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.

Choosing a Study Bible

Among the most important choices a Christian makes is selecting a Bible translation for daily study. You may be saying, “I thought they were all the same.” No, and that is why you need more information!

To discuss different translations, you will need a key to their abbreviations. The year shown is the year of first publication as a full Bible.

ESV                      English Standard Version (2001)

NET                      New English Translation (1996)

HCSB                   Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004)

NIV                       New International Version (1978)

NASB                   New American Standard Bible (1963)

KJV                      King James Version (1611)

The Crux: What Type of Bible?

The English Bible is found in two forms: translations and paraphrases. First, we will describe paraphrases and then translations.

Bible Paraphrases

One dictionary says a paraphrase is: “A restatement of a text or passage in another form or other words, often to clarify meaning.”[1] Clarity is certainly the main goal of a Bible paraphrase, but you have to understand the original text correctly in order to paraphrase it. If everyone saw the same original meaning in a Bible verse, there would be no need for commentaries; there are tens of thousands of them!

We usually want things that are easier to understand, so what is the limitation of a paraphrase? New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace says, “If the translator’s interpretation is correct, it can only clarify the meaning of the text; if it is incorrect, then it can only clarify the interpretation of the translator!”[2] If the translator’s interpretation is correct, you get a paraphrase of God’s Word; if not, you get a paraphrase of the translator’s word.

One of the most popular paraphrases is The Living Bible. It first appeared in 1971 as the literary effort of Kenneth N. Taylor. Taylor initially wrote The Living Bible for his children, never intending it for serious study, yet it achieved great popularity.[3]

Another widely distributed paraphrase is The Message, the effort of Eugene H. Peterson. The full Bible as paraphrased by The Message became available in 2002. One notable scholar considers The Message even freer than a paraphrase, calling it devotional literature.

So, the two most popular paraphrases are each the product of one man. Further, we note that some question exists as to when clarification becomes invention. Compare these paraphrases with a translation for one of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount:

PARAPHRASE: Matthew 5:3 (The Message) “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

PARAPHRASE: Matthew 5:3 (The Living Bible) “Humble men are very fortunate,” he told them, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is given to them.”

TRANSLATION: Matthew 5:3 (English Standard Version) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

You will notice immediately that the two paraphrases are quite different. If you had not been told they were paraphrasing the same verse, you might have guessed otherwise. Paraphrases have their uses, but serious Bible study is not one of them. You need an accurate Bible translation.

Bible Translations

Here is a reasonable definition: “Translation is the interpreting of the meaning of a text and the subsequent production of an equivalent text, likewise called a ‘translation,’ that communicates the same message in another language.”[4] In our case the Bible was recorded in Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament), with a few chapters in Aramaic (Old Testament). Producing an equivalent text in English is what results in our Bible translations.

We all want a Bible that shows fidelity to the original text and clarity in our language because we want to know exactly what God has revealed to us. So, what is the challenge? Wallace says, “Idioms and colloquialisms in a language need to be paraphrased to make sense in another language.”[5] In addition, some translations attempt to distinguish themselves by incorporating a measure of paraphrase to enhance readability. The degree to which this paraphrasing is done leads to some debate.

The most famous translation of all time is the King James Version of 1611, a product of scholars from Oxford and Cambridge. Due to the passage of time and the discovery of thousands of additional biblical manuscripts, the need arose for fresh translations; all languages change over time. The English Standard Version (2001) is a successor in the tradition of the King James Version. Other notable translations include the NET Bible (1996), the New International Version (1978 and 2011), the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2004), and the New American Standard Bible (1963). We have already mentioned the New Living Translation (1996).

Because of their greater fidelity to the biblical text, translations are the right tool for a Bible student or growing Christian.

Notes to the Max

Contemporary study Bibles have an amazing amount of information in the notes at the bottom of each page. They usually contain maps, diagrams and charts at various locations.

Since some translations (ESV, KJV or NASB) emphasize transparency to the original text, they do not put much interpretation directly into the translation. For such translations the notes are a great help in bridging the historical and cultural gap between us and biblical times. For example, John 18:28a (ESV) says, “Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters.” The ESV Study Bible has a long note to tell you all about the Roman governor’s quarters at Herod’s old palace or a possible alternate location.

By contrast, the NIV says, “Then the Jewish leaders led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor” (John 18:28a, NIV 2011, emphasis added). Note the words in italics. The word “Roman” is not in the Greek New Testament here, but it appears in the NIV 2011 translation as a clarification. Similarly, “they” (ESV) has been changed to “the Jewish leaders” (NIV 2011) to make certain you know who took Jesus to the palace, but the words “Jewish leaders” do not occur here in the Greek text. The NIV Study Bible — available at this writing only for NIV 1984 — also has a long note to tell you what is going on in this scene.

In relation to resource materials provided along with the translation, the ESV and NIV study Bibles differ in two significant ways. First, the NIV Study Bible has a concordance about double the size of the one in the ESV Study Bible. On the other hand, the NIV 1984 needs a much bigger concordance since it uses a much greater variety of words to translate individual Greek or Hebrew words, and that makes concordance research more complicated. [Note: A concordance is an alphabetic list of words used in a specific translation matched to a list of the Bible verses where that word occurs. A concordance is essential for doing word studies without special Bible software.]

The second significant difference is that the ESV Study Bible contains a large number of articles (e.g. “The Character of God” and “Marriage and Sexual Morality”) dealing with many subjects at greater length than notes allow. These materials are not replicated in the NIV Study Bible.

For those intrepid few who cannot get enough about the linguistic matters that underlie our English translations, the NET Bible First Edition is a must-have. This Bible has a unique set of Translators’ Notes that justify the translation. These Notes can be technical in relation to original languages, but they are a great help to understanding the original meaning and options for translation. The NET Bible has fine maps but few charts and diagrams and no concordance. Still, it is unique. The NET Bible and all its Notes may be downloaded free at www.Bible.org, and I recommend you do that.

Recommended Study Bibles

I recommend the following study Bibles according to your need:

ESV Study Bible published by Crossway Bibles (2008)

The ESV emphasizes transparency to the original text over clarity in English. The ESV Study Bible has outstanding notes, maps, and concordance along with good articles. It gets my vote as the best general-purpose study Bible available in May 2011.

The NIV Study Bible, Updated Edition published by Zondervan (2008)

The NIV 1984 emphasizes clarity in English, so it has more interpretation in its translated text than either the ESV or the NET Bible. The NIV Study Bible has outstanding notes and maps along with a sizable concordance. It is also a sound choice for a general-purpose study Bible. It seems reasonable to expect that a revision using the NIV 2011 text will be available sometime in 2011. That will be an upgrade!

NET Bible, First Edition [with over 60,932 Notes] published by Biblical Studies Press (2005)

The NET Bible takes a middle position between the NIV and ESV on the balance between transparency to the original text and clarity in English. The NET Bible is highly recommended for those interested in the Translators’ Notes. It also has unique maps based on earth-satellite imaging.  Available at www.Bible.org .

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] “paraphrase.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 22 Nov. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/paraphrase>.

[2] Daniel B. Wallace, “Choosing a Bible Translation,” Bible Study Magazine (Nov. & Dec., 2008) 24.

[3] More recently the New Living Translation has replaced the earlier paraphrase with a widely accepted translation done by a team of scholars.

[4] “Translation.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 18 Nov 2008, 09:08 UTC. 23 Nov 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Translation&oldid=252537344>.

[5] Wallace, “Choosing a Bible Translation,” 23.

 

Books: Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin (Part 1)

Since life is both complex and difficult, we all need a method to search for lifes meaning. Lesslie Newbigin provides a fascinating survey of how that task has been carried out in Europe and America. Newbigin (19091998) was a British missionary and pastor whose liberal theology expressed a high view of Christ but a flawed commitment to the reliability of the Bible.

Newbigins book Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995) does two things really well. First, he presents a convincing history of how people in the West perceive reality and develop a worldview. Reading the first three chapters reminded me of how excited I felt reading Francis Schaeffers cultural analysis for the first time. The second thing Newbigin does well is to summarize the idea of personal knowledge developed by the Hungarian scientist Michael Polanyi.

Newbigin sees two streams of thought as combining in Europe and America: (1) the philosophy of classical antiquity (Greece, Rome, Plato, and Aristotle), and (2) the history of the people of God mediated through Israel, the Bible, and the Christian church. Classical philosophy followed Plato in seeking an ultimate reality of ideas through asking questions (Plato) and analyzing causes (Aristotle). Gods people claim that ultimate reality is knowable through Jesus Christ, God personally with us.

Newbigin makes the interesting point that classical philosophy sought answers by asking questions of (impersonal) nature and our experience; in this approach, questions flow one way. But the Christian viewpoint asks questions within personal relationships with Christ and with other Christians; questions flow both ways. So, Jesus asks the disciples, Who do you say that I am? (Matthew 16:15).

One important development in the Christian understanding of reality was the slogan of Augustine of Hippo (354-430): I believe in order to know. Augustine said that knowledge begins with the faithful acceptance of the fact that God revealed himself in Christ. But Newbigin points out that such personal knowledge involves risk. To gain the knowledge that Christ brings involves a total commitment to him.

In the next post about this book I will try to summarize the ideas of Michael Polanyi and show how they relate to Christian discipleship.

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.