I’ve previously encountered Christian Smith in several recorded interviews with Ken Myers and in his book Souls in Transition. These were a delight to hear and read. I was intrigued when I learned in a recent interview that Dr. Smith was writing a book about how the Bible could be made ‘impossible’ and that the culprit was biblicism. For a while, I’ve considered myself a biblicist and have not found the Bible impossible at all. The Bible has become deeper and richer to me, as I have increased my commitment to reading the Bible as written (that is, ‘to take it literally’). So respecting and enjoying Dr. Smith, I was very eager to get the book titled The Bible Made Impossible. I was glad that the publisher agreed to send me a review copy even before the book was released. I read it once, then again taking notes, and some parts a third time as I prepared this review. It is a frustrating book. It has wonderful suggestions on how to see the glory of Christ on every page of scripture and how to appreciate the intense beauty of the Bible. But the author defaces the scripture itself enroute to the helpful suggestions – wrecking a good deal of the beauty he’s trying so hard to get us to see. Worst of all, it didn’t have to be this way.
The basic argument is that the prominent method of biblical interpretation and application among mainstream American evangelicals is misplaced, unsupported by scripture itself, and harmful. He calls this ‘biblicism’ and details the many ways in which he finds it ‘impossible’ and ‘flat wrong’. He urges evangelicals not to discard the Bible or to treat it like other classic literature. Rather, he suggests a different approach of reading and application he is convinced is more faithful to God and more helpful to the world.
‘Impossible’ biblicism is initially described in the book by 9 traits, many of which most serious Christians are likely to adhere to – I nominally hold to all these, depending on how they are defined in detail:
1) Divine Writing – the Bible’s words are God’s very own words written in human language
2) Total Representation – the Bible contains all God has to say to humans and is the exclusive mode of God’s true communication
3) Complete Coverage – God’s will about all issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible
4) Democratic Perspicuity – Any reasonably intelligent person can correctly understand the plain meaning of the text
5) Commonsense Hermeneutics – Biblical texts are best understood in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value. This may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts
6) Sola Scriptura – the Bible can be understood without reliance on creeds, tradition. Theological frameworks can be built out of the Bible ‘from scratch’
7) Internal Harmony – related Bible passages fit together like a puzzle into single, unified, internally consistent instructions governing beliefs and behaviors
8) Universal Applicability – Bible teachings remain universally valid for all Christians for all time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching
9) Inductive Method – All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned from the Bible by careful study and piecing together clear biblical truths
A wise man once said ‘he who defines the terms wins the debate’. I accept all 9 traits Smith lists, but not his definitions as written. We will see that this book is mainly about navigating definitions and ambiguity so let me clarify as follows:
1) Divine Writing – God did not dictate the words but inspired men. Therefore the grammar and information reported by each writer will vary according to the writer’s literary experience and cultural background. However, God did superintend over the writer to ensure no errors were made and no important facts or ideas were omitted.
2) Total Representation – God obviously also spoke ‘through His Son’, as scripture itself tells us. So the written texts are not ‘total’ in that sense. He also speaks through natural revelation as Romans 1 and Psalm 19 point out, and through conscience according to Romans 1 & 2. However, nothing God ‘spoke’ in these non-written forms will contradict what He has spoken in scripture.
3) Complete Coverage – Scripture teaches that God has granted Christians all they need ‘for life and godliness’ in the knowledge of Jesus. And knowledge of Jesus comes through the scripture. We don’t know everything about Jesus and in very few areas do we see with complete clarity – scripture teaches we see in many cases as ‘through a dark glass’. But we can get enough knowledge in scripture to lead a life that pleases God. We have enough biblical detail on essential principles such that we can be confident that a life lived by those principles is a life worthy of our calling. So in that sense there is ‘complete coverage’. Also the Bible is obviously not intended as an all encompassing user’s guide on every technology such as how to change your car’s headlights. So in these two senses (common sense, I think) it is not ‘complete’.
4) Democratic Perspicuity – Any Christian who submits to the Bible’s own charge to meditate on the Bible ‘day and night’ and to ‘study diligently’ can, over time understand the meaning of the text. It may not be a ‘plain’ or ‘obvious’ meaning and may take a lifetime of study and prayer to ‘fully’ understand. And much of the Bible’s meaning is hidden from non-Christians (John 8:42-45, 1Corinthians 2:12-14)
5) Commonsense Hermeneutics – Texts are understood only when read according to the author’s intent. There can be hyperbole, symbolism, or poetry that the author does not intend be taken ‘at face value’. And of course, contexts are essential in understanding any document – biblical or not.
6) Sola Scriptura – Church creeds and writings of church fathers can be very helpful in determining biblical meaning. However, those sources are not directly divinely inspired as scripture is, so must be tested according to scripture. If the church has accepted a particular interpretation of a scripture for hundreds of years, that interpretation is more likely correct than an original interpretation no one ever heard of. However, the church teachings can be wrong and the only way to know is to test them according to written scripture alone.
7) Internal Harmony – Internally consistent – yes, Unified – maybe, Single – sometimes. The scriptures are so rich and deep that rarely does a passage teach only a single plain meaning. Most passages reveal many things of value. So a biblical truth can be ‘manifold’ and not necessarily ‘unified’ – but any truths will not be self-contradictory and must be consistent with what God has inspired in other passages of scripture.
8) Universal Applicability – Teachings remain valid, but may be practiced differently. For example, the Bible says to help a neighbor when his ox has fallen in the road. Obviously that would extend to a neighbor’s other livestock and presumably to a modern day neighbor who has his car stuck in the mud.
9) Inductive Method – We cannot learn all we need by sitting in a closed room studying alone. The Bible says to ‘do the word’ and not just ‘hear it’. So some things are truly and deeply learned, in the way God intended, only when we put into practice what the scripture teaches. And we cannot forsake gathering regularly with other Christians and expect to continue growing in faith and understanding. God meant for Christians to study alone at times, but also to learn and work with other believers and in this way grow in wisdom and faithfulness.
The 10th and final trait the book lists is claimed to be inevitably ‘generated by the prior nine assumptions and beliefs’:
10) Handbook Model – Biblical affirmations combine to comprise something like a textbook or handbook for Christian belief and living. This is a ‘handbook’ of divine and inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects – including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.
He begins to focus his attack on this ‘handbook’ model of biblical application. He doesn’t neglect criticism of the first 9 traits, but it’s evident his main problem is the ‘handbook’ approach. The opposed form of biblicism he wants to attack is one that reduces the beauty and manifold splendor of God’s word to a set of formulas – a user’s guide or engineering textbook that is little more than a ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach to Christian living. I suppose such a formulaic biblicism could follow from the 9 traits as Smith describes them – ‘all God says’, ‘all issues’, ‘anyone can understand’, ‘plain meaning’, ‘obvious’, ‘face value’, ‘without context’, ‘single’, ‘unified’, ‘all time’. And such a formulaic, mechanical approach would be worthy of attack indeed. But real, living biblicists like me don’t practice the 9 traits as Smith describes. So the ‘handbook’ mindset is not inevitable for most biblicists. Throughout the rest of the book, many serious students of the Bible will become frustrated with the continued assault on biblicism, in which the well supported ideas of inerrancy, Sola Scripture, perspicuity, harmony, continued applicability, etc are lumped together with the dubious ‘handbook’ idea and made to stand or fall as a single concept of biblicism. Of course, ‘handbook’ falls and by implication all the other 9 traits are regarded as weak and best discarded by evangelicals who want to be faithful to the scriptures and their application as Dr. Smith believes God intended.
The ‘handbook’ idea is held by some evangelicals, to be sure. As evidence, Smith lists over 50 titles of recent books targeted at Christians, such as “The Bible Cure for Cancer”, “Queen Esther’s Secret of Womanhood”, “Gardening with Biblical Plants”, and “Bad Girls of the Bible”. I’ve read none of these so cannot judge whether they are formulaic or wise – the titles don’t look very promising though. He lists others with more reasonable sounding titles: “A Crown of Glory: A Biblical View of Aging”, “Biblical Strategies to Financial Freedom”, “Leadership Communication: A Scriptural Perspective”. I’ve read none of these, but perhaps they are simple meditations on scriptures pertaining to important issues. They could be helpful and not claim to be a textbook promising total success everytime. Even Dr. Smith’s book is a guidebook in a way – wise ways to read and interpret scripture. Neither he nor I would characterize it as a ‘handbook’ but it is does cover a small subset of scripture texts looking for a more godly way to interact with the Bible.
Dr. Smith then turns from what he sees as popular, widespread evidence of an impossible biblicism to critique the biblicism he finds in formal, scholarly institutions. He finds the 1978 “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” along with the doctrinal statements of Westminster Theological Seminary and Wheaton College to be examples of biblical inerrancy claims he finds ‘impossible’. These statements claim the scriptures: are ‘the final authority in all they say’ (Wheaton), ‘are true for all times, all places, all languages, all cultures’ (Westminster), ‘without error or fault in all its teaching’ (1978). I have no problem with any of these claims, given that they are understood in the context of the clarifications I made on the 9 traits of biblicism. Further, I doubt that many of the signers of the 1978 Statement or Westminster Theological Seminary and Wheaton College faculty would agree with ‘handbook’ inevitably or would have read or endorsed the popular ‘handbook’ examples Smith lists. More proof that his ‘handbook’ focused criticism of biblicism is without sound basis.
Since biblicism is the acknowledged method of most evangelicals, it’s found ‘impossible’ since it is unable to produce the results promised within the 10 traits. The unity, clarity, and universal application Smith finds promised by the 10 traits have not materialized in the 2000 year history of the church, so Smith concludes ‘biblicism’ itself must be unequal to the task. He lays the blame on biblicists. I can give several reasons for fracture and weakness among American evangelicals, but that’s another article in itself. Suffice it to say, Americans following the Bible too literally is not in the Top 10 list.
Smith isolates the key weakness in biblicism as ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ (PIP). PIP is the phenomenon in which several readers of a story or several witnesses to an event inevitably give slightly different accounts of what they’ve experienced. Since biblicism (as defined in the book) demands a clear and singular understanding of all scripture, the inescapable fact of PIP will frustrate it every time. Evidence Smith cites of PIP’s challenge to biblicism are the various books that explain multiple views of biblical subjects, such as “Three Views of the Rapture”, “Four Views on the Lord’s Supper”, “Five Views on Apologetics”, etc. Other evidence are the varying views Christians have held on slavery, gender equality, worship, church government, and the sabbath. Smith claims that biblicists expecting a simple, singular, readily available understanding of biblical subjects tend to force various teachings on the subject into an operative paradigm, but always have texts that don’t fit. These are either ignored or redefined to appear to say something different.
The book claims that many passages in scripture exhibit ‘multivocality’ and ‘polysemy’ that are unavoidable. Multivocality is when a single passage seems to teach multiple ideas. Polysemy is when a single text can have several meanings. These inevitably result in different Bible readers interpreting passages differently, as the Bible consists of ‘irreducible ambiguity’ – again frustrating the simplistic biblicism Smith critiques, which demands a single, authoritative application for all texts. However, many biblicists like myself will disagree with Smith’s description of biblicists as requiring a clear and univocal application for all scripture. Of course, some passages are clearer than others and any serious student of the bible is intrigued by the richness of scripture which reveals a depth of meaning as the texts are meditated upon and prayed over throughout a lifetime. Smith assumes that biblicists are looking at the scripture as a technical manual, claiming mathematical precision. But reasonable students of any subject realize that mathematical precision comes only in, well, math, and that while any form of text always has some degree of ambiguity it can still have great authority. For example, constitutional scholars debate the precise meaning of phrases and terms and arrive at different understandings. We have nine Supreme Court justices who in any given case all hear the same evidence and all read the same Constitution, yet are rarely unanimous in their verdict. Does this render hopeless all efforts to gain an authoritative meaning from the document? Does the lack of consensus mean we should de-emphasize those parts of the Constitution that are harder to understand? No, scholars simply work harder and know that every word and phrase has a purpose and that simply ignoring the difficulties is not an option. Wise biblicists do the same with scripture.
Dr. Smith writes that he knows of 17 different teachings based on John 4’s story of Jesus and the woman at the well and cites this as evidence of the ‘multivocality’ and ‘polysemy’ of scripture. I don’t understand why this is a problem. That the ‘multivocality’ of a passage might teach many true lessons is not a detriment, but a virtue. Doesn’t a story of any event reveal multiple truths? Doesn’t the crucifixion portray that God is love? that God is just? that Jesus is obedient? that Jesus is human? that humans are bloodthirsty? that humans are fearful? that governments are unjust? and on and on. These are all plausible and I assume are what God wants to portray in the scriptural record. Is it even possible to write a story that tells only one truth? Smith’s claim that biblicists are frustrated by the many styles and complexity of scripture is simply untrue. I recall hearing one well-respected ‘biblicist’ pastor recounting an assignment in seminary where the professor assigned the class to study a passage of scripture and find a large number of truths (I don’t recall the exact number but it was big enough to shock, I think maybe 25 or 50) that could be preached from the text. At the next class, the students turned in their work and were given their next assignment – to find that many more from the same passage.
Smith lists another problem with biblicism as an arbitrary determination of which passages remain relevant for all cultures and which are relevant only for the culture of the original audience. Again, immature scholars may do this, but I know plenty of mature, experienced scholars who have consistent methods for determining application of passages that deal with cultural issues (see suggested resources following the review). Smith further cites ‘strange passages’ that are ‘hard to make good use of’. Paul’s remark to Titus that ‘Cretans are always liars’ prompt’s Smith to wonder if Paul suffered from ‘the sin of ethnic prejudice’. That this so-called ‘sin’ is preserved in scripture is further evidence to Smith that not all scripture is profitable. Smith charges biblicism as ‘inadequate for making Christian moral sense of this biblical text’ and claims he’s never heard a sermon on this text. (I encourage him to check out the sermons here.) This statement is a simple case of hyperbole common to scripture (ex. Mark 6:54-55 “the people recognized Jesus and ran about that whole country and began to carry about on their pallets those who were sick,” – whole country = every square inch of the country? Surely, common usage dictates this is hyperbole used to express the citizenry’s general reaction to Jesus.) Smith admits that ‘self-conscious hyperbole’ is a possibility that would be a legitimate way to speak of Cretans. He could have simply warned naive ‘biblicists’ against reading obvious hyperbole as a mathematically precise statement – as any first year Bible college student would have been taught. Instead, he spends two pages attacking this scriptural passage as something that ‘reads almost like a tasteless, private email message that was mistakenly forwarded by the recipient to readers who were not meant to see it’. In so doing, Smith is encouraging Bible readers to disregard any scriptural passage that seems (to the reader) out of place, embarrassing, or difficult to understand at face value. The integrity and trustworthiness of all scripture is demolished when readers are encouraged to mentally edit what they read and set aside any ‘strange passages’ they find difficult.
A ‘lack of biblical self-attestation’ is cited as more evidence that the biblicist belief in inerrancy is wrong. Smith cites 5 common New Testament passages on inspiration and finds no evidence of word-for-word accuracy claimed. He overlooks the New Testament passages that do support inerrancy (Matt 4:4, Heb 2:2, 1Pet 1:24-25) and all Old Testament passages that claim this very thing, such as: Psalm 19, Psalm 119, Prov 30:5, Psalm 111:7, Deut 4:2, Deut 4:8, Deut 8:3, Deut 17:18-20, Deut 30:14-18, Joshua 1:8, 2 Samuel 22:31, 2 Kings 22:13, Nehemiah 8:1-8, Psalm 1:2, Psalm 12:6, Psalm 18:30, Psalm 93:5, Psalm 138:2, Isaiah 8:20, Isaiah 40:8 – you get the idea, for brevity I am leaving out those in Jeremiah through Malachi.
Several other secondary reasons biblicism is impossible are given, which for brevity’s sake I won’t cover, and one more which I must: ‘Setting Up Youth for Unnecessary Crises of Faith’. Smith has observed ‘Bible-believing evangelical’ students studying religion at the University of North Carolina who have their faith shattered by an agnostic professor teaching New Testament. These supposedly ‘biblicist’ students are unprepared for hostile attacks on the claims of scripture and find that simply clinging to ‘inerrancy’ cannot rescue them. So much is wrong with this scenario that I must address it. First – what kind of Bible believing student (or parent) would pay good money to learn “New Testament” from an agnostic at a government sponsored university? Certainly none who have ever studied what the Bible says about education or the proper role of civil government. This is not a ‘biblicist’ problem, but a problem of naive, unwise student and parents whose problem is not clinging to scripture tightly enough! If they knew the Bible they would know that an unbeliever cannot understand the scripture (1 Corinthians 2:14) – much less teach it, and that a student when fully trained becomes like their teacher (Luke 6:40). That these students with nominal belief would become agnostic when taught religion by an agnostic is no surprise but is exactly what Jesus said would happen.
That Smith would use these hapless students as an example of biblicism’s weaknesses is one more indication that he is actually criticizing a form of ‘biblicism’ that has very little to do with mature, principled, wise, experienced scholarship that many evangelicals practice. I’m sure there are some ill-informed folks who claim some of the traits Smith lists in his biblicist’s description who are unable to navigate the depth of scripture, who can’t deal with ambiguity, and who think the Bible is a simple ‘connect-the-dots’ handbook that guarantees success in life. But honestly, I don’t think there are many such folks who really know what “Sola Scriptura” or “perspicuity” mean. And they certainly won’t continue reading Smith’s book once they reach the more complex subjects of ‘pervasive interpretive plurality, ‘multivocality’, and ‘polysemy’. So it’s unclear who the book is intended for.
‘Biblicists’ that do understand ‘sola scripture’ and agree with it, that understand the distinction between inerrancy and inspiration, that understand all non-mathematical documents are subject to ambiguity, that relish cultural distinctives and are careful in their applications – these biblicists will enjoy much of the second half of the book but will be frustrated that in the first half Smith finds so many ‘strange passages’ of little value; expresses so much confusion about cultural relevance surrounding issues of church polity, worship, the sabbath, et al; and finds the scripture imperfect and errant. The second part has several fine suggestions on how to read and apply the Bible wisely. I appreciated many of that author’s insights and found he was able to put his finger on some of the ways scripture has become so rich to me over the years. I was relieved to find that his suggestions did not include an appeal to recognize papal authority. In the introduction, Smith mentions that he recently converted to Roman Catholicism. As he detailed the many problems related to ‘interpretive plurality’, I thought he might suggest the solution is ‘interpretive singularity’ – just ask the Vatican what a passage means and forget figuring it out yourself. Down deep, this may be some of what Smith practices personally but there is no hint of it in the book. His frustration with the myriad protestant denominations and the many ways basic church and spiritual practices vary is palpable and I’d guess this played some role in his turn towards the Catholic church.
Part two opens with a plea for evangelicals to embrace the ‘evangelion’ of the Bible – the amazing and ‘terrifically good message that God is reconciling the world to Himself in Jesus Christ’. Smith points out that this is altogether different than ‘simply following a life handbook… to fix a problem’. Again, biblicism is caricatured as chiefly a simplistic approach to solving problems. This substitution of ‘handbook’ mentality for a thorough, prudent biblicism borders on equivocation and is repeated throughout the second half of the book. Frustrating, but readers are used to it by the second half.
Nevertheless, Smith is so right that Jesus Himself is the central message of the Bible and anything that obscures this must be corrected. The chapter ‘Christ as the Hermeneutical Key’ is wonderful in many ways. It’s clear that Smith knows the gospel, loves Christ, and wants the glory of Christ that is evident throughout scripture to penetrate the lives of every believer. He pleads for Christ at the center of all interpretation and says such an approach ‘naturally agrees that all of reality belongs to God and is subject to Christ’s authority and judgment. No allegedly “non-religious” topic or issue in the entire world may then be set aside as not relevant to the Bible’s concerns, as if we lived in a dualistic reality’. I, as an affirmed biblicist, can shout hallelujah to this. However, in the very next sentence Smith writes, ‘but a Christocentric hermeneutic does not conclude from those objections that the Bible contains perfect and explicit instructions on every imaginable topic it seems to address’. I assume Smith meant this not as hyperbole but that he has encountered biblicists that expect from the Bible ‘perfect instructions’ on ‘every imaginable topic addressed’. No one I know would claim the Bible provides or claims to provide perfect and complete instructions on every topic it addresses. Some topics the Bible thoroughly addresses and some less so. A wise biblicist knows the difference and works to ensure his faith and practice are consistent with the instruction the Bible does provide.
Later in this chapter Smith states ‘it may be that God, in giving us the Bible, does not intend through it to inform us about topics like biblical cooking and stress management. It also may be that God does not even intend the Bible to provide us with direct, specific, “nonnegotiable” instructions about things like church polity and government, the “end times”, the ethics of war…, correct modes of baptism, proper elements of correct Christian worship…. Perhaps those are simply not scripture’s central point… Perhaps some are “matters of indifference…. Perhaps others of them are subjects about which we are simply not completely informed’. I agree the Bible is not a handbook on stress management, but to say God intends that the Bible give us no information on stress is absurd. The scripture speaks of stress and anxiety. No, it’s not a clinical handbook but surely we ignore this biblical wisdom at our peril. And we err when we set aside the biblical evidence that does exist regarding, for example, worship that God finds pleasing in favor of our personal preference and convenience and hide behind the excuse that the Bible is not as perfectly clear on the issue as it could be. Likewise with other topics God did choose to address in scripture. And note again Smith’s equivocation. He first states ‘does not intend to inform’ and in the next few sentences ‘we are not completely informed’. There’s a huge difference between ‘informed’ and ‘completely informed’.
Again, the chapter has much merit and I believe Smith earnestly wants nothing to obscure what he rightly discerns as the central message – Jesus Christ. In his zeal, he unfortunately overstates his case when he suggests that some scriptural directives can be ignored, as long as the truth and glory of Christ are seen in the texts. A better approach is that urged by Graeme Goldsworthy in his book and lectures on Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics. Goldsworthy recommends a ‘forest and trees’ hermeneutic where we remember the big picture is Christ and the picture is drawn through individuals and events in scripture. If we see only the ‘tree’ and ignore the ‘forest’, our application can lead to legalism or a clunky literalism that does not cohere to the gospel-laden message of the entire scripture. But Goldsworthy sees value in each ‘tree’ when rightly appreciated in the light of the gospel and none should be cast aside as unneeded. There is much in common between Dr. Smith’s call for a Christological hermeneutic and Goldsworthy’s book . But Goldsworthy is able to make his case for keeping the gospel at the center, while maintaining the enduring value of each passage in scripture, scriptural inerrancy and infallibility, Sola Scriptura, and other tenets mature biblicists share.
Since Dr. Smith’s focuses on the problem of a ‘plurality’ of interpretations, one may rightly ask, ‘how does he interpret that Christ is the central message and that stress management, for example, is not’? Earlier in the book, he mentions the methods sociologists use when judging the importance and truth of a given fact. All evidence is examined and some things have so much evidence that they are judged ‘overdetermined’ and therefore accepted. His example is the failure of Marxism as an economic system – a now accepted fact based on the evidence of the 20th century. The other option is an ‘underdetermined’ conclusion for which there is some evidence but not enough to declare it a known fact. An example is the cause of poverty in the United States. There are several plausible theories that data will support but not enough to allow all observers to agree on a single cause. Now, I will agree with Smith that Jesus Christ is the central message of the Bible and this is ‘overdetermined’ by the scriptural evidence. The problem is that Smith suggests we can ignore scriptural evidence which does not point to an ‘overdetermined’ conclusion. For example, since the proper techniques of wealth management are not ‘overdetermined’ in all aspects, Smith suggests we should figure it out ourselves instead of using the scriptures that are provided. He writes ‘perhaps God wants us to figure out how Christians should think well about things like war, wealth, and sanctification, by thinking christologically about them, more than simply piecing together this and that verse of scripture into an allegedly coherent puzzle picture’. I agree we must think with the mind of Christ and not rely on simply connecting-the-dots with miscellaneous verses. However, when we have the mind of Christ our conclusions will not contradict biblical precepts and teachings – even if those teachings only give us part of the information we need. Why would God give us the partial information He does, if He expects us to just ignore it and not apply it to test the conclusions to which a Christ-centered interpretation seems to be leading us? We should treasure all scriptural information and evidence that can inform our choices, all the while realizing we may not have the complete picture in the written texts.
Chapter 6 is also helpful, but again starts with the biblicist strawman Smith has constructed: ‘biblicists want a Bible that is different [than what God has actually given]. They want a Bible that answers all their questions, that tells them how to have marital intimacy, that gives principles for economics and medicine and science and cooking – and does so inerrantly. They essentially demand .. a sacred text that will make them certain and secure…’. Smith urges Christians to learn to live with ambiguity and complexity and fight the need to boil everything down to a neat formula. I agree. He states that God ‘accommodates himself to the limits of human perception, cognition, and understanding’. Good, I agree. He continues, ‘in the process of divine inspiration, God did not correct every incomplete or mistaken viewpoint of the biblical authors…’ I agree God left things incomplete, but cannot agree that God allows ‘mistakes’ to persist within Scripture. ‘Mistake’ implies God left some errors while making sure the important principles are error-free. Why would God do this, forcing perfection in some areas and allowing error in others? And if we know the scripture has some error, how do we know what parts are error-free? He further claims the ‘Bible can lack information and answers we want it to have’ and that biblicists can’t admit this. But surely no one demands the Bible answer every possible question. Mature biblicists understand that the Bible is, in a sense, ‘incomplete’ or lacking some information since the Bible itself plainly declares that ‘we see through a glass darkly’.
As a way to deal with the complexity and ambiguity evident in the Bible (which, as we’ve seen, is the case for all documents due to pervasive interpretive plurality), Smith invites evangelicals to better distinguish between doctrine, dogma, and opinion – 3 terms he adopts from theology professor Roger Olson. Dogma are the non-negotiables found in the Nicene Creed – the most central, sure, and important beliefs. Doctrine includes theological systems such as Calvinism or Wesleyanism – beliefs held with firm conviction by groups of Christians. Opinion are all other beliefs some Christians hold that are ‘far from being central, sure, and most important’. Smith asserts that too many Christians elevate opinions to dogma and refuse fellowship with other believers of different ‘opinions’ with whom they do actually agree on historic ‘dogma’. I agree this happens far too often. I find this 3-fold distinction helpful when considering how to focus our time and energy. Smith rightly objects to Christians who focus on minor issues while failing at the more prominent themes of scripture such as love and generosity. He says ‘Oftentimes, I am afraid that we have our hands full with the basics that have already been made perfectly clear to us, but rather than getting down to business with that, we prefer to chase around after relatively peripheral and speculative matters that God has chosen not to make clear to us.’ I know I am guilty of this and remembering ‘the basics’ helps set the right focus. As Jesus rebuked the Pharisees who focused on the minor issues: ‘you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.’ so we ought to focus on the basics. However, this does not leave us free to redefine the ‘less weighty’ as mere ‘opinion’ and thereby excuse us of diligent practice in these areas.
While the 3-fold distinction can help clarify priorities, it creates confusion in other cases. For example, scripture may be crystal clear on a subject so that certainty is 100% yet it may not be a central belief found in church creeds. But this 3-fold grid would put this in the ‘opinion’ category. For example, we know for certain, based on the word of Christ Himself, that God will not forgive someone who is unwilling to forgive others (Matthew 18). Yet this is not in any creed and is not central to a Christocentric hermeneutic. Is it therefore only an ‘opinion’? If I know a fellow Christian harbors unforgiveness, do I offer unbridled fellowship and keep my ‘opinion’ to myself? Or what about 1 Corinthians 5 where the apostle is obviously bewildered that the Christians there have tolerated sexual immorality? He demands that the sin be dealt with. Yet sexual immorality is not mentioned in the Nicene creed. Should the apostle Paul be chastised for straying from the central message of the scripture and being so harsh as to force his ‘opinion’ on the tolerant Corinthian church?
The suggestion to unify around central dogma and patiently endure disagreement on non-central issues sounds good, but eliminates obedience to the commission Jesus left the church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you”. Jesus commanded many things that the church has not decided to include in creeds. We have no choice but to teach the commands of Jesus. We must teach these commands accurately, allowing for various forms of fulfilling them where there is ambiguity, but we must teach them. We must know the commands and practice them to the best of our ability. Then we must correct those who refuse to obey the commands. Though ‘pervasive interpretive plurality’ makes it challenging to determine how best to fulfill some of Jesus’ commands, Jesus has commanded us to teach ‘all that I commanded you’ so we have no choice. We must ‘be diligent to … handle accurately the word of truth.’ (2 Timothy 2:15) even when that word is not as clear as we wish it was or when the words of Jesus’ specific commands are not central to the gospel.
Further, in dealing with complexity and ambiguity Smith pleads for Christians to ‘focus first on what is clear and direct’. The ‘clear and direct’ are presumably those teachings that are so numerous and so often repeated in scripture that any honest reader could not miss them. Smith mentions God reconciling the world through Christ as one example of such a clear teaching, and I agree. This and a few other concepts would be ‘overdetermined’ by the scriptural evidence supporting them and Smith insists we must focus on these first. Again, I agree. But the greatest irony of this entire book is that the very concept Smith attacks – the perfection, permanence, and usefulness of every single word in scripture – is one of the most ‘overdetermined’ and ‘clear and direct’ teachings in all of scripture! Several paragraphs back I listed just a few of the texts that support the inerrancy of scripture. There are many more. It is surely one of the most central and well established truths in all of scripture. It’s far better established and emphasized in scripture than the virgin birth or Jesus’ seat at the right hand of the Father (both mentioned in the Nicene Creed), yet Smith rejects it. Biblicists realize the inerrancy, permanence, power, and timeless applicability of the scriptural texts are all ‘overdetermined’ by scripture itself and diligently work to be faithful to the God who inspired the scripture and preserves it.
In the final chapter, Smith outlines the weaknesses common to a modern epistemology that many evangelicals adopt. Biblical standards cannot be made into a simple ‘paint by numbers’ set of rules. I agree with the book that some naive biblicists are likely quite unhappy with this limitation – a limitation not due to scripture but due to an erroneous Enlightenment influenced mindset. The enormous success of science and math discoveries by Newton, Descartes, and others during the Enlightenment led men to assume that all known truth could similarly be determined and proven with ‘mathematical’ accuracy. As I mentioned earlier, mathematical precision is valid only in math itself. Yet, some moderns persist in building on a rationalist foundation that is not certain. ‘Pervasive interpretive plurality’ again reveals that truth statements are not 100% certain but not because there is no truth. Rather, any non-mathematical statement involves definitions. Attempts to transfer meaning from a speaker to a hearer always involve some sort of distortion if only because the speaker and hearer cannot possibly share identical mental contexts. I long ago realized this is true not only for two people trying to communicate but for one person at two different times. Think of your current understanding of who Jesus is. Does it differ from your understanding of Jesus a year ago? I hope so. Then were you ‘wrong’ last year and ‘correct’ now? Or are you still ‘wrong’ now and hope to be ‘correct’ in another year? Or will you never be ‘correct’? And if your salvation is based on believing Jesus is ‘who He says He is’ (John 8), how can you ever have ‘right’ beliefs if your idea of Jesus is always changing? Jesus Himself never changes (Hebrews 13:8). Yes, it is a sticky problem and Smith suggests a different epistemological basis of ‘critical realism’ might move evangelicals beyond the impasse caused by rationalistic epistemology that works great in mathematics but is hopeless for attaining certainty in other domains. Critical Realism is just touched on in the book and seems to merit further investigation. (I have a different solution to the problem of how our continually changing belief can ever be ‘correct’, but that’s another paper in itself).
Smith continues with a discussion of ‘understanding’ that deepens over time, and can go beyond the literal teachings of the scripture. Using the example of slavery, he shows how biblical concepts drove believers over time to see that slavery is wrong though there is no explicit biblical text. I agree this is what God calls the church to do – apply scripture wisely in situations that are not directly addressed in scripture. The key is to ‘apply scripture’, not to set aside some passages as strange or irrelevant and to substitute our own ideas which may be contrary to written scriptural principles. I would agree with Smith that having determined that outlawing slavery is a direct and correct application of biblical truth, we should take action and forcefully prohibit slavery. However, this seems inconsistent with his earlier plea for evangelicals to only hold tightly to non-negotiable central issues (dogma) and hold tentatively to doctrine and ‘opinion’.
The final chapter ends with another caricature of biblicism. Smith writes ‘Biblicism lacks the imagination and categories to understand the dynamic nature of the gospel and the church’s understanding of truth under the guidance of the Holy Spirit described here… Biblicism, again, views the Bible as a kind of catalog or handbook in which complete information and instructions for right living can be found’, and he suggests biblicists adopt ‘a deemphasizing of Bible passages as collections of complete and final teachings on every subject imaginable’. I know many biblicists and none could be fairly described in this way. Of course biblicists seek to apply scripture to questions not explicitly addressed in the Bible. We simply ask that grounds for application be tested by the scripture itself, and we don’t arbitrarily edit scripture to remove strange or difficult teachings. With the Bereans of Acts 17, we simply ask that there be scriptural evidence for a conclusion that is proclaimed to be God’s will. And we submit to the apostolic command in 1 Thessalonians 5 to ‘test everything’ and assume the tests are to be against written scripture – not opinion surveys, plausibility structures, marketing studies, or any other form of human evidence.
In conclusion, many of Smith’s suggestions are helpful. The detail in which he points out the problems with perspectives in interpretation, unavoidable ambiguity, insufficient epistemological foundations, and other issues inherent in coming to ‘certainty’ with any written text are valuable as a reference if nothing else. He has done his homework and though the book is scholarly, it is accessible to patient laymen. The biggest problem is his attack on scriptural integrity itself, casting doubt as to which portions are in error, which portions God never intended to be applied past the original audience, and which portions should not really be considered scripture but merely as personal human commentary. He encourages biblicists to adopt a dynamic understanding of scripture he claims is truly evangelical. But Smith would leave a remedied biblicist who adopted his suggested dynamism with a weakened scripture unworthy of confidence. So some of Smith’s prescriptions are truly healing, but taking the whole dosage kills the patient.
It didn’t have to be this way. As I’ve shown, any non-mathematical document is subject to all the weaknesses Smith mentions. He could have made us aware of inherent perceptual difficulties and ambiguities and urged us to make sure we are part of well-grounded church communities where love, peace, and joy prevail and where a commitment to the scriptures is unquestioned. In such places difficult applications can be made by patient, committed Christians who realize they won’t figure it all out in a week, a year, or a lifetime. Patience and love that covers a multitude of sins is needed not because the scriptural text is flawed, but because we are. And God is patient and plans to build His kingdom to a thousand generations. Committed believers working together over many generations with a perfect and powerful record of God’s written word will mature into the spotless bride that Jesus is committed to purifying. How I wish that Dr. Smith had given us that message.
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For the reasons explained in the review, I cannot recommend Dr. Smith’s book. However, for those seeking to learn more about mature, reflective, patient biblicism, there are a number of great resources. The place to start is R.C. Sproul’s Knowing Scripture which lays out basic guidelines for biblical interpretation including how to handle ambiguity, hyperbole, cultural relevance, and various genres such as narrative, poetry, and proverbs. Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics by Graeme Goldsworthy looks beyond basic guidelines and deals with all the hermeneutic challenges Dr. Smith brings up and many more, while maintaining a solid confidence in the Bible’s inerrancy and relevance in all areas it addresses. His related audio lectures are also very helpful.
I also recommend: Sola Scriptura – The Protestant Position on the Bible, a collection of papers by top scholars calling believers to a love that rejoices in the truth – the truth so brilliantly and wonderfully preserved for us in scripture. 36 sermons from the recent Sufficiency of Scripture conference seek to wisely apply scripture to many important aspects of life. And Biblical Theology by Geerhardus Vos is a classic study of how not just the words of scripture, but the very structure and order evident in revelation given over the ages reflect the majesty and wisdom of God. Finally, a great study Bible that helps make sense of the ‘strange passages’ and cultural relevance issues that Dr. Smith has such a struggle with is The Reformation Study Bible.