Is There A Meaning in This Text (or Many)?
Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Chapter 2: The Extent and Source of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism
What is evangelicalism? There are so many different and even divergent beliefs amongst people who call themselves evangelical that defining the movement is a well-acknowledged problem. Mark Noll argued that all that evangelicals have in common is “a high view of scripture and the need for divine assistance in salvation” (quoted in Smith, p.36). If we press beyond that we find the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (i.e., differing interpretations) over very important concepts that Smith finds so indicting about biblicism (read the chapter for Smith’s usual encyclopedic review of evangelical diversity on such core ideas as how Christians should relate to culture and free will vs. predestination). More often than not, evangelicalism has just been a term to use by those who want to be clear that they are not something else, specifically, liberal Protestants, secular humanists, and — earlier on in the movement — Roman Catholic. This is not a convenient history for a people who stand on an interpretive philosophy — biblicism — that argues consensus can easily be achieved by well-intentioned, rational individual readers of the Bible.
Smith gives six possible responses a biblicist could give for why there is such diversity while biblicism is still true:
- There is one true meaning, if people would just study and understand the Bible correctly (blame-the-deficient-readers answer)
- If we still had the originals and didn’t have to rely on imperfect copies, we wouldn’t have a problem (lost-original-autographs explanation)
- Humans are so scarred from sin that even our ability to think and know has been corrupted, thus accounting for our flawed interpretations (noetically-damaged-reader reply)
- God (or Satan) is keeping those not called to be saved from understanding the Bible correctly (supernatural-confusion explanation)
- All of the diverse interpretations are partially correct and need to be put together to achieve full truth (inclusive-higher-synthesis response)
- God intends for the Bible to be ambiguous in order to force us to struggle, grow, and learn to rely on divine grace (purposefully-ambiguous-revelation thesis)
The fundamental problem with all of these arguments though, according to Smith, is that they all contradict the core tenets of biblicism itself, thus not solving the problem that are intending to fix. Smith gives extensive explanations of how this is true for each, if you wish to read the chapter. The most obvious tenet transgressed is that which states the Bible is easily understood by anyone (democratic perspicuity). All evidence is to the contrary.
Smith surveys another assertion sometimes made by biblicists. The Bible is best stitched together by discovering the overarching themes or “paradigms” that stitch that various pieces of the Bible together. No doubt, theologians have been tracing out such themes for centuries. Again, though, the evidence works against consensus. There is no scholarly consensus in these themes. Additionally, all such themes inevitably leave out parts of the Bible that don’t fit with the paradigm (i.e., the wisdom literature of the Old Testament is famously neglected when the theme of “covenant” is adopted as a theological center), and these neglected parts end up being central to some other scholar’s paradigm. Once again, the evidence only shows the diversity in the text, not the consensus. Smith likens it to a jigsaw puzzle in which a each one person uses most of the pieces but not all of them to create a picture of an old man, then another person comes along and creates a picture of a pregnant woman out of the very same pieces, still neglecting some pieces though different ones from the first person.
So, Smith’s conclusion on that matter is this:
It tells us that the Bible is multivocal in its plausible interpretive possibilities: it can and does speak to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things. (p.47)
Smith adds that we cannot take lightly that specific words in the Bible sometimes have very different meanings (polysemy) and, therefore, different people read those same words with very different meanings. Furthermore, Smith is not ready to say that these different meanings are “read into the scripture by reader’s subjectivities” rather that “even when read as good believers should read the texts, the words of scripture themselves can and usually do give rise to more than one possible, arguably legitimate interpretation” (p.53). In other words, as Smith sees it, the challenge is in the nature of the text, not the readers. To argue that there is only one true and understandable meaning in the Bible that all educated, well-intentioned readers can agree upon grossly ignores the evidence within the Bible and within evangelicalism itself.