The Bible Made Impossible, by Christian Smith (LentBooks 2012 #1)

This year I’m picking up my old practice (which I abandoned last year, but had been doing for a few years before that) of giving up fiction for Lent. This is not really a hardship, although there are definitely times when it would be relaxing to settle back with a good novel. But the main function has turned out to be that it gives me six weeks to read great non-fiction that I always mean to get around to reading but too often don’t.

The first book on the list this year is a bit of a cheat, because I did start it before Lent, but I finished it a few days in, and as it is nonfiction I decided I could count it. I first read about this book on Rachel Held Evans‘ blog, and it grabbed my attention because it seemed to be addressing a lot of the issues I’ve been struggling with in my current read-through-the Bible program. Smith attacks the problem of what he calls “biblicism” in evangelical Christianity, and sets out to prove that whether it’s right or wrong, it’s impossible. It simply doesn’t work, and insistence on a biblicist reading actually robs the Bible of its power.

Smith defines “biblicism” in a lengthy definition involving several points, but to sum up as briefly as I can, it’s a position that holds that the Bible is literally true and inerrant, that it is self-interpreting and self-explanatory, and that it provides everything we need to know, not just for salvation but to live in a God-approved fashion in every area of our lives. He illustrates with many examples of books found on the shelves of evangelical bookstores, promising “Biblical” guides to everything from managing your finances to a healthy sex life.

I agree with many of the points Smith raises in the first part of the book. I do think a strictly “biblicist” approach is fundamentally unworkable, and its greatest weakness is the one he identifies most clearly: If the Bible is really inspired, clear, all-inclusive and able to be interpreted by any believer who approaches it in the right spirit — why does it produce so many, often directly contradictory readings? The only way to reconcile this is to argue that “We” (whoever the in-group may be) are the only ones reading and interpreting the Bible correctly, while everyone else is reading the same Bible but getting it entirely wrong.

Although Seventh-day Adventists aren’t included in the blanket term “evangelical” as Smith uses it here, we do subscribe to many of the biblicist tenets he describes. We don’t believe in verbal inspiration (although sitting in SDA Sabbath School classes, I wonder if everyone in the pew is actually aware of that belief, because many Adventists proceed as if they DO believe in literal verbal inspiration) but we do believe the Bible provides us with everything we need to know to be saved and live a Christian life, that every part of it is equally inspired and important, and — yes — that we are interpreting it right while everyone else has it all wrong.

So coming from my Adventist perspective, I agree with the problems that Smith sees, and he identifies them well. What he doesn’t do as well is provide solutions. He says that the solution is to read the Bible in a Christocentric way, and I agree with that as far as it goes, but he doesn’t give enough practical examples to show how, in real-life application, the Christ-centred approach would avoid the interpretive pitfalls of the biblicist approach. I suspect that his real answer is found not in the text of the book, but in an autobiographical fact which he mentions in the introduction (and which I’ll freely admit coloured my reading of the book): shortly after writing this book, Smith became a Roman Catholic.

Lots of people seek and find refuge in Roman Catholicism because they see there a solution to the very Protestant problems Smith raises in the book — how to cope with the Bible as a sole authority and the hundreds of competing interpretations it produces. And there is a safety in the idea of Church authority replacing Biblical authority — rather than struggle with this messy, complicated book, turn to a living body of Christians who have been keeping the faith for 2000+ years, and let them tell you what the book means and how you should apply it. The problem, of course, is that relying on a human institution to tell you what the Bible means and how to follow it is possibly even more dangerous than working it out for yourself … and if you don’t believe me, go look up the Crusades and the Inquisition.

There’s no easy way out, folks. There’s no way out but through, and I can only hope that at the other end is God, tolerating our mess and craziness as we try to work out what He meant. If He’d wanted to avoid the crazy and the messy, couldn’t He have given us a simpler book?



1 Comment

Filed under LentBooks, Nonfiction -- general

One response to “The Bible Made Impossible, by Christian Smith (LentBooks 2012 #1)

  1. I always love your blog best during Lent! And I was so excited to see you’d read this book – I don’t know anyone else who has even heard about it. I asked my library to buy it, and they did, but I didn’t get a chance to finish it before it was due back – I need to get it back out!

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