Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Bible Made Impossible

I’m sorry it’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been focusing on classes and such, which is probably a good thing.

I had thought about making a post just discussing the sorts of things that I’ve been learning and thinking about, but about a week and a half ago I went to an optional lecture that spurred a lot of thought and conversation and that I think will be worth sharing.

The Thesis:

The talk was modeled as a conversation between Christian Smith, who presented a thesis, and Mark Noll who responded. The thesis was based on Smith’s new book: “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture”. I haven’t read the book, so I won’t attempt to review it in any coherent way here, but I think the main point is fairly easy to follow, and I really enjoyed the conversation that happened between Noll and Smith at the talk, the formal questions and answers that followed, and the continued conversations with Catholics, Evangelicals, and other Evangelicals turned Catholic that the talk has given birth to.

In short, Smith began with a fairly detailed 10 point definition of Biblicism. He acknowledges that not all evangelicals (or Biblicists for that matter) would sign onto all 10 points, but he thinks these 10 provide a good picture of what’s happening in American evangelical Christianity. He then simply documents that there is PIP (Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism), meaning that there are many different interpretations of virtually every Biblical text one can imagine. Smith thinks that if Biblicism is true, then that should not be the case. Instead, as Christians in different situations gather around the Bible, they should be led into a unity (if not a uniformity) of belief. That is, their interpretations of Scripture should not be mutually self-contradictory.

Critical Responses:

From what I can tell through online searches, and from what Smith said at the talk, most evangelical criticism of his thesis has centered on claiming his definition of Biblicism is a caricature or represents only “fringe elements” of the evangelical world. DeYoung at the Gospel Coalition wrote some (defensive and critical) reviews which accord with this:

Smithereens (a critical review by Books and Culture magazine)

You have to pay attention to notice it, but DeYoung actually agrees that Biblicism as defined by Smith is a bad thing, and that a Christocentric reading of Scripture is a good thing. The focus, though, is overwhelmingly on claiming that the broad center of evangelicalism is not Biblicist in the way Smith defined it.

Some more moderate (and I think thoughtful) reviews from other evangelicals:

On Biblicism (Scot McKnight)

Noll’s Response:

Mark Noll’s response was great I think in large part because Noll is just a thoughtful and charitable guy. He never came across as defensive, and made some similar points. He made it clear that he thought Smith’s argument was “accurate in the main”. He also (or so it seemed to me) granted that Biblicism is at least more prevalent in evangelicalism than others (like DeYoung) were willing to grant. He acknowledged it as a problem. He still argued that it’s not as bad as it would initially seem, in part because some evangelicals (like Noll) affirm statements like the Westminster Confession which are much more nuanced, and because even people who claim to be through and through Biblicists don’t actually consistently follow through on their claims. (like Smith, he thinks their claims are incoherent, so they can't really consistently follow through on them)

He also thought it important to see Biblicism as part of a larger picture, the American religious landscape, which has produced many more positive things as well. America produced unprecedented lay activism and personal conversion, and this came hand in glove with Biblicism. Alternately, he’ll grant that Christianity as it emerged from say, the Byzantine empire and western Europe, did a better job of maintaining a coherent and unified interpretation of the basic truths of Scripture, but also fell short as compared to American evangelicals in other areas.

I found this a helpful contribution to the conversation. I should probably have noted before that Christian Smith is also a professor at Notre Dame (in sociology, whereas Noll is in the history department), and that Christian Smith relatively recently entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. You can see his book related to this journey, which from my perusal through it on Amazon and in the bookstore, looks great. 

My reflections:

Everyone appears to agree that a dangerous and incoherent Biblicism exists within Evangelicalism, but there’s disagreement as to how common it is. Based on personal and anecdotal experience, I was a lot more inclined to agree with Christian Smith that it’s more prevalent than most Evangelical pastors and scholars admit. As a respected sociologist, his claim should carry some weight. He believes that even where more nuanced documents on approaches to Scripture exist, they are not always followed by the majority at the popular level. I think I was a Biblicist at one point, although I was unaware that that’s what I was at the time.

One question which I had trouble answering was whether I think Evangelicals can proceed towards a Christocentric (more truly Evangelical) reading of Scripture without increased institutional unity. Catholics too, have different interpretations of Scripture. Sometimes this isn’t a problem at all, but instead a beautiful thing as the Spirit speaks with many voices to different people through the same passage of Scripture. The fact that we live in one Church with a clear and visible organization means, though, that if interpretations are mutually contradictory, the Church will eventually make it clear that we hold one and not the other, especially when this is directly relevant to the Christian life and apologetics. This is why the world isn’t scandalized by Catholic uncertainty as to whether infants can or cannot be baptized, how leadership of local churches should be organized, etc.

Evangelicals can make huge steps forward by realizing that the Bible, while the inspired Word of God, was also written by many different human authors in many different situations all of them quite different than the 21st century United States. By learning to look at all of Scripture through the lens of Christ, and viewing Scripture as an invitation on the part of Christ to partake of His life, rather than as a manual to bash our opponents with, we could all be substantially better off. A lot of movement forward can be done and is being done by godly young (and old) Evangelicals around the world. I don’t doubt this at all.

I agree that the Holy Spirit will guide us into unity and truth, but I believe it’s foolish to believe that the Spirit always elects to do this without institutions. For most Evangelicals, their most unifying institutions are not their churches (which are in fact the most divisive), but their para-church organizations. A broad consensus exists that people should read the Scriptures in their own language, pray to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and that Christians should help those in need, but doctrine is so divisive that many churches don’t even publish all of what they believe, limiting their statements to a few key points. Can Evangelicals attain a greater institutional unity, both in terms of para-church organizations and maybe even in their denominations? If not, to what extent will that be a hindrance towards movement towards a truly Evangelical reading of Scripture?

As someone who still identifies as evangelical in some senses even as a Catholic, I have to question the extent to which one can be truly Evangelical without becoming Catholic. I of all people recognize that most evangelicals see the Catholic Church through a different lens, but even if evangelicals still don’t think becoming Catholic is a good idea, what steps can be made towards greater institutional unity, and towards a more Christo-centric reading of Scripture where you are? And I'm honestly still not sure whether those two steps can or cannot be taken apart from each other. 

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