The Problem with Biblicism

Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Chapter 1: Biblicism and the Problem of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism

Christian Smith loses no time telling us why he thinks biblicism is an impossible position to hold (go back one post for a thorough explanation of “biblicism”) and he starts with four engaging analogies.  What would you think if:

  • four people picked up four copies of the same official state map and came up with four different best routes to a city across the state?
  • four field generals held up four identical sets of army-certified binoculars and saw four different battlefield situations lading to four different battle plans?
  • four family members read four copies of the same manufacturer-produced user’s manual for the same camera and come away with four different impressions on how best to operate the camera?
  • four contestants in a cooking contest use four copies of the same well-known cookbook to cook the same recipe yet come out with four distinct dishes?

I would imagine all of us would think there is a problem.  Maybe a problem with the objects consulted or a problem with the people.  Still, there is a problem.

Smith summarizes his problem with biblicism in this succinct question:

If the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous [clearly understood by the average reader] text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches? (p.26)

Smith calls this “pervasive interpretive pluralism.”  It is not that Smith denies that the Bible is inspired by God or truthful.  Even so, the issue is that “it simply does not matter” (p.17).  That supposed inspiration and truthfulness do not create consistent instructions that all agree upon.  We have a “functional” problem.  This is a problem that exists particularly amongst conservative evangelicals.

The poet William Blake said it this way:

Both read the Bible day and night/But thou read’st black where I read white. (Smith, p.20)

But maybe the disagreement is only inconsequential or slight.  Surely, we don’t disagree over “essentials,” right?  A quick survey of the diversity of beliefs amongst denominations or scanning through bookshelves at Christian bookstores shows us that we do in fact disagree fundamentally over matters we deem “essential” and all of us appeal to the Bible for support of our particular belief.  Atonement, baptism, Hell, Christology, war, science, human freedom, divine foreknowledge are just a few of the truly weighty matters about which conservative evangelicals do not agree.

Smith pushes the point one degree deeper and more controversial:

On important matters the Bible apparently  is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches.  That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever-present reality.  It is, in fact, the single reality that has most shaped the organizational and cultural life of the Christian church, which now, particularly in the United States, exists in a state of massive fragmentation. (p.25)

That is the problem of biblicism, as Smith sees it.