The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture

  • Christian Smith
  • Feb 9, 2012
  • Series: Volume 15 - 2012

Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. $22.99 hard cover. 24opp. ISBN 978-1-58743-303-0

BibleMadeImpossibleIt’s not often that a professor attempts to dissolve the edifice of evangelicalism with a single book.  But that is essentially what Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame, has tried to do with his latest work The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2011). Perturbed with popular use of the Bible in American evangelicalism, Smith decries modern “biblicism” (defined below) as not only irresponsible, but “impossible” – a theory that doesn’t work in practice.  He endeavors to show readers the flaws of biblicism and then make a case for a “truly evangelical” reading of Scripture. Although peppered with helpful insights, The Bible Made Impossible falls short of its lofty goals, and leaves readers looking for solid ground amidst the shifting sands of academic criticism.

Because the word “biblicism” has historically pejorative connotations, Smith defines it as “a constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function” (p. 4).  He gives biblicism ten characteristics. (1) The Bible is “divine writing” (2) that represents all of God’s communication to humanity and (3) touches every issue of human life. (4) Its meaning is clear to average readers (called “democratic perspicuity”), and (5) can be understood at face value without reference to context or (6) historical creeds. (7) Its message is internally consistent and (8) universally applicable assuming one has (9) pieced together the proper truths from the text. Finally, (10) it is like a “handbook” for Christian living and belief, speaking to subjects as diverse as “science, economics, health, politics, and romance” (p.5).

Smith argues that biblicism is rampant in American evangelicalism (institutions such as the Evangelical Free Church of America Campus Crusade for Christ, and schools like Wheaton College, Dallas Seminary, and Gordon Conwell are all tainted with biblicism according to Smith), and fatally flawed.  So what’s the problem?  His answer is “pervasive interpretive pluralism.”  Evangelicals – reading the same internally harmonious, clear, and straightforward text – disagree on nearly every subject the Bible addresses.  From church polity, the charismatic gifts, and women in ministry to topics like a Christian view of war and even theories of the atonement, “the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement on what it teaches” (p. 25, emphasis his.)  The Bible’s own diversity, multivocality (many voices), and polysemy (sentences and passages with many meanings), much less the diverse experiences of its readers, undercut biblicism and presents a critical challenge to evangelicals.

After giving historical, philosophical, and sociological reasons for this current state of affairs, Smith proposes his solution to pervasive interpretive pluralism: a “Christocentric hermeneutic.”  To be “truly evangelical” is to see Christ himself as the key to the Bible’s unity and meaning. The true Word of God, Jesus, is God’s primary revelation, and both testaments can only be understood in light of the gospel.  Though not a unique idea, this hermeneutic will allow readers to accept scriptural ambiguity, drop “the compulsion to harmonize,” and once and for all clearly distinguish central theological issues from peripheral issues.

Although Christian Smith is clearly a brilliant sociologist (books like Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America [Oxford University Press, 2001] are extremely helpful), his argument here falls apart on many levels. First, he argues that pervasive interpretative pluralism disproves democratic perspicuity, the idea that the main message of the Bible is clear to average readers.  Yet Smith himself believes that the Bible’s teaching on topics like poverty or money are “clear, straightforward and obvious” (p. 34, p. 144). He also argues the Bible’s main message of the gospel is abundantly clear (p. 94), but at another point relegates the penal satisfaction doctrine of atonement to a church teaching of secondary importance (p. 135).  If this is true, then what is the gospel? Moreover, who decides what’s clear and what isn’t?

Second, Smith denounces the attempts of evangelicals to make the Bible into a handbook treating topics as wildly diverse as cooking, exercise, gardening, and stress management (pp. 9-10).  Fair enough. The Bible is “universal history” (in the words of Lesslie Newbigin) and not just a book of religious advice. Yet Smith also argues that the gospel “blows the doors off every assumption, outlook, and experience that we have ever had” (p.93).  Does “every experience” include areas of human endeavor like “science, economics, politics, health and romance”, and perhaps even how we deal with stress (p.5)?  Irresponsible appropriation of isolated biblical texts is one thing; to call evangelicals who try to apply the gospel to all of life “biblicism” is quite another.

Third, pervasive interpretative pluralism is not only a problem for American evangelicals. Interpretative disagreement is a historical, global, and cross-denominational phenomenon. This is perhaps why the Roman Catholic Church has written out very clear statements on its position on issues like the ordination of women and modes of baptism. (By the way, Smith’s new church [he’s a recent convert to Catholicism] may qualify as biblicist. They affirm both the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture [see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 3.2.108]).

Fourth, positing a Christocentric hermeneutic is neither novel nor sufficient in overcoming diverse understandings of Scripture. There are an abundance of books, conferences, and seminars written by evangelicals that claim the gospel for the central point of reference.  Nobody disagrees with this.  But this hermeneutic alone is not enough to dissolve interpretative pluralism. For example, won’t both sides of the issue of the ordination of women claim to be “Christ-centered?” 

There is a small mountain of other problems as well.  For example, his suggestion to just “accept scriptural ambiguities” is pastorally impossible (p. 131). One must decide, for example, if you will baptize by immersion, sprinkling or something in between. Humility in debatable issues is wise; epistemological suspension, however, hinders pastoral leadership. We could go on about his dubious suggestion of a canon inside a canon (p. 116), his vague inclusion of leading evangelical institutions in the ranks of biblicists (pp. 12-13), and insufficient treatments of issues like the effects of sin as a potential cause of interpretative pluralism (p. 38,41).

To be fair, the book has several strengths. Pervasive interpretative pluralism is a problem, as any seminary student who has puzzled over contradictory biblical interpretations knows.  Introducing a variety of voices to a formerly clear mental landscape can indeed lead to a crisis of faith (p. 88).  Moreover, collecting “the biblical facts” to get an unencumbered version of the truth is often naïve (p. 58). We too have our biases and occupy a specific place and time in history.  This should temper potentially arrogant conclusions and provide us with robust charity for the whole family of God.

But in the end, The Bible Made Impossible can’t solve the problem it set out to solve, and instead introduces a host of others.  It’s understandable to be frustrated by the tremendous fragmentation of evangelicalism and the often irresponsible use of the Bible that exists in many American churches. But instead of blaming this condition on evangelical “biblicism”, it may have been more prudent to suggest a return to the essentials of biblical interpretation, including a proper respect for the cultural, historical, and linguistic context of the Bible and the centrality of the global and historical community of God in rightly understanding the Word.  Regardless of how the “impossible Bible” debate turns out, this bibliophile will keep singing along with the psalmist, “Your word, LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89).

Jeff Haanen, M.Div.
Denver Seminary Alumnus
February 8, 2012



Matt Proctor

Great review, Jeff!

Kevin Taylor

Hello Jeff, my friend:

So I've read this book too, and I agree with many, but not all of your points. See below:

Points of disagreement:

I don't think he's trying to "dismantle the edifice of evangelicalism", but to reform it somehow (although maybe he sees these as one and the same). And I don't think he's really going after evangelical scholarly and ecclesial institutions per se (even though my own experience is that some of the schools and churches he mentions indeed have been somewhat unnuanced in their interpretation and application of the Bible at times). Interestingly, Smith's own daughter just started her freshman year Calvin College, so I suppose he can't be too chapped about all flagship evangelical institutions. If he were asked about the hermeneutical practices at many evangelical institutions, I think that he would acknowledge that many evangelical scholars have a more nuanced approach than the average churchgoer. But he's also writing to thoughtful non-scholars, and while many of them would probably agree in theory that the Gospel should be the center of any interpretive approach to the Bible, in practice proof-texting is still alive and well.

In Smith's definition, the Catholic church would not be "biblicist" just for holding to the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture (as you claim in point 3). Rather, they wouldn't be "biblicist" at all because the church's magisterium sets forth a single line of interpretation, thus avoiding interpretive pluralism. [I know that Smith has been quite defensive when people read his attack on "biblicism" as an attack on either inerrancy or inspiration, since he says that he intended nothing of the sort. In fact, I would guess that he personally affirms Scriptural inspiration (although probably not inerrancy if inerrant means that one has see ancient cosmology as scientifically valid or has to find ways to harmonize everything everywhere - Did visitors to the tomb see one or two angels? etc., etc., etc.)]

I'm not sure that the pastoral implications are quite as dire as you say. One can legitimately say to one's parishioners "We sprinkle (or immerse) when we baptize, and we do so because it makes sense to us biblically, but we also acknowledge that there are other ways of reading the Scriptures that other Christians find equally compelling, so we're not going to get super uptight about it. Since we have to act, we have to choose a method, but since the Bible isn't primarily a ritual manual, we need to be okay if others choose to do differently." In fact, I find interesting those rare churches that will both dunk or douse, since there truly are good symbolic and historical reasons for both. For parishioners who are used to thinking of the Bible as having a single cut-and-dried answer to everything, allowing for this could introduce some doubt into their minds, but that's okay in my book. In fact, saying this to one's parishioners is probably the wisest thing that pastors could do, since a greater degree of charity (and even epistemological humility) is sorely needed in some circles.

Points of agreement (actually parts of your points 1, 2, and 4 condensed into a single huge point of agreement):

I, like you, was extremely frustrated with Smith's fuzziness when it came to how this Christocentric reading was to apply to the living of life. In a few places in the book he wasn't shy about claiming that there are things in the Bible that are "over-determined" (and he felt competent to decide which things these were!), but I think that he is right that there is much in the Bible that is "under-determined." For those that want the Bible to speak to every area of life, this is a very serious problem. If the Bible as a whole doesn't speak to gardening or dating, though, then how does the Christocentric approach give us any more direction on how to live faithfully in 21st-century America (including in our gardening and dating practices, which are far from trivial matters)? If God has begun and continues to redeem the world and introduce a new Kingdom, what is that to look like? How do we live lives that testify to that new reality? I know that Smith sees the approach presented in the second half of the book as still in its early stages of development (and he hopes that others will help him to develop it further), but it was WAY, WAY too thin for me.

So that's my two cents. If you read this and care to respond, it might get an interesting conversation started.


Kevin Taylor

PhD Candidate, ABD

Boston University

Division of Religious and Theological Studies

Jeffrey Haanen

Good buddy! Thanks for your thoughtful comments. There are few people whose opinions I respect more. Let me respond to your well-reasoned critique.

1.I perhaps did overstate the case in my introduction. Smith wasn’t necessarily trying to “dissolve” evangelicalism, but he was certainly trying to tear down his definition of Biblicism, and his proposal for what would replace it – a Christocentric hermeneutic – didn’t solve much (as I pointed out). Also, I agree that he was only going after segments of evangelicalism in this book. I think he would acknowledge that institutions like Calvin College are more “nuanced” as you said. However, he only vaguely defines who is a “Biblicist” and who isn’t. When he mentions institutions like Gordon Conwell and Wheaton in his chapter on Biblicism, you have to ask: “Are they just Biblicists in spots, or does he think they’ve swallowed all ten points (which doesn’t seem likely)?”

2.Also, a good point about the Catholic Church. Having a single institution defining debatable issues certainly helps with interpretive pluralism. (However, simply by nature of the diversity of the Catholic Church, you’d have to think that there is still practical interpretive pluralism on the ground amidst both priests and laity?). But here’s my question: What then does Smith think inerrancy is? Are the “teachings” of the Bible inerrant? (Since nobody can agree on that, what might those be? Or are only the Catholic interpretations inerrant?) Is it the autographs that are inerrant? He shoots this down as well. Perhaps I missed Smith’s definition of inerrancy and inspiration amidst his critique of what they aren’t.

3.I really agree with this third critique of yours. We do need more epistemological humility in evangelical circles. I’m often dumfounded by some who simply can’t understand how their position, say on the issue of divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility, could be wrong even in the slightest way. I also appreciate churches that will either dunk or sprinkle. My point was, however, that just “accepting scriptural ambiguities” is tough to do in practice. Pastorally, people come to us with real questions: What does the Bible teach about homosexuality? What is my responsibility politically? These are potentially divisive topics, but pastors need to find ground to stand on, even as they acknowledge that others may disagree. Having just finished a biography on Luther, I perhaps have adopted a bit more of a “here I stand” mentality on tough topics.

4.And yes, I agree with you and Smith that much in the Bible is “under-determined.” Yet we still need to think about the implications of the gospel on these under-determined issues, like dating or our finances (even though the finances issue, I’d argue, is quite “determined” by Scripture.)

Again, thanks for your thoughts, good friend! I appreciate your willingness to engage in friendly debate. It’s all too rare in our fragmented 21st Christianity.

Grace and peace,