Taking the Bible seriously means embracing its tension and complexity

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

This week, we’re wrapping up our discussion of Christian Smith’s excellent book, The Bible Made Impossible.

As expected, this book has been a fantastic conversation-starter and a great launching point for our yearlong series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. Next we’ll be discussing N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God. So if you want to read along, consider ordering the book this week. 

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.” 

First, we looked at some of the problems of Biblicism. (See The Problem with BiblicismGod Hates Cretans?, and A Very Biblical Blog Post.)

Then we discussed Smith’s case for a Christocentric hermeneutic as an alternative to Biblicism. (See Is there a difference between a Christian worldview and a biblical worldview? and "You think that by Scripture you possess eternal life...”)

Today we look at Smith’s admonition to move beyond Biblicism by accepting the complexity and ambiguity inherent in Scripture. 

Writes Smith: 

“We ought in humble submission to accept the real scriptures that god has provided us as they are, rather than ungratefully and stubbornly forcing scripture to be something that it is not because of a theory we hold about what it must and should be. One of the strangest things about the Biblicist mentality is its evident refusal to take the Bible at face value. Ironically, while Biblicists claim to take the Bible with utmost seriousness for what it obviously teaches, their theory about the Bible drives them to try to make it something it evidently is not...Regardless of the actual Bible that God has given his church, biblicists want a Bible that is different. They want a Bible that answers all their questions, that tells them how to have marital intimacy, that gives them principles for economics and medicine and science and cooking—and does so inerrantly” (p. 127). 

I certainly relate to that! I don’t know about you, but sometimes I really miss the security of thinking I had an infallible, comprehensive roadmap for life sitting on my nightstand, that there was no question the Bible couldn’t answer, no decision it wouldn’t help me make, no argument it couldn’t help me win. I  still struggle sometimes to accept the fact that faith isn’t about having everything figured out ahead of time, that it’s about trusting God daily—with or without a roadmap. 

Here Smith quotes our friend Pete Enns: 

“I have found again and again that listening to how the Bible itself behaves and suspending preconceived notions (as much as that is possible) about how we think the Bible ought to behave is refreshing, creative, exciting, and spiritually rewarding...One must observe how scripture does behave and draw conclusions from that...We are to place our trust in God who gave us Scripture, not in our own conceptions of how Scripture ought to be.” (p. 128-129)

And Gordon Fee: 

“God did not choose to give us a series of timeless, non-culture-bound theological propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed. Rather, he chose to speak his eternal word this way, in historically particular circumstances in every kind of literary genre. By the very way God gave us this Word, he locked in the ambiguity. One should not fight God and insist that he give us his Word in another way, or, as we are more apt to do, rework his Word along theological or cultural prejudices that turn into a minefield of principles, propositions, or imperatives but denude it of its ad hoc character as truly human. The ambiguity is part of what God did in giving us the Word in this way.” (p. 129)

Smith reminds readers of the idea of divine accommodation, which suggests that “in the process of divine inspiration, God did not correct every incomplete or mistaken viewpoint of the biblical authors in order to communicate through them with their readers...The point of the inspired scripture was to communicate its central point, not to straighten out every kink and dent in the views of all the people involved in biblical inscripturation and reception along the way.” (p. 129) 

Smith therefore concludes that “there is no reason whatsoever not to openly acknowledge the sometimes confusing, ambiguous, and seemingly incomplete nature of scripture...All of scripture is not clear, nor does it  need to be. But the real matter of scripture is clear, ‘the deepest secret of all,’ that God in Christ has come to earth, lived, taught, healed, died, and risen to new life, so that we too can rise to life in him.”  (p. 132) 

And I love this: 

“Where scripture is sometimes internally at odds with itself, even apparently self-contradictory, we would do better to let stand the tensions and inconsistencies than force them into an artificial harmony” (p. 133). 

I’ll never forget how, when I was struggling with doubts about my faith and questions about the Bible, someone recommended I check out Gleason Archer’s massive Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, a book which promised to resolve every possible conflict or tension within Scripture.  The book only made things worse, of course, because I didn’t even realize half of those conflicts existed! 

While there was a certain security to having this infallible roadmap on my nightstand, there was also a deep fear that came along with my belief that if just one thing was out of place in Scripture, if just one thing didn’t resolve, the whole thing would fall apart. 

And so, for me, leaving behind biblicism and embracing the ambiguity, tension, and nuance of Scripture has been both frightening and liberating. I no longer live with the security of having a simple, infallible blueprint for living...but I no longer live in fear and denial when the Bible turns out to be difficult to understand and apply.  

As I tell students when I speak in chapel: If the Bible were a blueprint, if it were a clear-cut list of do’s and don’ts and bullet points for living, we would have nothing to talk about—with God or with one another! There would be no theology classes or midrash or Bible studies or 2:30 a.m. dorm room debates about predestination and free will...because there would be nothing for us to talk about. 

We’re part of this dynamic, centuries-old, ongoing conversation with God and with one another preciselybecause the Bible is difficult to understand. I believe that God wants us to wrestle with Scripture like this because being a person of faith isn’t about being right; it’s about being in relationship with God and a community. A blueprint would do nothing to draw us into communion with God and with one another. But this beautiful and frustrating collection of stories, letters, laws, poetry, and prophecies certainly does.  The Bible is meant to be a conversation-starter, not a conversation-ender. 

So, what do you think? Do you struggle sometimes to accept the complexity and ambiguity of Scripture? How have you worked through that? 

And what are your thoughts on The Bible Made Impossible in general? Do you have questions that are unresolved or ideas we didn’t cover?

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