If the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches?
There is a problem in the Church today.
It’s a problem we run into constantly when reading the Bible. We see it often in Bible studies and small groups. Sometimes we sense it while taking in a sermon or reading the apologists or listening to Lecrae.
It’s a problem that can rear its head in any discussion of the Word of God, or God’s Will or The Christian Life. One that is made painfully obvious in every splintering division that separates one denomination — or just one Christian — from another.
The problem is the way we — especially evangelicals — have come to see the Bible.
* * *
I just finished a book called The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. While I didn’t find it convincing all the way down, I definitely think a very real problem is exposed — a problem we know exists, but one that we often reject, minimize or, most often, ignore.
The problem is called biblicism.
Biblicism is the way many evangelicals view the Bible. It’s a view that says the Bible is utterly inerrant, authoritative, consistent and harmonious. It sees the Bible as a how-to manual for all of life. It believes the Bible is clear, and its message lucidly conveyed to all who read it — at least all who read it with a seeking heart.
On face, this doesn’t seem like a bad view of the Bible. This may, in fact, seem like a view you hold. But, ultimately, this view of scripture not only presents difficulties, it is actually impossible.
The problem is this: the Bible — which biblicists purport is clear and unified in its teaching and narrative — ends up producing many different interpretations, even among smart, sincere, seeking readers.
In a crucial sense it simply does not matter whether the Bible is everything biblicists claim theoretically concerning its authority, infallibility, inner consistency, perspicuity, and so on, since in actual functioning the Bible produces a pluralism of interpretations.
Robert K. Johnston echoes:
To argue that the Bible is authoritative, but to be unable to come to anything like agreement on what it says (even with those who share an evangelical commitment) is self-defeating.
And N.T. Wright:
It seems to be the case that the more you insist that you are based on the Bible, the more fissiparous you become; the church splits up into more and more little groups, each thinking that they have got biblical truth right.
We may be tempted to say, “Okay, but there is unity on the essentials of Christianity.” But even this is not really true, says Smith.
Just think of all the issues over which we disagree, where each side can be supported biblically.
Really important issues:
- Modes of sanctification (Anglicians, Calvinists, Orthodox, Methodists and Catholics all have different understandings)
- How salvation actually works (penal substitution, satisfication or Christus Victor?)
- What happens during the Lord’s Supper (is Jesus present spiritually, physically or is it merely a sign?)
- The legitimacy and authority of a pope (“On this rock I build my Church”?)
And even more secondary issues:
- Christian pacifism (pacifism or not?)
- End times theology (pre-, post- or amillennialism?)
- Church hierarchy (episcopal, presbyterian or congregational?)
- How to baptize (immersion or sprinkling?)
- Women in office (yay or nay?)
Some of these issues really are central to Christianity, especially to biblicists, yet we can’t reach agreement about them. We are in denial if we don’t recognize the credibility — or the very existence — of many distinctive and competing interpretations of Scripture.
Quite simply, says Smith, the Bible is “multivocal.” It allows for a variety of different legitimate theologies.
That the Bible results in such an enormous and wide-ranging collection of interpretations, even about issues that many would call essential, means that the biblicist view is impossible.
And a resulting problem — which is just as serious — is this:
…biblicism also has the pastorally problematic tendency to set up some young, committed believers for unnecessary crises of personal faith, when some of them come to realize (rightly, yet without warning) that biblicism is untenable. Having been taught as youth to stake their faith fully on one (faulty) theory of the Bible, their faith can later founder and sometimes collapse when antagonistic nonbiblicists point out and press home real problems with biblicist theory.
I’ve seen this, and you probably have too. Folks falling into valleys of doubt, feeling their whole Christian paradigm has been upended or outright leaving the Church.
Sometimes — not all the time, but often — this problem can be averted by having a more reasonable — and really, a more evangelical — view of scripture to begin with.
* * *
Such is Smith’s argument, and generally I agree with it. I think Christians — especially evangelicals — use the Bible to say things it does not fully address. I think we condemn other views — of Catholics, Orthodox and even other Protestants — that are legitimate and biblically supported. I think we ignore some of the Bible and overemphasize some, usually as its convenient for us to do so. I think we deny the breadth and height and width — and the reality of ambiguity and multivocality — in scripture.
I also largely agree with Smith’s alternative: that instead of biblicism, we must use Jesus Christ — the true gospel message and the first and final Word of God — as our lens for viewing the Bible. We must recognize that the Bible is authoritative and inspired, but we must figure out what we mean by those words.
Biblicism too often traps, domesticates, and controls the life-quaking kerygma (proclamation) of the gospel in order to provide the Bible reader with the security, certainty, and protection that humans naturally wants.
Any doctrine of revelation, scripture, or inspiration must, in any larger theological system, be properly located within the doctrine of God and not as a foundational prolegomenon or epistemological preface.
As Smith would say — and Augustine, Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Enns, Lienhard, Stott, Vanhoozen and many more with them — Christ is the purpose, anchor and lens of the Bible.
* * *
But I have some criticisms:
- I think Smith overstates the severity of pluralism in the Church. Really, I think there is general consensus about Christian essentials: Jesus is the Son of God, human and divine, led a perfect life, physically died and rose again, is now with God the Father, will return in judgment, and has sent his Holy Spirit to lead, protect and sanctify the earthly Church. Certainly, there is a lot of disagreement about how some of these things work practically — judgment, sanctification, salvation — but all Christians agree that, one way or another, they really do work. So, while there are many interpretations, and we far too often condemn those we disagree with, I think there is general agreement on the central issues of the faith.
- I think most evangelical churches, if not individual Christians, really do know to use the gospel truth of Jesus as the key to understanding scripture. Therefore, his alternative — the Christocentric view — is not novel. Mostly, I simply think it needs to be much more seriously applied. We should not be afraid of ambiguity or even apparent contradictions in scripture, and we should view all of the Bible with the truth of Jesus at the forefront of our mind.
- I completely agree that scripture is often used inappropriately as a how-to manual for life. It is not that. However, I worry that Smith dismisses our practical, everyday use of scripture too easily. While I am no fan of plucking verses (and ignoring others) to support our own notions of right and wrong, I have no problem with Christians turning to the Bible for advice on money and dating and parenting and so on. As Kevin DeYoung writes: “I can’t fall back on PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism) when deciding whether I will baptize a baby or ordain a woman elder. If a college student asks me for guidance in his dating relationship, I’m going to try to show him what it means to go out with this girl as a follower of Christ.”
Ultimately, biblicism is a too-small view of scripture. We shouldn’t use the Bible as a cookbook or manual for treating the flu, because that’s not what it is. We must keep Christ at the center, and we cannot sweep differences under the rug.
But, at the same time, I will try to remember these things:
- We must, as a generation and individuals, interpret scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is not a manual for life, but faith encompasses all things, and we use the life of Jesus and the lessons of scripture to help us with the rest of life too.
- Scripture allows for unity in diversity.
- The Bible is truly the word of God, and is useful — even essential — for teaching, rebuking and training in righteousness.