More Reasons to Be Done with Biblicism

Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Chapter 4: Subsidiary Problems with Biblicism

As Smith has recounted already, the most discrediting problem with biblicism is the fact that people from the same background can pick up the same Bible and apply the same biblicist principles and yet they come up with diverse interpretations (pervasive interpretive pluralism).  If the core tents of biblicism are correct — especially clear meaning discoverable by well-meaning, educated people without the use of anything other than the Bible — this simply should not happen.  In this chapter Smith picks up several “subsidiary problems” with biblicism that should also cause a person to reject it as a way to understand the nature and interpretation of scripture.

  1. Biblicism causes its adherents to “blatantly ignore ” teachings that if practiced literally most people would say do not make sense in our time and place.  Smith gives four examples: greeting each other with holy kisses, feet washing, prohibition of women being audible in churches, and the prohibition on resisting evil people.  How can you ignore parts of the Bible if it is the handbook for how best to live life?
  2. To be fair, there are biblicists who would say some passages are no longer literally binding because of “historical and cultural differences.”  But biblicism offers “no coherent account explaining which Bible passages” are culturally relative, absolute, or something in between.  In Smith’s estimation, this is “selective literalism.”  A good example of this is the claim that because of cultural change women do not have to wear veils when worshiping in church though 1 Corinthians 11 says they do, but women still do have to remain subordinate to men because it says so three chapters later, though our culture has cast aside male-female hierarchies.
  3. The literalism of biblicism makes hard passages even harder.  If all meaning has to be the most literal, wooden and concrete meaning, biblicism can put interpreters in an awkward place.  Smith uses the bash of the Cretans in Titus 1:12-13 — “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” — as an example.  Paul is instructing Titus to reach out to these very same Cretans, but it is a strange missionary stance to bad-mouth the people you are trying to reach.  Could there be a better way to interpret this passage?  Smith thinks so.
  4. A significant problem is that biblicism is often not actually practiced by those who claim to believe in it.  Too often evangelicals tend to make the Bible fit the beliefs they already hold.  This is simply done by emphasizing passages that support your pre-determined views and neglected the equally biblical passages that do not.  A survey of evangelical leaders and authors shows that their interpretations are often formed more by their political and cultural views than an objective reading of the Bible.
  5. Biblicism often uses the Bible itself to support their belief that the Bible is authoritative.  Circular reasoning aside, the problem is that those cited biblical passages rarely go beyond asserting inspiration not inerrancy, literalism, and many of the other elements of biblicism.
  6. Is all Christian doctrine in the Bible?  Biblicism would suggest so, and maybe the pieces and concepts are there, but where is Trinity or creation from nothing (ex nihilo) mentioned specifically?  There is still some theological construction and statement that takes place outside of the Bible, contrary to the anti-creedal bent of biblicism.
  7. Historically, the “Bible-only” sentiment popular in biblicism was a theologically liberal one, not a conservative evangelical one two hundred years ago in America.  Evangelical forebears knew tradition and creeds were necessary for proper understanding of the Bible.
  8. Biblicism has failed to deliver a single, agreed-upon, comprehensive code of social ethics.  Let there be no confusion, evangelicals have social ethics but they are diverse and depend upon the bent of the one proposing them.  Should we side with Jim Wallis and his left-of-center approach or Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right or Shane Claiborne and the New Monastics or some other option?  Biblicism has not brought agreement.
  9. Biblicism offers a neat and tidy package of guaranteed answers to life’s persistent questions, but when teenagers and young adults leave the safe, homogenous confines of their tribe they are too often undone by the critiques of those wish to dispossess them of their faith.  When their faith “egg” has been placed in the biblicist “basket” and that basket hits the ground, too often the egg breaks.  Pragmatically, this is a problem for anyone who cares about the faith of the next generation.

For Smith, all of that adds up to the following conclusion:

When we confront biblicism’s many problems, we come to see that it is untenable.  Biblicism simply cannot be practiced with intellectual and practical honesty on its own terms.  It is in this sense literally impossible.  Biblicism’s fatal problems are not the sort of things with which faithful Christians ought to be comfortable.  Biblicism is not the way forward for evangelicalism.  There must be a better way to understand and read the Bible. (p.89)

We have come to the end of the first part of Smith’s book in which he spells out the reason for rejecting biblicism.  Next, he will suggest a better interpretive paradigm.  I will have to put this book down for a week or so, so this is a good time for me to mention one critique I have had as I have read this first section: I largely surround myself with evangelicals (not intentionally, that is just the way things have shaken out).  I would probably be classified as an evangelical myself, maybe on the more liberal end.  Yet, I can’t think of one person who actually believes without nuance all of the ten tenets of biblicism as Smith catalogued them early in his book (see this post for that list).  I know some who believe many of the items on that list.  I know some who would say they believe everything on that list, but when you really plumb deeper into what they believe, they are quick to nuance those statements, especially when it comes to the cultural conditioning of texts and how literal all biblical language has to be taken.  Like Smith has pointed out, I know many who say they believe the items on his list, likely because they feel they have to or ought to say that, but when the rubber meets the road they don’t actually put those beliefs into practice.  So, I leave this first section of the book thinking Smith is attacking a bit of a straw man.  Nevertheless, where there is overlap between Smith’s description of biblicism and the real and practiced beliefs of evangelicals, Smith’s arguments definitely make the reader question his or her methods of interpretation and thinking.  I look forward to reading about Smith’s proposed “better way.”