Book Review: The Bible Made Impossible (Christian Smith)

Bob Trube, Senior Area Director for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministry in the Ohio Valley, speaking at a conference.

Once again “Thank-you!” to Bob Trube, Senior Area Director for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministry in the Ohio Valley, for his contribution to the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) Blog! Consider these thoughts on Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture to some degree an extension of ESN’s interaction with work of Peter Enns, including an earlier review of two of Enns’ books by Bob.

Before getting to Bob’s review, let me point out that I was excited to find his insights on How to Write a Book Review [of this style] when I visited his blog. In response to an ESN Facebook Wall request for a book review, one Emerging Scholar volunteered to do one based upon Bob’s style/recommendations. Stay tuned 🙂

Note to all our readers: As I have done such previously, I encourage you to read a book before you comment upon it 🙂 It’s my intention that reviews such as those offered by Bob will not only provide opportunity for dialogue by those who have read the material, but also serve as teasers — helping our readers discern what books to place in their personal and book discussion group queue. If you have books you desire to review and/or have reviewed, please email me. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director of ESN, editor of ESN’s blog and Facebook Wall.

The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Christian Smith)

Author and researcher Christian Smith, Ph.D. is on the faculty at Notre Dame where he serves as the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society. Picture from Accessed 8/26/2013.

This has been something of a ‘bombshell’ book in evangelical Christian circles. That is because Christian Smith, a sociologist, takes on a question we tend to want to dodge. It is, “why is there such ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ if what evangelicals say they believe about the Bible is true?” Smith identifies the problem as “biblicism” which he defines as a theory of how to read the bible “evangelically” characterized by ten assumptions:

  1. Divine Writing
  2. Total Representation
  3. Complete Coverage
  4. Democratic Perspicuity
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics
  6. Sola Scriptura
  7. Internal Harmony
  8. Universal Applicability
  9. Inductive Method
  10. Handbook Model.

For the sake of space I won’t elaborate these. Smith argues that if these were workable assumptions for how we should read scripture, we would not have the pervasive interpretive pluralism that can be demonstrated by all the three-, four-, and five views books on the market. Smith argues that this theory fails to take into view the multivocity of scripture and in fact is not evangelical enough. Throughout, he contends that he is not abandoning the inspiration and authority of the scriptures and he speaks vigorously against liberal Christianity as an alternative.

What then does he consider to be the alternative? While acknowledging his limits as someone writing who works outside the field of theology, he proposes that a Christocentric reading of scripture can help us, both in helping us distinguish what is central to the scriptures and for what we should be looking as we read them — how we approach this book. He points us to the fact that scripture is the narrative of God’s redemptive work in the person of Christ and all of it points to him.

There is much in this proposal I can affirm. In fact, I think the ideas of internal harmony and perspicuity rightly understood make sense when we understand that Christ is the melody around which all scripture harmonizes, that the message of Christ is the clear and simple thing that the workman and the intellectual can both find transforming. For that reason, I want to be careful in rejecting all that Smith associates with ‘biblicism’. Inductive study, without the centrality of Christ, can tend to lead to all sorts of moralistic applications but can also be a form of study that seeks to be attentive to the living Word as he is revealed in the written Word.

I also think the humility of the mind of Christ should cause us to question when we deviate from the reading of scripture through the centuries or to arrogantly denounce the reading of others as flawed when it could be I who has the log in my eye. In some matters, like church government, we might even conclude that the matter has been left to human ingenuity so long as we choose spirit-filled people of character.

I do think some of the reaction Smith provokes comes in his use of “biblicist” and “biblicism” to describe the objects of his critique. I suspect none of those who hold views similar to those Smith critiques see themselves in these terms, which seem pejorative. I’m not sure I know a better term but it may not have been the most helpful for gaining a hearing. What I do think Smith does is “name the elephant” and call us to stop pretending that our models of reading scripture are doing what they say they do. It may be neither the fault of the scripture nor the wrongness of our doctrine of scripture but rather the ways we have devised to read scripture in light of doctrine.


BONUS: Visit Brazos for several short youtube clips from an interview of Christian Smith on The Bible Made Impossible. As a teaser, a video on “Why Evangelicals need to read the Bible in a more Evangelical Manner” is given below.

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Bob Trube

Bob Trube is Associate Director of Faculty Ministry/Emerging Scholars Network, and Senior Area Director for InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministry team in the Ohio Valley (Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania). He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.

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  • Hank Tarlton commented on August 27, 2013 Reply

    This book is an elaboration of a chapter in Smith’s book, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-five Difficult Steps (and yes, that is the name of the book). To get the full force of where Chris is coming from, reading both books together is essential. Thanks for the review, Bob!

      rtrube54 commented on August 27, 2013 Reply

      Thanks Hank. I didn’t comment on Smith’s movement from evangelical to Catholic. It would be interesting to read the Ninety-Five steps book to understand his own journey. I read a biography of John Henry Newman by Ian Ker this summer and it was interesting to trace this journey and the issues of authority that are part of this.

    Adam Shields commented on August 27, 2013 Reply

    It has been a couple years since I read this and I also read it right after reading Enns. I agree that Smith does a better job of identifying the problem than working constructively on an answer. But I think you also need to read this in context of the 95 Steps book. It seems to me that many that go down this road either end up converting to Catholicism (because of the problem of authority) or leaving mainstream Evangelicalism. That is not to say that everyone does, but honestly I think that the problem of PIP is a serious one if you remain an Evangelical.

    I am several years out from this. I am not leaving Evangelicalism any time soon. But many of the problems of ‘Biblicialism’ (yes it is pejorative, no I don’t have a better word), have not disappeared as much as just gone into stasis for me. I know they are a problem, but I am also committed to scripture, try seriously to take into account the whole of scripture, and try VERY seriously to not be overly critical of those that commit acts of ‘biblicism’.

    For those of us that have left the Christian academic world, but try to keep up with it as much as possible from the outside, I don’t see a lot of other answers.

      rtrube54 commented on August 27, 2013 Reply

      Adam, thanks for your comments. From what you and Hank say, I do need to read the 95 Steps book. I do appreciate what seems to be a mature response to “biblicism”. I’m not always certain that the grass is really greener on the Catholic side of the fence, where there is also interpretive pluralism, although different mechanisms for handling that pluralism, while maintaining formal unity of doctrine and polity.

      I’ve also begun to wonder if the severity of both the biblicism and the reactions to it are a socially situated phenomenon in part. It seems to me that at least some who most strongly react to this are those who have been most embedded in a very wooden, unimaginative and idiosyncratic communities of interpretive practice at some point in life.

      That has not been my own experience–raised in a mainline but evangelical northern church, attending an Anabaptist seminary and working in an evangelical, interdenominational organization. While I see the fragmentation resulting from interpretive pluralism in some quarters, I’ve also experienced the creative synergy of bringing people from different streams together around common mission that makes me hopeful of this happening in the wider Christian community without necessarily consolidating under a single polity.

        Adam Shields commented on August 27, 2013 Reply

        I think there are all kinds of other issues that get brought to the fore by moving to Catholicism. But I think it is a good example of how people need different things from their church bodies. I find that many that look to church as authoritative lean toward Rome. That has not been my issue, so for me moving toward Rome would create more problems than solve.

        I think you are right that there are those that find more problems with PIP than others. Some people are just completely unconcerned about it. And I think restricting people from expressing faith is one of the prime problems of much PIP. So people like Rachel Held Evans and others that hold strongly to Egalitarian views (but grew up in complementarian churches) really latch onto Smith. But others do not find him as helpful.

        I know the group that I read this with were very mixed in how much it was helpful. One moved to Rome. I really felt it was a strong indictment against Evangelicalism. And the third understood Smith’s problems but didn’t think it was nearly as big of a deal as Smith did. I think we were our own little microcosm of Evangelical response.

        By the way, I don’t think polity was the big issue for Smith. Common mission and authority of the church (universal, not Catholic) I think are Smith’s bigger issues. He is certainly not anti-evangelical. Just believes that the Evangelical church has limitations in its ability to respond to culture and fulfil Christ’s mission because we have such a mishmash of authority and focus.

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