The Bible Made Impossible:
Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture
by Christian Smith
Brazos, 234 pages, $22.99
How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps
by Christian Smith
Cascade, 205 pages, $24
Most of the time, Christian Smith is a hard-working sociologist. In what could be styled his Bruce Wayne persona, Smith has won the grants, recruited the associates, organized the questionnaires, spun out the regression analyses, and published the carefully constructed books that have established his well-deserved reputation as an expert on adolescence, philanthropy, and conservative Protestantism. As a part-time caped crusader, Smith is a whole lot more: a learned culture warrior (see his edited volume The Secular Revolution), a first-order philosopher polemicizing against social scientific reductionism (What Is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up), and now in these two books a consequential theological critic and an earnest apologist for the Roman Catholic faith.
In The Bible Made Impossible, written in admirably accessible prose, Smith offers a sustained critique of characteristic attitudes toward Scripture found among American Evangelicals. He defines “biblicism” as including the beliefs that the Bible presents God’s word inerrantly, represents the whole of divine communication, is straightforwardly clear, is best interpreted by inductive methods alongside “commonsense hermeneutics,” applies to all people everywhere in the same way, and functions like a handbook to guide believers for whatever purpose they can imagine.
Smith then documents a full catalogue of Evangelical nonsense, like proposals for Bible weight loss, Bible dating, Bible money making, and much more. He critiques a number of activities that to him represent the “rampant interpretive pluralism” of Evangelicalism at its worst, especially the many books from Evangelical publishers that present three or four mutually exclusive Bible-based views on topics like justification by faith, the role of women in the church, or war and peace.
His most comprehensive complaint is directed against what he describes as the hyper-doctrinal, Enlightenment-driven, over-stated, and woodenly rationalistic proclivities of Evangelical approaches to Scripture. After readers catch their breath, they find in the book’s second half an appeal for a Christ-centered approach to Scripture that recognizes the situated character of biblical revelation, the potential benefits of other Christian authorities functioning alongside the Bible, and a greater self-consciousness about how the assumptions of contemporary culture influence “simple,” “inductive,” or “common sense” biblical interpretations.
Ninety-Five Difficult Steps, also written to and for Evangelicals, explains Smith’s recent reception into the Catholic Church as a “paradigm shift” to Catholicism from the Evangelicalism in which he was raised. Deploying Thomas Kuhn’s famous construct, Smith details forty-four “anomalies” he encountered as an Evangelical that eventually accumulated to create a “crisis.” He then presents an understanding of Catholic belief and practice that created a positive “gestalt” to replace the anomaly-encumbered gestalt of his earlier Evangelical life.
Smith also counsels Evangelicals who may be moving toward Rome about what they should not expect to find (namely, a hitherto lacking level of certainty or a Catholic replacement for earlier Evangelical experiences of church as a “one-stop center of personal and community life”), what they might need more help in understanding (for example, learning to view clerical abuse scandals as possibly God’s way “to humble and purify the Catholic church”), why they should self-consciously carry the “gifts, abilities, insights, convictions, and commitments . . . drawn from the best of evangelical wellsprings” with them into the Catholic Church, and how to deal with practical issues like maintaining good relations with family members who remain Evangelicals or coping with a poorly taught Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults that would-be converts might encounter at a local parish.
The strong link between the two books is Smith’s thinking on Scripture. Thus, his third “thesis” in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps is “the Bible’s inability to settle matters in dispute,” which summarizes the main argument of the other book. But Smith also argues that Evangelical conceptions of Scripture cannot explain where the New Testament comes from, that Evangelicals give a free pass to “prophetic” authors whose predictions never come true, that too many Evangelical Bible studies degenerate into orgies of feeling or opinion, that crucial Christian doctrines like the Trinity or orthodox Christology cannot be read simply off of Scripture, and that fully functioning Christian life or organization does not depend on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The longest exposition for any of his single steps is given to the claim that “the doctrine of sola scriptura is itself not biblical but, ironically, is received and believed as a sacred (Protestant) church tradition.”
As someone whose respect for the strengths of Catholicism has grown steadily over the last four decades, and yet whose intention to live out his days as a Protestant also has grown stronger over those same decades, I have a particular interest in the questions Smith raises. In order to promote the broad consideration that these books deserve, it may be useful to offer a more general response as a confessional Protestant—and so in that sense “Evangelical.” Two general questions are pertinent. First, is the situation with respect to the Bible as bad among Evangelicals as Smith indicates? That depends on which part of the Evangelical world is in view. If some Evangelicals’ use of Scripture is often truly wild and woolly, numerous Evangelicals live, think, worship, and work with a relatively restrained and (even by the standards set out in the second half of The Bible Made Impossible) Christ-centered loyalty to the Bible.
The Westminster Confession, which moves toward Smith’s conception of biblicism by affirming that “the whole counsel of God” is either “set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture,” yet defines “the whole counsel of God” carefully as “all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life.” It restricts what people can learn intuitively and universally from Scripture to “those things necessary to be believed and observed for salvation.” The Holy Spirit, rather than human reasoning, is the key agent for convincing people of the truths of Scripture, and quite a few important matters are left to be resolved by “the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word.” These statements have been used in a biblicistic way, but they need not be.
When Evangelical communities pause to think carefully, the result is a much broader array of cohesive biblical interpretations, even from those whose statements about Scripture sound biblicist. Some years ago I surveyed the doctrinal statements of a wide range of Evangelical groups. The groups disagreed on the present-day activity of the Holy Spirit, on whether the return of Christ would be pre-millennial, and on how Adam and Eve related to the rest of humanity, as well as Sabbath observance, peace and war, and family issues.
Yet the areas of agreement were greater and more impressive than the disagreements: that God created the world; that God exists as Trinity; that human nature is sinful and in need of redemption; that Christ was born of a virgin, was both human and divine, was sinless, died a substitutionary death for sinners, rose bodily from the tomb, mediates and advocates for humans in heaven, and will come again; that the Holy Spirit is active today; that Christian believers are to express their faith practically; that Christ established the church to continue his work in the world; that there will be a final judgment; and that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are to be practiced. Even granting the pluralism that intrudes when these groups explain what such common affirmations mean, this set of biblical interpretations points to more coherence than Smith’s account of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” suggests.
The second question is whether Smith has gone far enough with the thinking he put to good use in describing his reception into the Catholic Church. If paradigms predispose individuals to see truths, so broad cultural histories help explain the relative strengths and weaknesses of different Christian traditions. Smith’s view is sometimes skewed by his tendency to compare Evangelical behaviors in the wide-open American marketplace with well-considered statements of doctrine found, say, in official statements like the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Evangelical biblicism Smith describes flourished when expressions of European Christendom took root in America during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. When Christianity grew in a culture that was voluntaristic, democratic, anti-traditional, entrepreneurial, and anti-establishmentarian, biblicism as Smith describes it was one of the results.
Yet there were more positive results of Evangelicalism’s development, including lay activism, lay ownership of Christian enterprises, great evangelistic energy, a considerable measure of lay-initiated social reform, vigorous participation in Christian worship, extraordinary opportunities for non-elites to receive theological training, skillful exploitation of popular media to communicate the gospel, and—not least—widespread assimilation of biblical values in the lives of active (even individualistic) readers of Scripture.
Compared to American biblicistic Evangelicalism, Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, even in their Americanized representations, are models of hermeneutical restraint (at least in principle). As defined by the official standards of these traditions, Orthodoxy and Catholicism are clearly ahead of Protestant Evangelicals with doctrinal teaching that is in principle secure, authority that is in principle responsible, and Christian practices that are keyed directly to foundational theological principle.
But on other matters, Evangelical Protestants have been far ahead. Compared to the Orthodox, Evangelicals have been far less beset by linguistic, nationalistic, and stultifyingly traditional constraints. Compared to both Orthodox and Catholics, Evangelicals have suffered much less from political struggles for power, the abuse of clerical status and authority, lay passivity, religious nominalism defined by tribal loyalty, and the antinomian combination of ritual observance and personal dissipation.
While in their tendencies toward biblicism Evangelicals are scandalous in a way that other Christian traditions are not, in other dimensions of Christian existence those traditions compare poorly with Evangelicalism. This observation is not a direct response to the arguments of Christian Smith’s book. It is, however, an appeal for even broader comparisons than these stimulating volumes so helpfully provoke.
Mark A. Noll is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.