The Bible Made Impossible. By Christian Smith. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2012. 240 pp. Paper, $11.99.
The subtitle of this book tells the tale: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. What is Biblicism? It takes the author a page and a half (pp. 4-5) to state ten characteristics. I will try to paraphrase.
Biblicism is the belief that the Bible and the Bible alone is God’s Word. In addition, the Bible can be understood by normal everyday people who do not know Greek or Hebrew or have advanced theological degrees, that we need not rely on creeds, confessions, and traditions to understand the Bible, that the Bible never contradicts itself, and that the Bible tells us what God wants us to believe and do.
Smith, a sociologist who teaches at Notre Dame, disagrees with all those points. He believes that normal people cannot understand the Bible and that it is dangerous to give them the impression they can. Indeed, even scholars need creeds, confessions, and traditions to guide them. The Bible is not really a book telling us what to believe and do. Instead, it is a book that is all about Jesus Christ.
There are positives in this book. Here are some I found: 1) Christ is indeed the center of Scripture (pp. 97-116, though that doesn’t deny that the Bible tells us what to believe and how to live in light of Him); 2) It is a mistake for people to take verses out of context and personalize them and misuse them “to help legitimate and maintain the commitments and assumptions that they already hold before coming to the biblical text” (p. 75ff.); 3) It is dangerous for people to interpret the Bible totally on their own, without ever checking to see what others say (while I believe we are all independently responsible for what we believe and that we should first study the text before we study commentaries, I have found that consulting the writings of others can raise observations I missed or interpretive options I never considered).
The weaknesses of The Bible Made Impossible include: 1) The Bible has errors in it (pp. 12-16). Smith says, “I do not wish to engage the fruitless inerrancy debate” (p. 184); 2) Language and meaning does not permit any book, the Bible included, to infallibly communicate to people in a way that can be understood (p. 173); 3) The Biblical authors contradict one another (p. 173); 4) The many Protestant denominations and groups prove that the Bible cannot possibly be understood the way Biblicists claim (p. 173); 5) The Roman Catholic Church is the best means of discerning the meaning of Scripture (pp. 190-92; Smith converted to Catholicism shortly after writing this book); 6) The fact that there are multiple understandings of various theological topics and various passages (pluralism) shows that Biblicism is incorrect; and 7) A Biblicist approach to Scripture “is unable to deliver one coherent, much less comprehensive, social ethic to guide a compelling ‘biblical’ response to contemporary social problems” (p. 86).
It is hard not to come away from this book discouraged. The author seems bent on destroying a high view of Scripture and on convincing the reader that the Bible is impossible to interpret for oneself.
This is definitely not a book for new believers, or even for mature believers who are not extremely well taught concerning hermeneutics and inerrancy. However, it is a book that pastors and theologians ought to read since it is a very popular view among some academics. For example, famed blogger Dr. Scot McKnight, a Professor at Northern Seminary, endorses this book in glowing terms.
For a helpful online article, “Why I Am a Biblicist,” by Dr. Malcolm Yarnell, see SBCtoday.com (July 28, 2011).
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society