As part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be, we’re working our way through Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossible, In it, Smith tackles the problem of “biblicism,” which he defines as “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.” (p. viii)
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 next week.)
Last week, we talked about the way in which the word “biblical” gets tossed around so carelessly these days—“biblical” politics, “biblical” courtship, “biblical” economics, “biblical” manhood, “biblical” womanhood—and how any claim to a biblical lifestyle or perspective is inherently selective.
This week, I want to highlight some of Smith’s observations in Chapter 4, where he writes about “subsidiary problems with Biblicism.” For Smith, these include: 1) blatantly ignored teachings, 2) arbitrary determinations of cultural relativism, 3) strange passages, 4) populist and ‘expert’ practices that deviate from Biblicist theory, 5) lack of Biblicist self-attestation, 6) the genuine need for extra-biblical theological concepts, 7) the dubious genealogy of the Bible-only tradition,8) lack of a Biblicist social ethic, and 9) setting up youth for unnecessary crises of faith.
Let’s focus on those blatantly ignored biblical teachings that challenge the simplistic, blueprint approach to reading the Bible.
According to Smith, “Biblicists very often engage in what we might call ‘uneven and capricious selective literalism.’ Sometimes the Bible says what it says and must be obeyed. Other times the obvious meaning of the passage is relativized by historical and cultural considerations.” (p. 70)
Smith provides dozens of examples. These are some that caught my attention:
- In five different instances in five New Testament epistles, the Bible contains the directive to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:24). Very few evangelical pastors urge their congregations to put these instructions into practice, “yet it is hard to see based on Biblicist standards how ignoring the instruction is not blatant disobedience to a clear biblical teaching. Holy-kiss greetings would not be hard to practice. But the biblical command simply goes in one ear and out the other, as if it had simply not been taught in Scripture.” (p. 68)
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 says that women should remain silent in the churches. “Many Biblicists appeal to this verse to make claims about women, authority, marriage, and church life—most of which turn out to have little if anything to do with the actual content of the passage,” Smith observes, “But no Biblicist actually obeys what this verse clearly says. I know of no church, Biblicist or otherwise, in which women are actually not permitted to speak. If Biblicism were correct, it is not clear why Biblicists do not follow this teaching.” (p. 68-69)
- In Titus 1:12-13 Paul writes of the Cretans that “Even one of their own prophets has said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true.” Writes Smith, “Paul is here endorsing something like a racist stereotype—perhaps more accurately, an ethnic prejudice—an apparently common slur against the entire nation of Cretans generally.” (p. 72) If the biblicists are right, if the Bible simply means what it says and should be applied as universally prescriptive, then perhaps Christians need to be making signs that say “God Hates Cretans”! (or at the very least warning fellow Christians against stopping by the island of Crete on their Mediterranean cruises!)
Of course, these are just three of many passages of Scripture that are overlooked or ignored, even by those who claim to interpret and apply the Bible literally.
Writes Smith:“May God’s people never eat rabbit or pork (Lev. 11:6-7)? May a man never have sex with his wife during her monthly period (Lev. 11:6-7) or wear clothes woven of two kinds of materials (Leviticus 19:19)?...Should Christians encourage the suffering and poor to drink beer and wine in order to forget their misery (Proverbs 31:6-7)?...May Christians never swear oaths (Matthew 5:33-37)? Should we never call anyone on earth ‘father’ (Matthew 23:9)? Should Christ’s followers wear sandals when they evangelize but bring no food or money or extra clothes (Mark 6:8-9)? Should Christians be exercising demons, handling snakes, and drinking deadly poison (Mark 16:15-18)? Are people who divorce their spouses and remarry always committing adultery (Luke 16:18)? Ought Christians to share their material goods in common (Acts 2:44-45)?...Is it wrong for men to cover their heads (1 Corinthians 11:4) or a disgrace of nature for men to have long hair (1 Corinthians 11:14)? ...Ought all Christian slaves always simply submit to their masters (reminder: slavery still exists today) (1 Peter 2:18-21)? Must Christian women not wear braided hair, gold jewelry, and fine clothes (1 Timothy 2:9, 1 Peter 3:3)?...” (p. 70-71)
Obviously the list could go on and on.
Why do we hear sermon after sermon about Paul’s instructions that “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over man” while never hearing a peep about Paul’s declaration that “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons”? Why is “wives submit to your husbands” considered by many Christian to be a timeless divine mandate, when in every New Testament occurrence, that phrase is either preceded or followed by instructions that “slaves obey your masters,” at least once with the phrase “in the same way” between them?! (I write a lot more about these passages and their context in “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.”)
The point of this whole discussion, as far as I’m concerned, is that we are ALL selective in our interpretation and application of Scripture. It will not do to spend our theological debates accusing one another of “picking and choosing” from Scripture when selectivity is something in which we all engage.
The better questions, I believe, are 1) “why do we pick and choose the way that we do?” and 2) “how should we pick and choose?”
Why do we pick and choose the way that we do?
The truth is, how we “pick and choose” from Scripture often says as much about us as it says about the Bible. So, in a sense, our selective habits can serve an important instructive function in the life of followers of Jesus. What do our selective readings say about ourselves and what we want to read into Scripture? Are we reading with what Peter Rollins calls a “prejudice of love” or are we reading with prejudices of judgment, power, hatred, and fear? What do our hermeneutial impulses say about ourselves? When we approach Scripture, what are we looking for?
How should we pick and choose?
Smith, and many others, have argued that reading Scripture with the “prejudice of love” means reading it with a "Christocentric hermeneutic," that “the purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ.”
This will be our topic for next week.
In the meantime...
What are some other troubling/strange/forgotten passages of Scripture that rarely make it to our desk calendars or sermon outlines?
What do you make of the fact that we all “pick and choose” from Scripture?