Bible’s “transformative capacity” (and extension of the previous section) and the last one talks about how the Bible is not the final word on many important subjects of faith and practice.  By that Smith does NOT mean the Bible is wrong about anything.  Rather, he means that on many subjects the Bible is silent or gives principles that need to be applied as culture develops.  He gives as examples the creeds and definitions of the first four ecumenical councils that do not merely repeat what the Bible says but interpret and apply what the Bible teaches in ways that go beyond the Bible itself by addressing new situations.  The Bible, he says, carries implications for many subjects about which it does not directly or fully speak such as slavery.  He argues that evangelicals need to deemphasize the idea of “Bible passages as collections of complete and final teachings on every subject imaginable” and come to understand “the Bible and the gospel it preaches as a dynamic, living, active force of truth in human life and history.” (170)

This proposal agrees completely with those of Vanhoozer and N. T. Wright.  The former talks (in The Drama of Doctrine) about not staring AT the Bible but looking along it—putting its often inchoate divine ideas into practice in ways the biblical writers could not have anticipated.  He calls this “faithful improvisation.”  Wright talks about a five act play; contemporary Christians are the actors who have to improvise the fifth act on the basis of the first four which are already written and with which they are thoroughly familiar.

Smith provides many pithy statements about his book’s thesis in the Conclusion.  Here’s one I particularly like: “Rather than insisting that God must have provided a revealed word of a sort that our preconceptions and historical social situations tell us had to be—and then bending over backward to defend that insistence in the face of good evidence to the contrary—we would do well to take the actual revelation that God has given us on its own terms and learn how to read and understand it well.  If anything, biblicists should be ashamed for refusing to accept—on what turn out to be faulty and outmoded philosophical grounds—the actual inspired scriptural writings that God has provided for his people.” (175-176)

My final word about Smith’s book is that it represents a powerful challenge to neo-fundamentalism and folk religion among contemporary evangelicals, but I doubt it will be heeded by very many of those people.  And its proposals will not go very far toward solving the problem of PIP.  PIP will always be with us.  It’s simply part of the human condition.  Holding a different view of the Bible isn’t going to fix it.  Nevertheless, overall and in general, I do think Smith’s view of the Bible is better than either conservative evangelical biblicism or liberalism (“inspired insofar as it is inspiring”).  But it swims in ambiguity which is why most lay people and pastors will probably not like it and conservative evangelical theologians (I mean neo-fundamentalists) will condemn it.

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  • Zach

    I’m curious why you continue to call fundamentalists neo-fundamentalists? Don’t you have to call a spade a spade? If these folks continue in their arrogance and hubris and fail to see sense, as it is presented in a book like Smith’s, how can we call them anything else? Sometimes I’m confused by your preoccupation with labels: post-conservative, evangelical, neo-Calvinist, etc.

    • rogereolson

      The conservative evangelicals I call neo-fundamentalists do not fit the whole profile of the old-style fundamentalists who specialized in “biblical separationism.” Many of the ones I call neo-fundamentalists operate within the “halls” of mainline evangelicalism whereas the old-style fundamentalists shunned evangelicalism as not sufficiently separated. For example, the old-style fundamentalists would not join the National Association of Evangelicals or the Evangelical Theological Society. The neo-fundamentalists don’t avoid those organizations and, in fact, in my opinion, would like to take them over.

  • Craig Wright

    I never attended seminary, but have studied the Bible intensively for several decades, motivated by teaching adult Bible classes in the local church. I appreciate the comment (p. 132) about Luther having “only the certainty of familiarity, not comprehensiveness.” After having read books by Smith, Enns, and Sparks, it is a relief to know that my puzzlement with Scripture is substantiated by some good minds. I have come to the conclusion that the story of Jesus and the gospel is the best story I have heard, so I am hanging on to that. My efforts in teaching are to keep that story prominent, and try to keep us from forming dogmas on all the rest by relying of what we have been told.

  • Adam L

    Thank you for your review of this book! I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts on this important issue.

    And you know I am a fan of critical realism! 🙂

  • Nicolas

    Smith’s: “The Bible Made Impossible”? talks about our pervasive differences on doctrines and interpretations, and it’s a real problem, no doubt. The only answer I know is reflected in these words which I picked up somewhere:

    Whatever else might be said, I honestly don’t believe we’ll even begin to move in the right direction until we resolve that loving one another is a higher priority than proving, protecting and enforcing the rightness of our doctrines…

    … We should rather regard the command to love as the most foundational doctrine of the church and thus the most important doctrine on which to be correct! Peter says, “Above all, love each other deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins” (and alleged “heresies”?) I Pet. 4:8

    “Above all” — wow !

  • gary foster

    Would you provide something of a list of related publications you recommend along this line ?

    • rogereolson

      I’m sorry…along what line? Can you be more specific?

  • C. Ehrlich

    I couldn’t agree more with your last paragraph. If neo-fundamentalists won’t heed this powerful argumentative challenge, what might they heed instead? Is it a problem of packaging or of style? What might an author do to engage the very audience which most needs to face these challenges?

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I think you are correct, Roger, that those under scrutiny will be unmoved by Smiths’ arguments.

    And I think Smith did his own arguments a disservice by “shaming” his targets for “refusing to accept . . . the actual inspired scriptural writings that God has provided for his people”. In other words, “Shame on you for disagreeing with my position on the Bible because mine is not out of date and out of favor with the philosophers like yours is.” I have a feeling of sympathy for those Smith is arguing against because of such statements.

  • Scott Gay

    “the main purpose of the Bible is not information…..but transformation”.

    Piaget’s theory is applicable to the issue of the Bible as the “final teachings on every subject imaginable”. To Piaget, in asymetrical relationships, the dominated participant takes on a fixed and inflexible form of knowledge. In cooperative relationships the knowledge that emerges is more open and flexible, rather than determined. This certainly leads to the importance of “communicative action”(Habermas) and gives prayer a world of meaning. Since I have chosen two non-believers to reference, many will discount my thread. However, it explains alot about determinative positions and communication.