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.

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

white ballpoint pen on book pages

In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew explains how different aspects of Jesus’ life fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. However, upon examinations, some of these prophecies bring up interesting questions.

Yesterday I addressed one such question: Is There a Prophecy that Says that Jesus Would Come from Nazareth? – based on Matthew’s claim in 2:23 that Jesus was raised in Nazareth in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets.

The Issues: Authorial Intent and Multiple Meanings

Another verse in Matthew chapter 2 brings up a different issue: In Matthew 2:13-15, Matthew describes the flight to Egypt, when Jesus and his family fled to Egypt for several years because Herod wanted to kill Jesus. (See also: Advent Meditations: Jesus Was a Refugee) In Matthew 2:15, Matthew says that when Jesus returned from Egypt, it was a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Here’s why this is interesting: When Hosea wrote these words, he was speaking of Israel as God’s “son” whom he brought out of Egypt in the Exodus. Hosea’s intention was not to speak of the Messiah. However, what Matthew is saying, assumedly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is that even though Hosea’s intent was merely to refer to Israel, he was also writing (by the inspiration of the Spirit) about the Son of God, i.e. the Messiah, whom we now know to be Jesus of Nazareth – even though he did not realize it at the time.

Furthermore, this means that there are two meanings and interpretations of this passage which are both correct: historically it speaks about God bringing Israel out of Egypt, and prophetically it foretells that the Messiah would sojourn in Egypt for a time.

Polysemy and Multivalence

There are several Old Testament prophecies which are used in the Old Testament in this way: while they have a historical meaning, which corresponds to the authorial intent of the original writer, they also have a prophetic meaning, which the author was unaware of, which found (or still will find) its fulfillment in the future.

For example, several passages in the prophetic books warn of an exile which is to come, but then conclude with a promise of the regathering of the people of both Israel and Judah to the land, as well as a time of peace and prosperity to follow. The return of the people to the land was fulfilled in the time following the Babylonian exile. It could also be said that this was fulfilled again through the Zionist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, both of these were only partial fulfillments, since the ultimate fulfillment of promised kingdom of peace, justice, and righteousness will only see its complete fulfillment after the return of Jesus.

What this means is that many biblical texts are polysemic and multivalent. 

  • Polysemic: “multiple meanings”
  • Multivalence: “many appeals or values”

Scholars of textual hermeneutics, like Paul Ricoeur and Hans G. Gadamer explain the polysemy of biblical texts by saying that, unlike scientific formulas and computer codes, the texts of Scripture sometimes contain “surpluses of meaning.” [1]

This is why some texts in the Bible are not entirely controlled in their interpretation by their original human writers (i.e. authorial intent). The Hosea passage cited in Matthew 2 is a perfect example of this. What is notable here is that the different meanings do not contradict each other.

John Goldingay explains, “An element of polyvalence or irreducible ambiguity characterizes parts of scripture.” [2]

Thus, Scripture cannot be used to say anything we want it to, but we would be contradicting Scripture itself to claim that there can only be one correct interpretation of every passage in Scripture. What is important is that the different interpretations do not have contradictory meanings.

Above all, this should leave us in awe of the rich complexity and beauty of the Word of God, and it should leave us all the more convinced of its divine inspiration.

Multivalence and Multivocality

Multivalence means different appeals or values, and Multivocality means that Scripture speaks to different listeners in different voices that say different (but, again, not conflicting) things.

Christian Smith illustrates this by compiling a list of different lessons and applications which can be faithfully gleaned from Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4:

  • Christians would do well to “get out of their comfort zones” in order to preach the gospel to those who are culturally different or who live in foreign lands, but are “ripe for the harvest”
  • A person who drinks of “the living water” that Jesus offers will never again “thirst” for the unsatisfying “waters” of “the world”
  • Jesus knows every detail about our personal lives, and loves us enough to confront us with hard questions in order to lead us to repentance
  • Jesus knows everything we have ever done, and still loves us and stands ready to forgive us
  • An effective strategy for evangelism is to build relationships, ask questions, and point people to Jesus
  • Those who have truly encountered Jesus and repented will naturally respond by telling others, i.e. evangelizing
  • The fact that Jesus was physically tired shows that he was fully human
  • The fact that the woman left her water jar to go and tell people in town about Jesus models the kind of priorities we ought to have in regard to possessions and the mission of God
  • By speaking to this Samaritan woman, Jesus reveals that he has come as the Savior of people from all the nations
  • Jesus’ reply to his disciples about hunger and food shows us the proper outlook on doing God’s will and God’s work [3]

Again, this is not to say that we can make Scripture say whatever we want; we certainly cannot. Yet any of these above messages – and more – would be faithful interpretations and applications of this text.

Considering Inspirational Intent

We must not only consider authorial intent, we must also consider the intent of the inspirer: God. To do this, we consider canonical, or biblical theology: i.e. the message and narrative of the Bible as a whole.

This is what Matthew is doing  in several instances where he re-interprets Old Testament passages and applies them to Jesus; he is considering the grand narrative and message of the Bible as a whole, as a story which – in all of its “sub-stories” – is about Jesus. He applies a Christo-centric hermeneutic, in other words; one that he likely learned from Jesus himself after the resurrection when Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

May God help us to understand, interpret, and apply His Word faithfully and accurately – according to His intent!

Resources for Families: Responding to Reader Questions

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received a few questions about resources for families:

Question 1: In a recent Calvary Live you mentioned a ‘kids’ Bible you read to your kids. Can you tell me the name and publisher of that Bible?

The name of that Children’s Bible is The Jesus Storybook Bibleand it is published by Zonderkidz, which is the children’s branch of Zondervan.

I love this Bible because, to put it in semi-technical terms, it uses a Christo-centric hermeneutic and a Biblical theological approach to teaching kids the stories of the Bible, which is so important. Almost every children’s Bible I have come across presents a moralistic message to children, rather than one which helps them to see Christ in all of Scripture, and that all of the Bible points to Him and is fulfilled in Him.

On a similar note, I have found that many Children’s Ministry curricula are moralistic in nature, and can err on the side of telling Bible stories, but not explaining how those stories point to Jesus or fit into the narrative of the Bible which culminates in Jesus’ saving actions on our behalf. However, there are some good ones out there; at White Fields we use The Gospel Project, and we love how well it points our kids to the gospel every week and helps them learn to read the Bible through a christological lens.

This children’s Bible is a breath of fresh air, and I have often found myself choking up as I read it to my children, because the message of the gospel and the brilliance of God’s love and grace comes through so clearly.

Personally, I think every adult should read this too. It is a wonderful introduction to Christ-centered hermeneutics and biblical theology, which everyone, not just children would benefit from.

Question 2: I am the leader of a small group in my church. We want to study parenting but are having a difficult time finding materials. I was hoping you might be able to suggest some?

My recommendation would be Family Life’s Art of Parenting course.

I haven’t used this material yet myself, but we are considering hosting a class at our church based on it, and I trust the publisher. They have both group materials and a self-service online course.

Thanks for your questions! Keep them coming, and I hope these resources help.