In The Bible Made Impossible Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith makes an impassioned argument for a move beyond evangelical biblicism and theological liberalism. Biblicism is a package of beliefs and practices about the Bible which emphasize its “exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.” The main thrust of Smith’s book is directed towards this package and the fact that evangelical adherence to biblicism has done nothing to prevent or even address what he calls pervasive interpretive pluralism. In other words, biblicists may share their biblicism with one another, but they ignore the fact that they radically disagree about an enormously wide range of beliefs and practices central to the Christian religion.

What Smith calls for in place of biblicism is an evangelical Christianity lived within a much wider horizon, one grounded centrally on Christology. Following Karl Barth, Smith suggests that the Bible is best thought of as a story which proclaims the Word that is Jesus Christ, the evangelion or “good news” to which Christians attest as a life-changing message/event. For Christians Scripture’s unity is retrospectively organized around the story it tells about Christ, a story which does not need to paper over textual difficulties in order to be good news. Evangelicals can therefore move beyond treating the Bible as a “holy handbook” or how-to manual, and begin to reckon with the complexity and ambiguity of faith. “Working out” the gospel becomes so much more than a checklist or a textual grid in which the contents of evangelical faith are simply read off. Complexity and ambiguity can, after all, speak to us profoundly, even poetically, whether in the form of words found in sacred texts like the Bible, or even without words, as in the note of longing sounded by the French horn in the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ third symphony.

As a sociologist Smith also considers how reading the Bible Christologically should inform the community of faith that is the church. In the context of a series of other provisos, he recommends a kind of creedal minimalism that maintains a place for church dogma and distinctives, while emphasizing that such distinctives should not be used as the only or overriding measuring stick by which to mark church boundaries. Smith appeals to church history and argues that the church has never regarded the New Testament as the last word, at least not in the sense of having worked out all the implications of the gospel message. Both Catholics and Protestants have accepted, for the most part, the early church councils (325, 431, 451) as clarifying and elaborating more truthful explanations of biblical teachings, for instance, and, much more recently, have come to expound what the Bible says about slavery and gender in a similar manner. Smith uses these practices to try and demonstrate how evangelicals can re-appropriate part of their open hermeneutic heritage, continually clarifying the substance of their creed by realizing the gospel anew today.

The Bible Made Impossible contains a veritable battery of arguments against biblicism that deserve a very wide reading, not only because they offer evangelicals a way out of the biblicist impasse, but because Smith does so by modelling intellectual clarity, interpretive charity, and a deep sympathy for evangelicalism – though he himself has recently become a Catholic. This is not to say that the book is flawless. It is a very good book in that it does what it aims to do succinctly and convincingly. But, as with any good book, questions remain. There is, for instance, no discussion of why anyone should regard the Bible as a sacred kerygmatic source in the first place. Nor is the adoption of Barth’s Christological hermeneutic an uncontested move – although the titanic theological debates which arose in the wake of Barth and Rudolph Bultmann have subsided, allowing for the emergence of a more irenic “public theology” such as that of Jürgen Moltmann. In response to what he sees as an undue focus on the proclamation of the Word alone, Smith’s fellow sociologist Robert Bellah has recently emphasized the importance of the communal celebration of the sacrament – the transcendent, incarnate God among the community of believers (“Flaws in the Protestant Code: Theological Roots of American Individualism”, The Robert Bellah Reader). Additionally, there is no space to address how biblicism is part of a wider set of social, cultural, and political practices which sustain evangelicalism in America. While Smith has certainly written a cogent book, it is unclear whether or not biblicism will be abandoned without addressing the wider nexus in which it operates.

 

 

The Bible Made Impossible:Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith. Brazos, 2012, 256pp.

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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

0 Responses to Beyond Biblicism: Reading Christian Smith

  1. Patrick Sawyer says:

    Kenneth,

    You state “In other words, biblicists may share their biblicism with one another, but they ignore the fact that they radically disagree about an enormously wide range of beliefs and practices central to the Christian religion”.

    Could you give several examples of what you are talking about here? Thanks.

  2. […] Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible was reviewed on the Patrol website. Check it out here. […]

  3. […] Magaizine reviews The Bible Made Impossible, while Natalie and The Ruthless Monk continue to work through Smith’s critique of […]

  4. Cheesehed says:

    A Christological focus instead of the Bible?

    Martin Luther: Jesus is the focus of Scripture. Scripture is the wrapping, while the Savior in the manger is the focus.

    So in other words, I guess Smith is a Lutheran.

    Looking forward to reading the book — thanks for the review!

  5. Tim says:

    Um, people get different interpretations cause some take God’s word seriously and read it in context, The rest cherry pick. It’s quite black and white. 2 Timothy 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2 Timothy 3:15-4:4 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. John 17:17 Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. So why’s biblicism stupid again? Yeah, I’ll stick with biblicism, cause it’s God’s way.

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