by Rachel Held Evans
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 excellent book, 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.” Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at some of the problems with Biblicism. (See God Hates Cretans? (and other passages of Scripture we’d rather not talk about, A Very ‘Biblical Blog Post, and The Problem of Biblicism.)
Today we move on to the second part of Smith’s thesis, and what you might say is the most important part of his “solution” (or "alternative") to biblicism—a Christocentric hermeneutic.
“Jesus Christ is the true and final Word of God,” says Smith, “in relation to whom scripture is God’s secondary, written word of witness and testimony.”
Smith begins his exploration of a Christcentric hermeneutic in Chapter 5 by arguing that a truly evangelical reading of Scripture always filters Scripture “through the single lens of the gospel of Christ.” Noting that the word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means “good message,” Smith says that “to be evangelical, then, means having one’s life centered on the terrifically good message that God is reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ,” and that “hearing, grasping and making sense of that fantastic news for our lives is altogether different than, for example, simply following a life handbook of divine oracles or looking up information in a holy user’s manual to help fix a problem.” (p. 93)
In fact, according to Smith, “the purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ....It is not the words of the Bible that are ‘the way, the truth, and the life,” he writes, “It is the person of Christ, to whom the Bible witnesses.” (p. 99)
Here he points to John 5:39 in which Jesus says, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life, but these are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39).
“This does not mean trying to detect Christ in every piece of scripture or forcing every verse in the Bible to somehow be directly about the gospel,” Smith is quick to note. “That itself would be bad prooftexting. Rather, every part of scripture and scripture as a whole...is read in light of the centrally defining reality of Jesus Christ.”
As we saw in Pete Enns’ book, The Evolution of Adam, this is exactly how Paul interacted with the Old Testament. He read and reinterpreted the rest of Scripture—including the creation accounts— in light of the history-altering incarnation of the Word made flesh.
“By this Christocentric account,” writes Smith, “the internal harmony that scripture embodies does not stem from all of the propositions and narrative accounts fitting together perfectly like a neat jigsaw puzzle. Scripture’s internal unity or harmony, rather, derives from its central purpose in divine revelation of telling us about Jesus Christ.” (p. 102)
“The Bible is not about offering things like a biblical view of dating,” he says, “but rather about how God the Father offered his Son, Jesus Christ, to death to redeem a rebellious world from the slavery and damnation of sin. The Bible is not about conveying divine principles for starting and managing a Christian business—but is instead about Christ on the cross triumphing over all principalities and powers and so radically transforming everything we consider to be our business...Scripture then ceases to about teaching about biblical manhood and womanhood or biblical motherhood and fatherhood—and becomes instead the story of how a covenant-making and promise-keeping God took on full human personhood in Jesus Christ in order to reconcile this alienated and wrecked world to the eternally gracious Father.” (110)
“...That is not to say that evangelical Christians will never have theologically informed moral and practical views of dating and romance, business dealings, emotions, gender identities and relations, and parenting,” he says. “They may and will. But the significance and content of all such views will be defined completely in terms of thinking about them in the view of larger facts of Jesus Christ and the gospel—not primarily by gathering and arranging pieces of scriptural text that seem to be relevant to such topics in order to pinpoint the ‘biblical view’ on them.” (p. 110-111)
He continues, “Perhaps by making the Bible provide us specific, definite answers to such matters we are forcing the Bible to be something quite other than what it intends to be: a witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel of salvation from sin.” (p. 112)
This makes all kinds of sense to me, and it’s why I was delighted to see my alma mater recently change the name of its required freshman course from “biblical worldview” to “Christian worldview.” It may not seem like a major change—in fact, no one really said much about it—but to me, it represents an important shift in emphasis.
For it is through Jesus Christ that Christians should interpret and interact with the rest of the world, not in some flattened-out view of the Bible that treats every passage exactly the same. It is in the context of Christ’s incarnation, Christ’s teachings, Christ’s life, Christ’s death, Christ’s resurrection, and Christ’s abiding presence in the Eucharist, in our love for one another and in least of these that we process everything—from marriage to gender to economics to Scripture itself.
This chapter is such an important one to The Bible Made Impossible that I want to spend two weeks on it.
So next week we’ll talk little more about Jesus as “the true and final word,” and we’ll tackle the objection that many evangelicals raise when talking about him as such—that the only way anybody actually knows about Jesus is through the Bible, and so the Bible itself remains supreme. So stay tuned!
In the meantime, what do you think of this idea of a Christocentric hermeneutic?
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