I recently started reading Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Due to heavy reading and writing demands this semester, I won't be able to finish the book anytime soon. However, I still want to occasionally share interesting quotes and ideas from the book as I steal time to read it. Besides, Scot McKnight posted at length about the book, and now Roger Olson is discussing it (Here is Olson's first installment and addendum, which I recommend as he touches on concerns I've had so far).
First, I had to double-check that this Christian Smith is the same person--a sociologist--who wrote one of the books I feel like I constantly refer to, Divided by Faith. Turns out, he is, and it seems he brings a fresh, outsider-looking-in mindset to this debate. Smith was actually an evangelical for years and has now converted to Catholicism, although he still considers himself an evangelical. His position as a sociologist, as opposed to a Biblical scholar or theologian, brings a fresh perspective and interesting grasp on biblicism.
What is biblicism? It's a theory that puts emphasis on the Bible's exclusive authority, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. I copied the ten specific factors of biblicism from McKnight's blog, which Smith sets out in the book:
1. Divine Writing: the Bible is identical to God’s own words.
2. Total representation: it is what God wants us to know, all God wants us to know (he quotes JI Packer here) in communicating the divine will to us.
3. Complete coverage: everything relevant to the Christian life is in the Bible.
4. Democratic perspicuity: reasonable humans can read the Bible in his or her language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. Commonsense hermeneutic: again, plain meaning; just read it.
6. Solo [not sola] Scripture: we can read the Bible without the aid of creeds or confessions or historical church traditions.
7. Internal harmony: all passages on a given theme mesh together.
8. Universal applicability: the Bible is universally valid for all Christians, wherever and whenever.
9. Inductive method: sit down, read it, and put it together.
10. Handbook model: the Bible is handbook or textbook for the Christian life.
Smith's main contention is that the "biblicism that characterizes the thinking and practice of much of American evangelicalism is not so much "wrong" as it is impossible, even taken on its own terms. It simply does not work as proposed and cannot function in a coherent way." (The Kindle version isn't showing page numbers for some reason, but I will try to update this with page numbers somehow - sorry!) Its adherents have to resort to textual selectivity, denial, and contortion that violate biblicism's own intentions. Biblicists engage in these practices in an unintentional, taken-for-granted way.
This practice has a lot to do with the "sociological process of maintaining safe identity boundaries and avoiding truly challenging intellectual arguments" than actually building a fervent faith and trust in God. Sounds similiar to the notion of submission as Master Signifier, doesn't it?
Biblicism creates problems for itself. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy warns that the Bible's authority "is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church." This sounds almost threatening to me. Smith writes that the very same Bible that many insist is harmonious causes intelligent, sincere people to come up with many different interpretations. This is called "pervasive interpretive pluralism." So, "the actual functional outcome of the biblicist view of scripture belies biblicism's theoretical claims about the Bible." Smith wants to address this flaw, in the interests of intellectual honesty and theological integrity, as we cannot ignore this disconnect.
One of the concerns that Olson brings up in his first post on the book is whether Smith has created a straw man, and is unfairly mixing together scholarly evangelical biblicism with folk religious biblicism. However, Smith notes: "Biblicist leaders and scholars at reputable Christian denominations, seminaries, colleges, and parachurch ministries may dismiss or disdain the popular biblicism embodied in folk Christiantiy, but popular biblicist kitsch is the fruit of the larger biblicist culture that at least some of those leaders and scholars sustain." There is still a shared, broad, cultural tradition of this type of epistemology, and the Bible's authority isn't a conversation ender, but rather a conversation starter.
Needless to say, I look forward to continuing The Bible Made Impossible to see what kinds of conversations we can start...