Book Review: The Bible Made Impossible

Recently I finished reading The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith.

Content

When approaching the book, it is important to note that Smith is neither an evangelical nor has he been trained as an academic theologian. He is a sociologist and a professor at Notre Dame University; his writing is scholarly and well-informed, but his purpose is writing this book is to critique a certain tendency which he perceives to be a problem amongst evangelicals. This problem is something he calls “biblicism” – which is basically making the Bible the end-all, be-all source of not only theology, but practical living (including things such as diet, finance, etc.).

Smith’s biggest contention is that biblicism leads to “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” which basically means that the Bible can be used to justify several positions which may stand in conflict to one another.

He then asserts that “biblicists” are using the Bible in a way it was never intended to be used, and suggests instead that the Bible should be read through a Christological hermeneutic lens, i.e. that the Bible exists not to be a handbook for everything in life, but for the sole purpose of pointing us to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While the Christological hermeneutic might seem quite obvious, Smith goes on to state that as a result of this Christo-centric view of Scripture, we therefore do not need to consider all parts of Scripture as equally inspired by God, nor applicable to the modern person. Thus, whatever is written in the New Testament, for example, such as household codes and practical rules for life, does not need to be heeded by the modern person in so much as it does not point to Christ and the saving work of God through Him.

Ultimately, Christian Smith’s biggest assertion is that Jesus himself, rather than the Bible, is what should be considered the “rule of faith,” i.e. the measuring rod by which all things are judged. What is important about his point is that he says that texts and words of the Bible itself should be judged by this rule (Jesus Christ himself), and those parts set aside, which do not align with this “rule.”

Finally, Smith closes the book with a lengthy epilogue in which he complains about those who have not agreed with his claims.

Critique

I agree with Christian Smith’s assertion that some people look to the Bible to be something which God never intended it to be (e.g. “The Daniel Diet” or as a guide for investment practices), and I believe he rightly disassembles the views underlying these practices. However, where the Bible does speak to practical issues of life, it would be foolish to write those off as uninspired, or pick-and-choose based on some arbitrary sense of what you perceive to be really about Jesus.

While Smith repeatedly asserts that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a problem, he gives insufficient rationale for why it is a problem. Simply repeating something loudly is not a convincing argument. He fails to explain why it is a problem that the Bible can be interpreted in multiple ways using theological and canonical reasoning.

I would argue that the Bible was inspired by God with a degree of ambiguity on certain topics by design! On the most important topics (primary theological issues), the Bible speaks without ambiguity, but on secondary issues, there is often, what I believe to be an intended ability and possibility for pluralistic interpretations. The purpose of this? As Smith rightly says: the Bible is not intended to be handbook, or a manual for life, as much as something which trains us how to think and act in a dynamic relationship with God. It is designed in such a way that we must continually be reading it and studying it, as well as engaging with others, as to its interpretation and application for one’s contemporary setting and circumstances. This is by no means to say that there is an infinite horizon of possibilities of interpretation; there are certainly boundaries for interpretation which are defined within the Scriptures themselves (canonical reasoning), but within these boundaries, sometimes there can be multiple options for interpretation and application – and I believe this is by design, and is not the problem which Smith claims it is.

See also: Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

The Key Issue

Where I disagree most with Christian Smith is in regard to what constitutes the “rule of faith.” His claim that Jesus is the rule of faith might sound nice at the outset, but it is wrought with difficulties.

First of all, who defines who Jesus is? How do we know who Jesus is, what He is about, or what He thinks or stands for? Those things are passed down for us through tradition, but guess how: through the canon of Scripture! It is through Scripture, which is the recorded, preserved, and affirmed record of apostolic tradition, that we know anything about Jesus.

Furthermore, and very importantly: the Scriptures of the Bible were the “rule of faith” that was used by the church fathers in determining doctrine at the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.

Conclusion

The Bible Made Impossible was a roller-coaster ride. Some of Smith’s points are excellent, and deserve attention by Christians today, whereas some of his other points seemed either half-baked or completely misguided.

I’m glad I read it, but I would only recommend it to those with a keen ability to “spit out the seeds” and think critically and question what might seem at face-value to be a convincing argument.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Bible Made Impossible

  1. “While Smith repeatedly asserts that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a problem, he gives insufficient rationale for why it is a problem. Simply repeating something loudly is not a convincing argument. He fails to explain why it is a problem that the Bible can be interpreted in multiple ways using theological and canonical reasoning.”

    It has been a while since I read the book, but as I recall, Smith does not think this characteristic is a problem in and of itself. He thinks it is only a problem for those who claim there is only one clear meaning for a given text, aka “biblicists”.

    1. One of his big contentions is that “biblicists” have no rudder to determine which of the possible interpretations is the correct one (as opposed to the Magisterium). I don’t think this is exactly true, as there are “guardrails” given by tradition of interpretation, community of faith, and theological reasoning. But I agree with him that those who claim there can only be one possible correct interpretation are misguided. I do think that his approach of saying the Jesus Christ himself is the rule of faith is open to infinite subjectivity – which is ironically not dissimilar to the biblicist practices of which he is critical.

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