The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith. Brazos Press, 2011. 240pp.
Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why It Matters by N. T. Wright. HarperOne, 2011. 256pp.
Those of us who grew up with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe no doubt remember when Aslan captured our young imaginations. We first learned that this king over Narnia was, in fact, not a human but a lion-a prospect both terrifying and exhilarating, especially as Mr. Beaver insists, “‘Course he isn’t safe.” And then, when we actually meet Aslan on later pages, our expectations are challenged and reshaped as we find him both stern and kind, a king who is willing to submit to humiliation at the hand of the White Witch and to leap with joy with two young girls upon his back. In the end Mr. Beaver knowingly warns the new young royals, “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
Even if we missed it at first, as we grew older we realized that Lewis intended Aslan to be a literary representation of Jesus as saviour and king. But how often do we encounter Jesus himself in the pages of scripture with the same feelings of delight and dread that Aslan perhaps once brought out for us? To what degree does our picture of Jesus remain all too safe? When Jesus speaks to us in the scriptures, does he escape our ability to capture and cage?
In The Bible Made Impossible, Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith contends that evangelical “biblicism” tries to tame the voice of Jesus Christ in the scriptures, yet remains unsuccessful. In Smith’s account, such biblicism inevitably fails as God’s purposes in scripture slip free of our interpretations, sweep aside any evangelical consensus, and back us into a “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” According to Smith, this pluralism is fatally at odds with biblicism’s own assumptions, wielding a mortal blow against it.
His argument follows.
Biblicism holds that the Bible is the very word of God in such a way that it must be our only and sufficient ultimate authority in every matter of life and worldview. As an authority, everything it teaches must be clear and consistent to the average reader upon a plain reading of the text. Thus, biblicism leads us to expect and hope that almost all readers of scripture would come to pretty much the same conclusions about whatever the Bible teaches on anything from free will and justification to dating and finances.
Sadly, such hopes are torn apart by sharp disagreements and pointed differences among biblicists. And so, Smith concludes, biblicism renders itself, on its own terms, an “impossible” approach to the biblical text.
While Smith’s account of biblicism is repetitive (verging upon tedious), I’m sure it resonates in all too familiar ways to those of us who inhabit evangelical faith communities. We’ve heard tendentious claims about what scripture “obviously” teaches and have seen bookshelves with comprehensive guides to biblical gardening. Many of Smith’s criticisms, therefore, do aim for legitimate targets.
Critics plausibly contend, however, that Smith provides little more than a caricature of large swaths of evangelical biblicism. Indeed, it does seem that, if only a couple features of biblicism (as Smith describes it) are overdrawn or proven to be straw men, then his whole argument flounders. And it’s not clear to me that most evangelical Biblicists do genuinely hold to these distinctives in quite the way that Smith describes.
For instance, few self-aware biblicists actually hold to a notion of the Bible’s clarity (in traditional terms, its “perspicuity”) so expansive that it encompasses virtually anything of which scriptures might be taken to speak. If I am right about that, then I’m not sure much of the rest of Smith’s argument would follow. Certainly for the traditional confessional standards of most Protestantism, perspicuity is narrowly construed, applying only to those matters necessary for a sufficient grasp of what God has done in Jesus Christ for our salvation.
Nevertheless, Smith does well to rehearse the ways in which we can subject scripture to our agendas or deploy it to shore up our own sense of identity or our in-group cohesion. In these observations, Smith himself stands within biblical traditions of prophetic denunciation against idolatries that too easily equate our self-wrought images and messages with God himself and his word to us in Christ Jesus.
Smith’s argument, however, is not simply critical. He offers a positive, even if tentative, plan for rightly dividing the word of truth. While his main argument is that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” violates the expectations that biblicism itself sets up, Smith appears also to think that biblicism helps generate (or at least exacerbate) interpretive pluralism. Thus, his positive account functions, in part, to rein in some of biblicism’s more egregious results.
In brief, he suggests that we keep Christ at the centre of the Bible’s message and our understanding of it, so that we interpret all of scripture in light of its central witness to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Second, he asks that we humbly accept complexity and ambiguity in any process of interpreting a text written at many times and in many ways over centuries. Finally, he urges that we break from modernist epistemologies and assumptions about language, authority, and truth, all of which he sees as driving biblicist excesses.
As a general approach to biblical interpretation, Smith’s suggestions have much to commend and, in my estimation, cohere nicely with general trends in evangelical biblical scholarship. In particular, Christ-centred hermeneutics has currency within contemporary biblical theology, theological exegesis, and canonical readings. Additionally, it can play a significant role in historical-critical study of Jesus. Among those engaged in historical study, retired bishop and biblical scholar, N. T. Wright, is prominent.
In his recent volume, Simply Jesus, Wright seeks to bring us face to face with the lion of Judah himself through an introductory (thus the “simply” in the title) but intensive study of the historical Jesus. Given Wright’s methods, some readers fault Wright with attempting to get behind the Jesus of the Gospels to find the Jesus of history. But Wright insists that the Jesus we encounter in his volume is a Jesus firmly positioned inside the Gospels—indeed, within the larger narrative arc of the scriptures as the story of Israel and, through Israel, of the whole creation.
While Wright’s portrayal of Jesus remains, in the end, the very same Jesus we know from Sunday School lessons and from the Creeds, he is both more unfamiliar than we might expect and more wild than we might dare imagine. As Wright repeatedly contends, his account strives to free the Jesus of scripture from the overly domesticated interpretations of both liberals and conservatives within church and academy.
The over-arching story in which Wright situates his account is the story of “how God became king” through Jesus, in a context of Jewish expectations and Roman dominion. With a steady progression through topics and chapters, Wright profoundly shows how this story of God’s kingship is central to the entire story of scripture.
Wright is, as always, an engaging writer who makes use of imaginative metaphors and illustrations to explain his arguments. And the sheer amount of biblical material taken up by Wright is as astonishing as his writing is engaging. He draws extensively from the Gospels, the Psalms, and the prophets (particularly Isaiah, Daniel, and Zechariah). He situates all of them against the backdrop of Israel, her exodus, the tabernacle and temple, and beyond Israel, the ultimate backdrop of creation, cosmos, and God’s presence.
Wright argues that in his life, teaching, and actions, Jesus reconfigures these disparate threads of the biblical narrative around his own person. Jesus presents himself, therefore, not only as the Jewish Messiah, but also as the temple where heaven and earth come together, and as the way in which God returns in person to Zion as king. In Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the story of Israel, and of the world, comes to fulfillment, awaiting the consummation Jesus’s return will bring.
Wright’s account, then, provides us with a radically Christ-centred reading of the whole of scripture. It is also a reading that, if Wright is correct, represents Jesus’s own self-understanding in relation to the Jewish scriptures. Moreover, Wright draws out a number of practical implications from his interpretation of the biblical story. In particular, he argues that the Gospels and remainder of the New Testament reveal that, at present, God reigns in Jesus Christ as king through his suffering and serving church, his worshipping and witness-bearing people.
It is instructive, at this point, to set Smith’s argument side-by-side with Wright’s account of Jesus. Arguably, Wright represents a Christocentric vision that Smith should warmly embrace. But Wright’s account also may help reveal tensions implicit within Smith’s presentation.
Wright’s Christocentrism, after all, remains embedded within a biblicism of the highest degree. Again and again it is to the scriptures themselves that Wright returns, over against various other interpretations of Jesus. While Wright draws upon extra-biblical sources to set up the historical and cultural contexts of the text, his account assumes that any final appeal is to the text itself, understood within history and culture, and taking the text as straightforwardly as possible, even if with literary and critical discernment.
Furthermore, Wright’s methodology assumes a fundamental scriptural harmony, grounded in Jesus Christ, whatever differences there may be among the four Gospels or between prophetic texts for their original audiences and how those texts are re-read in light of Jesus as the goal of Israel’s story. And while Wright recognizes the complexity and difficulty of the biblical texts he adduces, he also sets them out in such a way that he evidently hopes any reasonably intelligent reader should be able to understand and assess his interpretation.
If this is not a kind of irenic, though reasoned and forceful, “biblicism” on Wright’s part, then I’m not sure what is. Keeping Christ at the hermeneutical centre of scripture, however, provides no final resolution to Smith’s “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” As Wright makes explicit, he presents his picture of Christ as an alternative to other, often incompatible, interpretations. The Gospels themselves present Jesus’s disputes with Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, and disciples as a contest over plural trajectories traced from Israel’s story.
At several junctures Smith had gestured toward alternatives to biblicism and the kinds of problematic pluralism that accompany it. Suggestions for Christocentric readings, adjusted expectations, and alternative epistemologies are intertwined with appeals to a wider, older Christian “tradition” or a stronger teaching authority within the visible church.
Certainly, we must read the Bible with the larger church, and any radical departure from the broad sense of the faithful through the ages is a red flag for interpreters. But Wright’s picture of Jesus suggests that we must always be ready for God in Christ Jesus to speak to his church anew, even if he speaks sometimes against his church.
Whatever else evangelical “biblicism” may be about, it is at bottom less about trying to rein in interpretation or control the text through a derived system. Rather, it is about listening to whatever God might be trying to say to us in Jesus through his word, even if that involves letting go of traditions now gone to seed or teachings encrusted with tarnish.
It’s not just that we are faulty, fallen interpreters, though that is true. It is also the case that the Lion—who is the Lamb once slain—still speaks as the very Word of the Father. And he is so big and beyond expectation that he forever escapes our attempts to safely tame him.