Reflections within this blog are taken from The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith.
The Ping-Pong Match
The present Evangelical church finds itself in a ping-pong match between two seemingly conflicting points of view. Even worse, both opposing ends of this apparent spectrum are capped with Christian “dirty words”: fundamentalism and pluralism. To be fundamentalist in the modern Evangelical church, for the most part, turns off most Christians. To be fundamentalist gives the impression that one is close-minded, judgemental, out of touch, sexist, homophobic, and all around condemning. On the other hand, to be pluralistic is to be “worldly,” swayed by emotions rather than God’s Word, embracing a universalist approach to dissenting religions, and able to readily abandon a Christian lifestyle for a contemporary and socially acceptable way of life. Evangelical Christians (for the most part) desire to be neither fundamentalist nor pluralist and instead find themselves in a theological purgatory. Through it all though, many Evangelicals hold close to the belief that regardless, at least they have the Bible, the source of all these answers.
Christian Smith’s assertion in The Bible Made Impossible defies this understanding. Rather than fundamentalism and pluralism being opposing forces, Evangelical Christianity today is in many ways simultaneously fundamentalist and pluralist. Not just the collective body, but individuals. Much of this stems from the way we interpret the Bible.
The Problem of Biblicism
Smith defines our understanding of the Bible as biblicism, or a “constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function.” This “constellation” includes nine key assumptions, that I have summarized below:
Divine Writing - The Bible contains all of the details of God’s words (and if not the one you’re reading, then at least the original text).
Total Representation - The Bible contains everything that God desired to speak to humankind.
Complete Coverage - God’s will on all issues and subjects are present within the Bible.
Democratic Perspicuity - Everyone can read the Bible in his/her own language and fully understand it.
Commonsense Hermeneutics - The best way to read the Bible is in the most plain, obvious, literal sense, at face value, without influence from extra-canonical sources (e.g., literary, cultural, or historic input).
Sola Scriptura - The Bible can be completely understood without reliance on creed, tradition, etc.
Internal Harmony - All passages of the Bible fit together in an uncontradictory manner to provide insight on right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
Universal Applicability - The Bible’s teaching at any point in history remains universally and eternally applicable unless specifically revoked by a subsequent teaching.
Inductive [Methodology] - All proper beliefs and practices can be concluded through careful, rational study of the Bible.
In summary, we give the Bible a lot of credit to be able to convey God’s will for humankind. Not only have we said that God is the author of the Bible, but we have also taught our church to read it with the assumption that through rational and literal interpretation, they can learn everything that God asks of them or that they encounter in the world. Furthermore, we have undermined the use of any non-Bible texts, influences, or perspectives, whether contextual, supplemental, or contradictory. In this great paradox, we have created a Church which reads the Bible expecting the clear and literal voice of God. Each reader is reading and interpreting the Bible in cultural, theological, and academic semi-isolation. As a result, we get wide theological differences based on context - that is, pluralism - yet continue to claim that everyone can read the Bible at face value and draw the same universal conclusions. Then, we condemn the dissenting views for their pluralism, while failing to recognize our own contextual influences and dynamic. At the same time, within our own biblicist point of view, we are blinded to the numerous biblical passages (potentially contradictory) that we must ignore for the Bible to fit our world view.
If you doubt the above, then let’s take a look at a few current dissenting views within the Evangelical realm: the role of women in ministry, women leaders, homosexuality in the church, predestination, proper baptism, involvement in the military, view of nationalism, treatment of divorce, the rapture, mission, speaking in tongues, and prophecy, to name just a few. One might argue that these are relatively negligible for Christian orthodoxy (open hand issues, per say), but what about these: Why did Jesus die? What is sin? What is the Gospel? Regardless of one’s persuasion, these are all central orthodox issues, yet would every Evangelical Christian answer these the same?
Redeeming Our Biblical Study
How are we to respond to this paradigm? Are we to condemn objective review of the Bible? Would that give us a true perspective, or create a new wave of fundamentalism? Say, for instance, that the Church turns away from any objective reading of scripture with efforts for applicability to one of strict subjective narrative. In theory, the usefulness of scripture is dissolved because nothing can be understood beyond an appropriately researched contextualization of the text; and we therefore further begin to ignore, for instance, those troubled passages that anti-biblicists criticize biblicists for ignoring. Instead, I propose that we must grow to not a subjective nor objective reading, but rather one which is fully encompassing of experience and different viewpoints. Additionally, we also cannot undermine the work of the Holy Spirit in scriptural reading and interpretation. Let's learn from the example of global church tradition, in which passages are taken at face value through liturgical practices, such as lectio divina. However, at the same time, we must strive for contextual understanding in terms of applicable study. These can become the two strands of DNA of biblical interpretation - one of Spirit-guided kairos and one of deep contextualized narrative study. This may offer risk of reversion into biblicism, but my hope is that it is one that promotes beyond biblicism into a healthy biblical theology.
Jesus is Lord, the Bible is Not
As Smith concludes in his book, the entire body of Christ needs to learn to understand together:
"The Bible is of course crucial for the Christian church and life. But it does not trump Jesus Christ as the true and final Word of God. The Bible is a secondary, subsidiary, functional, written word of God, the primary purpose of which is to mediate, to point us to, to give true testimony about the living Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ did, could, and will live and reign and make his home with us without the Bible as we know it." (pp. 117-118)
We, as the church, have deceived ourselves through the idea of biblicism. We have elevated the bible into a member of the trinity, and neglected the Apostle John's poetic representation of the man Jesus as the Word of God. As a result, we have legalized and deified a text separate from the Word. We have confused ourselves over generations, condemned others perhaps unjustly, and divided our body unnecessarily. By raising the bible to a holy place, we have inadvertently diluted its true power and purpose. As Smith remarks per John Goldingay: "Paul values the Torah and the Prophets primarily as witness rather than command, and his own letters, even when issuing imperatives, may be seen as more fundamentally reflective witness to Christ than a body of commands" (p. 110). Ironically, it is those imperatives from Paul's writings that have so often been the basis for biblicist ideas themselves, especially given that Paul was much more prone to giving tangible directives than the parable-loving Messiah.
It is our challenge together, therefore, as the Church to rally around the truth that we know - Jesus Christ is the Word of God. This not only redirects our view of our Lord, but also returns the bible to its rightful place as scripture - a witness to God's pursuit of humankind. As Smith comments, a true view of the bible moves the Church away from misuse and oxymorons (e.g., biblical view of dating) as we realize "the Bible is not about conveying divine principles for starting and managing a Christian business - but is instead about Christ on the cross triumphing over all principalities and powers and so radically transforming everything we consider to be our business" (p. 111). Let's read the bible with fresh, new eyes, as a witness to the Word of God.
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