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Book Review

Biblicism exposed

Evangelicals believe the Bible to be God’s Word written. But in what way is it God’s Word? Biblicists are those—a majority, it seems—who regard it as a clear and foolproof source of Christian doctrine and, at the same time, a manual for living, with answers to every situation that life throws up, from healthy eating and good dating practice to running your finances and bringing up your children.

The big problem is that, when treated this way, the Bible fails to come up with clear answers. There are more than 50,000 Protestant denominations, and most of them are established on the conviction that they do things ‘the way the Bible teaches’. But if Scripture’s teaching is as clear as biblicists make out, how come there’s so much disagreement? The biblicist approach, which this book’s author views as untenable, suffers from what he calls ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’—a fancy way of saying that it consistently produces a huge variety of conclusions as to what its teaching actually is. He is undoubtedly right.

The book is The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith (Brazos Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-4412-4151-1).  Smith himself is committed to the Bible as God’s Word but argues that the biblicist approach (with an example, at scholarly level, being Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology) is deeply flawed and, in fact, does the Bible a disservice. It is not, in fact, a truly evangelical approach at all. It is responsible for a thousand conflicting opinions—and for the many books in the Four Views On… series, where even biblical scholars fall out about what the Bible teaches.

The author gives a historical and philosophical background to biblicism—with helpful comments on inerrancy and authority—then adduces masses of material in support of his contention that it is untenable, building a solid and undeniable case. Happily, once he has completed the demolition job he goes on to suggest better, and more truly evangelical, approaches to Scripture. I will leave you to discover these for yourself, but I found them sensible and helpful in every way. If evangelical Christians could ditch their biblicism and take these on board in its place there could be real hope for a measure of Christian unity that, at present, we can only dream about.

I have to confess that, since my own upbringing was in Christian circles where biblicism was the unspoken norm, it shaped my views for most of my life. For a number of years now, however, I have slowly been letting go of that approach, for the very reasons Christian Smith puts forward. I’m 74 now, so it’s a case of better late than never! But these days I’m finding my reading of Scripture so much more rewarding and heart-warming as a result.

Smith’s book has a fascinating Afterword, in which he comments on some of the responses to the first edition. Some of those responses are positive. Many, from entrenched biblicists, are vitriolic in their negativity, illustrating perfectly the kind of problems that biblicism tends to foment. Fascinating and enlightening stuff!

[The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers.]

The goal of this book is not to detract from the plausibility, reliability, or authority of the Christian faith or from scripture. The goal is to persuade readers that one particular theory of Christian plausibility, reliability, and authority—what I call biblicism—is inadequate to the task. (41)

By “biblicism” I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. (54)

Opposing theological liberalism does not necessitate biblicism as the only viable alternative, as some seem to believe. (71)

My proposals assume that biblicism can be escaped not by turning away from an evangelical approach to the Bible but rather by becoming even more truly evangelical in the reading of scripture. (125)

Pervasive interpretive pluralism is the proverbial massive elephant in the room of evangelical biblicism that nobody talks about. I want to talk about it. (143)

Scripture taken at face value itself often cannot resolve differences in interpretation, because of its multivocal, polysemous, and multivalent nature, which I discuss in detail below. (505)

On most matters of significance concerning Christian doctrine, salvation, church life, practice, and morality, different Christians—including different biblicist Christians—insist that the Bible teaches positions that are divergent and often incompatible with one another. (524)

On important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches. That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever-present reality. It is, in fact, the single reality that has most shaped the organizational and cultural life of the Christian church, which now, particularly in the United States, exists in a state of massive fragmentation. (570)

Given this pluralism of arguments, we might ask: in what sense does or can the Bible actually function as an instructive, issue-clarifying authority for the open-minded Bible believer who simply wants to know what the scriptures teach about gender roles, marriage relations, and the place of women in church ministry? In actual practice, it does not and apparently cannot serve as such an authority. (678)

The cross, atonement, and justification are clearly not “secondary” theological issues. Yet, it is a historical, empirical, undeniable fact that biblicist and other Christians have been unable to come to anything like a common mind about what the Bible actually teaches on those central matters. Instead, scripture has given rise to a multiplicity of divergent beliefs and commitments. (735)

No matter which meta-interpretive paradigm Christians adopt, a great deal of scriptural text can be organized to make sense within it—some texts quite easily so and others only with some force and twisting. But, in all instances—and crucial for present purposes— there is always a significant set of texts that do not make sense, do not seem relevant, and do not harmonize or fit with the given larger thematic paradigm. (931)

Various Christian groups “benefit” from conflict, disunity, and fragmentation and use such disagreement and distinction from others to build and sustain their in-group strength. This practice, even if common, is highly problematic when considered in light of what the Bible says about Christian unity. (1267)

In its worst expression, the psychological complex driving biblicism expresses an outright lack of trust in God and a grasping for human control. And that hardly seems biblical. (1284)

The relativizing of biblical teaching on grounds of historical and cultural differences therefore normally proceeds in an ad hoc, unsystematic, and often arbitrary manner. Various biblical commands are relaxed or tightened without a clear underlying rationale or justification, depending significantly, it seems, on the particular cultural and political interests and discomfort of those doing the relaxing and tightening. In other words, biblicists very often engage in what we might call “uneven and capriciously selective literalism.” (1349)

The Bible contains a number of passages that are simply strange. It is hard to know what good use to make of them, particularly when working within a biblicist theory. One such passage, for instance, is Titus 1:12–13. (1384)

The problem is that what the Bible says about itself does not actually validate biblicism, as defined above. (1512)

When theorists who take a basically biblicist approach try to derive a systematic Christian social ethic from scripture, they end up offering an incredibly wide range of proposals. (1671)

Biblicism also has the pastorally problematic tendency to set up some young, committed believers for unnecessary crises of personal faith, when some of them come to realize (rightly, yet without warning) that biblicism is untenable. (1689)

What is needed to improve on biblicism is some kind of a stronger hermeneutical guide that can govern the proper interpretation of the multivocal, polysemous, multivalent texts of scripture toward the shared reading of a more coherent, authoritative biblical message. (1757)

The purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ. It is embarrassing to have to write this, for it should be obvious to all Christians. But I am afraid this is not always so obvious in practice in biblicist circles…  Seeing Christ as central compels us to always try to make sense of everything we read in any part of scripture in light of our larger knowledge of who God is in Jesus Christ. (1807)

Any doctrine of revelation, scripture, or inspiration must, in any larger theological system, be properly located within the doctrine of God and not as a foundational prolegomenon or epistemological preface. (1843)

The reality is that it is not possible to take fully seriously a Christocentric hermeneutic of scripture and to hold to biblicism. One or the other must give. (2021)

Perhaps evangelicals today could recover a truly valid and defensible understanding of how scripture really is authoritative and definitive by first focusing christologically on the scripture’s center as the definitive and nonnegotiable truth and then greatly expanding the boundaries of much of what is left to “things indifferent,” to adiaphora—and then actually behaving as if they really are adiaphora. There seems to be biblical warrant for such an approach (Rom 14; 1 Cor 8; 10:31; Col 3:17). It would seem to lead to a more genuine Christian unity-in-diversity. (2093)

The bottom line, then: standard biblicist objections to Christocentric biblical hermeneutics—in which human scripture readers actively interpret texts using discernment and judgment about what is central and what are “things indifferent”—simply do not hold water. They are red herrings. There are no other alternatives in reality, and we should not pretend otherwise. (2130)

Biblicists are often so insistent that the Bible is God’s only complete, sufficient, and final word that they can easily forget in practice that before and above the Bible as God’s written word stands Jesus Christ, who is God’s living Word and ultimate and final self-revelation. (2166)

Biblicism often slides into reading the Bible as a “flat” and “centerless” book, as if every one of its verses and words and ideas and propositions—or at least the ones needed to make a particular point of concern at a particular time—was as equally central, important, meaningful, and instructive as every other. (2329)

We ought in humble submission to accept the real scriptures that God has provided us as they are, rather than ungratefully and stubbornly forcing scripture to be something that it is not because of a theory we hold about what it must and should be. (2359)

Evangelicals today struggling toward a postbiblicist world will benefit from incorporating the notion of divine accommodation into their understanding of scripture. (2406)

Evangelical Christians need to much better distinguish dogma from doctrine and both of those from opinion, in a way that demands much greater humility, discernment, and readiness to extend the fellowship of communion to those who understand scripture differently. (2497)

Christians would do well to simply accept and live contentedly with the fact that they are being informed about the big picture on a “need to know” basis. This means believing that if God has not made something completely clear in scripture, then it is probably best not to try to speculate it into something too significant. Let the ambiguous remain ambiguous. Focus first instead on what is clear and direct. (2634)

The more baggage that passengers of a train load into their carriage, the less room there is for other people to accompany them. The more Christians insist on making long lists of theological “essentials” that real or true Christians ought to believe in order to be recognized as within the bounds of the true faith and deserving the fellowship of communion, the more the body of Christ becomes conflicted, divided, and disunified—and the more the credibility of its witness is compromised. (2705)

The early Christian church lived without “the Bible” as we know it canonically for nearly four hundred years… (2849)

The authors of the New Testament did not understand and work out all the long-term implications of the gospel for theological knowledge, human life, and society. They just didn’t, and there is no need for us to have to say that they did. (3041)

The change in the frame of mind that this view [i.e. the alternative to biblicism] involves entails a deemphasizing of Bible passages as collections of complete and final teachings on every subject imaginable. (3129)

[In America], the biblicist approach, which could not grasp the notion of a historically progressive understanding of gospel implications, readily supported the proslavery’s biblical defense of slavery and so helped entrench the divisions that eventually led to civil war. (3146)

Biblicists propose a theory about the Bible that claims that scripture alone can and must serve as a “final court of appeals” when it comes to matters of Christian doctrine, practice, and morals—and often also science, history, politics, education, health, and so on. But the obvious question is: how can the Bible function as a final court of appeals when the “judges” on that Scriptural Supreme Court end up rendering quite different judgments on most cases that come before it, at least as far as most of the plaintiffs and defendants are able to hear and understand? (3180)

Evangelicals need to realize that the Bible is not a “how to” book. It is a “HERE IS WHO!” book. First and foremost it tells everyone: Here is who Jesus Christ is and therefore here is who you are and need to become in relation to him. (3214)

My own observation is that only a small minority of evangelicals really understand and practice the kind of strong Christocentric hermeneutic I propose, that the majority think they read the Bible Christocentrically but in fact only do so partially and selectively, and that another major sector of evangelicals brings no Christocentric sensibilities to scripture at all. (3443)

Ironically, some of those conservative Protestants who most strongly affirm humanity’s total depravity and the devastating noetic effects of sin are the very same people who seem to think that their own theological ideas are above all reproach and stand in need of no further interrogation, development, or correction. (3525)

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