Impossible Possibilities: On Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible

The most talked-about book of 2011 among evangelicals ought not to be Rob Bell’s Love Wins, but rather Christian Smith’s provocative and insightful attack on biblicism, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. I have a more formal, academic response to this book that I hope to write and publish in the near future. In the meantime, I want to take this opportunity to respond to Robert Gundry’s review in Books and Culture, and through that lens, to address some of the pros and cons of Smith’s book.

First, a few brief words about Smith’s thesis. The book is divided into two main parts: the first is his diagnosis, the second is the prescription. Smith argues that the position of biblicism is an impossible reading of scripture. By “biblicism,” he means “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability” (viii). He elsewhere identifies a “constellation” of ten assumptions or beliefs that constitute biblicism (4-5):
  1. Divine Writing: the Bible is inerrantly identical with God’s own words;
  2. Total Representation: the Bible communicates the totality of what God has to say;
  3. Complete Coverage: all issues are contained in the Bible;
  4. Democratic Perspicuity: any rational person can correctly understand the text;
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: the meaning is available through a plain, literal, face-value reading;
  6. Solo Scriptura (vs. sola scriptura): theology can be built directly out of the biblical text with no extrabiblical texts or frameworks;
  7. Internal Harmony: each texts is internally consistent with every other text;
  8. Universal Applicability: the teachings contained in the Bible are universally valid;
  9. Inductive Method: all Christian teachings can be learned by deriving them directly from the text taken in isolation; and
  10. Handbook Model: the Bible functions as a handbook for every aspect of Christian life.
Smith’s central claim is that this biblicist program is impossible to fulfill, and he demonstrates it through what he calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” The argument goes something like this:
  1. biblicism requires that the Bible’s teachings constitute a unified, coherent worldview for the entirety of Christian faith and practice (#2, 3, 7, 8, 10);
  2. biblicism further requires that these teachings are accessible to any rational person, apart from faith and apart from any religious tradition, who reads the text with care (#4, 5, 9);
  3. ergo, biblicism states that everyone ought to be in agreement about what the Bible teaches.
While (3) is obviously false, Smith piles on the examples of pervasive pluralism ad nauseam. He supplements his case with numerous additional problems, including the arbitrary ways biblicists relativize certain passages, the ineluctable need for extrabiblical concepts, and the way biblicist practice deviates from biblicist theory. The conclusion is clear: biblicism, as defined by Smith, is theological nonsense. It has no ground in scripture itself and is thoroughly self-defeating.

In the second part of the book, Smith presents his response to the problem. He doesn’t give a solution—though it occasionally reads like one—so much as present possible aspects of or avenues toward a more responsible evangelical hermeneutic. The primary suggestion is to adopt Barth’s christocentric hermeneutic, that is, to make the gospel kerygma of our reconciliation in Christ the lens by which we understand God’s word for us. Smith even affirms the need for a “canon within the canon” (116), to which I can only say: yes and amen! He even has a section titled: “Learning from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics” (121-26). Other suggestions include, for example, accepting ambiguities in scripture, refusing the temptation to harmonize, distinguishing dogma from doctrine from opinion, rejecting epistemological foundationalism, embracing elements of speech-act theory, and broadening the notion of biblical authority. All of these are good suggestions, though they fall short, in my opinion, of the kind of robust theological hermeneutic that evangelicals need.

Before turning to my own critiques, let’s take a look at Robert Gundry’s huffy response in Books and Culture, published under the title, “Smithereens!” To call this a review is being a bit generous. It has no intentions of being an honest analysis of Smith’s argument. Gundry opens by saying the book will “sizzle before it fizzles,” and then he goes on to talk about why it should fizzle. The reader of this review who hasn’t actually read the book might be misled into thinking that Gundry actually surveys Smith’s argument fairly, but this is false impression. Gundry spends all of three paragraphs describing Smith’s diagnosis of the biblicist dilemma, while spending the next 15+ paragraphs criticizing his “solution” to the problem. That’s not to say a three-paragraph summary isn’t potentially valid; Smith’s criticism of biblicism is indeed very simple. But it gives the impression that the point of the book is to give a systematic answer to biblicism, when this is most definitely not the case, as the book states explicitly. As Smith put it in his response to Peter Leithart, “In short, the first half of my book needs to be addressed and answered directly for its main critical argument. The second, constructive half of the book might be temporarily ignored, as far as I’m concerned.” Gundry asks: “How then does Smith propose to solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism?” But this completely overlooks Smith’s qualification at the start of the second half: “The ideas in the following pages do not offer a fixed package of solutions to the problems raised in previous chapters” (97). Suffice it to say that Gundry’s piece is an untrustworthy guide to the book purportedly under review. It is a very smug essay, full of the self-congratulatory “gotcha” moments that one finds in the writings of reasonably intelligent people who dismiss works critical of their views by distracting their readers from a book’s forceful and valid insights. Readers are advised to judge Smith’s work for themselves.

Where Gundry is wrong, he is dead wrong. He seems to endorse deriving universal ethical laws from the Bible. He finds it suspicious that “Smith repeatedly cites the fate of the unevangelized as an open question and refers again and again to the gospel of God’s reconciling the world to himself through Christ but says nary a word about divine judgment and the lostness of unbelievers despite the apostle Paul's declaring that for their salvation people have to believe in Christ.” Why do conservatives persist in making mercy and judgment antitheses in God, as if God is bound to the kind of antinomies that govern creaturely life? Not surprisingly, he is appalled to hear Smith question the dogmatic status of the “penal satisfaction” theory of atonement: “Sorry, but victory without the penal is pyrrhic.” But this only confirms Smith’s point, that evangelicals have illegitimately elevated what are doctrines at best into infallible dogmas. Gundry is also wrong to side with Van Til against Barth, but that goes without saying.

One of the snarkier moments occurs when Gundry claims to show how Smith employs in his own book the very Scottish commonsense realism and Baconian inductivism that the latter criticizes. “Welcome to Scottish commonsense realism and Baconian inductivism redux,” Gundry writes. “Thanks to Smith they've made a comeback.” This is one of the worst “gotcha” moments in the review, since it is both factually wrong and misses the point. First, to demonstrate that Smith is employing these very methods, Gundry would have to show that his approach actually claims to achieve a purely objective (non-subjective) truth about the world. But Smith nowhere claims such a thing. Gundry equates these methods with an extremely broad scientific method of examining data. If Gundry were correct, then every scientific study would have to be committed to a Baconian philosophical framework, which is of course ridiculous. Not only is Gundry’s attempt at a comeback factually wrong, it is also useless. Simply showing how these methods might be found in the book says nothing about the validity or invalidity of these methods for biblical interpretation. Gundry admits as much when he adds, “To say so is neither to deny nor to affirm his thesis.” Okay, so what’s the point? There is only one point: to distract from the real argument of the book with a banal observation meant to impress the Books and Culture reader (Gundry must assume such readers are not very intelligent), so that he or she forgets Smith was trying to make a serious observation.

But even broken clocks are right twice a day. Some of Gundry’s blows actually hit their mark, and it would be unfair not to point out where he’s right. But let’s be clear: Gundry provides nothing to undermine Smith’s critique of biblicism in the first half of the book. The review’s criticisms all pertain to the “solution” that Gundry thinks Smith is trying to propose. On that, Gundry is quite right to question whether a “christocentric hermeneutic” would really curtail pervasive interpretive pluralism. “You also have to ask whether a christological reading doesn't produce its own such pluralism,” he says. Gundry essentially makes this one point again and again in different ways. The ancient creeds “haven’t put a stop to pluralism outside biblicist circles any more than inside them. Nor has a strong teaching office. Not even pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Magisterium have stopped it among theologians, clergy, and lay people of that communion, not to detail disagreements among Roman Catholics on the Magisterium itself.” And later, he responds to Smith’s point about Christ being present outside of scripture by asking, “are these extrabiblical presences of Christ any less subject to pervasive interpretive pluralism than is biblicism?” All of this is quite true, and I’ll come back to it later.

Gundry is also entirely correct to question Smith’s claim that his recently becoming Roman Catholic is “only partly related to the issues raised here” (xiii). While it is true that the critique and the constructive suggestions are both valid for evangelical Protestants, it is certainly suspect when a book like this appears the same year that Smith publishes another book with the title, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011). It’s hard to read The Bible Made Impossible and not feel like it is a covert argument for why evangelicals should become Catholic. For instance, at one point Smith says that American evangelicals need to “spend the time needed to think matters through carefully, creatively, and in interaction with the larger, longer Christian tradition. . . . The last thing American evangelicalism needs is more autonomously impulsive reformist action and more organizational and identity fragmentation” (96)! Combine this with his concluding remark about the need for “a stronger hermeneutical lens and ecclesial teaching office” (177; emphasis added), and you have the basic building blocks for a conversion to “evangelical Catholicism.”

As true as these criticisms are, they are not by any means the most important points to raise in objection to Smith’s book. First, Smith’s diagnosis, while generally on target, fails to zero in on the real source of the biblicist dilemma. He admits that not everything on the long list of biblicist characteristics falls under his critique. And he often appears to confuse issues that need to be differentiated more sharply, giving the impression that kitschy books like Gardening with Biblical Plants can be placed alongside the “Three/Four/Five Views on X” that Smith rightly sees as more problematic for biblicism. Second, the constructive suggestions that he provides, while helpful, do not nearly go far enough. He acknowledges this, but that’s not sufficient. We need something more robust. But it’s more serious than that. Not only do they stop short; they also go in the wrong direction. Let me explain.

Both Smith and Gundry, if I’ve understand them correctly, are opposed to pervasive interpretive pluralism (hereafter PIP). Though I must admit that it’s not entirely clear for either one. Certainly Gundry thinks that Smith is against PIP, and he seems to share Smith’s concern about this problem. But is Smith opposed to it himself? Throughout the book he refers to PIP as a problem for biblicism. To use analytic terminology, PIP is a defeater for biblicism. The question is whether PIP is a problem as such for Smith. I agree with Gundry that this is the general impression from the book, and it seems to be confirmed by the conclusion, where Smith says that “biblicism collapse[s] under the weight of the pervasive interpretive pluralism that biblicism itself generates” (173; emphasis added). This is one of the many slips in the book. It is a factually erroneous statement. If biblicism generates PIP, then it would have to be as early as the biblical text itself—more than that, as early as human civilization! If anything, biblicism is a (failed) response to PIP, not its cause. Gundry goes so far as to suggest that PIP might be caused by too much nonbiblicism in the past—as if everyone would agree with his paleofundamentalism if only ancient Christians had been more biblicist!—but that’s equally as erroneous.

The real issue is the assumption by both that PIP is a problem at all that needs to be “fixed” or curtailed. What is perplexing about Smith’s book is that he fails to draw the logical conclusion that PIP itself needs, in some sense, to be embraced. For surely this is what the book leads the reader to expect at numerous points. For instance, he rightly affirms, over against the pursuit of pure objectivity, the active role of the reading subject in the interpretation of scripture: “How else could humans possibly know truth, other than to involve themselves as personal subjects in the discerning and understanding of it?” (114). He seems to acknowledge in these pages the fact that subjective involvement is a universal feature of interpretation. But if that’s the case, then PIP is simply the natural consequence of allowing everyone to read and interpret scripture—which it is. Consequently, on Smith’s own terms, the only way to combat PIP is to fully submit one’s subjectivity to the normative authority of an ecclesial magisterium, or to keep Bibles out of the hands of the laity. Put simply, if Smith really thinks we must overcome PIP, then his argument necessarily requires that one “become Catholic (as I have done) or Eastern Orthodox.” However, if he’s only concerned about moving past biblicism—and thus embracing PIP within a postfoundationalist christocentric hermeneutic—then many of these problems disappear, including the basis for most of Gundry’s criticisms.

Pervasive interpretive pluralism is not a problem to be fixed; it is a fact to be accepted, even a blessing to be embraced. Smith comes so close to making this very point, but he holds back. He has an entire chapter on the need to accept the Bible as it is, with all its ambiguities and complexities and contradictions. He writes about the need to embrace the subjective nature of all interpretation. It ought to follow that PIP is itself something to affirm as part of the creaturely relation to God. This is what Smith should have argued in his book. Not only that PIP is a defeater for biblicism, but that we need a hermeneutic which embraces the radical multiplicity and heterogeneity of our interpretations.

As helpful and insightful as Smith’s book is, it falls short of what the book could and should have argued. Throughout the book he criticizes the “handbook” attempt to derive universally-applicable ideals and principles from the biblical text that will govern every aspect of our life. And yet there is no corresponding suggestion that our understanding of scripture ought to embrace the plurality of historical contexts in which scripture is read and interpreted. Opposing biblicism is one thing; affirming a radically open hermeneutic that gives a positive place to “pervasive pluralism” is something quite different. The pieces are in place for making this move within Smith’s book. A christocentric “canon with the canon” is indeed the correct starting-point. One only needs to recognize that that which remains “outside” this inner canon are the multiplicity of cultural-historical contexts and conceptual forms. If christocentricity constitutes the “inner” canon, then a kind of pneumatocentricity must constitute the “outer” canon. Put differently, the kerygma of Jesus Christ establishes the unity, while the cross-cultural movement of the Spirit establishes the diversity. Together, we have the theological basis for a hermeneutic that embraces pervasive pluralism without resulting in a vicious relativism.


Matthew Frost said…
Solid analysis of the PIP-Biblicism relationship.

The only way out of Biblicism is Magisterialism? Somehow we always wind up opposing Calov by appealing to an extra-scriptural authority -- because we apparently need one or the other as a hedge against critical scholarship. Interpretive freedom is dangerous because we don't know what it is we believe without totalizing, maximalist authority structures.

I like your "christology < x < pneumatology" approach. For all the complaints I get whenever I propose the Spirit as a normative guide to interpretation, you'd think that the Spirit of the Father and the Son was a completely ambiguous and blandly affirmative being. I think the problem is that we've done christocentrism for so long -- since the Fathers! -- that our pneumatology has atrophied. But my interpretation of that boundary set would be that Christian scriptural interpretation a) cannot say less than we know of God, b) must speak of the whole of what we know of God, and c) must be open to the application of that divine reality in new creaturely situations.
Christian Smith said…
Many thanks from the author. Be sure not to miss my reply to Gundry in the next print issue.
Christian Smith said…
Many thanks from the author. Be sure not to miss my reply to Gundry in the next print issue.
Jeremy Myers said…
This was a great review. I just recently reviewed the book on my own blog:
Chris E W Green said…

As always, good work. Would you agree that some forms of PIP are good (i.e. in service of the Spirit's work in, through, and on the church) and others bad (i.e. not in service of the Spirit)?

If so, isn't there still a need for a "canon" of some kind, a way of guiding discernment on what is and is not in keeping with the Spirit's work? If I remember rightly, Bonhoeffer (no Catholic, he!) says something about the Gospel belonging to the church and the Scripture belonging to the clergy.

Yes, I definitely think some readings are better than others. I didn't have time here to lay out my own hermeneutic, and I want to save that for a future essay or book anyway. But whatever hermeneutic we seek will be one that must embrace some degree of interpretive pluralism. You'll notice I agree with Smith about a "canon within the canon." I also agree with him on making Christ constitutive of this inner canon, though that has to be clarified further. But the enemy is biblicism and bad interpretations, not pluralism as such.