Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Biblicism: What it Is and Why It's a Problem (at least according to Christian Smith)

I'm currently reading a provocative and challenging book by noted sociologist and cultural researcher Christian Smith entitled The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not A Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2011 and 2012).

Although I'm only a few chapters in, the basic thesis of the book is relatively clear: There is "pervasive interpretative pluralism" in authentic and genuine expressions of Christian faith, and biblicism, as a way of reading and interpreting Scripture, fails to adequately acknowledge and address this phenomenon.

In part one ("The Impossibility of Biblicism") comprising the first four chapters of the book, Smith lays out his case and critique. In part two ("Toward a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture") comprising chapters five through seven, Smith proposes a constructive way forward. The book ends with a concluding chapter and a new Afterword by the author.

I'm still only in part one (getting ready to launch into chapter three), but I've been both deeply intrigued and challenged by Smith so far. At times I find myself going, "Yeah! Right on!" and then at others I find myself a bit uncomfortable with what may be some of the potential implications of his argument.

While I'll have to get to part two of the book where Smith proposes a way forward before I'm able to offer any real or informed critique of the book as a whole, writing about it here helps me process things a bit. So please bear with me.

Thus far in my reading, Smith is arguing that by its very nature, and as further evidenced by the reality of thousands of denominations, and a plethora of publications such as the Three, Four, and Five Views books, among other things, Scripture gives rise to multiple interpretations and meanings. Indeed, Smith argues, Scripture is "mulitvocal in its plausible interpretive possibilities: it can and does speak to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things" (47). It's this multivocal element which gives rise to multiple interpretive possibilities.

This, Smith says, is a simple fact -- what he calls the "pervasive problem of interpretive pluralism." Which is just a fancy of way of saying that if 10 or 100 or even 1,000 different people read the exact same biblical text, they may have just as many legitimate angles, insights, interpretations, and applications as to what that text means. If you've heard more than one sermon on the same biblical passage you know this to be true.

For Smith personally this isn't a problem (at least it doesn't seem to be so). But that's where his thesis comes in. Such pervasive interpretive pluralism, Smith argues, IS a problem for adherents of a certain way of reading, interpreting, and understanding the Bible -- a way that Smith (and others) call biblicism.

What is biblicism? Here is how Smith defines it in the opening pages of the book:

"By 'biblicism' I mean a particular theory about and style of using the Bible that is defined by a constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible's nature, purpose, and function. That constellation is represented by ten assumptions or beliefs:

1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God's very own words written inerrantly in human language.

2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God's communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God's true communication.

3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.

4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.

5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.

6. Solo Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church tradition, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built directly out of the Bible from scratch.

7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.

8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God's people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.

9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear 'biblical' truths that it teaches.

The prior nine assumptions and beliefs generate a tenth viewpoint that -- although often not stated in explications of biblicist principles and beliefs by its advocates -- also commonly characterizes the general biblicist outlook, particularly as it is received and practiced in popular circles:

10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together, those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects -- including science, economics, health, politics, and romance. (4-5)

Smith further explains:
"Biblicism is not a comprehensively formalized position explicated in exactly these ten points and subscribed to identically by all adherents ... The point is not that biblicism is a unified doctrine that all of its adherents overtly and uniformly profess. The point, rather, is that this constellation of interrelated assumptions and beliefs informs and animates the outlooks and practices of major sectors of institutional and popular conservative American Protestantism, especially evangelicalism" (5).
Basically, what Smith seems to be arguing is that IF the assertions and assumptions of biblicism were true, it doesn't seem that there would be this pervasive interpretive pluralism.

BUT clearly there is pervasive interpretive pluralism -- even, and perhaps especially, among biblicists themselves. And this is the case even regarding core, essential truths, church practices, and ethics (a point Smith demonstrates at great length and which, fair warning, will likely make uninitiated readers to this type of conversation very, very uncomfortable if not outright confused and maybe even angry!).

THEREFORE, Smith wants to argue, there is clearly a problem with the whole notion and paradigm of biblicism as a way of reading, interpreting, and understanding Scripture (or if we wanted to soften it a bit, at the very least there is a problem with certain assertions, assumptions, and expectations of biblicism). 

Smith concludes his first chapter with a challenging question:
"So the question is this: if the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous [plain to the understanding because of clarity and precision of presentation] precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is that the presumably sincere to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches? I know of no good, honest answer to that question. If the Bible is all that biblicism claims it to be, then Christians -- especially those who share biblicist beliefs -- ought to be able to come to a solid consensus about what it teaches, at least on most matters of importance. But they do not and apparently cannot.

"Quite the contrary, Christians, perhaps especially biblicist Christians, are 'all over the map' on what the Bible teaches about most issues, topics, and questions. In this way the actual functional outcome of the biblicist view of scripture belies biblicism's theoretical claims about the Bible. Something is wrong in the biblicist picture that cannot be ignored." (26)
For what it's worth, Smith isn't the first (by a long shot!) to raise these sorts of questions and level this kind of critique. In a brief historical survey, Smith traces lines of this argument as far back as an 1849 article by Mercersburg Seminary professor John Nevin entitled "The Sect System." Other stalwarts of evangelical scholarship, ranging from the mid-twentieth century to the present day, have also offered critique, or at the very least, acknowledged the legitimacy of the critique and the reality of the "problem."

From my own perspective I think Smith's basic thesis is sound. It's questionable whether or not he overstates the problem (a point perhaps many would quibble with him about). But it does seem that the basic argument he's making is a good one: IF the assertions and assumptions of biblicism are true, then WHY the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism?

To be absolutely clear, Smith's NOT taking issue with the divine inspiration or authority of Scripture. He's NOT attacking the Bible or things that the Bible teaches.

Rather, Smith is challenging a particular way (biblicism) of reading and interpreting the Bible.

It's at the very least perhaps a conversation worth having as many others even within evangelicalism have brought a similar challenge.

Stay tuned for future posts on this topic as I try to process Smith's work and hopefully engage in critical and constructive dialogue with him as we journey forward together in an effort to read Scripture better.


D.C. Cramer said...

I believe when Scot McKnight discussed this section of the book on his blog, some pushed back at Smith's description of biblicism (even with all his qualifications) as something of a straw man. Or, at least, that it's not as widespread as Smith assumes. It seems to describe the outlook of, say, a Wayne Grudem rather than, say, a Greg Boyd, despite the fact that both are "evangelicals." Not sure how or whether this impacts his argument.

Sam Ochstein said...

Dave, thanks for the comment. I missed this discussion on Scot McKnight's blog. I'll have to see if I can find it. Regarding Smith's description of biblicism, it seems to me to comprise the basic assertions and assumptions that many conservative Protestants and evangelicals have about Scripture -- at least ones that I'm aware of through reading and study and have even had personal contact with. They're even (more or less) the assumptions and assertions I've affirmed and been taught to affirm at one time or another. I think I was more wondering whether he may have overstated his case for interpretive pluralism and that there was (is) perhaps more broadly basic agreement than he seems to give credit for. On the other hand, he makes a somewhat compelling case for his argument, so I'm currently just curious to see where it all goes. Hopefully I'll be able to offer more informed critique in future posts.

Dave Russell said...

Knee jerk reaction: Noticed in the ten assumptions he did not include the Holy Spirit guiding the understanding. For me, that is a major flaw in his thesis statement. As in any proof, all major givens most be included. CF John 14:26; John 16:13; and 1John 2:27. Is it okay to question the HS guidance of individuals when the interpretations differ? Will the HS give conflicting understandings?

Sam Ochstein said...

Dave Russell, thanks for commenting and engaging the discussion. You pose some good questions. I'll take a stab at a response.

The Evangelical publisher Zondervan has an interesting series of books called the Counter-point series (they're good--I have a few of them!). They are things like Four views on salvation. Three views on baptism. Four views on the Lord's Supper. Five views on end-times. And so on for a whole host of issues ranging from core theological issues to church governance and polity to ethics, etc. (By the way, the above-mentioned were not necessarily the exact titles, as I'm doing this off the top of my head. But you get the idea). Each of the books has the same basic format.

Let's take Four views on the Lord's Supper as an example. Four different contributors (usually they are scholars, often evangelical scholars, who hold the particular view) will present a biblical case for their particular view, and then the others will respond. In this case of four views on the Lord's Supper, they present the Baptist view (memorial), Reformed view (real presence of Christ), Lutheran (consubstantiation), and the Roman Catholic (transubstantiation). Now, of course, we may think one view better accounts for the biblical evidence than the others -- and so do the contributors, otherwise there wouldn't be such a book! But each is presenting a biblical case. And each case is compelling in its own way.

Can we really say that those who don't hold "our view" (whatever it is) DO NOT have the Holy Spirit working in and through them? That seems to me the implication of the questions you posed.

We could look at a host of issues: Women in ministry, war and nonviolence, church governance and polity, charismatic gifts and their role and place in the believer's life and the life of the church, worship, social justice, and on and on and on. There are various perspectives, positions, and interpretations on all these issues (and more!) from equally committed followers of Jesus, and each perspective and position derives it's view from Scripture.

Again, can we really say that committed Christians whose view is different than "our view" don't have the Holy Spirit guiding them? Further, what exactly is the criteria for knowing which of these multiple and conflicting positions is THE POSITION? It doesn't seem so simple.