The problem of biblicism

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

So I’ve added another six or seven books to my “biblical” reading list, thanks to your suggestions for best books about the Bible. (Good thing I got an Amazon gift card for Christmas!) But before we get into those, I want to spend a few weeks with Christian Smith’s excellent book The Bible Made Impossible.

As important as it is to seek out better ways of reading the Bible, I think we have to start by deconstructing a bit, and Smith does a good job of addressing what has become a troublesome hallmark of American evangelical culture—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. Different communities within American evangelicalism emphasize various combinations of these points differently. But all together they form a constellation of assumptions and beliefs that define a particular theory and practice. My argument as follows does not question the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Bible. Nor am I here discounting the crucially important role that the Bible must play in the life of the church and the lives of individual Christians...What I say here is simply that the Biblicism that in much of American evangelicalism is presupposed to be the cornerstone to Christian truth and faithfulness is misguided and impossible. It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.”  (viii)

Biblicism falls apart, according to Smith, because of what he calls “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...My argument focuses on the fact that the Bible contains a variety of texts that are problematic in different ways and that Biblicists (among other) readers rarely know how to handle. Some are texts that frankly amost no reader is going to live by, however committed in theory they may be to Biblicism. Others are texts that need explaining away by appeals to cultural relativity (although no principled guidelines exist about when that explanation should and should not be applied). Some are passages that are simply strange. And some are texts that seem to be incompatible with other texts.” (xi)

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.” 

Smith goes on to argue for a Christocentric hermeneutic, one that acknowledges 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.”  

I read this book on a flight to San Diego, which seemed to pass in the blink of an eye—mainly because, although I was intimately acquainted with the phenomenon of “biblicism,” I’d never known what to call it.

Biblicism is perhaps best reflected in the old adage, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” It is present whenever we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it front of another loaded word (like “manhood,” “womanhood,” “economics,” “politics,”), to imply that the Bible has a single, cohesive position on each of these topics that should be perfectly clear to anyone who reads the text. We encounter it when Christians on one side of a debate accuse those on the other of “picking and choosing” which passages of the Bible they take seriously, when the reality is that we are all selective in our interpretation and application of Scripture. We struggle with biblicism when we turn the Bible into a weapon, when we proof text, when we take verses from Jeremiah and the Psalms out of context and plaster them on our day calendars and coffee mugs. We struggle with biblicism when we sweep all those strange, troubling passages of Scripture under the rug and pretend that they’re not even there. 

I personally believe that biblicism has seen its heyday, and that the Christian community is looking for a more honest, realistic, and constructive way to read the Bible, one that cherishes the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be—hence this series. 

Next week—if I find some time during the Great Arizona Tour of 2012—we’ll delve into the trouble with the word “biblical,” which should be fun...cause y’all know how irritated I get with that one! 

In the meantime, a few questions (respond to as many as you like): 

1. What do you think of Christian Smith’s definition of Biblicism?
2. Do you agree that Biblicism is, essentially, impossible? 
3. Where have you observed Biblicism in your own life/church/culture? 

Note: If you have read and written a review of The Bible Made Impossible, share a link here! We’ll be discussing the book for the next few weeks, so if you want to join in on your own blog, I’ll try to link up.

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