Saturday, February 11, 2012

"The Bible Made Impossible" Book Review

Christian Smith, a sociologist, has been long concerned with matters of faith writing really good books such as Soul Searching. Now Smith has turned his attention to what we mean when we talk about Sola Scriptura and issues of faith. Interestingly, this book coincides with Smith's own shift from Protestantism to Catholicism.

Smith sets out to prove one central point: that biblicism (which he defines as "a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal meaning [p. viii].") is untenable. The main argument he uses against biblicism is that pervasive interpretative pluralism (PIP for short) exists and undermines the theory that the Bible is clear, self-sufficient, self-evident and has universal meaning."

Smith points out that "in a crucial sense it simply does not matter whether the Bible is everything that biblicists claim theoretically concerning its authority, infallibility, inner consistency, perspicuity and so on, since in actual functioning the Bible produces a pluralism of interpretations [17]."  In Smith's opinion, "...increasingly insistent declarations of biblicist beliefs about the inerrancy, reliability, harmony, and perspicuity of the Bible actually address the fact and problem of pervasive interpretative pluralism concerning scripture, which is a major problem [17]."

Smith sees that biblicists might respond to his charge in six ways. First, some might argue that truly sincere and honest students of God's Word can come to a single truth of Scripture but often don't. Second, they might argue that the theory of biblicism really only applies to the original autographs of scripture. Third, biblicists may state that because of sin, no interpreter can fully realize what the Bible teaches but only get glimpses of each truth. Fourth, some biblicists might say that only the elect or chosen few can truly interpret the Bible correctly and God has predestined others to not interpret it rightly. Fifth, some might say that the Bible is so vast and complex that all views are actually contained in the Bible--even if they seem contradictory. Sixth and finally, some might say that God has purposely made the Bible ambiguous to cause division in order that a greater good might come about [38-39].

Interestingly, I have heard almost all of these arguments used before. Far before this book was ever written, during a discussion with a Calvinist friend of mine (with whom I disagreed), I asked him simply, "Did God predestine me not to believe the way you do?" Ironically (and unwittingly), I was striking at the very heart of what Christian Smith has stated so clearly in this book.

He addresses each of those responses by biblicist clearly and concisely and shows each one as inadequate. In fact, the first four chapters of the book take aim and literally decimate Biblicism (as Smith understands it). Here is my confession: this section of his book was devastating. It was both realistic and potent. Smith did a great job with the first four chapters…too good, almost.

When someone does such a thorough job tearing down an idea that has long been held, there really are two possibilities. One, there is a genuine flaw in the idea or two, the argument the person is fighting against is a straw-man that no one really believes.

Several reviewers believe that what Smith labels as Biblicism, only the most fundamentalist of Christians hold to. “Sure, Smith is right to an extent—but no one really holds to what he tears down.” However, I find myself in the first camp. You see, I know that despite what we evangelicals claim, we really do hold to such views of Scripture. You can see it in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message where Baptists claim that the Bible is a “handbook” for life. We claim it is clear. We claim that the Bible can be understood by all without too many problems. We teach hermeneutic classes so that people can learn how to study the Bible and come to “correct interpretations.”

This isn’t to say that correct interpretations don’t exist. Smith believes they do (and so do I). He is no postmodernist that denies absolute truth. But he does encourage realism when studying the text. In the second half of his book, Smith turns his attention to how we ought to read Scripture.

It is here that Smith’s training as a sociologist and not as a theologian becomes clear. Part II is yawn inducing. Why? Because if you have been in on the conversation about how to interpret the Bible for any length of time in evangelicalism, you know where Smith is going. We need to interpret the Bible through the lens of Christ. All Scripture points to Christ. If each of our lenses is flawed, Smith argues we might as well adopt the Jesus lens.

None of this is revolutionary. Goldsworthy has been saying this for years. All that Smith is proposing is that this is the best way to interpret the Bible to minimize errors. Further, he says church history and creeds are important dialogue partners (which most Evangelicals would agree with). The only real difference is that I think Smith would say that they are equally important dialogue partners where most Evangelicals say that the Bible is the primary partner in the conversation. Part II isn’t bad though—just not new.

I personally found Smith’s book outstanding. It completely disrupted my paradigm and put into words what I have been trying to articulate but couldn’t. Buy the book. It is not an attack on inerrancy (he argues that it is largely irrelevant) or the Bible’s authority. Rather, it is a challenge to interpretative communities. It is a challenge for us to think afresh what the Bible really is. Smith issues this challenge with style.


  1. I read through this a couple of times and I am still not sure what the book is suggesting or where you are headed. Perhaps that is the intent, be vague so the rest of us will want to read the book :-) You concluded:
    "...Smith’s book...completely disrupted my paradigm and put into words what I have been trying to articulate but couldn’t. Buy the book. It is not an attack on inerrancy (he argues that it is largely irrelevant) or the Bible’s authority. Rather, it is a challenge to interpretative communities. It is a challenge for us to think afresh what the Bible really is."
    (1) what is it you have been trying to say about the Bible and authority etc.?
    (2) What is the Bible, really?

  2. Smith would say that the Bible is authoritative. However, he would deny sola scriptura. Much like you.

    What is the Bible? I think Smith would argue that it is a written record of God's dealings with man.