“Biblicist” is a fighting word. It’s what Catholics call “bibliolatrous” Protestants, what liberal Protestants used to call Fundamentalists, and what moderate Evangelicals like to call immoderate Evangelicals. It is a word more bandied than explained. One of the strengths of Christian Smith’s recent The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos, 2011) is his precision in identifying the object of his attack. As one would expect from an estimable Notre Dame sociologist, Smith lays out ten assumptions that constitute the Biblicist view of the Bible, and then illustrates each assumption at length. According to Smith, Biblicists believe the Bible is God’s word and therefore has divine authority, that its plain sense is clear to every “reasonably intelligent” reader, that it covers everything Christians need to know, and covers everything in such a way that it is possible to construct a “handbook” on nearly any topic.
I am sympathetic with much of what Smith has to say in response to this model. He is correct to stress the variety of the speech acts in Scripture, and to observe that the Evangelical term “inerrancy” privileges propositions over commands, promises, and praise. Scripture is frequently difficult, ambiguous, anything but straightforward, nearly always “multivocal, polysemic, and multivalent.” Smith is adept at sniffing out Biblicist inconsistency, such as when he scolds Biblicists for their failure to heed the New Testament’s repeated command to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” (He is so convincing, in fact, that if I ever meet Prof. Smith, I plan to give him a big, holy smack on the cheek.) Again and again, he directs attention away from theories about the text to the Bible itself.
It is on this last point, however, that Smith’s book is least consistent and satisfying, and this failure is evident especially in what he says about the universal scope of Scripture. He offers a lengthy list of evangelical titles (pp. 8-10) that claim to provide biblical perspectives on everything from business to cooking, marriage to medicine, racial reconciliation to stress management to politics to friendship. These books are perhaps very bad, perhaps even sub-Christian, but we can’t know from Smith’s book. Their mere existence is enlisted as evidence of a nearly idolatrous devotion to the Bible. We don’t know what is in these books because Smith doesn’t tell us much about them beyond their titles. A list suffices. Smith is respectful of Biblicists throughout, but many readers, I suspect, will read the list, smirk, and move on, eyes rolling at the barefoot yahoos who still stalk the land.
What exactly does Smith object to in these books? He complains about the “how-to” approach of handbook Biblicists. Fine. He thinks that Biblicists flatten Scripture, displace Christ from the center, ignore complexities, treat the Scriptures as a tidy technical manual for living. True. But those are hermeneutical objections, and the hermeneutical assumptions are detachable from other “Biblicist” claims.
These hermeneutical expectations are detachable in particular from the question of whether Scripture has “universal applicability.” Even on his own premises, it seems to me, Smith should admit the universal applicability of the Bible. The Bible is, as Smith insists, “Christocentric” and “Christotelic,” but the Christ on which the Bible centers and toward which it aims is the Creator, the one in whom all things hold together, alpha and omega. If the Bible everywhere speaks of this Christ, then it must, directly or indirectly, speak of everything else besides. To call the Bible “Christ-centered” is to make the most comprehensive possible claim about its contents.
Smith comes close to saying this. The gospel that is the center of the Bible “shakes loose from us every misguided and idolatrous preconception about everything, literally everything, that we thought we knew, and then begins to rebuild us in the light of the singularly radical fact of who God really is. . . . The good news of the gospel . . . has the power to reframe and transform everything else” (p. 94; my emphasis). Despite his opposition to Biblicists who write books about “biblical financial management,” Smith acknowledges that the Bible teaches at least one neglected principle of financial management—that we are called to give generously. He lists God’s Blueprint for Building Marital Intimacy as a Biblicist text, but in a long endnote he summarizes what the Bible ways about marriage. Prolific as Smith is, I’m confident he could dash off an evangelical Christocentric treatment of marriage in the next week or two. I’d read it.
At this point, Smith forgets his own counsel. His urges Biblicists to receive “God’s written word as God has chosen to confer it,” but that point cuts both ways. Scripture is Christ-centered, but how is it Christ-centered? If it is, as Smith argues, comprehensively Christ-centered, it is Christ-centered when it makes historical claims, when it provides the pattern for constructing a tabernacle in the wilderness and offering animal sacrifice, when it provides a songbook of Israel’s praise, when its prophets castigate Israel’s idolatry and injustice, when it gives commands and promises, when it speaks of marriage and money and power and violence (which it undoubtedly does).
This sort of approach allows Westminster Seminary’s Vern Poythress to move “in the space of four contiguous sentences” from an affirmation that Scripture is essentially about Christ and the gospel to the claim that the Bible instructs Christians “in every area of life.” It is not, as Smith claims, because the “apparently Christ-centered vision . . . slips out of focus” (p. 110). It is because Poythress is eager to receive Scripture’s Christ-centeredness as God has chosen to confer it.
When we look to the text, we find that the Christ who is the center spends much of his time teaching his disciples, and he speaks “with authority on a nearly limitless range of topics” (p. 10; Smith is speaking of Biblicism). “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is about as universally applicable as it gets. Shouldn’t Christians learn to obey the Golden Rule in business, marriage, relations with friends and neighbors, book reviewing and academic research, politics, child-raising, and in a “limitless range” of other situations? “Love your enemies” is narrower, but most people have enemies enough to give this simple command a “nearly limitless range” of application. It would be an illuminating exercise to go through Smith’s list of Biblicist titles to see how many of these topics Jesus Himself addresses in the gospels, not to mention the rest of the Bible.
When we look at the Bible itself, rather than clinging to a Christocentric theory about the Bible, we find that the Christ who is the center of Scripture and history comes talking, and that Scripture is the record of both His coming and His talk. To be truly Christ-centered in the way the Bible is, we have to deal with the talkative Jesus, the final Word of the “chatty” God of Israel (Robert Jenson’s term). Without this specificity, Smith’s admirably Christocentric hermeneutics becomes another “flat” reading that smudges the paint and smooths away the ragged edges of the text.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
Christian Smith, A Reply to Leithart on Biblicism
Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible
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