Reviewed by Fred G. Zaspel
Many Christians have puzzled over the fact that interpretations of Scripture differ so widely among equally devoted Christians, but few have pursued the question with the tenacity of Christian Smith in his The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Relentlessly he presses us with just how diverse our disagreements are, even among us who confess the perspicuity (clarity) and authority of Scripture. And he insists that this wide-scale disagreement among us “biblicists” puts the lie to our professed biblicism. The Bible is not clear, he insists, and it is not consistent or always relevant. It does not speak with one voice, and we should be honest enough to admit it.
Smith defines “biblicism” in terms of a variety of viewpoints with regard to Scripture — ten assumptions and beliefs ranging from verbal inspiration, sufficiency, and perspicuity, to the “handbook” approach to Scripture that treats it as a mere manual for everything from dating to cooking. All of this, he argues and seeks at length to demonstrate, is mistaken, at least potentially idolatrous, and harmful to the cause of the gospel and the Bible’s true intent. Perceiving biblicism as a malicious evil, throughout the book he wastes no words, even sometimes with mocking tone, expressing how deeply opposed (might I say resentful?) he is of it.
Within the space constraints of this review I cannot develop his point at length. I trust that am not misrepresenting Smith in any way. His central charge is that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” — the wide theological disagreements among Bible believers — renders biblicism untenable. Other reviews have addressed many of the attending issues Smith raises, but I will try to stay close to this central complaint.
My disagreement with Smith runs deep and wide, as my remarks below will indicate. But in fairness it should be said that the question he raises is a real one that has puzzled many sincere Christians. Smith presses this question with such vigor that it could well be unsettling to many. Perhaps his book will stimulate a well thought out and popular level “biblicist” response, which would be a service to Christians everywhere.
Reading the book raised seemingly countless questions in my mind. First, on the face of it does Smith’s conclusion necessarily follow his argument? Must we give up all attempts at harmonizing Scripture, as he insists? Does the fact of so many incorrect interpretations demand that there is no correct interpretation? It would not seem so. Just because I believe the Bible is both clear and authoritative does not mean that I myself interpret it with perfect consistency. Add to this the number of other fallible interpreters and we have “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Every last one of us may well hold that the Bible is sufficiently clear and authoritative and yet differ widely on specifics. Does this, ipso facto, render our high view of Scripture impossible?
Certainly this fact of wide disagreement among biblicisists ought to give us pause before dogmatically pronouncing on this or that doctrine, and Smith is right to tell us so. And it ought to make us more careful to handle the Scriptures responsibly, understanding that there is a “right” and a wrong way to do so (2 Tim. 2:15). But the mere fact of wide interpretive differences in no way diminishes my own understanding of or commitment to biblical infallibility or clarity. Nor did it trouble Augustine or Calvin or countless other well-informed and respected “biblicists.” If, for example, you ask a biblicist-paedobaptist and me why we disagree, we will both answer first in terms of the fallenness of the human heart and mind, the remaining imperfections of Christians (including Christian theologians), and so on. We agree and are convinced that we do get much right, and we can demonstrate this convincingly. But we also confess that by reason of our finiteness and our sinfulness we lack perfect objectivity and that this often affects our premises as well as our conclusions. Thus, often (but not always, thankfully) the “hermeneutical spiral” is askew from the start. In this given case (baptism) the paedobaptist will think the problem is with me, and of course I will remain convinced that I know better. But in either case we both recognize the problem. For Smith our differences reflect a problem with Scripture. For us, however, our differences reflect a problem with us. We are content to acknowledge this, and we see no necessary contradiction in doing so. Now we “see dimly” and “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12), there are indeed parts of Scripture “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16), and in fact there are some who “twist” Scripture “to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16). Yet this Word remains a “lamp to our feet and a light to our path” (Ps. 119:105) by which we test all things (Is. 8:20).
Next, what doctrine of perspicuity is Smith attributing to us? Is he assuming that we “biblicists” hold that all of Scripture is equally understandable? I don’t know anyone who believes that. And if Smith knows that no one believes that, as he surely does, then what is the objection? We all recognize both our ignorance and our depravity and that we must therefore work all the harder to interpret Scripture responsibly, consistently, objectively, contextually, historically, and so on. This is what the Westminster Confession affirms in its classic statement of biblical perspicuity:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet. 3:16); yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Ps. 119:105, 130).
Martin Luther said the same:
But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from our own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth. . . . Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear scriptures of God. . . . If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures, but he that hath the Spirit of God. . . . If you speak of the external clearness, nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.
It would be a fringe biblicist indeed who held that the Bible does not need to be interpreted. As I have already mentioned, Scripture itself tells us that there is a “right” as well as a wrong way to handle it (2 Tim. 2:15). Indeed, on his own reading of Scripture there are doctrines that Smith considers essential — “dogmas” to which every Christian must adhere. Well then, it would seem that Smith himself believes that Scripture is clear on essentials after all! And is this not the evangelical doctrine of perspicuity exactly? This is what evangelicals have always held — that God has spoken with greater and lesser clarity on various matters yet with sufficient clarity to accomplish his purpose in revelation. And if Smith gives us this much, then, again, what is his objection?
We must also question Smith’s definition of biblicism. His job is made easier by the inclusion of “the Bible as a handbook on cooking” kinds of illustrations, but this just cannot be taken seriously. He himself acknowledges that not all biblicists are of this weaker variety. But then I have to ask why he includes such things at all? These are not essential to any informed evangelical biblicism. I don’t want to accuse him of straw man arguments, but I’m not sure what else to say of this. To include the mere “handbook” kind of approach to the Bible as part of his description of evangelical biblicism only confuses matters. And so, we must ask why he includes such things? Is he merely loading the dice in his favor? And if this was not his purpose in including such things, then just what was his purpose?
Smith insists that he is not talking about the biblicism of a “looney” fringe evangelicalism but the biblicism of evangelicalism itself in the mainstream and as represented by the recognized standard bearers. But it is difficult to take him seriously when he includes assumptions in his definitions that no informed evangelical would affirm. Moreover, even though including items such as this he in fact seems to recognize that he is not describing the likes of Gregory Beale, Don Carson, Vern Poythress, and so on. But if not, then is he not acknowledging that there is a sane kind of biblicism after all? And when he acknowledges that there are indeed essential doctrines of the Christian faith on which the Bible is clear and to which all Christians must hold, has he not himself become a biblicist of this saner sort? Or is he alone the one to decide for us which matters are clear and essential and which are not? Is this really a better alternative to the biblicism he abhors? Or, good Catholic that he is, is he saying that it belongs to the magisterium to pronounce on these matters for us? And if so, then what of the “interpretive pluralism” within the papacy itself? Why would not this pluralism, on Smith’s ground, render the magisterial office impossible also?
Further, I have to ask why Smith “blames” even this sane biblicism on the old Princetonians and their alleged commitment to Scottish Common Sense Realism (SCSR). One scarcely knows where to begin with this. Were the old Princetonians committed to SCSR? This common charge is ill-informed, as David Smith (B.B. Warfield’s Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship) and Paul Helseth (Right Reason and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal) have documented. Moreover, even if we grant that Hodge, Warfield, and Co., were committed to SCSR, how are we to understand that this is what led them inevitably to the doctrine of inerrancy? Is it not at least a little curious that the SCSR of the theologians at Yale and Harvard (in the day) led them to opposite views of Scripture? And still more to the point, does Smith genuinely believe that this high view of Scripture originated at old Princeton? Can anyone still say this without blushing? If it were not already obvious, certainly after John Woodbridge’s Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal this idea must be pronounced dead. Simply put, it has been demonstrated over and again that this high (“evangelical”) view of Scripture has been the common property of Christians since the very beginning of Christianity itself.
Jesus and His Apostles Perhaps?
Which raises still another question: How is it we can account for the fact that Christians have held such a high view of Scripture since the beginning? Surely there is no way to account for this apart from the obvious fact that this is the doctrine of Scripture given the church by Christ and his appointed apostles.
At some point we simply must ask what doctrine of Scripture was taught by the author and founders of our faith and adjust our answer to Smith’s question accordingly. But this consideration does not play any significant role in Smith’s argument. He mentions such verses as John 10:35, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and 2 Peter 1:21, but only once and only in passing, and he makes no attempt to consider their implications. Jesus’ assertion that “Scripture cannot be broken” is bursting with implications relevant to Smith’s discussion. Jesus’ whole point is that it is impossible for Scripture to be annulled in any of even its smallest statements. Peter’s point in stressing that Scripture was given through men sovereignly guided by the Spirit of God is that this God-givenness renders Scripture completely reliable at every point — more reliable even than eye-witness testimony. When Paul says that because Scripture is God-breathed it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work,” he is affirming the complete sufficiency of Scripture for all that God requires of us. And when Peter declares that “the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Pet. 1:25), is he not affirming a doctrine of the enduring relevance and sufficiency of Scripture (cf. Ps. 119:89, 160)? Jesus and the Biblical writers claim that Scripture in its every jot and tittle is the Word of God himself and is therefore true and reliable in all its details. That is to say, the (sane) biblicism that Smith opposes is a biblicism given us by Jesus and his appointed apostles.
Moreover, our Lord treated the Bible as authoritative and sufficiently clear to render men responsible, and he regularly chided men of his own day for their failures to understand. He faulted them — and not very gently! — for not studying Scripture earnestly or carefully enough and for not believing its every declaration. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25) presumes a doctrine of perspicuity, that Scripture is clear enough to render us responsible for understanding, faith, and obedience. Likewise Jesus’ familiar “Have you not read the Scripture?” (Mark 12:10; cf. Matt. 21:42) and “Have you never read?” (Matt. 21:16) reflect his conviction that where the Bible speaks it speaks with both clarity and divine authority. Warfield was right to point out that Jesus’ clear intimation in these expressions is that the source of error is simply ignorance of Scripture and failure to believe it. “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures” (Matt. 22:29; cf. Mk. 12:24). That is to say, if we know the Scriptures and believe them, we will nor err. Sufficiency, clarity, authority. Is this not the biblicism Smith despises?
And this, in turn, raises a final question: If this was the doctrine of Jesus and his appointed apostles, how can we hold to anything less and still claim that our position is “Christian”? Or, more pointedly, as Warfield loved to pose the question, Can we have the Jesus of the Bible while refusing the Bible of Jesus?
Fred G. Zaspel is one of the pastors at Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA, adjunct professor of Bible at Lancaster Bible College – Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS) in Philadelphia, and executive editor here at Books At a Glance.
This review was originally published in Credo Magazine, Issue 1, October, 2011.