The Bible Made Impossible: Part Three – The Fatal Flaw

The Bible Made Impossible: Part Three – The Fatal Flaw December 9, 2011

This post is part of a three-part series on The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith

The AilmentThe Cure – The Fatal Flaw

This is an extremely difficult post to write, primarily because I consider Christian Smith a friend.  I am a huge fan of his work, and I have admiringly cited him in almost all of my academic work.  Both his research and his theory are, I think, the very best in the sociology of American religion these days.

Also, I have stood in solidarity with him in the past as he struggled with the theology and policies of Young Life.  In fact, knowing something of his struggle in that regard, I am tempted to think that his struggles there led directly to this book.  And possibly to what I consider its fatal flaw.

Further, I think this is a very, very good book, and I’m glad that Brazos published it.  It is both well-written and well-researched, as are all of Smith’s books.

To summarize the posts of the last two days, Smith argues that biblicism, practiced by a large number of conservative evangelical Protestants in America, is an untenable position to hold.  It is, he argues, ultimately unreasonable.  For instance, biblicists claim that the Bible is without error, yet they seem unable to account for the myriad evangelical interpretations of a particular passage or issue in the text.

Instead, Smith proposes a christological hermeneutic, which he borrows from Karl Barth (by way of Jeff McSwain, who was at the center of the Young Life controversy).  In this reading, Christ is the key – Christ renders unimportant the contradictions in the Bible; Christ makes the archaic prohibitions in the Bible inapplicable (e.g., women should wear head coverings and stay silent in church); Christ and his salvific acts supersede all arguments about ancillary biblical issues and texts.

So far, so good.

But here’s the paragraph from the introduction where this all comes undone for me, and herein lies the reason that this post is so difficult to write:

I should also say up front, for the purposes of full disclosure, that, since completing the writing of this book, I have joined the Catholic Church. My reasons for becoming Catholic – an evangelical Catholic, I might add – were many, and only partly related to the issues raised here.  This fact of my autobiography, however, takes nothing away from the importance and legitimacy of this book’s argument for American evangelicalism – a movement about which I still care, in certain ways admire, and want to see realizing its best potential.  Toward that end, for evangelical Protestants who intend to remain evangelical, the argument of this book stands strong and deserves to be engaged and answered.  The constructive suggestions with which I conclude this book hold true for evangelical Protestants, and, to be clear, no reader needs to become Catholic in order to embrace any or all of them.

He adds in an endnote,

Of course the Catholic Church itself professes a very high view of scripture and must reckon with the same interpretive challenges outlined in the following chapters, although it arguably brings to that task a fuller toolbox of resources.

Now, I must make clear that I am not personally critical of Smith’s conversion to Catholicism.  I, of course, respect his right to believe and practice whatever religion he’d like, and I don’t know the circumstances of his conversion.  Neither, I hope, am I letting my own admitted antipathy toward Catholicism overshadow Smith’s contribution.

However, I must disagree with him.  This fact of his autobiography does undermine this book’s argument.

Here’s why: Smith argues that the dominant hermeneutic in evangelicalism – which he calls “biblicism” – is ultimately untenable because it is unreasonable.  Biblicism leads to all sorts of hermeneutical and theological gymnastics, which Smith catalogues at length in the book.  These gymnastics lead evangelicals to hold theological, moral, and even political positions that are downright silly, and can clearly be shown with little effort to be out of step with the biblical narrative. Evangelicals’ lack of care for the welfare of the poor, their support of the death penalty, and their inherent racism – all of which have been established by research in Smith’s earlier books – are just three examples.

However, Smith has now submitted himself to the Catholic Church, surely the most authoritarian and dogmatic hermeneutical community in all of Christendom.  In other words, he has exchanged one community of irrationality for another.

To wit:

  1. As a Catholic, Smith will have no say in the church’s position in any of the church’s theological positions.  He won’t get a vote in exegetical disputes on the very texts that he writes about in this book.
  2. I hope the fact is not lost on Smith that, as a layperson, he was allowed and even encouraged to write book very critical of the evangelical church by an evangelical publishing houseIn the Catholic Church, non-clergy members are both formally and culturally not encouraged to question the Church, particularly in print.
  3. Even preeminent theologians in the Catholic Church are kept from the very kind of critical engagement with the church that Smith engages in this book – and, I might add, that Smith holds dear in the tradition of liberal democracy.  I wonder, for example, what Smith would say about the magisterium’s treatment of Hans Küng – arguably the best Catholic theologian of the 20th century, Küng was silenced by the church for writing a book that questioned papal infallibility.
  4. The Catholic Church has a dismal record of encouraging laypersons to study and engage the text of scripture, another practice that Smith seems to hold dear.
  5. The Catholic Church has a long history of tortured readings of the Bible, from the Crusades to the selling of indulgences.
  6. That tortured hermeneutic continues today.  The Catholic Church readily uses biblical justifications for the veneration of Mary, a hierarchical ecclesiology, a claim that it is the “one, true church,” and an all-male celibate priesthood.  And this lattermost interpretation, it can be argued, has led to the rampant sexual deviance and pedophilia that, unbelievably, continues to be uncovered on a weekly basis.

And I could go on.

I’ve argued before that all religious systems are, at some level, irrational, and I’ve argued that some are more more irrational than others.  I don’t like it, but it’s true.  By submitting yourself to a religious system, you necessarily embrace a certain amount of irrationality.  So be it.

However, one can choose the hermeneutical community to which one submits oneself.  I have, and Christian Smith has.

But Smith’s critique of evangelicalism is that evangelicals read the Bible irrationally.  I agree.  But I submit that Smith has now joined a hermeneutical community that is just as irrational, but it’s one in which his voice won’t be valued.

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  • Pete Garcia

    How might your critique be different had Smith admitted to joining the Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church, or any mainline Protestant denomination?

    I think your second and third points would be true for any group–no one likes a critic that challenges the accepted norms and status quo no matter how prophetic the voice is. I agree with your critique on Catholicism, but on #5 we must implicate Protestantism as well. Additionally, on point #4 the same can be said of Evangelicalism if studies lead one toward deconstruction of “fundamental” beliefs (honest scholarship within confessionalism).

    What do you think?

    • Mary

      Pete: I would argue that a sinificant majority of mainline Protestant denominations have something along the lines of what the Presbyterians call “reformed and always reforming” ethic or theology. The United Church of Christ calls it “God is still speaking” and the Episcopalians have a four-legged stool that includes reason and experience as key tenants along with scripture and tradition. As opposed to a general Roman Catholic stance that the Pope is at best the mouthpiece of God and at the very worst infallible and unquestionable, most Protestants would consider no one on earth above being questioned. While perhaps not enouraging questioning of orthodoxy, I would argue most of the mainline Protestant denominations have a healthy respect for dissent and debate.

  • I wish you spelled out what exactly is wrong with how Catholics read the Bible. You only mention certain doctrinal conclusions they have reached, but at issue is how they reach them (in so far as it applies to the Bible). Right? I agree that Smith’s decision to become a Catholic is a bit unfortunate, since we could use such a reasonable voice in Evangelicalism, in particular, or just good old Protestantism, in general. But judging from his book, he’s got a pretty great Biblical hermeneutic. Simply signing up for the Catholic church doesn’t necessarily mean he accepts all its trappings. So his hermeneutic is not “just as irrational”. Or, you haven’t argued for why that’s the case. Simply citing some Catholic doctrines (that Smith may or may not hold) doesn’t count as an argument for why it’s the case.
    I’d love to see Smith respond to this post, with you guys being pals and all.

    • Arni, there is no more one Catholic hermeneutic than there is one evangelical hermeneutic. These are huge groups of millions of people. I judge the Catholic hermeneutic the same way that Smith judges the evangelical hermeneutic: by its fruit.

  • Larry Barber

    The fact of Smith’s conversion has absolutely no bearing on the arguments presented in his book. It’s a purely ad hominem argument. At best it may expose Smith to charges of _personal_ hypocrisy and inconsistency, but this still leaves the content of his book untouched. Tony, if you were to convert to some other religion or join a different branch of the church, would render all of your writing “fatally flawed”?

    • Paul D.

      I agree with this. I can’t see what bearing Smith’s conversion has to the truth or falseness of the arguments in his book.

  • Chris Smith

    I much appreciate TJ engaging my book. But his criticism in Part III is ill-informed and off-target. His ideas are typical of many Protestants. But much of what he writes about Catholicism is factually wrong. These are standard Protestant boogie-man stories told to children in the faith to scare them away from some place (Catholicism) some wish them to avoid.

    Even if the nature of the Catholic Church is relevant for evaluating this book, which I don’t think it is, Catholicism simply does not in fact operate the way TJ describes it, and so his critique is misdirected. (If anything, the empirical problem in U.S. Catholicism especially is too much free-for-all; which of course gives rise to the common opposite critique of my biblicism book: that Catholicism does nothing to solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism–which is also, framed in Protestant terms, ill-informed.) Thus, I don’t think TJ’s critique sticks one bit.

    I don’t have the time now to elaborate a fuller response, but will attempt it soon. Meanwhile, I must say that I think the critique above is mostly built on misunderstandings–what seem to me to be irrepressible Protestant allergies, almost–and so doesn’t really hit any target. More later….

    • Chris, I imagine that many evangelicals would say the same of your critique of them: that it amounts to straw men and boogie men.

      I look forward to interacting with you on this.

      • Note also that Chris has another book that came out at the same time as The Bible Made Impossible. The two books are:

        Smith, Christian. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011.


        Smith, Christian. How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock / Cascade Books, 2011.

      • chris smith

        Tony, you imagine right. They say that. The difference is who in the argument has evidence and arguments that supports conclusions. They do not. I do. Is not just a matter of name calling, but having evidence and arguments to justify claims.

        • Chris, I’d be interested in your response to this: You were frustrated with Young Life for basically excommunicating one of its staff for not agreeing to a doctrinal statement, yet the Catholic Church has done the same thing many times over.

  • This post seems to be you praising the book and its central hermeneutic, then writing, “Neither, I hope, am I letting my own admitted antipathy toward Catholicism overshadow Smith’s contribution,” and then concluding by airing your antipathy toward Catholicism in (not that it matters that I agree with Smith himself, but he’s right) “standard Protestant boogie-man stories.”

    And I really have a problem with your talking about admiring the work of a sociologist and then slipping in a belief (unfounded in any research-based way) that a celibate priesthood can be directly linked to pedophilia. Like the other serious differences you have with Catholicism, that claim is not one to make if you aren’t willing to actually make it.

    In my re-reads of this post, I’m not even clear how your “fatal flaw” post relates to the content of the book.

  • Keith Rowley

    I would have to agree with Nick, even if Tony is correect about Smith’s conversion being hypocritical given his stated beliefs in the book, it does NOT mean any of the arguments are incorrect.

    In purely rational diolog not living according to stated beliefs has no bearing on the truth or falshood of those beliefs.

    I can’t help thinking this post was just Tony looking for an argument because that is just Tony and it is good for ratings on the blog.

    • Honestly, no. I like Chris, and I very much wanted to like his book. In fact, I do like it. But I think it’s fatally flawed.

  • Keith Rowley

    I would love to hear Smith defend what appears to outsiders to be the silencing of Kung and other dissenting voices.

    Hermeneutical agreement is a pipe dream and not even a healthy desire! Practical loving engagement with those we disagree with is a more Christlike and important desire. Something ALL types of Christians seem to fail at to some degree.

    • Now THAT I agree with, Keith!

    • Not to mention my professor Roger Haight…

  • Marshall

    What I noticed when I read the book is that after making a nice start towards “dropping the compulsion to harmonize”, he has his own somewhat strict ideas about essential dogma. So:

    “Jesus Christ is the true and final Word of God, in relation to whom scripture is God’s secondary, written word of witness and testimony.” P. 116

    Cool!! That is, I agree strongly and I don’t see it put like that much. But too bad we don’t stop there:

    “This means that we always read scripture Christocentrically, christologically,and christotelically, as those who really believe what the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds say.” p.98

    “Some Christian beliefs are nonnegotiable for any believer — such as the dogmas of the Trinity and Nicene Christology” p. 135

    So the recommended method of avoiding PIP seems to be to say “Um well perhaps” while standing in front of an icon of St.-Peter-with-the-Keys.

    Speaking of strawmen:
    “… radical postmodernism’s historical and cultural relativism — the need to ‘unmask’ all claims to truth as mere exercises of power, loss of faith in authorial intent, the ultimate legitimacy of local knowledge, the fluidity of all identities, the need to transgress established boundaries and so on.” p.153

    • Yes, Marshall, those quotes do show something important. I especially noticed the “nonnegotiable” quote, which was neither nuanced nor qualified. I found that curious from a scholar of his stature.

      His pan of postmodernism, however, didn’t surprise me. He’s expressed that — and his commitment to critical realism — in earlier books. Another difference I have with him.

    • Alan K

      Strict ideas about essential dogma? Let me ask you: which Jesus Christ is the true and final word of God? That of Arius?

      • Marshall

        I believe that the “true and final word of God” is to be spoken by God. I believe that the Incarnation was profoundly ambiguous and not to be captured in any work of humans such as a credal statement, whether individual or associational. Which is why our only defense is to keep returning to the Christ himself.

  • Brian

    I’m genuinely confused. It seems, Tony, that you agree with Smith’s conclusions but somehow feel that they are invalidated by his being a RC. I don’t see what that has to do with anything. What does his religious affiliation have to do with the content of his argument? It may be the pot calling the kettle black, but the kettle is still black, no? What am I missing?

    • Maybe so, Brian. But I guess my ultimate point is that no communion can be much better than what Chris faults the evangelical church for. The real question becomes, why does his critique apply only to evangelicals? Aren’t all of our hermeneutics inconsistent?

      • Brian

        Tony, thanks for clarifying. I see better now where you’re coming from. I still contend that his critique is valid, if not fully applied across the board. I’ll be curious to see the response he indicated he’s working on.

      • Keith Rowley

        Ok, that makes sense. So the fatal flaw is his mostly unstated claim that the Catholics don’t have the problems he is claiming the evangelicals do and thus the Catholics are somehow better.

        The larger flaw is his basic search for a consistent hermeneutic itself and instead he should be acknowledging beauty and the hand of God in the multitude of views that exist about God and should be seeking to build relational harmony rather than intellectual agreement.

  • EricG

    I think Tony is right that there is a link between Smith’s correct critique of biblicists and the problems many perceive with Catholicism. Both groups want some sort of foundational, infallible authority (one, the Bible, the other, Rome) to solve a perceived problem arising from diversity in views. The biblicist answer obviously doesn’t work for all the reasons Smith points out. Catholicism has a different attempted solution to the same perceived problem, but doesn’t work either — it doesn’t eliminate the diversity, it just imposes authority sometimes to try to keep it quiet (see, e.g., Kung). The problem for both systems is the failure to see that the perceived need for one infallible authority to end diverse viewpoints is (1) an idol (2) unworkable anyway, in either system. It would be interesting to hear Smith’s more detailed response to Tony.

  • John Mc

    I agree, the difference between the Biblicist and the Roman Catholic position is one of whose fence is better – but both are building a fence to protect their particular dogmatic positions. For one to call the other dogmatic is a waste of breath. If one feels the need to hold solidly to an institutionally proclaimed dogmatic position, then why not choose to let go of a minority position and to embrace the majority position?

    But for me I find the Holy Spirit doing its most dramatic work in the diversity and freedom of relative heterodoxy, informed by a variety of dogmatic positions but not controlled by any one. I am firmly convinced that God speaks to each of us in a language we can each understand. While I do not find the position that one should spend a lifetime obediently coming to terms with a dogmatic stance proclaimed by one’s denomination, I also don’t find such a venture spiritually energizing.

    I also find the attack on the celebrate catholic priesthood to be problematic. I am no supporter of therule, but it has to be acknowledged that whether one is a non-celebate minister of the divine in any faith tradition or a celebrate catholic priest, the very position of priesthood carries with its power and trust the real and continuing potential for abuse. The fact that we are all human and thus sexual creatures carries the serious and ever-present temptation and risk of exploitation. Sexual abuse by clergy is not confined to the Catholic church, nor is it more likely among the celebrate than the non-celebrate.

    • Keith Rowley

      Amen on the holy spirit thing.

      The problem with the celibate priesthood in my view has less to do with its potential for creating sexual frustration in the priesthood that can come out in very bad ways, and more to do with a totally messed up view of sex and sexuality in general by the “Catholic Church”.

      Admittedly this once again comes from a protestant looking in rather than a Catholic looking out, but given the institutional stance on birth control which even many Catholics disagree with and don’t follow, it seems they have a very low view of sex and sexuality as something wonderful created by God to be a blessing and a gift.

  • John Mc

    Darn machine! My spellcheck automatically changed celebate to celebrate without my noticing!

    • Keith Rowley


  • Tony.
    You write, “one can choose the hermeneutical community to which one submits oneself. I have, and Christian Smith has.”

    What is the hermeneutical community you have submitted to?

    Assuming your response would be Solomon’s Porch I wonder if your problem here is not so much with Smith submitting to Catholic institutional authority, but with anyone submitting to any historic denominational body. Is your critique, more broadly, a critique of anyone submitting to the authority of a denominational body, which are all full of hermeneutical contradictions?

    If Smith had converted to be a Seventh Day Adventist, would that also be a fatal flaw in his book. And if not, does that mean their is a fatal flaw in your argument.

    Curious to hear more on this.

  • Scot Miller

    Logically, it is irrelevant if Smith is evangelical, Catholic, Buddhist, atheist, etc. To reject Smith’s argument because he has converted to Catholicism is a circumstantial ad hominem, which only means that Tony’s argument is flawed. The validity or strength of someone’s argument is wholly independent of the person who is making the argument. (And arguments aren’t stronger or better because of the person who makes it either.)

    So Tony, I’m afraid you overstate your argument when you say Smith’s argument is “fatally” flawed. I think what you want to say is that his argument is good because it not only correctly identifies the problem with biblicism, but also because it correctly identifies the problem with almost any Christian confession (e.g., Catholicism as well as biblicism).

  • chris smith

    Here is the short version of my response:
    1. TJ’s critique of Catholicism and my becoming Catholic are irrelevant to whether the argument of my book is flawed.
    2. TJ’s critique of Catholicism is badly misinformed.
    3. TJ’s critique here sounds like the best of fundamentalists, which is a bit embarrassing, and perhaps telling.

    Now the longer version:

    1. Well, honestly, it’s hard to elaborate, because, as many readers have already noted, TJ’s point simply makes no sense, it does not follow, it is a non-squinter of an argument. TJ might have said instead that, although he agrees with my book, he is opposed to, disappointed with, even confused about my becoming Catholic. That would have made sense. But it also would have had nothing to do with whether or not my book is “fatally flawed.”

    The second half of The Bible Made Impossible is my best attempt to offer some alternatives to the biblicism that the first half of my book critiques, possible directions into a post-biblicist world for those who feel compelled to remain within broad “sola scriptura” parameters (i.e., who intend to remain Protestant). I continue as a Catholic to believe in all of the ideas I proposed, and believe they are compatible with Catholic faith. But I have also become persuaded that they alone are not finally adequate to deal with the larger issues they attempt to address. That is my view. I also have numerous friends who disagree with me, who believe that the ideas I suggest in the book are adequate, and who regret that I became Catholic. So, we agree about the ideas I propose in the book but disagree about their adequacy. Fine. But nobody yet, besides TJ, has claimed that my becoming Catholic itself makes the book itself fatally flawed, that that somehow makes it “all comes undone.”

    In a reply to a comment above, TJ says that his critique boils down to the idea that “no communion can be much better than what Chris faults the evangelical church for.” But that is nonsense. Different traditions have quite different approaches to interpreting scripture, some of which are biblicist (as I describe it) and many of which are not. My book holds evangelicalism to the standard that evangelicalism claims to uphold and shows that standard to be impossible. Other traditions should be evaluated by the standards they uphold. But, TJ’s claim here simply makes no sense. How or why could it be that, because I became Catholic, evangelicalism is now the relative best (equally bad) tradition when it comes to interpreting scripture? It simply does not follow. It doesn’t even make sense. I suspect that what TJ is really saying here, if I may guess, is that every tradition, communion, or denomination is bad (“irrational”). But that is a whole different claim—which, if he really believed it, I think would mean TJ must find a view from nowhere to rightly (reasonably, rationally) understand the faith. Lots of luck. (I also suspect that TJ is confusing what is “irrational” with what is arational, prerational, presuppositional, an apprehension of mysteries, and perhaps even simply authority, which may be the real issue here.)

    2. It is difficult to answer TJ’s charges against the Catholic Church without turning this into a long apology for Catholicism, which I have no interest in conducting here. To better understand Catholicism, I suggest reading my other book, How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps, which Andy Rowell noted above. As someone who has understood the U.S. Protestant world very well for a long time, and who has in recent years also come to better understand Catholicism in a host of ways about which I was ignorantly bigoted before, I can simply say that I see most Protestants routinely operate with a very badly misinformed understanding of the Catholic Church, running with a whole lot of hearsay, myths, misinformation, and misrepresentations in mind. With that as background, with regard to the specific points TJ raised above:

    (1) “No say.” This is false. If I wanted, I could engage in the myriad theological discussions within the Catholic Church, which have been ongoing since the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts, and perhaps even have some influence. Why TJ thinks this is true is beyond me. (Of course, I won’t get “a vote in exegetical disputes,” but that doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t work that way, I do not even want a vote, nor do I want to be a part of any church that decides doctrinal truths by tallying votes. The U.S. Congress is bad enough.)

    (2) “Encouraged to question.” The claim is erroneous. First, all kinds of Catholics, both clergy and laity, are allowed to and do “question the Church.” Has anyone ever read Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, America, books by Paulist Press, Orbis, etc. etc. et al.? TJ’s point here is sheer nonsense. (Furthermore, Brazos is not an evangelical publisher (though Baker is); as an ecumenical publisher, it produces books by authors from various traditions, including Catholicism, and employs Catholics on its core staff.)

    (3) “Küng, etc.” Same here. First, to suggest that Küng was the best Catholic theologians of the last century reveals a parochial or misinformed view. Anyone ever heard of von Balthasar, Rahner, de Lubac, or JPII? Küng was a relative lightweight, although I do appreciate some of his ecumenical engagements. More importantly, it misrepresents the facts to say that the Church systematically or routinely silences theologians who are critical of it. There is in fact huge latitude within Catholicism to raise big questions, which many do. It is only after protracted processes of dialogue and encouragement that the rare Catholic theologian is asked to stop teaching as a Catholic theologian. In the end, Küng could and did say what he wanted, but simply not as a theologian of the Church, which is perfectly legit. (Finally, I may hold democracy and certain forms of liberalism as valuable for society, but I certainly do not think the church is or ought to be a democracy. Heaven help us!)

    (4) “Dismal record.” True, but so what? Again, that’s irrelevant for an evaluation of my book. And if anything, I think, is all the more reason for evangelicals to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church and help to actually reform it, rather than stay out and perpetuate schism.

    (5) “History of tortured reading.” This is of course the standard Protestant line, which, note, presupposes the answers before the evaluation of the readings is even entertained. But it is built on lots of mythology and misunderstanding. When one actually comes to understand the theo-logic of Catholic readings, they in fact come to seem highly sensible, not tortured at all. (Re: TJ’s example of the Crusades, here he implicitly perpetuates a set of common but gross misunderstandings about them—for a helpful perspective, see Rodney Stark’s recent book on the Crusades, which mostly gets it right.)

    (6) “Continuing tortured hermeneutics.” Again, TJ presupposes here that his interpretation of scripture is perfectly clear on these issues. But, as with above, when one stops seeing everything through a particular Protestant lens and learns some other history and theology, these stop looking tortured. The Catholic doctrine of Mary, I must say, is actually amazing, when rightly understood theologically (which I came to see after 50 years of thinking just like TJ myself). But few Protestants have the time or open-mindedness for that. Again, TJ simply needs to learn a lot more, and eventually come to see the debilitating limits of his current operating paradim. Finally, as to the “rampant sexual deviance and pedophilia,” that assertion also shows how ill-informed and ideological TJ is on the matter (though that’s a whole other topic).

    3. I could hardly believe my eyes. I had to check to make sure I had not mistakenly clicked to a Bob Jones or Thomas Road Baptist Church blog. When I published The Bible Made Impossible, I anticipated attempts to discredit my argument based simply on my having become Catholic after having written it. But it was fundamentalist Protestants I expected to hear that from, not the likes of, well… Tony Jones. Yet there it is, TJ arguing a line we might have expected from a hard-core fundamentalist.

    So what do we learn from observing this anti-Catholic strand of cultural DNA apparently shared both by TJ and the fundamentalists? It is, I suggest, that it is simply impossible not to establish boundaries of orthodoxy beyond which positions are judged unacceptable. Fundamentalists do. Tony Jones does. The Catholic Church does. Everybody does—no matter how cosmopolitan, ecumenical, generous, heterodox, or inclusive they are. It’s just a sociological fact. And that itself is well worth noting—and considering the implications of.

    TJ apparently cannot accept the Catholic Church because that Church cannot accept the arguments of some who speak in its name yet flagrantly contradict positions it holds and promulgates. TJ also cannot accept the argument of my book (even though he apparently agrees with most of it) because after I wrote it I became Catholic, and that violates positions TJ holds and promulgates. Of course there are differences here. But the underlying dynamic of both TJ and the Catholic Church is the same: that of believing in particular, proper ways to best come to the knowledge of truth, and declining to endorse and perhaps publicly criticizing alternative approaches that violate those believed-in proper ways. TJ may claim that the difference is that one way is authoritarian and one is anti-authoritarian. But that is an empirical claim, about which I think his understanding of the matter is misinformed.

    To close, I suggest TJ and everyone read MacIntyre’s After Virtue, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, And Whose Justice, Which Rationality? They help make much better sense of tradition, authority, and (ir)rationality.

    With all due respect, and now off to a basketball game. Go Irish!

    • Thanks for your extended reply, Chris. I was quite sure that my review would touch a nerve because it is, unfortunately, more personal than most reviews. However, as other commenters have noted, my points do have merit. I’m going to let my review stand, faults and all, and not reply to your comment point-by-point. I meant to write that Küng is “arguably” the best Catholic theologian of the 20th century. Yes, I’ve heard of all the others you mention, and I’ve read them.

      I’ve also read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, from cover to cover. And I’m both related to and friends with many thoughtful and loving Catholics, so this is not about the Catholic Church. It’s about you holding the evangelical church to a standard to which I don’t think your own communion can stand.

      I have, of course, read MacIntyre. I understand him, and seriously disagree with him.

      To compare me to Bob Jones or Jerry Falwell is, I think, beneath you. You and I know one another better than that. I didn’t compare you to Opus Dei or the most odious members of your communion. I hope that you will reconsider that comparison.

  • EricG

    Chris — it is odd that you would rely on MacIntyre to respond to Tony, since his essential argument is similar to what Tony is saying: You can evaluate rival truth systems by seeing how they respond to their own internal crises, particularly in comparison to their rivals. Wouldn’t MacIntyre’s system suggest you need to consider precisely the question Tony is raising — how does Catholicism handle the bricks you are throwing, as well as its own crises? Is it better at handling its problems than biblicism in in handling its own? Seems like precisely the right question under MacIntyre.

    And in that regard, the questions Tony is raising are not the questions of a fundamentalist, but are pretty legitimate questions (under MacIntyre or otherwise): how well the Catholic system handle its own crises, either as to claims to truth — or authority — or morality? Does its system of authority handle the priest abuse scandal well, for example, and other well know crises? Seems like you are trying to blow this stuff off too easily. And sorry, but saying the Catholic church tolerates dissent on big questions?

  • chris smith

    Four clarifications:
    1. correction: non-sequiter, not non-squinter (spellcheck error)
    2. Sorry for giving the misimpression otherwise, but my response has nothing to do with this being personal. I don’t take any of this personally at all. For me it’s all about arguments making sense and claims being correct.
    3. I didn’t say TJ was a fundamentalist (obviously he is not), I said on his aparent anti-Catholicism as the lens through which to evaluate my book he shares a strand of cultural DNA with them, and that that oddity tells us something. That seems non-controversial.
    4. Everything I have to say about Catholicism relevant to this discussion and more, including how to understand the priest abuse scandal, is in my other book mentioned above. If people are sincerely interested in the matter, I’ve already written about it at length and decline to repeat it here. You might find it enlightening, perhaps even worth a review on this blog 🙂
    Thanks, again, TJ for your review of TBMI. I’m glad you largely agreed with my argument. I don’t think your fatal flaw argument makes sense, as I’ve said.

  • jcarlgregg

    Interesting discussion. Given that Tony started with throwing down the gauntlet with this post, I appreciate not only Christian Smith’s many responses, but also that Smith threw down his own gauntlet in return at the end. I’d love to see Tony blog through Smith’s other new book (“How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps”) once he’s through the series of book reviews to which he’s already committed. Hopefully Smith will continue to chime in through that process.

  • EricG

    Fwiw, I downloaded Chris’s 95 steps book earlier and plan to read it.

  • Marshall

    Oddly enough I just finished reading After Virtue … Great! book, very dense read. Highly recommended! … and MacIntyre is far from suggesting that our moral arguments can be resolved by appeal to dogma. The problem of “interpretive pluralism” arising from incommensurable standards is pervasive. Which is how the second half of The Bible Made Impossible falls into the contradiction that the first half so ably deconstructs.

    For instance, the “non-negotiable dogma” of the Trinity. It’s difficult to speak as a Christian to Christians without invoking an idea of the Trinity, but when we try to ponder the imponderable we can very quickly devolve to nonsensical bickering. It is not a mistake to ask such questions, only to expect definitive answers. Which is why I tend Post-Modern; not because I obsess about biting ankles, but because the fact of the matter is that all attempts at expressing moral truth end up as self-referential. Fortunately for us, MacIntyre shows why this doesn’t imply anything-goes moral relativism; rather it is for us to pursue our historically-situated “Practice” (a technical term) whereof our jointly evolving understanding of “The Trinity” is a functioning component. Better yet, MacIntyre shows us how to escape from trying to do religion on the turf of analytical philosophy: by focusing on the telos, “practicing” a Christian life: “following Jesus”.

    Tony, I would like to hear sometime where is your disagreement.

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  • Joshua Brockway

    So apparently a PhD from Princeton does not include a course in logic. But at least now I have a perfect example of an argument ad hominem for when I fail my students for logical fallacies.

    I am a fan of MacIntyre, and this whole conversation points to the problem with over emphasis on a person’s community of formation. It is all too easy to step away from the argument and dismiss a logically and experimentally valid claim with an ad hominem move. “X says Y, but that cannot be the case because he does A on Sunday.”

    In the case of CS, it might be a more valid critique of Evangelical biblicism because of the hemerneutical community he has joined. Rather than the antiquarian stereotype TJ presents above, the emphasis on tradition and the liturgy as hermetically robust frames for reading scripture actually avoids the idolatrous bibliology of more Free Church communities. That is not to say that the Roman communion is not without fault in other areas, but for the argument of the book, those are distractions.

    But alas, maybe we have run up to the one boundary of the Emmerging Church movement… about anything, just don’t become Roman Cathoilc.

    • That’s funny, your opening paragraph is ad hominem at me.

      Pot, meet kettle.

      • Meh, I wouldn’t say that paragraph is actually an ad hominem. It’s a good play ground dig….but not the actual fallacy. The fallacy is what is I stated in quotation marks: “X says Y, but that cannot be the case because he does A on Sunday.” So there’s a big difference between a fallacious argument (your so-called fatal flaw) and a put down (my opening paragraph).

        But if the kettle feels better for having said as much….then I guess the play ground games can continue while the big kids do real theology.

  • Scot Miller

    Ad hominems may not be logically relevant, but they are rhetorically persuasive and lots of fun, to boot!

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