The Bible Made Impossible

I should have liked Christian Smith’s latest commentary on evangelical Christians and Scripture, but I didn’t; The Bible Made Impossible never really hit an interesting target even though Smith shoots a scatter gun at what he calls “biblicism.” What is biblicism? Smith lists ten things that function as biblicist beliefs:

1. The words of the Bible are identical with God’s words written inerrantly in human language.
2. The Bible represents the totality of God’s will for humanity.
3. The divine will for all issues relevant to Christian life are contained in the Bible.
4. Any reasonable person can correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. The way to understand the Bible is to look at the obvious, literal sense.
6. The Bible can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, or historic church traditions.
7. The Bible possesses internal harmony and consistency.
8. The Bible is universally applicable for all Christians.
9. All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned through inductive Bible study.
10. The Bible is a kind of handbook or textbook for Christian faith and practice.

These are not meant to be taken as necessary and sufficient conditions for biblicism; rather, they constitute a cluster of popular beliefs that are held by the Southern Baptist Convention, the Evangelical Free Church, and the Presbyterian Church of America. They can also be found in the doctrinal statements of Wheaton, Moody, Gordon-Conwell, Covenant, Westminster, Dallas, Talbot, Concordia, and Asbury. The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy is a paradigm example biblicist commitment.

What disposed me to like Smith’s book is that he rightly lampoons instances of biblicist excess in books with titles like Queen Esther’s Secrete of Womanhood: A Biblical Rite of Passage for your Daughter; The Biblical Guide to Alternative Medicine; The Bible Cure for Cancer; Gardening with Biblical Plants; or Biblical Strategies to Financial Freedom. Other examples could be multiplied, but the point is clear: the Bible was not written to satisfy anyone’s curiosity about these topics. These are clear examples of the “handbook” model of Scripture, a view that defectively presumes that the Bible has a definitive answer to whatever question we bring to the text. What Smith has to say about this faulty view of Scripture is timely and appropriate, “Go find any one of the user’s manuals or handbooks in your garage or closet and think for a moment about whether even a divinely inspired manual for living would really amount to gospel-like news. It wouldn’t.”

So why didn’t I like it? There are three reasons. First, his call for a return to a Christocentric hermeneutic (reading the Bible with Jesus in view) is something that is already widely practiced within the institutions that Smith criticizes. Second, the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism, as he presents it, is not as problematic as Smith makes it out to be, and the problem that it does present, is left unexplained. Third, Smith’s call for evangelical Bible scholars to abandon classical foundationalism for critical realism isn’t all that applicable. I’ll explain these in more detail in that order.

First, if there is anything that disparate segments of evangelicalism agree on, it is placing the Jesus and the gospel at the center of their interpretive frameworks. The third article of the 1982 Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics says,

WE AFFIRM that the Person and work of Jesus Christ are the central focus of the entire Bible.

WE DENY that any method of interpretation which rejects or obscures the Christ-centeredness of Scripture is correct.

Yet this strong statement of Christocentrocism is not something we should expect to see in any of the Chicago statements if Smith is correct, because in his view, the Chicago documents are the apogee of biblicist reasoning. Furthermore, if one looks at the trends of evangelicals fairly, one will find that everyone from left-leaning “emergents” to conservative Calvinists gravitate towards reading Scripture with things like the gospel or the kingdom of God in view. Of course, what they disagree on, is the content of these things.

This brings us to the second, and most interesting argument Smith makes: the argument from what he calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” What he means by this is that, “The very same Bible–which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious–gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest.” Think of all the different “counterpoints” or “four-views” books out there; if the Bible really was a clear and inerrant authority, wouldn’t we be able to determine what it says? If not, then it seems to be no better than a map that would lead competent map-readers to different locations after they tried to follow it. The topics discussed in the “multiple views” books are enough to show that highly trained scholars who have a high view of Scripture do not agree on what seems to be central doctrines. Topics like the atonement, justification, and baptism are just a few. Ethical concerns are just as variegated: divorce, women’s roles, and the morality of warfare are subject to wide interpretations with far-reaching consequences.

What are we to make of this? It’s hard to know, because Smith blames this problem on biblicism,, and if we just stopped being biblicists, it would go away. Yet the problem is not biblicism per se; it is the authority of Scripture itself! Hence, his call to abandon biblicism does nothing to save the authority of Scripture, something to which he is very interested in maintaining.

Nonetheless, I think there is something in Smith’s analysis that is too quick. The underlying assumption seems to be that pervasive interpretive pluralism is equivalent with peer disagreement. With this in mind, the argument can be read like this: (1) if there is peer disagreement among biblicists, then biblicism undermines the authority of the Bible; (2) there is peer disagreement among biblicists; (3) therefore, biblicism undermines the authority of the Bible (perhaps Smith might quibble with the way these are stated, and would prefer that we say that “biblicism makes the Bible impossible” though I am not sure why this would matter). In any event, there is no good reason to think that premise (2) is true, and biblicicts are not the sort of people who accept what usually passes for ‘peer disagreement’ so easily.

What do I mean by ‘peer disagreement?’ A rough way to summarize it would be to say, that in light of it, one would be justified in saying, “I have my belief, you have yours, and we are both justified and our epistemic situations are comparable.” Hence, one might think that peer disagreement implies that, “It is possible for a person to be justified in believing p while also being justified in believing that other people are justified in believing ~p” (Feldman, 2003:184). But one would be wrong. This is because it is possible for a modern scholar to be justified in believing heliocentrism while also being justified in believing that a pre-modern scholar is justified in believing geocentrism. Given the best available information at the time, the pre-modern scholar was justified in holding his false belief, and this is something that the modern scholar is justified in believing about the pre-modern scholar! The reason why this is not peer disagreement is because there is an obvious asymmetrical relationship between the modern and pre-modern scholar: the modern knows more than the pre-modern about the nature of the solar system.

Thus, peer-disagreement occurs only if a symmetrical relationship obtains between the parties of disagreement. In this view, “It is possible for a person to be justified in believing p, and justified in believing that other people are justified in believing ~p, and not have any reason to believe that this or her own reasons (or methods) are superior to those of the other people” (Feldman, 2003:185. Emphasis added). It is important to remember that this is not the only way to define disagreement among peers. But it is this sort of definition that is sufficient to undermine the authority of Scripture if it is what biblicists truly believe about their disagreements.

But this is not what biblicists believe. In fact, biblicists are hesitant to believe that the following three propositions are compatible: (1) I have good reasons for my beliefs; (2) you have good reasons for your competing belief; and (3) I am right and you are wrong. This is often true of the scholars Smith thinks are biblicists: Wayne Grudem, G.K. Beale, and Vern Poythress. In cases when these scholars come to hold these three propositions together, they are quick to hold that their epistemic relationship with their interlocutors is an asymmetrical one: they believe they have access to better knowledge than their opponents. But in this way, they are not unlike the scholars Smith holds up as exemplary non-biblicists: Peter Enns, Kenton Sparks, and John Goldingay. Therefore, as formulated above, the argument from peer-disagreement fails.

Nonetheless, it is possible that biblicism is true and the interpretive methods of biblicists themselves are hopelessly compromised. Try as they might, they cannot exclude their personal or political concerns from the process of exegesis; in essence, they read their agendas on to the text despite their best efforts to the contrary. While the Bible remains our authority, our confidence in getting at the truth it reveals is functionally undermined. Affirming the existence of objective, inerrant truth revealed only in Scripture is of no use for those who have no access to it. This, then, is the real problem of which pervasive interpretive pluralism is the evidence.

How could it be solved? Smith’s call for the abandonment of classical foundationalism and the embrace of critical realism is meant to right the ship. The story has been told many times. Starting with Old Princeton, modern evangelicals drunk deeply from Enlightenment rationalism in search of absolute certainty, which they tried to derive from the promise of Scottish commonsense realism. Like Descarte, they were committed to an epistemological program that would base Christian belief on a solid foundation of indubitable beliefs. The doctrine of revelation provided this in an inspired Bible, and the doctrine of inerrancy was formulated so as to ensure the proper outcomes of evangelical theology. Of course, this has been an abject failure, and we ought to return to the more modest proposal of critical realism. Smith describes it well,

Critical realism brings to the table a number of crucial metatheoretical understandings about reality and knowledge that tend to foster openness and humility in inquiry, criteria for sorting through more and less compelling interpretations of evidence, and truly personal (not merely abstract cognitive) involvement in the process of pursuing truth without falling into individualistic subjectivism.

If only evangelicals would embrace this view, the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism would no longer be a problem.

My response: this is a good story, but it’s not true. While it is true that Old Princeton scholars like Charles Hodge made use of the metaphor that the Bible was a ‘storehouse of facts’ of which the theologian, like a scientist, tried to explain, it hardly follows that they were doing the same sort of thing Descartes was doing. Nor do I know of any classical foundationalist among the number of Christian philosophers or Bible scholars; rather, the best representatives of foundationalism insist on a modest version that postulates basic beliefs that are fully defeasible (see Moreland and DeWeese, 2004 for an example). In this sort of approach, the inerrancy of Scripture is not presumed, but understood conditionally: if the Bible is inerrant, then it is a source of testimony that can be believed in a properly basic way.

Lastly, the disagreement found in the multiple perspective books need not be taken as problematic. Anyone who takes the time to seriously work through the arguments of the counterpoints books has two options: either judge one (or none) of the views right and the others wrong or suspend (or soften) one’s judgment and wait for better arguments to made in the future. Learning how to do this is to evangelicalism’s benefit, so perhaps interpretive pluralism is a sign of health, not a disease. To be sure, our beliefs about the perspicuity of Scripture need some revision if they are the kind that assume that Scripture is perfectly clear on every topic it touches on. But I’m not sure how pervasive this belief is to begin with.

All in all, Smith’s book is a provocative and interesting read as he names names, points out embarrassing curiosities, and writes punchy footnotes. As usual, he exposes some frustrating features of the evangelical landscape, but in the end his positive argument doesn’t amount to much.