Simplistic Bible interpretation - "The Bible Made Impossible"
Because I have already been in situations where I had to re-think the “traditional” easy answers to difficult life questions, the Book of Christian Smith drew my attention. Often, well-intentioned believers, try to comfort people with words that simply do not comfort; words like: God picked this flower for His garden (at the death of a child). To the parents, that is no consolation….if He is the Creator, then why did He had to take my child. Couldn’t he just CREATE a flower? Does He need a garden if the whole earth and all its beauty belongs to Him, was created by Him?
With this in mind, I found the book, The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith very interesting as he tackles the problem of Bible interpretation. He argues that: "American Evangelicals", which he also calls Biblicists, interpret the Bible in such a way that it loses its validity and power, and in the end, proves to be simplistic answers to difficult life questions, and ultimately, the Bible loses its authority. One of the telling questions Smith asks is: How can we, on the one hand, confess the sufficiency and inerrancy of the Bible as God's Word, and on the other hand, hold so many different viewpoints around key issues e.g. baptism, confession, what songs are sung, church government, etc.. ? What follows is a brief summary and a kind of review of Christian Smith's book.
The author's concern is about the way American evangelicals / Biblicists interpret the Bible. Smith says this is untenable: on the one hand, the Biblicists declare that the Bible is the infallible, authoritative, sufficient "inerrant" word of God; sufficient for all life's questions and can be used for "instruction for basic living" ... . but on the other hand, the church is guilty of the least of agreement around key dogmatic or even simple Biblical issues. For example, which is really the right church government, Presbyterian, independents, episcopal? What day and in which way is the right way for keeping the Sabbath, Sunday, Saturday, should one buy on Sundays? What does “rest” mean? Play and attend sports? What is the place and role of women in the church? Wealth, poverty, prosperity theology? etc ... .. His argument is not to attack the authority of the Bible, or the further the cause of liberal theology – to the contrary! His case is that in his opinion Biblicists diminished the rich, wonderful message of the Bible. In the end, he hopes, to show how the Bible can again take up the rightful place as the Word of God; but only if the Bible is interpreted honestly and with responsibly. That - responsible Bible reading - I share with Smith. I was fortunate to present Bible interpretation classes for 2 years and experienced how the Bible “opens up” when reading it “responsibly”. Smith says the fundamental problem of the Biblicists’ interpretation methodology is "pervasive interpretative pluralism"; a method to eliminate or simply ignoring the contentious issues in the Bible (interpretative pluralism) which ultimately strips the Bible of its relevance and authority. It undermines "intellectual honesty and Theological credibility." Maybe it's just important to point out that Smith rejects both sides as a solution: fundamentalism as well as theological liberalism. It may seem that he tends toward liberalism, but he states categorically that liberalism is not his proposal for an alternative.
Biblicism, says Smith, is built on some assumptions and belief systems about the Bible's nature, purpose and function and indicate on the following assumptions:
- Divine Writing - every word is ultimately written down as God's own words without any errors
- Total Representation - the Bible represents the totality of God's will and communication with humans
- Complete Coverage - the Bible represent God's will on every conceivable issue and is relevant to Christian belief and Christian living
- Democratic perspicuity - the Bible is of such nature that any reasonable person can read and correctly interpret it
- Commonsense Hermeneutics - the best way to understand the Bible is by reading it in its simplest, original literal form as the author intended it
- Sola Scriptura - the Bible is sufficient in the sense that no additional writings, testimonies or confessions should be necessary in order to understand it
- Internal Harmony - all Bible passages fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and represent a single "consistent" guideline for right and wrong
- Universal applicability – what the Biblical authors wrote is valid for all times and in all circumstances
- Inductive method - good inductive Bible study is sufficient to understand every Biblical truth
- Handbook / Instruction Manual - the Bible teaches morality and dogma to such an extent that it provides a comprehensive textbook for Christian doctrine and life on any matter, even on science, politics, love etc.. Smith pointed to numerous books and websites that explicitly introduces the Bible as the textbook for life (God's Handbook to Life ... our manual for life, our guidebook ... for a healthy life, etc..).
To me, this is one of Smith's shortcomings: from several "reviews" of his book (see below for references), there are many Biblicist who firstly does not accept this list as representative of Biblicism in any way, and secondly, requested a proper definition of each of these points because as these 10 points is presented here, they leave to much room for different interpretations (sic). Conversely, am not a Biblicist (thanks to our Reformed training where we properly applied text-criticism), but I would, to a certain extent, accept some of these points as a true reflection of the nature of the Bible; for example Nos 5, 6, 8 etc.. The Bible is God's Word, of course, but not as Smith claimed, God's direct words. Just how direct does he mean? The Bible is God's Word because He used each author in his own character and personality and circumstances - the pneuopneiste principle. The Bible is sufficient, but again not like Smith defines it. Sufficiency in the sense that we do not need extra non-biblical sources to know and to serve God. Other sources can be very useful and help understanding, but is not essential. Someone would be able to know and love God by having the Bible alone because the Word is “carried” by the Holy Spirit’s intervention. My criticism here is that Smith's list does not correctly represent what he, in length, explained Biblicism to be.
Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism (PiP)
The problem with "pervasive interpretative pluralism" is that the Bible, according to Biblicists, give answer to every conceivable issue (here Smith lists many examples of books like the Bible and your business, the Bible and education, marriage, sports etc.). But then, Biblicists continue to have different answers and different interpretations. How is it then the inerrant, infallible, word of God and able to give the one true answer, if there is so many different interpretations of a text. Who is ultimately right? In trying to answer this question, Smith reckons Biblicists would answer as follows but warns that this type of defense will not solve the problem of PiP:
- "blame-the-deficient-readers" - those who agree with us, read the Bible wrong. Ekke: Who can claim that they hold absolute truth?
- "lost-original-autographs” - the original word of God is truthful and without any errors, but it’s those who copied / rewrote the original texts that made mistakes and is the cause of confusion. Ekke: this cannot be it! It would be inconsistent with the Biblicist’s assumptions. And who would then ever be able to take anything from the Bible as normative for daily living?
- "noetically-damaged-reader" – the Bible has the right answers, but some people are so fixed in their ways that they simply do not have the ability to find and understand the single truth. Ekke: with other words, the Holy Spirit does not illuminate (Rom 8) . Did God under estimated man's thinking ability?
- "supernatural-confusion" - God deliberately withhold the guidance of the Spirit and make the truth only known to some; or the devil keeps people from correctly understanding the Bible and causes division. Ekke: This does not make sense and contradict the Bible itself.
- "inclusive-higher-synthesis" – everyone is actually right, but they all need to put all the parts together to get to the one truth. This way the truth will be exposed. Ekke: this again places a question mark on the Holy Spirit's ability to guide us through the Bible? Is the Bible than only sufficient after everyone collectively interpret the Bible?
- "purposefully-ambiguous-revelation-thesis" – God has intentionally provided an ambiguous Bible that would cause disagreement and confusion in order to achieve a greater good. Ekke: God is not a God of disorder not! What good would this have?
Smith goes on to show that the different interpretations of key issues of the Christian faith will not be solved by requiring the acceptance of a list of assumptions. Most Biblicists often already hold the same assumptions, and secondly if they differ on issues, how will they agree on the assumptions? It will therefore not solve the interpretation issue by getting consensus on the assumptions and then on the key issues. John Nevin said in 1849: "If the Bible be at once so clear and full as a formulary of Christian doctrine and practice, how does it come to pass that where men are left most free to use it in this way … they are flung asunder so perpetually in their religious faith, instead of being brought together." Therefore, it then proves to Smith that the Bible is actually not clear or even consistent when interpreting the Bible the Biblicists’ way. Because the biblicists interpret the Bible this way, it gives rise to the following problems:
- Certain passages or teachings are simply ignored. Eg. if the Bible is to be fully obeyed and serves as a handbook for Christian living, why then don’t they greet one another with a holy kiss?, Or, why then shouldn’t women remain silent in church (1 Cor 14:34)? His problem then is that the Biblicists selectively choose what to obey literally and what not, and ultimately undermines the authority of the Bible. Who decides what principles are applicable?
- Cultural differences are randomly relativized. Here he refers to 1 Timothy 5:23 amongst others where Paul recommends the drinking of wine instead of water. Again Smith tries to point out that the way Biblicists choose what to obey and what not, is arbitrary and give way to “pervasive interpretative pluralism".
- He further mentions many other difficult passages Biblicists interprets confusingly: Titus 1:12-13, Genesis 6:1-4, etc..
- Finally, he shows that the Biblicists often abuse the Bible to justify their own opinions, or to confirm whatever position they already hold. He writes: “…the Bible is often used by its readers in various ways to help legitimate and maintain the commitments and assumptions that they already hold before coming to the biblical text…The Bible teaches propositional content X; I should believe and obey what the Bible teaches; therefore, I believe and obey propositional content X.” Instead, the logic that is often actually employed is more like this: “I already believe, think, or feel Y; the Bible contains an idea that seems to relate to Y; therefore, my belief, thought, or feeling of Y is ‘biblically’ confirmed.“
In all these cases, Smith shows how the Bible can be interpreted arbitrarily when the Biblicist’s method is followed. Eg., what are the cultural grounds by which texts are valid and which not? Who decides on that? What principles are applicable in different scriptural passages?, etc..
The problem for Smith is: The Bible loses its authority and relevance! On this I agree. Using the Bible this way, the Bible loses its credibility and causes people, especially the modern post-modern man, to perceive the Bible as an ordinary, even uninspired book of individuals who did not understand much of the world around them.
So what's the answer? Smith does not try to present a complete answer, but still gives a very clear guideline which presents the Bible much more as the "Word of God” than the typical American Evangelical Biblicist way of interpretation. While reading it, I cherished our training, because that was exactly what we’ve learned - Pure Christological, Christocentric biblical reading and understanding.
I'm not going into detail of what Christocentric reading is; there are enough other sources in this regard. Suffice to say that the Bible ultimately brings us the good news of Jesus Christ as Messiah. The Bible tells us of God, whom is also revealed in and through Jesus. The Bible shows, even in the OT, God's plan of salvation - Jesus Christ. Jesus is the name that God gave through which He wants us to be saved (Acts 4:12). “The purpose, center and interpretative key to scripture is Jesus Christ.” (Smith).
So in short, the Bible is about Jesus Christ and is not a textbook on science, history, how to date or how to make money etc. For me the book could end at Chapter 5. What followed, for me really only raised more questions than answers. In chapter 6 he explains how the Bible is full of complex and ambiguous statements, and how it is harmonized in the bigger picture. Smith continues to propose a solution where the Bible can be divided into doctrine and opinion and suggests that theologians eventually should meet and agree on what is actually the core doctrinal issues. If Smith throughout the first half of the book showed how Biblicists failed to agree on what the Bible teaches, how does Smith actually expect theologians to agree on the core doctrinal issues?
In summary I agree with him that we must let the Word speak, and not arbitrarily decide what the word actually is trying to say. The Lord has promised us His Spirit to assist us. Will He then not also assist in Bible interpretation? In his final chapter he makes some very relevant and positive statements about proper Biblical interpretation. The original Bible authors did not write to, in the end, present future generations with a dogmatic handbook. Nor did they try to present a historically correct log book of all events. They told the story of God’s intervention with man, which culminated in the coming of Jesus Christ. The doctrine was only developed more than 300 year later…and it is mostly because of this doctrine that the church is so divided. The apostles understood and preached the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ. But they did not know and teach the fullness of the many implications of that truth for doctrine, relationships, and society. That was the task given to subsequent generations of believers across the church history. … Evangelicals need to realize that the Bible is not a “how to” book. It is a “HERE IS WHO!” book. (Smith, Kindle location 3378 & 3516).
Indeed, the Bible is a dynamic living Word of God and cannot be limited in people's interpretations. I do not have a problem as such with different interpretations. Different interpretations are really a proof of how each person wrestle with the Word and grow in his / her own understanding. We are not the same, we do not all have the same "learning styles", is not at the same "place" in our pilgrimage with God etc.. Pluralism is fine - I do not think, in our post-modern world, that we can get to a unanimous response on every matter.
An issue which very few "reviewers" reacted on was Smith's statement in his book, that he converted from being evangelical to the RCC. I'm not someone who likes to judge other church denominations or regards them as heretics. But I'm also aware that there are some significant interpretive differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. And I think Smith's book cannot be properly interpreted without taking cognisance of this fact. For example, the final doctrinal authority of the Pope stands against Luther's 95 declarations. This in itself, is in a sense, "pluralism" because the Bible was put into ordinary people's hands. Other significant issues also must surely have an impact and must play a part in his proposals of interpreting Scripture. I will therefore read the book as a valuable resource to broaden my thinking, but will probably not regard it as an authoritative source on Biblical interpretation.
It was a informative book, but take note of the problems listed here as well as those highlighted by many reviewers (see below).
Smith also wrote a book with the title "How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical Committed to a Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps".
- Blog on Bible Interpretation
- Smith, C: The Bible made impossible
- Another blog on Bible interpretation
- Review by Mark Einkauf
- All Reviews on Amazon.com
- Leithart's Review (Very useful)
- Smith's answer to Leithart
- Extensive Review by Mark
- Video interview with Christian Smith
- Kevin De Young's review and a follow-up
- Another good review