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.

Interpreting the Book of Revelation — Part 1

This post began a series on the Book of Revelation. We start by explaining how the book will be interpreted.  This introduction to the study will take two posts to complete.

The Simple — Yet Daunting — Challenge

Understanding any type of literature involves interpreting that literature in light of its own nature. For example, when we read the word hit in the newspaper, it makes a big difference whether we are reading about an assault in the news section, a baseball struck by a bat in the sports section, or a popular new movie in the entertainment section.

However, we have made matters easy in our example by setting the word hit in a context of actual events whose nature is well known. Consider a different sentence: “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes off the vine of the earth” (Rev. 14:18). What are the grapes in this sentence? This word is both simple and familiar, but it occurs in a strange context that is plainly symbolic. Clearly, it will take a lot more effort to uncover the probable meaning of grapes in such an unfamiliar context.

Unlike the hit we read about in the newspaper, the grapes lie in the context of a God-given vision. In other words, the events being observed in the vision may or may not have already happened or may happen in the future. How can we tell which?

The First Question

In our initial example of the newspaper, you started out knowing it was a newspaper and which section of the paper the word hit occurred. Newspapers are not like novels or cook books or a procedure for installing floor tiles. So, a crucial question is: what kind of literature is the book of Revelation?

New Testament scholar G.K. Beale[1] says that commentators now generally agree that John used three types of literature in composing Revelation: apocalyptic {defined next], prophecy, and letter. Apocalyptic is an intensification of prophecy.

To highlight the difference between apocalyptic and prophecy, consider Samuel’s prophetic words to King Saul: “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to one of your colleagues who is better than you!” (1 Sam. 15:28). God could have used Samuel to reveal this same truth by means of a dramatic vision in which the crown is roughly stripped from Saul’s head and placed on the head of David. That would have been an apocalyptic vision — though somewhat mild— in that it is an intensification of the plain, prophetic prediction.

The letter part of Revelation is like one of the NT letters by John or Paul. See, for example, Rev. 1:4-6 and most of chapters 2-3. A typical prophetic part of Revelation would be Rev. 2:26 saying, “And to the one who conquers and who continues in my deeds until the end, I will give him authority over the nations.” But the next verse intensifies into the apocalyptic category: “he will rule them with an iron rod and like clay jars he will break them to pieces” (Rev. 2:27).

Since the bulk of Revelation is apocalyptic — indeed Revelation is also called the Apocalypse — we need some further insight into that type of literature. New Testament scholar Grant R. Osborne says, “A basic element in defining apocalyptic is its pessimism toward the present and the promise of restoration in a sovereignly controlled future.”[2] That is a simple sentence, but it bears careful thought since it provides a useful interpretive tool.

As a final summary of Revelation’s literary type, Beale[3] says that Revelation is a prophecy cast in an apocalyptic mold and written with a letter’s beginning and ending to motivate the audience to change their behavior in light of the book’s powerful message.

Osborne also has a helpful insight when he explains, “One of my definitions for apocalyptic is ‘the present addressed through parallels with the future.’”[4]

A Mistake to Avoid

The careful reader will have noticed that Revelation is not just about some far-distant day but has strong present-time implications. A big mistake some Christians make about prophecy is to focus on setting up future timelines for events and neglect the relevance of the truth to their own lives. Osborne says: “The message regarding God’s sovereignty over the future is intended to call the church in the present to perseverance, and many of the symbols in the Apocalypse are borrowed from the first-century situation.”[5]

While there is value in trying to fit revealed end-times events into a sensible sequence, setting dates is another matter. New Testament scholar Craig Keener says: “History is littered with such failed predictions from all segments of Christendom, perhaps most obviously in the twentieth century from popular evangelicalism. . . . Lest we think that evangelicals on the whole learned humility from early mistakes, plenty of examples provide warnings to the contrary.”[6]

Jesus told us, “But as for that day and hour no one knows it — not even the angels in heaven — except the Father alone” (Matt. 24:36). And moments later Jesus said, “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matt. 24:42).

So, Revelation looks to the past and the future in order to bring change among believers in the present. Make it your objective not to become an end-times expert but rather to know what Jesus Christ, the coming King, wants from you today! He is coming back soon!

Ways of Approaching the Apocalypse

The variety of ways in which one may try to understand the Apocalypse has led to four major approaches to the biblical materials found in the book.

Historicist: This view says that the book of Revelation provides a detailed history of the events of the Western church between the time of the first century and the second coming of Christ. Protestant reformers Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) held this view and considered the Pope to be the Antichrist.[7] Very few hold this view today due to the forced nature of the fit between Revelation and Western history.

Preterist: This view says that the book of Revelation relates to the then-present situation in which John lived rather than to a future period. While some commentators have held this view, it fails to fit the events presented in the final chapters of Revelation. Certainly we must say that chapters 2-3 fit the preterist model, although even they point to the future.

Idealist: This approach says that the book of Revelation does not relate to historical events but rather to timeless spiritual truths particularly relevant to the church between the first coming of Christ and the second. Distilling spiritual truths is certainly desirable, but the disconnection with actual history or future events presents serious problems. Is the final judgment (Rev. 20) useful only for deriving spiritual lessons or will there actually be a final judgment? This view has some value in defining applications, but its intentionally abstract analysis limits its usefulness.

Futurist: This view says that Revelation chapters 4-22 refer primarily to events that will take place at the end of history. However, recall Osborne’s remark “the present addressed through parallels with the future,” and understand that the entire book relates to Christians today at an applicational level. Some evangelical scholars hold the futurist position, and it is the perspective that will generally be taken in the commentary in this study guide. This viewpoint is probably the one most Christians have heard.  There is no question that chapters 1-3 spoke directly to both the named churches in John’s time as well as to believers in our day.

Eclectic: This approach mixes elements from the futurist, preterist and idealist approaches depending on which part of Revelation is being interpreted. Many commentators like that kind of flexibility, but it can be considered an abandonment of any attempt to find an approach that works for the largest part of the book of Revelation. Is this an anti-system of interpretation?

It is vital to read Part 2 of this Introduction to the coming posts about the Book of Revelation.

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

[1] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 37.

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 1.

[3] Beale, Revelation, 39, citing D.A. Carson, Moo, D.J., and Morris, L., An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 479.

[4] Osborne, Revelation, 22.

[5] Osborne, Revelation, 1.

[6] Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 24.

[7] Osborne, Revelation, 18.