Taking the Bible As It Is, Not How We Want It

Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Chapter 6: Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity

With a wondrous five-day break for Thanksgiving, I have finally been able to return to Christian Smith’s book on interpreting the Bible and the series I have started on the same topic.  More and more I have felt that the interpretative strategies I learned growing up need some refinement in a postmodern world.  At the same time, I would hardly say that the conservative approaches I was taught that emphasize history and language are completely broken.

This post picks up Smith’s argument in an awkward place.  The first half of his book is devoted to a critique of the hyperliteralistic approach to biblical interpretation Smith calls “biblicism.”  After finding this method insufficient (it does not produce widely agreed-upon interpretations and too often creates disunity) and disingenuous (it does not take the Bible at face-value), Smith proposes that we let the gospel of Jesus alone be the central story from which all understandings of the Bible flow.  I am hoping that the remaining two chapters of the book will unpack this promising but vague suggestion.

If you understand it, it is not God. (Saint Augustine)

As much as biblicists claim to take the Bible as is, Smith asserts that actually they want a Bible that is simple, clear and completely understandable, something many would say the Bible is not.  They have no room for complex understandings of the text that embrace ambiguity.  In reality they do not want the Bible we have, they want the Bible to be what they think it should be, in particular a Bible that addresses all of life not one focused on the gospel of Jesus.

First, Smith argues that key to accepting the Bible as it we have received it is an acknowledgement of the idea of “divine accommodation,” something many biblicists have not done.

Accommodation takes seriously the qualitative difference between created, fallen humanity and the absolutely transcendent God — acknowledging that such a God necessarily must accommodate himself to the limits of human perception, cognition, and understanding.  It suggests that, in the process of divine inspiration, God did not correct every incomplete or mistaken viewpoint of the biblical authors in order to communicate through them with their readers.  They would be distracting.  The point of the inspired scripture was to communicate its central point, not to straighten out every kink and dent in the views of all the people involved in biblical inscripturation and reception along the way. (129)

This may seem like a claim that has little chance of being accepted by biblicists because it seems to undermine the authority of the Bible.  Smith’s response is that this is simply not the case.

All of scripture is not clear, nor does it need to be.  But the real matter of scripture is clear, “the deepest secret of all,” that God in Christ has come to earth, lived, taught, healed, died, and risen to new life, so that we too can rise to life in him. (132, emphasis his)

When one accepts that the Bible is primarily a kerygmatic story about redemption not a guidebook about all matters of life, the Bible’s authority is in fact preserved.  For Smith, the “apparent tensions and inconsistencies in scripture” do not need to be resolved for the Bible to remain powerful and informative for life in this world.

A second key idea for Smith is the right distinction between dogma, doctrine, and opinion.  If Christendom is ever to move past sectarianism this will be necessary.

The most central, sure, and important of these beliefs we may call “dogmas.”  Those occupying the middle range of centrality, sureness, and importance are in this scheme called “doctrines.”  Those which are the least of these let us call “opinions.” (135)

The problem comes when Christians inflate their doctrines to the level of dogma, as happens far too often.  Dogmas are likely few and largely agreed-upon.  If we would be content to leave it this way, we would benefit considerably.  There is no need for groups to let go of their unique beliefs and practices, but these distinctives need to be held in proper perspective as lesser important.  This will take a humility not always possessed by literalists.  Other than saying that dogmas are those beliefs that are so central they are close to unanimous (i.e., Jesus is divine; the Bible is God’s word; we cannot save ourselves — that is, the content of the historical creeds of the Church), Smith does not give us a lot of guidance on how to determine where particular beliefs land in his scheme.

A third key element to handling the Bible correctly is accepting that not all practices of the ancient church are intended to be continued and replicated by Christians today.  Biblicists often claim such but then have a storied history of not being able to agree on what should be imitated and why.  Even the Bible itself does not always give us help unraveling this knot.  Smith concludes we would all do well to be more humble and tentative about declaring something prescriptive for all time and, therefore, should follow Paul’s admonition to extend much more freedom to other Christians and their interpretations than we sometimes do.

Smith argues that God deals with us on a “need-to-know” basis, making some beliefs crystal clear while others remain unclear and “mysterious.”  Uncomfortable with the lack of information we want to have from the Bible, biblicists search for any possible relevant scripture in order to piece together what the “biblical” belief and practice truly is.  Smith asserts that only problems develop when Christians ascribe to a “maximalist” view versus a “minimalist” view on what in the Bible is essential to believe and practice.  The former only compounds the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism as biblicists do not agree amongst themselves on what is biblical.  Furthermore, a maximalist view tends to pit Christians against those who do not see the Bible as they do, fracturing the Church further.  Worst of all, majoring in the minors can easily cause us to devalue the importance of the central point of Christianity: the cross of Jesus Christ.

In Smith’s mind, the challenge is to let ambiguous mystery “stand” and not elaborate on what God has given us in the Bible.  Instead of speaking where the Bible has not, we would do well to get serious about obeying that which is clear and central in the Bible.  Smith opines (and I think he raises a good point) that,

Sometimes it seems as if believers — myself included — distract themselves with the more obscure, speculative, and cryptic issues related to scripture precisely in order to avoid having to face and act on the parts that are very clear and directive. (143)

Case in point, Smith cites the tendency in many Christians, especially evangelicals, to argue over non-essential points of doctrine or even opinions that are not built on scriptures about which there is a consensus belief while ignoring one of the most widely-discussed, clear commandments of the Bible: to give away one’s money generously.  This is precisely the kind of concrete example that makes Smith’s argument stronger at this point and which I have wanted to have more of in this book.

As one might have assumed, Smith advocates for a minimalist view on what is essential in the Christian faith.  In this way there is far less to argue about and a much greater likelihood of agreement on the testimony of the Bible.  No doubt, Smith is exactly correct, from a sociological point of view.  But what about theology?  Is this what God would want?  Smith would likely say that if God wanted something from us he would have made it abundantly clear.  Because matters remain ambiguous they are open to diversity.  This point alone is so contrary to what many who read this blog have grown up believing that it will take some serious contemplation for us to accept it, if we ever do.

Smith’s training is in sociology and that is when he is at his best.  I especially benefitted from his explanation for why a maximalist view on what is essential in the Bible is particularly attractive to religious people:

From a sociological perspective, when different groups elevate particular, distinctive beliefs to increasingly higher levels of importance, that serves functionally to establish group identity differentiation and security.  And when such differences becomes matters of disagreements and conflict, which they normally do, that tends to increase members’ commitments to and investment in their own groups — on the general sociological principle that “out-group conflict increases in-group solidarity.”  So, sociologically understood, from the perspective of each distinct group, elaborating a maximalist view of essential Christian beliefs serves the purpose of reinforcing their distinctive identity, solidifying member commitment, and maintaining and increasing inflows of resources — all things that organizational leaders like.  But that does not make it good or right. (146-47)