Peter Leithart’s response to my book is more reasonable than some reviews I have had the misfortune to read recently. But his response essentially dodges rather than engages my book’s central argument.
The case I argue in the first half of my book is simple, consisting of four central claims and a conclusion. First, I claim that biblicism, which I define clearly, is widespread in American Evangelicalism. Biblicism is a particular theory about how the Bible ought to function as an authority in Christian life. Second, I argue, if this biblicist theory is correct, then it should produce (among those who hold it, at least) a largely shared understanding of what scripture teaches, an interpretive convergence, especially on central theological matters. Third, as a matter of empirical fact, biblicism produces nothing of the sort; instead, American Evangelicalism embodies a pervasive interpretive pluralism in biblical interpretation and theology. Fourth, none of the possible biblicist explanations of the fact of this pluralism succeeds in salvaging biblicism—they may work to explain pluralism, but then biblicism itself is undermined because the explanations are incompatible with key biblicist beliefs. Therefore, I conclude, biblicism as a theory is impossible, simply not viable, because the real world of biblical practice contradicts it, reflecting interpretive theological outcomes that should not exist if biblicism were a viable theory.
I think I am simply saying here what is patently obvious, but which many Evangelicals seem to want to ignore, since to admit it would be to recognize a huge problem. But ignoring the problem does not make it go away.
The second half of my book offers some constructive suggestions for those who recognize biblicism’s impossibility and want to move toward a post-biblicist world, but who are not prepared to become Catholic (as I have done) or Eastern Orthodox. (Readers should not confuse this book with another I recently published, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps). My suggestions in the second half of my biblicism book do not pretend to be complete, sufficient, or infallible. And they ought not to divert attention from the critical first half of the book.
Here, then, is where Leithart’s response goes wrong. First, he thinks he is catching me in an inconsistency around the issue of scripture’s “universality.” But he is confused. The way universality functions in a biblicist framework is very different than with the kind of Christocentric hermeneutic I, following Barth and others, propose. Leithart’s language itself betrays the sometimes biblicist conflation of Christ and the Bible. Of course Jesus Christ is the universal creator, upholder, redeemer, and Lord of all things. But that does not mean the Bible provides a direct universality of applications to all things about which it apparently speaks. So I do not accept Leithart’s view of “universality.” But I do believe—as I argue in the book, against those who say that the Bible is only concerned with “religious faith and morals”—that a theological grasp of who Christ is and who we are in relation to Christ, and what Christ reveals to us about the Holy Trinity, does indeed put us in a position to think Christianly about all of reality. Yet that is quite different from (an even Christ-centered) biblicism.
Second, Leithart attempts to show inconsistencies in my case by drawing attention especially to the most ridiculous books on “biblical dating,” “biblical cooking,” etc. But that is only one piece of a much larger collection of empirical data I offer about the extent of biblicism in American evangelicalism. More troubling are the “Three/Four/Five Views of ______” books that evangelical publishers produce aplenty, on both peripheral and central theological matters. I also present lots of specific evidence of biblicism’s influence in evangelical denominations, seminaries, para-church ministries, theological declarations, and so on. I have noticed that hostile reviews of my book tend to focus on the more ridiculous examples of the “biblical cooking” sort, as a way, it seems to me, of sweeping the larger problem under the rug. But that is diversionary from the main event. We are not talking merely about loonies who can be laughed off, but the warp and woof of much of mainstream evangelicalism.
Further, Leithart’s attempt to rescue biblicism under the banner of a Christ-centered biblicism will not, in my view, succeed. It is better in theory than some kinds of biblicism. But when it is actually practiced, it usually ends up looking mostly like the same less sophisticated versions, and I do not see it producing much less pervasive interpretive pluralism than we have now. Of course no biblicist of any stripe is going to say Christ should not be the center. But that does not mean they consistently practice a strongly Christocentric hermeneutic—it is easy to flop back and forth, I observe. Nor does endorsing the Christocentric idea per se resolve the problems to which my book points. I think the theoretical sickness is much more severe than Leithart admits, and so the medicine will have to be stronger.
Finally, Leithart’s focusing our attention on “do unto others” instead of the many other more difficult, strange, and seemingly indigestible passages of scripture also diverts attention away from the magnitude and intractability of the larger problem. Some of his points near the end of his response are good. But they themselves do not actually confront and resolve, but rather mostly dodge, my book’s central argument.
Those who wish to effectively refute my book’s argument might do one or more of the following. First, they might show that biblicism is in fact not widespread in American Evangelicalism. Second, they might show that biblicism in fact need not to produce fairly convergent readings of the Bible. Third, they might show that Evangelicalism is empirically not characterized by pervasive interpretive pluralism. Fourth, they might show that one or another possible explanation offered in fact successfully rescues biblicism from the fact of pervasive interpretive pluralism. Lots of luck with any of these. Making one and three stick require taking leave of reality. Two and four might only be demonstrated by eliminating some key parts of biblicism, which would turn it into a quite different theory. If someone can accomplish any of these, I’d like to see that magic performed. But I see none of it in Leithart’s response.
In short, the first half of my book needs to be addressed and answered directly for its main critical argument. The second, constructive half of the book might be temporarily ignored, as far as I’m concerned. In any case, squabbles with the second half must not intentionally or inadvertently distract attention from the challenge of the first half—something I observe happening too often, perhaps conveniently, in reviews critical of my book. By the time Leithart has explained his own dissatisfactions, the main thrust of my book’s central argument also gets lost. What we deserve to see is Leithart or whoever else focusing on that central argument and explaining why my critique of biblicism as impossible is wrong.
Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.
Peter Leithart, A Cheer and a Half for Biblicism
Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.