Journal for Scripture &eology ◆ voiumr ¡, x ¡ (zc¡¡) sc¡-sc«

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ChrisLian SmiLh, e Bible Made Impossible: Why
Biblicismis Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture
Crand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, zo¡¡. Pp. xiv + zzo.
Hardcover. szz.qq.
WESLEY A. HILL
'
Submiued: ¡o [uly zo¡¡ ⇀ AccepLed: z¸ OcLober zo¡¡ ⇀ Published online: z6 OcLober zo¡¡.
CopyrighL © zo¡¡ [ST and Lhe auLhor, released under a cc sv-nc ¡.o license.
ChrisLian SmiLh, proíessor oí sociology and direcLor oí Lhe CenLer íor Lhe SLudy
oí Religion and SocieLy aL Lhe UniversiLy oí NoLre Bame, besL known perhaps
íor his award-winning book, co-auLhored wiLh Michael O. Emerson, Divided by
Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxíord UniversiLy
Press, zoo¡), has Lurned his auenLion Lo evangelical use oí ScripLure in his mosL
recenL sLudy. Te LiLle discloses Lhe Lwo halves oí Lhe book’s argumenL. Evangel-
ical “biblicism” (Lo be defined below) has made Lhe Bible “impossible,” has ren-
dered iL unable Lo achieve Lhe work iL was designed Lo do. BuL an “evangelical”
reading oí Lhe Bible, one LhaL is orienLed aL all Limes Lo Lhe evangel, Lhe ChrisL-
evenL, avoids Lhe problems oí biblicismand allows ScripLure Lo íuncLion righLly
in Lhe liíe oí Lhe church.
SmiLh, a recenL converL Lo CaLholicism, wriLes as a íormer evangelical con-
cerned LhaL evangelicals be able Lo accepL his argumenL on Lheir own Lerms,
wiLhouL having recourse Lo CaLholic undersLandings oí ScripLure vis-à-vis Lhe
MagisLerium. Accordingly, his projecL LargeLs evangelical examples oí bibli-
cism, by which he reíers Lo “a parLicular Lheory abouL and sLyle oí using Lhe
Bible LhaL is defined by a consLellaLion oí relaLed assumpLions and belieís abouL
Lhe Bible’s naLure, purpose, and íuncLion” (p. |). TaL Lheory and sLyle is com-
prised oí Len inLerlocking íeaLures: (¡) Lhe Bible is divine wriLing such LhaL iLs
words are Cod’s words, (z) iL is a LoLal represenLaLion oí Cod’s communicaLion,
(¡) including compleLe coverage oí Lhe divine will, (|) iL is perspicuous and Lhus
open Lo “democraLic” inLerpreLaLion, (¸) which proceeds by way oí common-
sense hermeneuLics, (6) leading Lo a docLrine oí “solo” scriptura (ScripLure “de-
nuded,” uncloLhed by creeds and coníessions), and (;) because Lhe Bible pos-
sesses inLernal harmony (8) and universal applicabiliLy, (q) Lhereíore, an induc-
Live meLhodis besL suiLedLounearLhingLhe Bible’s meaning, (¡o) whichsuggesLs
a handbook model whereby Lhe Bible is mined íor iLs “posiLions” on everyLhing
írom daLing Lo gardening.
'
BurhamUniversiLy, UK ◆ Email: w.a.hillQdurham.ac.uk
¸oz Wesley A. Hill
By adopLing Lhis biblicisL accounL oí Lhe Bible and iLs íuncLion in ChrisLian
LhoughL and liíe, evangelicals musL necessarily also be commiued Lo Lhe no-
Lion LhaL Lhe Bible gives clear and cerLain purchase on divine revelaLion. BuL,
SmiLh noLes, Lhe opposiLe proves Lo be Lrue in pracLice. While appealing Lo Lhe
same Bible, differenL evangelical readers arrive aL wildly divergenL consLruals
noL only oí peripheral mauers—such as gender roles in Lhe church or Lhe righL
mode oí bapLism—buL alsooí major, cenLral Leachings onchrisLologyandsoLeri-
ology, Lo name only Lwo conLesLed arenas. “Knowledge oí ‘biblical’ Leachings, in
shorL, is characLerized by pervasive interpretive pluralism” (p. ¡;, emphasis origi-
nal).
For SmiLh, pervasive inLerpreLive pluralism should íorce evangelicals Lo re-
consider whaL Lhey Lhink abouL Lhe naLure oí Lhe Bible iLselí. “[Ojn imporLanL
mauers Lhe Bible apparenLly is noL clear, consisLenL, and univocal enough Lo
enable Lhe besL-inLenLioned, mosL highly skilled, believing readers Lo come Lo
agreemenL as Lo whaL iL Leaches” (p. z¸). Tereíore, raLher Lhan being Lhe prod-
ucL oí inLerpreLers’ misundersLandings, willíul or oLherwise, oí a clear reve-
laLion, Lhe inLerpreLive pluralism SmiLh documenLs exisLs “because Lhe LexLs
Lhemselves are mulLivocal, polysemic, and mulLivalenL in characLer” (p. ¸o, cí.
p. ¡|z). Seeing Lhe diversiLy oí opinions on almosL every major issue oí docLrine
and pracLice should lead evangelicals Lo recognize Lhe messy, pluriíormcharac-
Ler oí Lhe Bible.
WhaL is needed, Lhen, is a beuer Lheological accounL oí whaL kind oí LexL
ScripLure is andLhereíore whaL we canexpecL íromiL. Here SmiLhenlisLs BarLh’s
help (pp. ¡z¡–6) Lo argue LhaL Lhe Bible is a collecLion oí differing voices LhaL may
be heard in concerL insoíar as Lhey are heard Lo be wiLnesses oí Cod’s singular
and saving acL in [esus ChrisL. “Tis means LhaL we always read ScripLure Chris-
LocenLrically, chrisLologically, and chrisLoLelically, as Lhose who really believe
whaL Lhe Nicene andChalcedoniancreeds say” (p. q8, emphasis original). AdopL-
ing Lhis evangelical (in Lhe rooL sense oí evangel) rule would enable evangelicals
Lo eschew Lhe handbook approach, wherein ScripLure is mined íor advice on
various and sundry concerns, and Lo concenLraLe insLead on undersLanding Lhe
Bible as LesLimony Lo Lhe saving significance oí [esus. Addressing Lhe concerns
evangelicals (righLly) wish Lo address musL involve examining Lhose concerns
in lighL oí Cod’s saving deed in ChrisL raLher Lhan in lighL oí individual LexLs
collecLed írom Lhe pages oí Lhe Bible and LreaLed as Limeless LruLhs (p. ¡¡¡).
Readers may well wonder whaL is newinLhis proposal—or íor LhaL mauer in
Lhe criLique LhaL comprises Lhe book’s firsL halí. ParL oí Lhe originaliLy oí SmiLh’s
argumenL may be LhaL popular evangelical insLances oí biblicism (e.g., Lhe T-
shirL slogan “BIBLE—Basic InsLrucLion Beíore Leaving EarLh” or books wiLh Li-
Lles like e World According to God: A Biblical View of Culture, Work, Science, Sex,
and Everything Else, see pp. 6–¡z) are Lraced back Lo insLiLuLional, coníessional,
and scholarly conLexLs LhaL allegedly give rise Lo, or aL leasL do noLhing Lo check,
Lhem. So, immediaLely aßer noLing Lhe problems oí appealing Lo Bible LexLs Lo
yield, say, a coherenL ChrisLian accounL oí business eLhics, SmiLh criLiques Lhe
WesLminsLer Coníession oí FaiLh and Lhe ¡q;8 Chicago SLaLemenL on Biblical In-
errancy, among oLher sLaLemenLs oí belieí adopLed by insLiLuLions like WheaLon
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Reviewoí ChrisLian SmiLh, e Bible Made Impossible ¸o¡
College and TriniLy Evangelical BiviniLy School, as examples oí biblicism(p. ¡|).
His poinL seems Lo be LhaL Lhese coníessions and sLaLemenLs are organically re-
laLed Lo Lhe more popular íorms oí biblicism he ciLes.
SmiLh does acknowledge, on Lhe basis oí a survey oí required LexLbooks aL
a range oí evangelical seminaries and colleges, LhaL biblicism as he defines iL
is not “LaughL direcLly by mosL íaculLy and evangelical seminaries and diviniLy
schools” (p. ¡8¸ n. ¡6). He also qualifies his argumenL by acknowledging his deí-
iniLion oí biblicism as a synLheLic, summary one, and noL all LargeLs oí criLique
would hold Lo each oí iLs Len poinLs. BuL despiLe Lhe caveaLs, readers may sLill
find Lhemselves unsure abouL how íar SmiLh’s criLique is meanL Lo exLend. He
does noL engage exLensively wiLhLhose who have laboredLo affirmsome aspecLs
oí whaL he Lerms “biblicism” in coníessionally and hisLorically rooLed ways. Te
work oí TimoLhy Ward on Lhe sufficiency oí ScripLure (see his Word and Sup-
plement: Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture), íor insLance,
doesn’L appear in SmiLh’s bibliography, nor is Kevin Vanhoozer’s recenL reha-
biliLaLion oí an evangelical “ScripLure principle” (in, e.g., e Drama of Doctrine)
a prominenL conversaLion parLner in Lhe book. One is leß wondering wheLher
SmiLh deems Lhese proposals íor an idenLiLy beLween Lhe (variegaLed) words oí
ScripLure and Cod’s own speech Lo have íailed—and how his argumenL mighL
have been complicaLed or enriched had he chosen Lo engage Lhem.
AL a deeper level, however, iL is simply noL Lrue LhaL Lhe pervasive inLerpre-
Live pluralism SmiLh Lakes Lo be Lhe deadly íruiL oí a biblicisL model is only a
problemíor evangelicals and Lhereíore direcLly relaLed Lo evangelical biblicism.
Te docLrinal differences among evangelicals LhaL SmiLh highlighLs (church
poliLy, íree will and predesLinaLion, Lhe “íourLh commandmenL,” aLonemenL
and jusLificaLion, charismaLic gißs, eLc., see pp. z8–¡6) are debaLed in ChrisLian
churches LhaL would noL idenLiíy as ProLesLanL, leL alone evangelical. Such dis-
agreemenL seems endemic Lo Christian Lhinking and living, and noL jusL biblicist
Lhinking. By Lhe same Loken, SmiLh’s own church, Lhe Roman CaLholic Church,
affirms boLhLhe divine inspiraLionandinerrancyoí ScripLure (see Lhe Catechism
of the Catholic Church, ArLicle ¡.z.¡o8) and ScripLure’s ChrisLocenLric characLer
(ArLicle ¡.z.¡o8)—and also adopLs highly specific posiLions on women’s ordina-
Lion, clerical celibacy, Lhe moraliLy oí conLracepLives, Lo name only a íewissues
abouL which many evangelicals would disagree. CerLainly Lhe CaLholic church
wishes Lo affirm Lhese posiLions by a Lrain oí Lheological reasoning LhaL pre-
cludes appeal Lo ScripLure alone. However, Lhe poinL sLands LhaL Laking onboard
a ChrisLocenLric hermeneuLic does noL by iLselí pressure Lhe church Lo abandon
a posiLion on issues abouL which Lhere is, arguably, diversiLy, mulLivocaliLy, and
polysemy in Lhe biblical LexLs. In LhaL lighL, can SmiLh’s consLrucLive proposal
achieve all LhaL he wishes íor iL Lo achieve¹ ApparenLly noL, aL leasL noL wiLhouL
enLeringinLopreciselyLhe quesLionLhaL LhoughLíul evangelicals regularlypose:
How do we know whaL a “chrisLological,” “evangelical” (i.e., gospel-cenLric) ap-
proach Lo, say, women’s ordinaLion looks like wiLhouL engaging in Lhe inher-
enLly problemaLic, complicaLed Lask oí hearing ScripLure’s own voice on LhaL is-
sue írom Lhe perspecLive oí Lhe ChrisL-evenL¹ In oLher words, iL does noL seem
LhaL asking abouL ScripLure’s viewpoinL(s) on a given issue x really is so neaLly
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¸o| Wesley A. Hill
separable írom asking whaL iL means Lo Lhink abouL LhaL issue chrisLologically,
as SmiLh’s argumenL implies.
In shorL, SmiLh’s book raises quesLions any serious ChrisLian reader oí Lhe
Bible will have Lo íace. YeL due Lo iLs vague sLarLing poinL (how exLensive, ex-
acLly, is Lhe Lribe oí Lhe “biblicisLs”¹) and iLs equally vague consLrucLive proposal
(howdoes reading Lhe Bible “chrisLologically” solve Lhe problemoí pervasive in-
LerpreLive pluralism, ií virLually every LhoughLíul ChrisLian, including many oí
Lhe “biblicisLs” he criLiques, already agrees wiLh LhaL aim¹), Lhe book is unlikely
Lo achieve whaL is laudable in iLs goals or Lo reach Lhose who mosL need Lo give
up some oí Lhe pracLices SmiLh decries.
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