Reckoning with the Bible

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

In The Bible Made Impossible Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith makes an impassioned argument for a move beyond evangelical biblicism and theological liberalism. Biblicism, he writes, 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 disagree radically 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 the 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 in support of his claims 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 (Nicene, Chalcedonian) 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 hermeneutical 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 and his student Miroslav Volf. 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,” 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, interesting book, it is unclear whether or not biblicism will be abandoned without addressing the wider nexus in which it operates.

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