Colossian Blog
May 16, 2012 | Andy Saur

Book Review – The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith

The Possibilities of Evangelical Practices of Scripture


Book Review – The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith.  Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011,  Pp. 240





May 16th, 2012
Reviewed by Mark Bowald, Redeemer University College 


In the 1970s a group of theologians with similar theological sensitivities were teaching and writing at Yale University.  That group, including George Lindbeck and Hans Frei, came to be known as the “postliberal” school of theology.  Their primary target was modern liberalism.  They sought to rein in liberal methodological tendencies which imposed foreign interpretive categories on Scripture and on the church.  In the former case, Frei argued vigorously that the reader should not impose their own questions on the Bible but that Scripture should be allowed to determine its own meaning and its own truth, both of which emerge from the text in its canonical form.[1]  Lindbeck made similar arguments with respect to the truth-making capacity of church doctrine in his classic book: The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster John Knox Press, 1984).

In 1995, George Lindbeck closed a theological conference at Wheaton College commenting:

If the sort of research program represented by postliberalism has a real future as a communal enterprise of the church, it’s more likely to be carried on by evangelicals than anyone else.[2]

On a visit to Toronto in 2002, I asked Lindbeck: What about evangelicalism makes them likely heirs to postliberalism? And what prevents them from doing so?  His answer:

It is their unwavering commitment to the authority of Scripture that makes them ideally suited and it is their inability or unwillingness to be self-critical about the manner in which they frame their commitments to the authority of Scripture which is the chief obstacle.[3]

The last two decades have seen evangelicalism drawn into exactly the kind of theological soul-searching about biblical hermeneutics of which Lindbeck spoke.  One of the primary catalysts for this comes from the theological interpretation movement.  Born of postliberal parentage, this movement has spawned revolutionary undercurrents in biblical studies.  One development is the trend to compose histories and assessments, explaining the decline of the practices of reading Scripture in the modern era.  Hans Frei set this fashion in his book The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.

Whereas Lindbeck and Frei endeavored to take a pastoral approach with evangelicals, Christian Smith hoists them on a biblicist petard in The Bible Made Impossible.  It is comprised of two parts: An analysis and criticism of biblicism in American evangelicalism and a short set of suggestions in response.  We will seek to clarify his analysis and pay specific attention to his constructive suggestions, seeking to appreciatively broaden and extend them with a short example of how they might inform the science-faith question.

First, one short word on Smith’s style and tone.[4]  Smith’s picture of evangelical biblicism is exaggerated; his writing style rhetorically charged.  His gestures are large, inflationary.  The book is full of absolutes and superlatives:   He suggests that there may be as many as 100 million evangelical biblicists in the U.S. (6) and characterizes their biblicism as: foolish and arrogant (155), intellectually and practically bankrupt (175), inadequate (8 times), misguided (9 times), dishonest (143, 174, 175), untenable (vii, 3, 58, 88, 89), self-defeating (xii., 18, 173), as producing “pernicious pastoral consequences” (xii), as being “ungrateful and stubborn” with God (130), “impossible” (some 20 times), and that evangelicals “should be shamed” for holding to their version of solo scriptura (176), etc…  His writing style is also highly assertive[5] and repetitive, [6] making regular use of sarcasm,[7] which adds further to the rhetorical tilt.  As I read it the first time and saw this penchant I wondered whether at some point he would use that oldest and most pummeled of evangelical straw men, Harold Lindsell.  Sure enough: Page 133.

Smith’s rhetorical style creates barriers to the potential audience of his otherwise helpful and important constructive proposals.  It limits the attention span of the audience who would benefit most from hearing them.  Most will long have tuned him out after being repeatedly told that they are ridiculous and arrogant.  Also, by targeting American evangelicals he unintentionally forecloses on the non-evangelical audience: both with respect to naming the problems of biblicism that appear in pre- and non-evangelical circles as well as the ecumenical value for his hermeneutical proposals.

Smith lists what he sees as the 10 characteristics of bad biblicism on pages 4-5.  The first nine are:

1.  Divine Writing: the Bible is identical with God’s own words written inerrantly in human language.

2.  Total Representation: the Bible contains totally and exclusively the communication of God’s will.

3.  Complete Coverage: the divine will that is communicated in the Bible pertains to all areas relevant to life.

4.  Democratic Perspicuity: any reasonable intelligent person can correctly read and identify the plain meaning of the Bible.

5.  Commonsense Hermeneutics: reading for this plain meaning of the Bible is the best way for it to be read.

6.  Sola Scriptura: the plain meaning of the Bible can be understood without the help of creeds, confessions, theology, etc.

7.  Internal Harmony: all passages of the Bible related to a specific topic are harmonizable with each other.

8.  Universal Applicability: all that the Bible teaches is equally and universally true and valid for all people of all times and cultures.

9.  Inductive Method: the Bible’s teaching on any and all matters of life can be discovered by simply piecing together and reading all the relevant passages in which they are addressed.

The 10th is where he most clearly identifies the problem of biblicism: the “handbook model” of Scripture in which the Bible is read as something like a guidebook to any and all questions of life.  He suggests that there are elements in the first 9 that, when arranged in certain ways, “generate” this attitude toward the Bible.

Smith’s archeology of evangelical biblicism is familiar and true.  He describes the ways in which biblicism may, and often does, take humorous and tragic proportions.  Evangelicals know all-too-well the tendency to turn the Holy Canon of Scripture into a self-help book or to come to it with sets of questions which it was not, and is not, designed to address.  And what Smith names the Achilles Heel of biblicism, “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” is not a secret or surprise to anyone who spends any appreciable time as an evangelical.  The ways that Scripture is used to support and promote practices and beliefs that cannot be reconciled with one another are commonplace.  While these observations are true, nevertheless, his assessment fails to clearly identify what are its chief roots and causes or why they are unique to modern evangelicals.

For example, of his list of 10, most, if not all, have clear historical precedents throughout the history of the church.  These are not the sole property of 19th and 20th century American evangelicals.  There are dimensions of biblicist commitments that permeate the history of the Church and Israel.  Further, Smith cannot identify any of the specific items of the list as the cause.  He admits this. (5)  Nor can he specify in what specific arrangement one would find the cause amongst the list.  He admits this as well. (5) In the end his list is gesturing vaguely at an array of symptoms and he fails to identify clearly what is the root of the biblicist pathology.  Assisting Smith, we might suggest that it isn’t the list per se that’s the problem; it’s the way that certain ways of practicing the list in reading come to produce things like the “handbook model” of the Bible.

We can clarify his analysis by exploring this question more deeply.  The problem of bad biblicism arises from a certain way of understanding the character of the reader and the character of the text of the Bible and their relationship to one another.  This theme runs through his discussion even though he does not single it out clearly.  Simply put, the idea is that both the text and the reader are presumed and believed to be hermeneutically self-sufficient and unmediated.  Let’s pursue this further with respect to how the unmediated character of biblicism frames the text and the reader, in his account, in turn.

On one side, the text of the Bible is presumed to have a self-sufficient unity and integrity completely independent of its relationship to the church or to things like creeds, confessions, and theology.  Smith’s numbers 6 and 7, “solo scriptura” and “internal harmony,” gesture most obviously to this, but it does underwrite ways of framing and employing the others. Smith’s legitimate and important concern is that this also removes Scripture from its ongoing relationship to the life and work of Jesus Christ.  One way to illustrate this is asking what one sees when one looks at the Bible, or reads it.  If the Bible is seen firstly or simply as a perfect book, come directly from God to give me answers about any or all aspects of my life then this is bad biblicism.  There is nothing “between” the words on the pages and my life.  If, on the other hand, one looks at the Bible and one sees Jesus Christ, then one is seeing it properly.  Jesus Christ is the lens through which one sees and hears Holy Scripture.  Questions that Scripture is addressing are, under this purview, guided and filtered through Christ.  This is the main argument of chapter 5, which is the clearest and most vital constructive point in the book.  Embracing a Christological lens for reading changes the character of the questions Scripture is seen to be addressing.  It is not that Scripture no longer has relevance to my life and the way I live it, rather it is that the relevance for the Bible’s teachings are always defined by the life and redemptive work that Jesus practiced and completed on our behalf.  Jesus Christ is also the ascended Lord who is administering the Kingdom thought the work of the Holy Spirit, including the preservation and teaching of Holy Scripture.  Questions I have about my life stand in direct relationship to that Lordship, and only through that relationship to the words on the pages of the Bible.

The other side of this root problem in Smith’s account of bad biblicism relates to how we view ourselves as readers.  It mirrors solo scriptura and is indicated most clearly in numbers 4, 5 and 9 on his list.  Here, just as the text is viewed as a perfect book, coming to us without any assistance or mediation, likewise the reader is presumed to be fully capable of reading and interpreting the Bible without assistance or guidance.  In bad biblicism it is presumed that the reader can (or even should) come to the Bible without any presuppositions or interpretive frameworks.  The reader is viewed as being fully capable of reading the meaning off the pages directly and completely without them. Smith worries rightly that this sets the stage for the reader to, unintentionally and unconsciously, bring all kinds of questions and assumptions to the reading which are not fitting or appropriate to its Christological focal point.

In response, Smith suggests that it is simply false that human beings are able to set aside the influences of the traditions of faith, of education, culture, society, etc. that have come to shape who they are.  Persons come to read the Bible with a great and diverse mixed bag of presumptions.  Therefore, it would be better to embrace and foster those faithful beliefs and practices which are seen as having some harmony with Scripture so as to maximize Scripture’s transformative power in our lives; better to acknowledge and intentionally employ the church’s role as the nursemaid to our faith and as a handmaiden to our reading the Bible.    

It should be noted that many connected with the theological interpretation movement are moving in harmonious paths with both dimensions of Smith’s constructive proposals, including work by those directly or adjunctly related to evangelicalism such as Kevin Vanhoozer, Joel Green, Todd Billings, Steve Fowl, Richard Hays, Kavin Rowe, Richard Briggs, Dan Treier, Scott Swain, and many others.

Summing up: Bad biblicism views the Bible and the reader as coming together in a hermeneutical vacuum in which both are fully present and transparent to one another.  They are both self-sufficient and fully communicative to each other apart from any relationship they might have to the work of Jesus Christ, to the church, to the traditions and beliefs of our formation as humans and as Christians.

The main point of the petard of this book is that biblicism is irredeemable.  Smith’s single litmus test, the standard by which Smith declares it impossible, is whether, over time, it reduces pervasive interpretive pluralism.  This criterion should be held loosely, if at all.  By it the Magesterium of the Catholic Church[8] and the rule of faith,[9] as hermeneutical mediators, are also “impossible.”  They were both unable to produce any idyllic moment when interpretive pluralism was not clearly prevalent among the common members of the church, the clergy and Christian academia.  They were also both unable to prevent the gradual splintering of the church in the separation of the Eastern Orthodox Church and in the Reformation.  This is not offered as a judgment on either but rather to suggest that the conceptual logic, the too simple causal relationship between biblicism and “pervasive interpretive pluralism” that Smith suggests, is much more complex and does not require a heavy out-of-hand rejection.  Biblicism can (contra Smith) be redeemed if, and when, the mediation of the various traditions and practices which accompany and assist both Scripture and the reader are acknowledged and embraced.  Jesus Christ becomes our mediator in all things, including our reading of the Word of God, and the church becomes the primary location of our reading practices.

Even if one is unconvinced that biblicism is generally redeemable, it is still the case that elements of the 10 point list which he calls biblicism cannot be “abandoned” as he insists. (vii, 3)  They are ingredients to the intermediary roles of Christology and the church toward which he gestures.  Rather, they need to be continually reframed and reformed if they are to be intentionally and consciously catholic and evangelical.  And, with deep sincerity and optimism, I can think of no better first steps in this reforming and ecumenical work than to promote the necessary hermeneutical tools found in the rule of Christ and the rule of faith which Smith advocates.[10]  I, like you, might disagree with Smith on his assessment of biblicism.  We might also disagree on the exact form that the mediation of Christ and the church should take in our reading the Bible and what is the best mode and voice for pursuing these conversations, but nevertheless share deeply his commitment both to this goal and to the imminent value of his constructive proposals.

His focus on the centrality of the hermeneutical mediation of Christ and the church are also much more broadly applicable than simply as therapy for evangelical biblicism.  The same principles may, and should be, applied as hermeneutical propaedeutic to mainline Protestants, to Catholicism, to Mennonites, indeed to all Christian traditions. In retrospect, most of the lamentable practices that arise from interpretations of Scripture can be seen as deviating in some sense from these rules.  Looking forward, the largest cloud on the hermeneutical horizon for all Christendom involves new tensions in the relationship between faith and science.  The recent and growing controversy over genetic research into human origins is among the most immediate.

Some have taken recent results of this work as confirmation of evolution and as absolute refutation of any historical dimension to the book of Genesis as a whole, but especially to chapters 1-3.  The historicity of any original pair of human beings, Adam and Eve, can be argued to be absolutely disproven by this research and the suggestion that the church needs to rethink at a minimum, and abandon, at the most, its understanding of sin and atonement has followed.  The argument runs, that since there was no Adam and Eve, then there was no original event in which humanity went from a state of sinlessness to a state of fallenness.  The theological and confessional dominoes quickly fall with respect to the need and nature of Christ’s atoning work, and so forth.

Smith’s proposals helpfully intervene here.  Smith’s insistence that both the text of Scripture and the reader are mediated by Christ and by traditions of faith also applies for scientists and for those who would wish to bring the work of science into conversation with the Bible.  A hermeneutic that simply draws historical conclusions from select contemporary science[11] and takes those implications directly to the text of the Bible is committed to a similar form of biblicism that Smith critiques.  It trades on an unmediated hermeneutical relationship between, in this case, genetics with Genesis 1-3.

On one side it fails to fully account for the manner in which the work of science is itself mediated by traditions of thought, including dimensions of faith, in both the pursuit and interpretation of that science.  On the other side, it takes the supposed unmediated “facts” from science and takes them directly to the text, bypassing the Christological and ecclesial mediation which serve as intermediaries for the text of the Canon of Scripture.  The direct and immediate relationship between the text and reader in bad biblicism is mirrored, only it runs simply in the opposite direction.

The relationship between Scripture and history, on Smith’s account, and indeed from the standpoint of theological interpretation and the broader ecumenical consensus in the Christian tradition, is only mediated properly through Jesus Christ and the rule of faith in the practices of the church.  This does not, and will not, cure every hermeneutical ill that the church suffers, but it does reframe the questions and the paths by which they can and will be resolved.  The conversational relationship between science and Scripture will be patiently and slowly mediated.  These constructive steps will not prevent or ever eliminate pervasive interpretive pluralism, but it does assure us and guide us by Christ’s presence, promise, and leading in, with, and under the Holy Canon of Scripture in the ethos of the historical and liturgical practices of the church in the meantime.  Setting aside the rhetorical tilt of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible we can identify and appreciate some genuinely helpful lines of assistance for reading Scripture and recovering truly fitting practices of interpretation.  In the end this is a good contribution to a very long ongoing conversation within the church on the perennially awkward relationship of science and philosophy to the theological practices of reading Scripture.

[1] This is signaled initially in his book The Identity of Jesus Christ (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1997, originally published in articles written in the 1967-68) and culminating in his well-known The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (Yale: Yale University Press, 1974).

[2] George Lindbeck, “A Panel Discussion,” in The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, edited by Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Ockholm (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996) p. 253.

[3] This conversation took place in Toronto in 2002 at a meeting of Wycliffe College advanced degree students and George Lindbeck at the home of George Sumner.

[4] This review is undertaken consciously with the core values of the Colossian Forum in mind: In highlighting Smith’s rhetorical style we hope to get past it in light of these values, and learn from and appreciate the positive dimensions of his proposals.

[5] The word “must” appears 54 times in the course of 200 pages.  His rhetorical style is illustrated also in this interview:

[6] For example: In the first three pages of the introduction he repeats, 5 times, the same assertion (without any argumentation) in slightly different terms: That this book is about Evangelical Biblicism and why it is “untenable” (vii. Par. 1), “impossible” (vii. Par 2, first sentence), “inadequate” (vii. Par 2 last sentence), “impossible” (again!, vii.-viii), and “misguided and impossible” (ix.).

[7] For a good example see p. ix.

[8] Broadly speaking, this is the teaching authority of the church, led by the pope and indicated in the various statements produced by the episcopacy which, among other things, are intended to define the unity of faith and belief for the church.

[9] The “rule of faith” is a phrase which goes back to the early centuries of the church.  It is a shorthand way of describing a set of beliefs and practices which are common to all Christians and have an organic relationship to Scripture; it both emerges from Scripture and leads back into it.  The ecumenical creeds, including the Apostle’s Creed, are seen as summaries of the rule of faith.  Throughout most of the church’s history the rule of faith has been considered the guide which leads the reader into the paths of the essential truths of Scripture and prevents them from wandering off into heretical beliefs and practices.

[10] Further steps include the coordination of other mediating factors in the relationship between Scripture and reader.  The relationship between divine and human authorship is one, the organic relationship between canon and the rule of faith is another, etc…

[11] So-called cutting edge science is fickle.  Only a decade ago the scientific world was abuzz over the discovery of “mitochondrial eve”:  A single female, living in North Africa around 200,000 years ago, who science confirmed was the genetic mother to all humans.  Scientists often have a better appreciation for this fickleness than theologians who impulsively draw from recent science in order to promote their own theological agendas.


Dr. Mark Bowald is Associate Professor of Religion and Theology at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Adjunct Professor of Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto, Ontario and Theology Editor for Christian Scholar’s Review.  His primary area of research and publishing is theological method.  His first book Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics: Mapping Divine and Human Agency (Ashgate, 2007) brought this interest to bear on the contemporary practices of reading Scripture.  He is presently working on its follow up under contact with Eerdmans Publishing.



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