“Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white”
- William Blake
In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into some excellent books about how to read the Bible—N.T. Wright’sScripture and the Authority of God, Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation, Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, and more—but before we get there, we’ve got to do a bit of deconstructing. We’ve got to talk about how not to read the Bible.
To do this, we’re working our way through Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible. In it, Smith tackles the problem of “biblicism.”
“By bibliclism,” writes Smith, “I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”
Biblicism falls apart, Smith says because of the “the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism.”
“Even among presumably well-intentioned readers—including many evangelical biblicists,” he explains, “the Bible, after their very best efforts to understand it, says and teaches very different things about most significant topics...It becomes beside the point to assert a text to be solely authoritative or inerrant, for instance, when, lo and behold, it gives rise to a host of many divergent teachings on important matters.”
“The ‘biblicism’ that pervades much of American evangelicalism is untenable and needs to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority,” he concludes. “By untenable I do not simply mean that it is wrong, but rather that it is literally impossible, at least when attempted consistently on its own terms. It cannot actually be sustained, practiced, and defended.”
While Smith does not question the inspiration and authority of Scripture, he questions attempts to reduce the Bible to a “blueprint for living” with a simplistic attitude that begins with, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Instead, Smith argues that “Jesus Christ is the true and final Word of God, in relation to whom scripture is God’s secondary, written word of witness and testimony.” (More on that later.)
In Chapter 2, Smith delves more deeply into the extent and source of pervasive interpretive pluralism, and in doing so, he tackles what has been a pet peeve of mine for many years—the misuse of the word “biblical.”
My issues with the word “biblical” go way back.
When I attended apologetics camp as a teenager, I was told that those who hold a “biblical view of economics” support unregulated free market capitalism. (Even then, it occurred to me that such an economic system didn’t even exist in the ancient near Eastern culture in which the Bible was written.) I was also told that God wanted me to forgo traditional dating in favor of “biblical courtship.” (Again, no one mentioned the fact that, in the Bible, young women could be sold into marriage by their fathers to pay off debt, that marriages were typically arranged without the bride meeting the groom until their wedding day, and that women were considered the property of their fathers and husbands.)
It was the popularity of books calling for a return to “biblical womanhood” that inspired me tofollow all of the Bible’s commandments for women as literally as possible for a year in an effort to highlight the inherent selectivity of discussions surrounding “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood.” (As you can imagine, the experiment itself required some serious selectivity.) As expected, I found that most of the folks calling for a return to “biblical womanhood” aren’t actually calling for a return to the ancient near Eastern familial structure, but for a return to the nuclear family of pre-1950s America. They apply proof-texts to support a paradigm in which women submit to their husbands, stay out of church leadership, and find their ultimate calling in the home as mothers...while ignoring those passages that instruct women to cover their heads when they pray, call their husbands “master,” and function as the property of their fathers and husbands.
You can find all sorts of books proclaiming to put for the “biblical” view of something-or-another. Some of my favorites include:
-100 Biblical Tips To Help You Live A More Peaceful and Prosperous Life
-Crime and Community in Biblical Perspective
-God's Creatures: A Biblical View of Animals
-Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics-Biblical Psychology
-Biblical Strategies for Financial Freedom
-Biblical Economics: A Commonsense Guide to Our Daily Bread
-Biblical Principles of Sex
-The Big M - A Biblical view of masturbation
-The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, and Self-Image
-The Complete Husband: A Practical Guide to Biblical Husbanding
-Holding Hands, Holding Hearts: Recovering a Biblical View of Christian Dating
- Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
In Evolving in Monkey Town, I write about how, when we talk about “biblical economics,” “biblical politics,” and “biblical womanhood,” we’re essentially “using the Bible as a weapon disguised as an adjective.”
Smith rightly notes that, with this approach, “different groups of Christians end up invested in different interpretive paradigms, learn to ignore certain potentially threatening leftover texts, and are persuaded that the remainder of leftover texts can be explained away on an ad hoc basis when they are ‘rightly understood,’ read in proper context, or otherwise “correctly’ interpreted.”But “no paradigm accounts for all the texts," he says.
[This is why Junia is not a part of most complementarian discussions about “biblical womanhood.” The fact that she was a prominent and influential apostle does not fit the paradigm in which women are forbidden from assuming leadership in the church. So this biblical woman is, curiously, not a part of “biblical womanhood.” Of course, this tendency to overlook goes both ways. Those who advocate for "biblical equality" often overlook those passages in which women are clearly regarded by the writers of Scripture as less than equal.]
It seems to me that the ease and carelessness with which many Christians employ the word “biblical” is one of the biggest barriers in the way of learning to love the Bible for what is, not what we want it to be. At the heart of a prescriptive use of the word “biblical” is a desire to simplify—to reduce the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone, to turn a complicated and at times troubling holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto.
In a series of posts entitled “Better Conversations About Biblical Womanhood,” I argued that this approaches glosses over some important realities about how we actually engage the biblical text:
We all project.
We all select.
We all lose things in translation.
We all bring outside influences (tradition, experience, reason) to the table when interpreting the Bible.
But here’s the thing: Whenever I bring up this pet peeve of mine at family gatherings or among friends, I get nothing but blank stares and frustrated responses. The conclusion people seem to reach is that, cutting back on “biblical” pronouncements means throwing out the Bible altogether and concluding that it has nothing to say about the questions that most impact our lives.
[I was in a conversation about this with someone I love just the other day and he noted in frustration, “Just because something’s in the Bible doesn’t make it biblical"...which kinda left me scratching my head. We just seem to be missing each other on this one.]
While I’d like to think that A Year of Biblical Womanhood is a humorous and disarming critique of overzealous attempts to prescribe “biblical womanhood,” I still struggle sometimes to articulate the alternative...which brings me to some important questions for you:
1. How do we allow the Bible to inform and guide us while remaining cognizant of our tendency to be selective and without abusing the word "biblical"?
2. How do we engage with the truths from Scripture without reducing this diverse collection of ancient texts to a blueprint or list of bullet points?
We’ll talk about Smith’s responses to these questions over the course of the next two or three weeks. But in the meantime, let’s wrestle through this together! (Note: If you have written reviews/responses to The Bible Made Impossible, please feel free to link to them in the comment section.)