“You diligently study the Scripture because you think that by them you possess eternal life.
These are the Scriptures that testify about me.”
“It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God.
The Bible, read in the right spirit,
and with the guidance of good teachers,
will bring us to Him.”
– C.S. Lewis
We have just two weeks left to discuss Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossible as part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. (After a brief interlude, we will move on to N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God, which I’m really excited about.)
In The Bible Made Impossible, 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,” for “even among presumably well-intentioned readers—including many evangelical biblicists—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.” (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.”
We looked at some of the problems with Biblicism here, here, and here. And then last week, we discussed Smith’s alternative to Biblicism: a Christocentric hermeneutic. “The purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ,” says Smith . “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.”
Smith sees this Christocentric hermeneutic as an important first step to solving the problem of pervasive pluralism. He quotes Geoffrey Bromiley, who argued that the Bible can serve as a means of Christian unity only when Jesus Christ is placed at its center. “In the first place we must remember,” says Bromiley, “that the Bible is not to be abstracted from Christ and made the center of unity in its own right...Unity is grounded in Christ himself and...it is served by the Bible when the Bible is understood in clear relationship to Christ as the authoritative prophetic and apostolic testimony...We may go to the Bible with very different views of what it is and how it is to be understood or applied. But if we go primarily to see Christ (John 5:39), i.e., to learn what the Bible has to tell us about Him, and our new life in Him, we shall be brought together at the once true center of the church and its unity.” (quoted on page 105)
[Some of you made the point last week that there also exists interpretive pluralism when it comes to the teachings of Christ. But I don’t think Smith is saying that we find unity in agreeing on exactly how to interpret and apply the teachings of Jesus, but rather that we find unity in our shared commitment to the lordship of Christ.]
In the second half of Chapter 5, Smith gets even more emphatic.
“Talking and acting as if the Bible is God’s only and highest self-revelation is completely ‘unbiblical,’” he writes, “even when considered in Biblicist terms. God’s truest, highest, most important, most authoritative, and most compelling self- revelation is the God/Man Jesus Christ.”(p. 117) He points to C.S. Lewis who said, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit, and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.”
As I said last week, this general guide for interpreting and applying the Bible makes sense to me.It’s not about discounting the historical/grammatical method in favor of forcing a Jesus message into every last page, but simply looking at Scripture through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ just as Christians should look at everything through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now, whenever I discuss this subject here on the blog, or among family and friends, two major objections get raised:
1. But everything we know about Jesus, we know from the Bible, so doesn’t that mean the Bible is indeed the foundation of the Christian faith?
2. Aren’t you creating false dichotomy between the written Word and the Word Made Flesh? Is it really necessary for Christian Smith to make these distinctions. It seems kind of pointless.
Let’s take these objections one at a time.
"But everything we know about Jesus, we know from the Bible..."
Smith speaks directly to this question in one of my favorite passages of the book, where he speaks strongly against the argument that the only lifeline to Jesus is the Bible:
“Jesus Christ is present to his people in the church in the bread and the wine. Jesus Christ is personally present with the believer, who in baptism dies with Christ and is raised in Christ to new life—and so to those already baptized who baptize others as well. Jesus Christ is made present through the Holy Spirit to all people who hear him in the faithful preaching of the gospel. Jesus Christ is the mystical head of the church body in which all people are united to him. Jesus Christ is present, as promised, with any two or three of his own who gather in his name. Jesus Christ is present to the church generally in the Holy Spirit, who is sent to call, teach, lead, enlighten, comfort, and heal. Jesus Christ is present to the believer in prayer. Jesus Christ is present to the believer in the form of his or her needy neighbor. So the Bible is a crucial but not an isolated nor a sufficient mediating means of knowing, living with, and sharing in the life of Jesus Christ.” (p. 120, emphasis mine.)
Furthermore, Smith notes, the assertion that we can only know Jesus through the Bible “fails to explain how the Christian Church for its first three hundred and fifty years—when it did not possess the defined biblical canon as we know it—managed to know Christ.”
Here he quotes Craig Albert: “The Christian faith did not grow in response to a book, but as a response to God’s interaction with the community of faith.”
Like Smith, I just don’t buy the idea that the Bible is the only way we know Christ. In fact, I would argue that the Bible alone is not enough to know Christ intimately, as a true follower. That requires the work of the Holy and the regular communion with Jesus that we experience through the bread and wine, through loving one another, and through caring for the least of these.
"This is a false dichotomy..."
Maybe it’s just because I’ve lived in the Bible Belt my whole life, but when Smith writes that, among evangelicals, Jesus often gets “sidelined by the interest in defending every proposition and account as inerrant, universally applicable, contemporarily applicable, and so on in ways that try to make the faith ‘relevant’ for everyday concerns,” I totally get it.
On the one hand, I’ve often encountered a near idolization of Scripture, in which the Bible is hailed as the foundation and center of faith, when it seems to me that the foundation and center of our faith is Jesus Christ. (I raised this issue near the beginning of the series when I asked “Are Christians really People of the Book?”)
The apostle Paul did not teach that “every knee will bow and tongue confess that the Bible is the Word of God,” but that “every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Sure, we learn about Jesus from the Bible, but we don’t worship the Bible. We worship Jesus. Jesus Himself seems to make this distinction in John 5:39 when he says, “You diligently study the Scripture because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.”
Similarly, when it comes to biblical interpretation within evangelicalism, I’ve experienced a sort of “flattening-out” of Scripture in which the words of David carry the same weight as the words of Paul, which carry the same weight as the words of Christ. It is as though Jesus is just one more character in the story, rather than the whole point of the story. In fact, I’ve been in multiple conversations in which the apostle Paul seems to be hailed as the final authority on Christianity, his words, in effect, trumping the words of Jesus.
So, while it may be problematic to make too much of the distinction between Scripture and Christ, I think that evangelicalism will benefit from a reminder that our faith centers around the living person of Jesus Christ—the World Made Flesh—not on the sacred texts that point to him.
Smith wraps up the chapter by talking about Karl Barth, who apparently said all of this a while ago. He concludes with a final example of Biblicism that most of us encounter in childhood.
“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the word of God. The B-I-B-L-E!”
Writes Smith, “It becomes easier than many would like to imagine to begin to cling to the Bible and forget about Christ—in fact, perhaps, sometimes to use the Bible precisely to avoid a real encounter with Christ. At worst, the Bible becomes an idol that literally confuses the scriptures with their rightful subject matter. Slightly less perilously, the Bible becomes a preoccupation ironically distracting believers from attending to the living, Trinitarian God.” (p. 126)
Next week, we will discuss Smith’s final chapters before moving on to N.T Wright.
In the meantime...DISCUSS!
Does Smith’s response to these common objections to his thesis satisfy you? Do you sense that some Christians elevate Scripture above Christ? Or is this much ado about nothing?
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