Books: The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith

Roger E. Olson, a church historian and theologian at Baylor University, is conducting an illuminating dialogue on his blog concerning the book The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Smith is Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, and he identifies himself as a former evangelical who has now joined the Roman Catholic Church, partly because of the issues he raises in his book.[1]

Obviously, Smith has given his book a provocative title. That action appears to imitate the sad and blasphemous trend championed by such enemies of the Bible as Bart Ehrman (with titles like The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and Misquoting Jesus: The story Behind who changed the Bible and why) and atheist Christopher Dawkins (The God Delusion). In saying that, I do not question the Christian faith of the author, just his wisdom.

At least outwardly, Smith wrote this book to attack what he calls biblicism. You probably want to know what he means by that term. I’m sorry you asked, because the answer is way too long. (Smith tends to unload everything in the truck in an apparent attempt to overwhelm the reader or critic.) Rather than giving you a data dump from the book, I will summarize each point in my own words.

Biblicism, according to Smith[2], consists of ten assumptions about the Bible — which I have greatly simplified — including its interpretation and its application:

  • Divine Writing: The words of the Bible are exactly what God wanted to say to us.
  • Total Representation: The Bible alone contains all that God has to say to us.
  • Complete Coverage: The Bible addresses every issue relevant to Christian faith and life.
  • Democratic Perspicuity: Christians can correctly understand the plain meaning of the Bible’s content simply by reading.
  • Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand the Bible is to accept the text’s most obvious literal sense, sometimes considering the original cultural context and sometimes not.
  • Solo Scriptura [a needless variant of the Sola Scriptura phrase (“The Bible alone”) of the Protestant Reformers]: Theology may be derived directly from the biblical text without regard for conclusions reached in church history.
  • Internal Harmony: All of the Bible’s statements about any theological subject may be harmonized.
  • Universal Applicability: What the Bible says to God’s people at any time is universally valid for all Christians, unless later revoked.
  • Inductive Method: Careful study of the entire Bible will allow the reader to discover the correct beliefs and practices.
  • Handbook Model: Using the Bible, the reader can assemble a complete handbook for Christian belief and practice on many subjects, “including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.”[3]

What is Smith’s complaint?

Smith believes the assumptions sketched above — collectively called “biblicism” — are held by as many as one hundred million American Christians.[4] Since he rejects all ten assumptions, Smith is greatly disturbed by that prospect.

Smith identifies the biggest problem with the form of Bible interpretation called biblicism to be “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (chapter 1). Smith says, “The very same Bible — which biblicists insist is perspicuous [clear] and harmonious — gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest.”[5] In the remainder of this post, I will abbreviate “pervasive interpretive pluralism” as PIP.

Concerns about Smith’s critique

When I look at the specific way Smith has worded the assumptions that he says amount to biblicism, I find myself in agreement with only one of them, possibly two. So, my biblicism score is low even though my respect for the Bible could not be greater! Here are some other concerns.

First, I consider it disingenuous that Smith hammers evangelical Protestantism for PIP when the same theological diversity can readily be found within the ranks of his new faith, Roman Catholicism. Smith admits as much but buries the admission in the massed chapter notes at the back of the book (page 180, note 9). Smacks a bit of currying favor with his new management!

Second, I am a lot less concerned about PIP than Smith is. When I am reading Douglas Moo’s fine commentary on Romans and he describes ten different views that have been held about some Bible verse through the ages, it does not lead me to run screaming into the night and wailing about disunity. Sorry. As I read the Gospels, there seems to have been a divergence of viewpoints even among the twelve who walked with Jesus. Peter and Paul had some disagreements. Why does this diversity cause Smith such panic?

Third, the use of many quotes from evangelical doctrinal statements and other position papers to establish a baseline of belief seems misguided. It has unfortunately been a longstanding trait of human beings, Christian or not, to oversell their ideas. Reading a long doctrinal statement is often like reading the platform of a political party. Doctrinal statements are not the Bible, and they serve a limited purpose.

Fourth, Smith defines biblicism in such a way that it seems unlikely to fit very many of the people who call themselves evangelicals. I agree with Roger Olson that fundamentalists are Smith’s primary target. Yet Smith speaks as if the definition fits a much larger group of people (“perhaps as many as a hundred million” page 6).

Fifth, I must agree with Smith about the lame idea of using the Bible as a handbook for everything (cooking, exercise, health, cosmology, etc.). Some Christian publishers and bookstores are a scandal in that they offer so much theological junk!

Sixth, I don’t understand why anyone would think the Bible is easy to understand, no matter who said so! Even the Apostle Peter said some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). When I have Peter’s comment on the subject, not even Calvin and Luther can change my mind.

All in all, Smith has made a few cogent points, but I see a swarm of problems. As we work further into the book it will be interesting to see if the magic solution is to allow some higher authority — say, for example, the Roman Catholic Church — to get rid of PIP by telling us the one authoritative interpretation for each Bible passage. No thanks!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.



[1] Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011) xiii.

[2] Smith, Impossible, 4–5.

[3] Smith, Impossible, 5.

[4] Smith, Impossible, 6.

[5] Smith, Impossible, 17.

Books: John Calvin by Herman J Selderhuis

Since I am not a fan of Calvinism, I did not expect to become a fan of Calvin. But after reading John Calvin by Herman J. Selderhuis (IVP Academic, 2009), my esteem for the man definitely grew.

Selderhuis claims to write as neither friend nor enemy of Calvin (1509–1564), and I think he maintained that neutrality. Since Calvin maintained that we learn most about people from their letters, that was the primary source used by the author. This is not a book for you to gain a grip on Calvin’s theology, but it works well in giving insights into his personality and life experience. For example, I’ll bet you did not know that Calvin used at least four names during his life, nor that he was an illegal alien for most of his adult life!

More to the point, you can understand that being excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC from here on) would not have had quite the impact on Calvin that you might expect, because both his father and brother had also suffered that fate earlier in his life. Calvin secretly read works by Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon during his RCC education, and he was convinced that there was much to learn from Judaism and the Old Testament. He seems to have become a Christian in his late twenties, though the timing is uncertain.

It is fascinating that Calvin never had any formal theological training, a fact that we should probably celebrate. It was after Calvin’s death that the odious scholastic theology – full of speculative philosophy and tedious logic – crept into Reformed theology through Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva. Calvin was gifted in explaining complex theological concepts simply.

It is astonishing that Calvin gave ten new sermons every fourteen days! That is a killing workload, yet Calvin also found the time to complete many editions of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion as well as commentaries on almost every book of the Bible. Calvin’s preaching featured short, clear sentences, and that was so innovative that it strongly influenced the development of modern French sentence structure.

Well, you can tell that this book has many interesting things to say about a remarkable theologian. It is unfortunate that Calvin’s biblical theology was made so speculative and philosophical by Beza and then later infused with even stronger determinism by Jonathan Edwards. I have problems with Calvin’s original views, but he did much to advance appreciation for the Bible as the basis for all Christian theology. Calvin sought to honor Christ in all things, and I applaud his intention but not all his conclusions.

I warmly recommend John Calvin by Herman J Selderhuis.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

A Short History of the Western Church — Part 2

In my previous post, I spoke candidly about the unfortunate ignorance of Christians in America in relation to the history of the church in the West. The Roman Catholic Church (abbreviated RCC) figures prominently in that history. Below is the second part of this synopsis of history.

The Reformation Church — Luther (b. 1483)
to World War I (1914–18)

In his masterful history of Europe, Norman Davies has said, “The religious revival, clearly visible at the end of the fifteenth century, was largely driven by popular disgust at the decadence of the [RCC] clergy….Europe was full of tales about simoniac bishops [bishops who sold a church office or preferment], nepotistic popes, promiscuous priests, idle monks, and, above all, the sheer worldly wealth of the Church.”[1] This laid the foundation for a challenge to the RCC’s grip on all religious power in western Europe. It was not long in coming.

In 1517 a young monk named Martin Luther (1483–1546) was driven to fury at the appearance in Germany of a friar selling paper certificates guaranteeing relief from punishment in Purgatory, that being a supposed place of temporary suffering after death to finish paying for sins committed in life (according to RCC theology). Luther nailed a 95-point protest against them to the door of the local church. That started a fire which has not yet been quenched.

The “Protestant Reformation” effectively began in 1517 as a protest against certain corrupt practices of the RCC. This quickly expanded into a much broader re-evaluation of RCC theology in relation to the explicit teaching of the Bible. Instead of finding spiritual authority based in the RCC and its pope, the Protestant reformers believed the Bible to be the paramount source of such authority (sola Scriptura, “the Bible alone”) and also looked to the early church fathers and early councils. Contrary to the RCC view that salvation required meritorious human works and infusions of grace from Mary and the church sacraments, the reformers looked to the Bible to discover salvation by God’s grace (sola gratia, “grace alone”) through a commitment of personal faith (sola fide, “faith alone”) exclusively in Christ (solus Christus, “Christ alone”).

John Calvin

Though the Protestant Reformation began with Luther and his followers, the next towering figure to advance the cause was a scholar named John Calvin (1509–1564). Davies says, “A fugitive Frenchman, more radical than Luther, Calvin was the founder of the most widely influential branch of Protestantism.”[2] His theological summary Institutes of the Christian Religion, appearing in 6 editions from 1536 to 1559, has powerfully influenced the development of Christianity in both Europe and America.

Davies discusses one of the effects of the Protestant Reformation by saying, “Until the 1530s, Christendom had been split into two halves — Orthodox and Catholic. From the 1530s onwards, it was split into three: Orthodox, Catholic [RCC], and Protestant. And the Protestants themselves were split into ever more rival factions.”[3]

Counter-Reformation: The RCC Fights Back

The reaction of the RCC to these developments was somewhat slow in developing, but in time demonstrated its ferocity. Protestant historians call this reaction the Counter-Reformation. The RCC’s Council of Trent, from 1545 to 1563, combined both doctrinal definitions and institutional structures to meet the Protestant challenge. A brotherhood known as the Jesuits (formally the Society of Jesus) was formed in 1539, and they became the spearhead of the intellectual attack on the Reformation.

But this was not to be a peaceful clash of ideas, rather a deadly struggle. Charles V (1500–1558), Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, took stern measures against the spread of Protestantism in the Low Countries (the modern Netherlands and Belgium). Gonzalez says, “Tens of thousands died for their faith. The leaders were burned, their followers beheaded, and many women were buried alive.”[4]

On St. Bartholomew’s Eve, 1572, more than 20,000 French Calvinists (called Huguenots) were murdered in a single day in surprise attacks throughout France. The RCC Pope Gregory XIII (1502–1585) and king Philip II of Spain (1527–1598) each ordered a celebratory hymn of praise to God when they separately received the news of the massacre.[5]

Lows and Highs: Widespread Wars and a Bible

These religious wars were capped by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) which killed 8 million people in Germany and left the country a wasteland. But the bloodletting did not end until the civil war in England concluded with the overthrow of the monarchy by the Puritan forces under Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). One effect of the struggle in England was the emigration of thousands to the Colonies where they might worship as they chose without so much interference.

During the century of war (roughly 1550 to 1650) the King James Version of the Bible appeared in 1611. This English translation gradually became the most widely accepted and best loved of all. Along with Shakespeare’s plays, it has had a profound influence on the development of English language and literature.

Due partly to exhaustion, the religious warfare ended around 1650 and there followed a quiet period often called the “Age of Reason.” This period roughly extends from 1650 to 1789. “After the Wars of Religion, one can see that the exercise of ‘the Light of sweet reason’ was a natural and necessary antidote.”[6]

INTERLUDE: If we look at the sweep of European events, we can see that the period of RCC dominance led to a corrupt and power-hungry Church. The Protestant Reformation broke the exclusive grip of the RCC and eventually led to the Religious Wars fueled by the Counter-Reformation. Then came a quieter period of recovery in which principles of humanism and reason (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”) came to the fore. As we will see, these non-religious values yielded The Terror and the Napoleonic Wars. Human reason proved no better master than corrupt religion.

Revolutions and Visions of the End

The fuse of conflict was relit in America as the Colonies revolted in 1775 and prevailed in 1783. Just as the new United States of America was ratifying its Constitution, French revolutionaries took the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789 beginning The Terror and the reign of the guillotine. “The French Revolution plunged Europe into the most profound and protracted crisis which it had ever known. . . . For Europe as a whole, it provided an object lesson in the danger of replacing one form of tyranny with another.”[7] This was the age of Napoleon (1769–1821). It ended at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, after millions were dead.

While the madness of The Terror raged in France, God was doing something astounding in William Carey (1761–1834), an Englishman known as “the Father of Modern Missions.” Though no one in his Baptist group had expressed concern for the unsaved in other lands, Carey inspired others to form the first missionary society and then left for India as its first missionary in 1793. Within five years he had learned Bengali and translated most of the Bible. Then he set up his own press to print it. Among many accomplishments, Carey edited translations of the Bible into 36 languages.[8]

Perhaps one of the most unanticipated effects of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars was the revival of interest in Bible prophecy. Ernest Sandeen states, “The violent uprooting of European political and social institutions forced many to the conclusion that the end of the world was near.”[9] This resulted in many conferences and publications among Christians in England. Among these were meetings by Christians who had taken the name Brethren and who gathered in the 1830s at Plymouth under the leadership of J.N. Darby (1800–1882). In time Darby’s views would jump the Atlantic.

This history will conclude with Part 3.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 484.

[2] Davies, 490.

[3] Davies, 495–6.

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1984),  2:96.

[5] Gonzalez, 2:107; also Davies, 502 (“the Pope celebrated a Te Deum and the King of Spain ‘began to laugh.’“).

[6] Davies, 577.

[7] Davies, 677.

[8] The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J.D. Douglas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 192.

[9] Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), 5.

 

A Short History of the Western Church — Part 1

Unfortunately, the Christian church in America is woefully ignorant of its history. This deficit in knowledge hurts Christian evangelism because we do not have any clear idea of what we are asking people to join, other than a faith-relationship to Jesus Christ. Jesus formed a community of faith (Matthew 16:18). English translations of the Bible use the word “church” to refer to that community, and the church has a history!

By “church” I mean the collection of all true believers in Jesus. The extent to which this group overlaps with the institutional Church (mark the capital letter “C”) has varied greatly. The Roman Catholic Church (abbreviated RCC) is the primary institutional Church for most of the history covered here. Also, this history focuses mainly on Europe, because that is the channel of our spiritual heritage in America.

Outline of Church History

  1. The Early Church – Day of Pentecost (33) to Council of Nicea (325)
  2. The Political Church – Constantine (306–337) to birth of Luther (b. 1483)
  3. The Reformation Church – Luther (1483) to World War I (1914–1918)
  4. The Modern Church – World War I (1914–1918) to 1970

Synopsis of Church History

The Early Church – Day of Pentecost (33) to Council of Nicea (325)

Several factors characterized the early church: persecution (usually to death), rapid expansion, and the struggle with heresies and secular philosophy.

Even though Jesus had been executed by Roman capital punishment, the Christian movement was initially too insignificant to get attention in Rome. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost in the year 33 resulted in a tremendous influx of new believers (Acts 2:41). But violent opposition soon developed as well. Many believers died for their faith, but the church grew even faster during persecution.

The Apostle Paul, having been falsely accused by the Jews, appealed his case to Caesar (Acts 25:11), and that brought the message to the heart of the Roman empire (Acts 28:16, 31). The rapid expansion of the church and its failure to practice emperor worship brought it into early and frequent conflict with Roman authority. Persecution drove many Christians out of Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Roman general Titus in the year 70.

Of greater danger to the faith than death were the inroads of Greek philosophy. In certain instances we are still struggling with accommodations made to shape the Christian faith into a philosophically-pleasing package during this early period. For example, the idea that God has no emotions entered Christian thought during this period.

The Political Church – Constantine (c. 274–337) to Luther (b. 1483)

The Roman emperor Constantine (c.274–337) brought an end to most persecution and favored Christianity above all religions. While this was a positive development, it also brought about many changes. Under imperial favor, church life became much more formal and church buildings more monumental. One may reasonably say that from this time until Luther challenged the established order in 1517, the church became entangled with political power. The true church was overshadowed by the institutional Church, which was often a major element of regional political power. This is still true today in some ways.

Of course, all great changes produce a reaction. The popularization of Christian faith (both professed faith and true faith) under Constantine caused some believers to retreat from the tumult. This led to a tremendous increase in monastic movements and their monasteries. They still exist.

Heresies, Councils and Augustine

Many heresies plagued the church during this period, including Arianism and Pelagianism. In short, Arianism taught that God the Father was greater than Jesus or the Spirit, and Pelagianism taught that man could achieve salvation by worthy human works. The church rightly rejected these views during councils held in the fourth century. These councils also reached a final consensus concerning the exact books recognized by the church as inspired by God, now collected for us as the Bible.

Augustine (354–430) of Hippo, in North Africa, was the most influential theologian of this period. His views became the theological foundation of both the RCC and later the Protestant Reformation (see below).

Rome fell to the barbarians in 455, and one historian credits the barbarian invasions of Europe for bringing about the great upsurge in the authority of the Bishop of Rome, now known as the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.[1] A second factor that led to this result was the fall of other Christian centers in Africa and the Middle East to the invading Moslems during the seventh and early eighth centuries. There is no doubt whatever that the RCC was the only dominant religious institution in Western Europe until the sixteenth century.

Eastern Church and Western Church Split Apart

While most Christians in America fit into the stream of Western Christianity, it should be remembered that Eastern Orthodox Christianity, originally centered in Constantinople (on the European shore of the Bosporus in modern Turkey), developed in parallel with the RCC. A formal split occurred in 1054, after a long accumulation of theological and political differences, and the Eastern Orthodox Church is still powerful today in its historic regions.

Characteristics of Medieval Christianity

The two focal points of Medieval Christianity were monasticism and the papacy.[2] During much of this period the RCC popes were totally involved in matters of political and financial power, while many of the monks had withdrawn from such worldly matters to devote themselves to lives of contemplation and service. For example, Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) founded the Franciscan order under a rule that its members could own nothing. Other monastic orders took less stringent vows.

John Wycliffe (c.1329–1384) was a man ahead of his time. Almost 200 years before the Protestant Reformation roared onto the stage of history, the Oxford-educated Wycliffe advocated many of the same reforms in RCC theology and practices that would later be advanced by others. Wycliffe taught that the Bible was the only authoritative guide for Christian faith and practice. Perhaps the contribution for which he is best known is the idea that the Bible should belong to the people, not to the Church and its priests, and that the Bible should be in the language of the people, not Latin. Influenced by Wycliffe’s views, his followers completed a translation of the Bible into English by about 1392.

Part 2 will cover the period from the Protestant Reformation to World War I.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1984), 1:242.

[2] Gonzalez, 1:301.

 

Books: Getting the Reformation Wrong by James R. Payton, Jr.

James R. Payton, Jr. has written an excellent book that helps Protestants like me get a better grip on what the Reformation was all about: Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010). If you consider yourself an evangelical Christian, then the Reformation is your heritage, and it set the stage for what your local church is today.

In his masterful history of Europe, Norman Davies has said, “The religious revival, clearly visible at the end of the fifteenth century, was largely driven by popular disgust at the decadence of the [Roman Catholic] clergy….Europe was full of tales about simoniac bishops [bishops who sold a church office or preferment], nepotistic popes, promiscuous priests, idle monks, and, above all, the sheer worldly wealth of the Church.”[1] This laid the foundation for a challenge to the Roman Catholic Church’s (RCC) grip on all religious power in western Europe. It was not long in coming.

After reform pressure had built for two centuries, the “Protestant Reformation” effectively began in 1517 as a protest against certain corrupt practices of the RCC. This quickly expanded into a much broader re-evaluation of RCC theology in relation to the explicit teachings of the Bible.

The man who boldly kicked off a series of monumental changes — though he had no notion of what would happen — was a young doctor of theology named Martin Luther (1483–1546). Payton capably shows the long history of abuses and calls for change that led to Luther’s actions. In doing so he combats the idea that Luther thought of reform all on his own — one of many ways that evangelicals get the Reformation wrong.

Payton refutes many similar myths, including these:

  • The Renaissance was strictly a human-centered movement.
  • The Reformation progressed rapidly and smoothly.
  • The Reformers were in agreement about most theological issues.
  • The medieval Catholic Church was monolithic and unchanging.

But the myth that is worth the price of the book is this: Protestant scholasticism was a return to doctrinal faithfulness. The problem with this myth is that most of us need it explained!

Protestant scholasticism was a return by the successors of Martin Luther and John Calvin  to the methods of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, who taught how to analyze a subject — such as theology or the revelation contained in the Bible — using reason and lots of definitions. This process especially emphasized many types of causes (e.g., efficient, internal, external, primary, secondary, instrumental, active, passive, final, etc.). This process made things more about Aristotle than about God!

Payton offers the example of how one Protestant scholastic theologian explained the incarnation of the Son of God. “Mary is the material cause, the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause, human salvation is the final cause, and the miraculous conception of Jesus is the instrumental cause.”[2] Whatever else we might say about such blather, we can be sure (1) the Bible never explains anything in this way, and (2) both Martin Luther and John Calvin hated scholastic theology. Luther compared it to syphilis and Calvin called it slime. Those two were not shy!

As a second example, Payton explains that the way Protestant scholasticism explained faith shows how different their approach was from the way the original Reformers understood faith: “Faith was depersonalized to the acceptance of right doctrine — which could be objectively and convincingly laid out for others to see. For the Reformers, though, faith was first and foremost personal bonding to God — cleaving to him, assured of his loving embrace.”[3]

You may be wondering what this has to do with you. Well, those who followed Luther and Calvin reverted to scholasticism to defend against the powerful counter-attack from the Jesuits. In doing so, they explained the Christian faith in Protestant scholastic ways that are still being used within Protestant circles to this very day. In particular, Calvinism had a profound effect on Christianity in England, and then jumped to America when our country was founded. This form of Christian faith was shaped more by Calvin’s successors than by Calvin — most of the adherents just don’t know it.

Contemporary forms of Calvinism are still explained in Protestant scholastic terms, though slightly modernized. That is why the people who start studying Calvinism feel like they have been dropped into a class full of aggressive, debating philosophers. To master the concepts, you have to learn loads of arcane definitions (e.g., supralapsarianism, sovereign grace, synergism, effectual calling, reprobation, libertarian free will) and learn how the various parts of the system are logically related. I don’t recommend it!

Payton wrote this book as a text for college-level classes in Western civilization, theology, and history. For anyone trying to understand the Protestant Reformation or trying to adopt its insights, this book will keep you from falling victim to long-standing myths.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 484.

[2] James R. Payton, Jr., Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 2010) 204.

[3] Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong, 208.