According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Some humor, Some truth

The Skit Guys

To view more skits -

The Skit GuysTommy Woodard and Eddie James are The Skit Guys. They have been best friends since high school. Think of them as the wise guys in class who had everyone laughing and managed to make a career out of it. They've been teaching God's word using comedy, drama and whatever category talking action figures fit into for over twenty years.

Review: Christian Smith - The Bible Made Impossible, Part 9

I have selected Dr. Roger Olson's reviews to help in the assimilation of Christian Smith's book since he interacts with a multitude of Christians either in favor of, or in opposition to, the subject matter. As prelude, I would encourage a reading of the introductory post earlier submitted for this project -

- RE Slater

Part 9 - Narrative theology: following up on
my review of Smith’s book about biblicism
by Roger Olson

Posted on October 14, 2011

Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Final Review

In The Bible Made Impossible Christian Smith does touch on narrative theology, but I think it may offer more (to an evangelical approach to the Bible that avoids some of the problems he discusses) than he suggests. Here is my summary of narrative theology:

Some Thoughts about Narrative Theology

1. Narrative theology focuses on the Bible as a whole (canonical interpretation) as a dramatic account of God’s activity; its main purpose is to identify God for us (i.e., God’s character).

2. Narrative theology acknowledges that the Bible contains propositions, but it says biblical propositions are not independent of or superior to the metanarrative of God’s saving activity. (Jesus told stories—parables—and sometimes interpreted them with propositions. But the propositions serve the stories, not vice versa. If propositions could communicate the point better, then surely Jesus would have started with the propositions and then given the stories to “illustrate” them.)

3. A biblical proposition is “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but it needs interpretation. It does not simply interpret itself. What is “love” in this proposition? How is God’s love related to God’s justice, etc.? It won’t do simply to look up “love” in a dictionary. The only way to interpret “God is love” is to look at the biblical story that reveals God’s character through his actions.

4. According to narrative theology, the Bible contains many kinds of statements—commands, propositions, expressions of praise, prayers, poetry, prophecies, parables, etc. All are included by narrative theology under and within the rubric of “story” or “drama.” They are all parts of the great story of God whose central character (for Christians, at least) is Jesus Christ. Therefore, all must be interpreted in light of that story and its purpose—to reveal the character of God through his mighty acts leading up to and centering around Jesus Christ.

5. Theology is our best human attempt to understand the biblical drama-story and that includes developing canonical-linguistic models (complex metaphors, doctrines) that express its meaning for the church’s belief and life. But a theologian cannot do that properly unless he or she is “living the story” together with a community of faith shaped by the story.

6. Doctrines are secondary to the story; they cannot replace it. They are judged by their adequacy to the story—their ability to draw out and express faithfully the character of God as revealed by the story. But the story is primary; the doctrines are secondary and that means always revisable in light of a new and better understanding of the import of the story.

7. The task of the church is to “faithfully improvise” the “rest of the story.” Christians are not called simply to live in the story; they are called to continue the story in their own cultural contexts. First they must be grounded in the story. They must be people for whom the story “absorbs the world.” Second, they must together (communally) improvise the “rest of the story” faithfully to the story given in the Bible.

8. The alternatives are to either a) regard the Bible as a grab bag of propositions to be pulled out to answer questions, or b) regard the Bible as a not-yet-systematized system of theology (like a philosophy). Both alternatives fail to do justice to what the Bible really is—a grand drama of God’s mighty saving acts that progressively reveals his character culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

- Roger Olson

Review: Christian Smith - The Bible Made Impossible, Part 8

I have selected Dr. Roger Olson's reviews to help in the assimilation of Christian Smith's book since he interacts with a multitude of Christians either in favor of, or in opposition to, the subject matter. As prelude, I would encourage a reading of the introductory post earlier submitted for this project -

- RE Slater

Part 8 - Final installment of the
Review of Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible
by Roger Olson

Posted on October 5, 2011

Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Chapter 7

Chapter 7 “Rethinking Human Knowledge, Authority, and Understanding” and “Conclusion”

Smith here argues for evangelicals to “break from modern epistemological foundationalism once and for all, but without sliding into a problematic postmodernism.” (149) As he sees it (and he’s not alone) modern and contemporary evangelical theology has “bought into foundationalism whole hog.” (150) This is what Mark Noll and others have ironically labeled the “evangelical enlightenment”—evangelical theologians’ tendency to mimic the epistemology of the Enlightenment which is now being discredited.

For readers not familiar with foundationalism, Smith defines it (as he means it, anyway) on page 150: “a conviction that rational humans can and must identify a common foundation of knowledge directly up from and upon which every reasonable thinker can and ought to build a body of completely reliable knowledge and understanding. Such a foundation upon which all knowledge is to be built must stand indubitably against all challenges, must be universally accessible to all rational people, and must unfailingly produce the kind of reliable knowledge sought after. When such a foundation is secured, then the resultant knowledge that will be built from and upon it will be for all rational people absolutely certain, completely truthful, and universally binding.”

Smith argues that this Enlightenment-based foundationalist rationalism is no longer believable and must be replaced with critical realism. I have argued here before that Lesslie Newbigin rightly argues the same. For Smith, anyway, critical realism takes more seriously than foundationalism the inevitable interpretive nature of all knowing—perspectivalism without subjectivism or relativism.

The same point is made by theologian Gary Dorrien in his excellent book on evangelical theology entitled The Remaking of Evangelical Theology (Westminster John Knox, 1998): “Evangelicals are prone to fret that everything will be lost if they have no ground of absolute certainty or no proof that Christianity is superior to Islam or Buddhism. This fear drives them to impose impossible tests on Christian belief. Inerrancy or the abyss! It also drives them to invest religious authority in a posited epistemological capacity that exists outside the circle of Christian faith. The truth of Christianity is then judged by rational tests that are not only external to Christian revelation but given authority over revelation.” (201)

I whole heartedly agree with Smith and Dorrien and have said so in Reformed and Always Reforming and other books and articles. Of course, not all evangelicals fall prey to foundationalism, but those that adhere strictly to the theological method of the Old Princeton theologians Alexander, Hodge and Warfield tend to. Even Carl Henry’s presuppositionalist method, often accused of fideism by evangelicals more enamored with evidentialism, is based on a kind of foundationalist mentality. Smith rightly calls evangelical theologians (and others) to abandon these attempts to secure certainty through rational means; they lay a burden on the Bible that it simply cannot bear as an ancient text with all the markings of human culture and personality, etc.

Of course, this move away from foundationalism won’t go far to solve the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism (PIP), but it will help evangelicals avoid embarrassment and foolishness. Biblicism does not depend on foundationalism; it can exist independently of it. But Smith believes much evangelical theology (as opposed to folk religion) has rested its case for certainty on the shaky ground of Enlightenment rationalism.

The second section of Chapter 7 is entitled “Not starting with a theory of inspiration.” Smith does not argue for abandonment of inspiration or any theory of inspiration, but he argues that too often evangelicals begin with a presupposed theory of what inspiration must mean and then continue to force that onto the Bible. It’s a deductive process of determining what the Bible “really is” divorced from a careful, inductive study of the phenomena of Scripture. He’s said something like this before in the book. Here, in this section, he offers some alternatives to such a deductive approach such as learning from non-evangelical sources (such as the church fathers) and non-American evangelicals (e.g., Brits and Europeans) how they view Scripture. He rightly concludes (even though I’m not sure how this fits with the subtitle of this section) “American evangelicals have no need to be biblically or ecclesially self-sufficient, must less superior to other believers around the world. By listening—critically but also appreciatively—to the voices of genuine others, evangelicals stand a chance of learning more and perhaps better about what the Bible is and how it can best be read and understood.” (156)

I think this may be another watershed among evangelical scholars—those mostly conservative, neo-fundamentalists whose theological heroes are almost exclusively North Americans (Edwards, Hodge, Strong, Boettner, et al.) and those who really believe it is to our benefit as North American evangelicals to listen to and critically appropriate the insights of the church fathers (including the Greek ones and not only Augustine!), the medieval theologians, the radical Reformers (not just the magisterial Reformers), and contemporary non-North Americans such as Newbigin, Wright, Moltmann, Volf (now a North American but with roots in Eastern Europe and education in Germany), et al.

Smith’s third section of Chapter 7 is entitled “Understanding different ways of doing by saying” and deals with speech act theory. This is perhaps the most technical section of the entire book and some readers will no doubt get lost in the philosophical discussion of various forms of communication such as “locutionary” acts, “illocutionary” acts, and “perlocutionary” acts. This view of Scripture, which is promoted by Kevin Vanhoozer, among others, regards the Bible not as a collection of factual propositions (although it contains propositions) but as God’s communication to us by acting upon us with various kinds of speech acts. In other words, as I have often argued, the main purpose of the Bible is not information (although it contains information) but transformation. Smith rightly says “Scripture, in short, can be approached as something quite different from a holy life handbook, an error-free instruction manual, or a compendium of divine oracles about life’s various and sundry issues and challenges. Instead of those…approaches…which are so often used for humanly driven, therapeutic purposes and so are inadequate to a truly evangelical approach, the view developed above puts us, the readers, back into the position of being acted upon by God through the words of Scripture.” (162) I have no criticism of this section of Chapter 7; I whole heartedly agree and recommend interested people look into Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine for more on this.

The last two sections of Chapter 7 are “The many dimensions of ‘biblical authority’” and “A historically growing grasp of the meaning of the gospel.” The first of those two sections talks about the Bible’s “transformative capacity” (and extension of the previous section) and the last one talks about how the Bible is not the final word on many important subjects of faith and practice. By that Smith does NOT mean the Bible is wrong about anything. Rather, he means that on many subjects the Bible is silent or gives principles that need to be applied as culture develops. He gives as examples the creeds and definitions of the first four ecumenical councils that do not merely repeat what the Bible says but interpret and apply what the Bible teaches in ways that go beyond the Bible itself by addressing new situations. The Bible, he says, carries implications for many subjects about which it does not directly or fully speak such as slavery. He argues that evangelicals need to deemphasize the idea of “Bible passages as collections of complete and final teachings on every subject imaginable” and come to understand “the Bible and the gospel it preaches as a dynamic, living, active force of truth in human life and history.” (170)

This proposal agrees completely with those of Vanhoozer and N. T. Wright. The former talks (in The Drama of Doctrine) about not staring AT the Bible but looking along it—putting its often inchoate divine ideas into practice in ways the biblical writers could not have anticipated. He calls this “faithful improvisation.” Wright talks about a five act play; contemporary Christians are the actors who have to improvise the fifth act on the basis of the first four which are already written and with which they are thoroughly familiar.

Smith provides many pithy statements about his book’s thesis in the Conclusion. Here’s one I particularly like: “Rather than insisting that God must have provided a revealed word of a sort that our preconceptions and historical social situations tell us had to be—and then bending over backward to defend that insistence in the face of good evidence to the contrary—we would do well to take the actual revelation that God has given us on its own terms and learn how to read and understand it well. If anything, biblicists should be ashamed for refusing to accept—on what turn out to be faulty and outmoded philosophical grounds—the actual inspired scriptural writings that God has provided for his people.” (175-176)

My final word about Smith’s book is that it represents a powerful challenge to neo-fundamentalism and folk religion among contemporary evangelicals, but I doubt it will be heeded by very many of those people. And its proposals will not go very far toward solving the problem of PIP. PIP will always be with us. It’s simply part of the human condition. Holding a different view of the Bible isn’t going to fix it. Nevertheless, overall and in general, I do think Smith’s view of the Bible is better than either conservative evangelical biblicism or liberalism (“inspired insofar as it is inspiring”). But it swims in ambiguity which is why most lay people and pastors will probably not like it and conservative evangelical theologians (I mean neo-fundamentalists) will condemn it.

Review: Christian Smith - The Bible Made Impossible, Parts 6 and 7

I have selected Dr. Roger Olson's reviews to help in the assimilation of Christian Smith's book since he interacts with a multitude of Christians either in favor of, or in opposition to, the subject matter. As prelude, I would encourage a reading of the introductory post earlier submitted for this project -

- RE Slater 

Part 6 - Third installment of review
Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible
by Roger Olson

Posted on September 30, 2011

Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Chapters 5 & 6

Now I turn to Chapters 5 and 6–both great chapters with which I mostly agree. I think Chapter 5 especially is extremely helpful and all evangelicals should consider Smith’s (not entirely original) proposal. It won’t fix the problem of PIP, but it will go a long way toward resolving numerous difficulties we run into when we try to treat the Bible as a flat terrain without highs and lows (not of inspiration but of authority for belief and life).

Chapter 5 is entitled “The Christocentric Hermeneutical Key.”

With this chapter Smith turns to proposed partial solutions to the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism (PIP). However, I think his proposal in this chapter is valuable independently of the PIP problem.

Here’s how Smith sets up the chapter’s argument: “what is needed to improve on biblicism is some kind of stronger hermeneutical guide that can govern the proper interpretation of the multivocal, polysemous, multivalent texts of scripture toward the shared reading of a more coherent, authoritative biblical message. Such a stronger hermeneutical guide would also, of course, have to be consistent with, if not directly derived from, Christian scripture and tradition.” (95)

His proposal is this: “The purpose, center and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ. … Truly believing that Jesus Christ is the real purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture causes one to read the Bible in a way that is very different than believing the Bible to be an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it seems to address.” (97-98)

To that I can only say Amen! I have been promoting a Christocentric hermeneutic to my students for many years. Smith is not being original here and doesn’t claim to be. Luther practiced such an approach with his litmus test for biblical interpretation. For him, that is especially God’s Word to us that promotes Christ (“was Christum treibt”).

Smith makes clear that he is not advocating a kind of allegorical or typological approach to Scripture that “sees” Christ in every verse of the Old Testament (for example–the tabernacle in the wilderness and every part of it a type of Christ). Rather, his approach is this: “If believers want to rightly understand scripture, every narrative, every prayer, every proverb, every law, every Epistle needs…to be read and understood always and only in the light of Jesus Christ and God reconciling the world to himself through him.” (99) Again, to that I say Amen!

Smith rightly appeals to great theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Barth, G. C. Berkouwer, Geoffrey Bromiley, Donald Bloesch, and to contemporary theologians (some evangelical) such as John Webster and Kevin Vanhoozer.

One problem I have with Smith’s examples of Christocentric hermeneutics is his appeal to the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message of the Southern Baptist Convention. He says it includes the phrase “all Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.” (108) However, he fails to note that the 2000 BF&M dropped the following sentence from the 1963 BF&M (which is still the consensus statement of the Baptist General Convention of Texas): “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Dropping that sentence seriously weakened the phrase the 2000 BF&M kept. It is one thing to say Christ is the “focus” of divine revelation and something else entirely to say he is the “criterion” for interpretation of Scripture. The 1963 criterion phrase was dropped purposely, in my opinion, in order to strengthen the kind of biblicism Smith decries as impossible. So, if Jesus Christ is not the criterion by which the Bible is interpreted, what will be that criterion? No doubt the framers of the revisionist 2000 BF&M would say it doesn’t need one because it is wholly perspicuous. But, of course, that’s simply naive. I suggest that for them, the unacknowledged criterion is themselves–i.e., their vision of Baptist tradition. I agree with Smith about this and it applies, in my opinion, to the moves made by the SBC in its revision of the BF&M and to its leaders approach to the Bible: “The reality is that it is not possible to take fully seriously a Christocentric hermeneutic of scripture and to hold to biblicism. One or the other must give. In most cases to date, the biblicist tendencies overwhelm Christocentric gestures and intuitions. Nobody ends up explicitly denying that Christ is the purpose, center, meaning, and key to understanding scripture. But in actual practice Christ 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.” (109)

What Smith doesn’t say (or say enough about) is that in these cases what takes the place of Christ as the criterion of biblical interpretation is not nothing but some tradition–whether the “ancient Christian consensus” as in paleo-orthodoxy or the “received evangelical tradition” as in conservative evangelicalism/neo-fundamentalism or the magisterium of the Catholic church as in Roman Catholicism. My question to Smith would be: Can you really practice what you preach in this chapter as a Roman Catholic?

I agree with Smith (at least the Smith of this chapter!) that a “canon within the canon” is inevitable and it ought to be Jesus Christ (was Christum treibt). If it isn’t him, it will be something or someone else. And I probably agree with Smith now (after the book was written when he joined the RCC) that there is always and must be a “canon outside the canon”–some tradition that guides us in interpretation. Where I disagree (probably) is that this canon outside the canon must be binding on our interpretation of Scripture. I say it (for me The Great Tradition of Christian teaching heralded by the church fathers and restored by the Reformers) always gets a vote (in matters of doctrinal controversy) but never a veto. Jesus, however, gets a veto! That is to say that if a doctrine conflicts with the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ, however many verses can be piled up to support it, it cannot be true.

Perhaps Smith’s most radical claim in this chapter (and perhaps in the book) is this: “The Bible is of course crucial for the Christian church and life. But it does not trump Jesus Christ as the true and final Word of God. The Bible is a secondary, subsidiary, functional, written word of God, the primary purpose of which is to mediate, to point us to, to give true testimony about the living Jesus Christ. … Biblicism borders on idolatry when it fails to maintain this perspective.” (117-118)

Again, I respond with a hearty Amen!

Smith goes on to deal with objections to Christocentric hermeneutics and he handles them very well.

Let me use Smith’s chapter and the approach it takes to explain WHY I AM NOT A CALVINIST AND CANNOT BE ONE. I am constantly besieged by critics who claim my theology–Arminianism–is exegetically weak. What I think they are saying is that they can pile up more verses for their theology than I can for mine. EVEN IF THAT WERE TRUE (which I’m not about to concede), it wouldn’t settle the issue between us. The Bible is not a textbook of truth in the way they handle it. It is inspired testimony to Jesus Christ who reveals God’s character perfectly. I see them trying to look behind Jesus Christ to some God whose character is different from Jesus’. And then they impose that mostly Old Testament view of God onto Jesus Christ and the New Testament. My first and utter loyalty is to Jesus Christ. I agree with Zinzendorf who said “If it weren’t for Jesus I wouldn’t believe in God” only I would alter it to “If it weren’t for Jesus I wouldn’t love or worship God.” Thank God for Jesus! When I look at most Calvinist attempts to prove their theology (and here I mean high, TULIP, double predestination Calvinism) what I see is an interpretation of Scripture that leaves Jesus behind; God’s character is derived from a chain of biblical passages interpreted in such a way that they are not only NOT consistent with the character of God revealed in Jesus, they positively CONFLICT with the character of God revealed in Jesus. I know this sounds shocking to biblicist ears (as Smith defines biblicism), but I agree with Wesley who said of the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 “Whatever it means, it cannot mean that!” Why not? Because of Jesus Christ.

Now don’t jump on me for sentimentalizing God and Jesus. Sure, God revealed in Jesus is intolerant of evil and judges it. But he is a God who loves his human creatures, created in his own image and likeness, and wants them all to be saved and has done everything in his power to save them. If they are not saved it is because they prefer to remain in the “far country” than to return home to the waiting father with his open arms.

Next time…Chapter 6 “Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity”

Part 7 - Another installment of my review of Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible
by Roger Olson

Posted on October 3, 2011

Chapter 6: “Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity”

There is no chapter in Smith’s book with which I agree more than this one. While I don’t think his prescriptions here will go very far toward reducing pervasive interpretive pluralism (PIP), they are of paramount importance for evangelical honesty (toward the Bible) and generosity (toward each other and other Christians).

I cannot recommend this chapter highly enough; I wish every evangelical (and that’s a pretty broad concept for me!) could read this chapter if nothing else. Of course, as with other chapters, there’s nothing that new here. The novelty of Smith’s book and this chapter lies not in any innovation of concepts but in the way old concepts are packaged and presented.

A lot of the material in this chapter I learned in seminary. I was fortunate enough to attend a very sane, moderate, even sometimes progressive evangelical Baptist seminary (North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota—now called Sioux Falls Seminary). My professors were full of good, strong, common sense about the Bible and theology as well as steeped in the best historical and contemporary scholarship. Sometimes I’m tempted to say that everything I ever really needed to know I learned in seminary. It liberated me from fundamentalism, obscurantism and anti-intellectualism and introduced me to this (Smith’s) kind of broad, generous, common-sensical evangelical Christianity.

I’ll have to admit up front that I MIGHT be biased in favor of this chapter because I’m favorably named in it; Smith makes use of my distinction between “dogmas,” “doctrines,” and “opinions”—something I first published in the little book Who Needs Theology (IVP). However, I don’t really think that’s the case. Even were I not mentioned in the chapter I would find almost total agreement with it.

The first part of the Chapter 6 is “Embracing the Bible for what it obviously is.”

Smith says “One of the strangest things about the biblicist mentality is its evident refusal to take the Bible at face value.” (127) He accuses evangelical biblicists of creating a “theory about the Bible [that] drives them to make it something that it evidently is not.” (127) Smith urges evangelicals to be satisfied and come to terms with the actual phenomena of Scripture rather than imposing on it a theory of inspiration, authority and inerrancy foreign to it as an ancient text containing many different literary genres. In the second section of the chapter, entitled “Living with scriptural ambiguities,” Smith unfolds what he means. There he says “There is no reason whatsoever not to openly acknowledge the sometimes confusing, ambiguous, and seemingly incomplete nature of scripture.” (131) Then he explains “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.” (132)

In contrast, Smith argues, too many evangelicals (not all) have imposed on Scripture an expectation and then a demand that it be perfect in every way by modern standards suitable to (for example) university textbooks. The Bible simply isn’t that. It is not a set of inerrant propositions waiting to be harmonized and systematized into something like a philosophy. Rather, it contains ambiguities, uncertainties, apparent contradictions, mysteries, etc. At the end of this section of the chapter Smith quotes the great Dutch Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer (who I use in Against Calvinism against the radical Reformed theology of the “new Calvinism” in America) approvingly: “the confession of perspicuity is not a statement in general concerning the human language of Scripture, but a confession concerning the perspicuity of the gospel in Scripture.” (133) To that I say amen!

In the next section of the chapter (“Dropping the compulsion to harmonize”) Smith gives a case study in how biblicism’s theory of Scripture simply does not fit the phenomena of Scripture. His case study is drawn from Harold Lindsell’s infamous (that’s my value judgment but not mine alone!) 1976 book The Battle for the Bible. There Lindsell, a militant inerrantist who wanted moderate to progressive evangelicals fired from their teaching positions at evangelical colleges, universities and seminaries, argued that if we believe the Bible to be inspired, authoritative and inerrant (three adjectives he linked inseparably together) we must believe that Peter denied Christ six times before the cock crowed on two separate occasions. This was Lindsell’s attempt to harmonize the four gospels’ accounts of Peter’s denial. This is just a case study in making the Bible impossible.

Smith concludes that “the Bible, understood as what it actually is, still speaks to us with a divine authority, which we need not question but which rather powerfully calls us and our lives into question.” (134) Well said! It’s important to note that Smith does NOT say that all harmonizing attempts are bad. “In some cases, to be sure, harmonizations of biblical accounts may actually be right.” (134) It’s just that harmonizing is usually not necessary. (134)

I agree with Smith’s overall point in this section, but I would push a little further than he does with respect to the value of cautious harmonization of biblical teachings and stories. They can’t all be harmonized and we shouldn’t even try—especially when we’re talking about non-essentials of the faith. But I have a friend who teaches New Testament at a Christian college who occasionally picks on me for going overboard with harmonization. He even goes so far as to argue that the Bible teaches BOTH absolute, unconditional predestination AND free will (as power of contrary choice) and the necessity of free cooperation with grace. That is, he believes the Bible teaches BOTH monergism and synergism. And he disdains every effort by theologians to systematize these into a coherent soteriology. For him, just to give one example, Philippians 2:12-13 is a contradiction and we simply have to embrace it and not try to harmonize these two verses. I disagree because I see no problem; it takes no “forced harmonization” to harmonize them into a coherent soteriology of prevenient grace and free human cooperation with grace. I just don’t see the problem there whereas he thinks I am forcing harmony where none exists.

Also, New Testament scholar friend thinks I’m simply crazy to think there is real consistency and harmony between the various accounts of the giving of the Holy Spirit in the gospels and Acts. One gospel has Jesus breathing on his disciples BEFORE his ascension and giving them the Holy Spirit. Acts has the Holy Spirit descending on them on the Day of Pentecost. My friend insists these are disparate accounts of the same event. I disagree. To me that’s not much different from Pannenberg’s (with whom I studied and I heard him say this) claim that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is a “misplaced resurrection story.” I haven’t discussed this one with my friend, so I don’t know what he would say. We kind of agreed to disagree and leave the matter alone (at least for a while).

I think it’s fairly obvious (though I wouldn’t call someone a heretic who disagrees) that Jesus gave his disciples the Holy Spirit to indwell them and be with them before Pentecost but on the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit filled them (“enduement with power” as Pentecostals call it). This fits with some of the stories of Spirit infilling (e.g., of people already believers) in later parts of Acts. I don’t see any forced harmonization there. But I do think Lindsell’s explanation of Peter’s denial of Jesus represents forced and completely unnecessary harmonization. I’m not sure what Smith would think of my rather modest and moderate approach to harmonizing Scripture. He very well might not like it. But I think we should harmonize when we can (e.g., the Arminian take on Philippians 2:12-13) and leave diversity within Scripture alone when we can’t harmonize without distortion.

The next section of the chapter is entitled (subheaded) “Distinguishing dogma, doctrine, and opinion.” Of course, I agree whole heartedly with Smith in this section! J Especially when he criticizes those biblicists who set up scripture readers “to assume that once they have decided what the Bible appears to teach, they will then have come into possession of absolutely definite, divinely authorized, universally valid, indubitable truth. And that truth will be equally valid and certain for every subject about which scripture appears to speak, whether it be the divinity of Jesus or how to engage in ‘biblical dating’.” (137) Smith rightly calls on evangelicals (and all Christians) to exercise a greater degree of humility about their secondary beliefs, their denominational distinctive (or distinctive of a certain tradition) and put beliefs in their right categories according to the clarity of Scripture about them and the certainty possible with regard to them. He cautions that “The point is not that every particular Christian group and tradition needs to strip itself of all its distinctive.” (138) The point is a changed attitude toward levels of importance of biblical teachings and those who disagree about secondary matters not necessary for salvation or even for authentic Christian living.

In my opinion, this recommendation could go a long way toward overcoming many of the controversies among evangelicals. We (the evangelical community in the U.S.) are being torn apart over secondary doctrines and teachings such as predestination, the inerrancy of the Bible, the possible salvation of the unevangelized, etc., etc. Of course, fundamentalists and neo-fundamentalists are not likely to give up insisting that their views are the only possible ones in light of a valid interpretation of Scripture, but my point (in addition to Smith’s) is that evangelical LEADERS need to speak out openly against this internecine war going on among evangelicals which is almost exclusively being fomented by conservatives.

I well remember when Jay Kessler, then head of Youth for Christ and president of Taylor University came to the college where I taught and decried this growing tendency among evangelicals to shoot at each other (figurately speaking, of course) over relatively minor points of doctrine and practice. Too bad he didn’t write an article and have it published in Christianity Today or something! He was a powerful voice for moderation among evangelicals for many years, but either people weren’t listening or he just didn’t raise his voice loudly enough. But I know he was passionately opposed to this tendency to major in the minors as he saw what I call neo-fundamentalists taking over the evangelical community by creating fear of heresy among the untutored laity and pastors.

The last two sections of this chapter are headed “Not everything must be replicated” and “Living on a need-to-know basis.” Smith’s theses are that not everything practiced or even promoted by biblical writers, even apostles, must be practiced today. In other words, there is cultural conditioning in the Bible. And that “In his wisdom, God has chosen to reveal some of his will, plan and work, but clearly not all of it. To the extent that the Bible tells us about matters of Christian faith and life, it clearly does not tell us everything. It certainly does not tell us everything we often want to know.” (141) “Christians would do well to simply accept and live contentedly with the fact that they are being informed about the big picture on a ‘need to know’ basis. … if God has not made something completely clear in scripture, then it is probably best not to try to speculate it into something too significant. Let the ambiguous remain ambiguous.” (142) Again, amen to that! There’s a place for reverent speculation in theology, but it MUST be labeled that—speculation—and not touted as dogma or even doctrine. And I can be firmly convinced that I am right about some matter I think Scripture “clearly teaches” that is not central to salvation and Christian faith WITHOUT implying that those who disagree are subchristian or even subevangelical.

So let’s be specific about this chapter. What’s a case study in what Smith is opposed to here that violates his recommendations for being realistic about biblical ambiguities and secondary matters of doctrine. Well, I already mentioned The Battle for the Bible. But I would add (this is my own opinion, of course) D. A. Carson’s book The Gagging of God (1996). I saw in it a full frontal assault on fellow evangelicals who, in my opinion, Carson did not really even understand. A case in point is his treatment of Stan Grenz. I won’t go into details here as I have already done that in Reformed and Always Reforming which I wrote largely in response to Carson’s book.

In my opinion, this chapter of Smith’s book is crucial to a better, healthier, more reasonable approach to Scripture and doctrine than the one all too common among especially conservative evangelicals. It won’t fix the problem of PIP, but it could help evangelicals (and others) achieve a more balanced and sane approach to Scripture and doctrine.

Review: Christian Smith - The Bible Made Impossible, Parts 4 and 5

I have selected Dr. Roger Olson's reviews to help in the assimilation of Christian Smith's book since he interacts with a multitude of Christians either in favor of, or in opposition to, the subject matter. As prelude, I would encourage a reading of the introductory post earlier submitted for this project -

- RE Slater

Part 4 - Addendum to my first review of Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible
by Roger Olson

Posted on September 27, 2011

Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Chapters 3 & 4

Obviously my posts are not perfectly perspicuous–sometimes even to me (when I go back and read them)!

This is not the second installment of my multi-part review of Smith’s book. Here I just want to clarify some matters raised by some of you.

One of my points is that EVEN IF the Bible were all that biblicism claims (as Smith defines biblicism) (setting aside his tenth assumption or belief of biblicism–that the Bible is a complete handbook of answers to all of life’s questions–which I think is blatantly wrong and not really held by any serious scholar) there would be PIP.

Now, I happen to think the Bible is NOT all that biblicists claim (as Smith defines biblicism). For example, Smith includes inerrancy in biblicism. I only confess Scripture’s inerrancy if I’m allowed to define inerrancy! It’s one of those terms that has very little meaning because of such a wide range of meanings given to it by even conservative evangelicals.

Putting that caveat aside for now, my point in my first installment of my review was that EVEN IF biblicism is a correct view of the Bible, PIP would be unavoidable due to human beings’ lack of perfect perspicacity, objectivity, etc.

Secondly, I tried to make the point that I believe the Bible IS perspicuous with regard to beliefs essential or important to salvation and dealing with how to live a life pleasing to God (at least in terms of generalities) even if it IS NOT perspicuous about secondary matters.

I think my analogy of the Constitution works. Some of you objected because the Constitution can be amended. That’s beside the point. EVEN AS AMENDED the Constitution gives rise to PIP. That we have a Supreme Court to hand down authoritative interpretations based on precedents doesn’t solve anything. There’s still PIP about it. Many people disagree with the Supreme Court decisions about what the Constitution means. And what good would it do to say the Catholic Church’s magisterium is like the Supreme Court–the authoritative body for interpreting the Bible? The only thing that MIGHT accomplish (but doesn’t in today’s RCC) is to enforce conformity to its decisions. It can only enforce conformity within itself. Even there, I would argue, PIP exists. But even if you disagree (which to me just means you’re not aware of all that’s going on in the RCC worldwide) there’s the fact that not all Christians are RCC–unless you think they are. The only way to avoid PIP, it seems to me, is to have a dictatorial leader of one tightly organized church body THAT IS THE ONLY GROUP OF CHRISTIANS with the power to enforce his interpretations on everyone. Some cults think they have that and, admittedly, PIP is minimal or non-existent within them. Who wants that?

Part 5 – Review of
Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible
by Roger Olson

Posted on September 27, 2011

Now I turn to Chapters 3 and 4 of The Bible Made Impossible.

Chapter 3 is entitled Some Relevant History, Sociology and Psychology, and

Chapter 4 is Subsidiary Problems with Biblicism.

First, let me say that, contrary to the impression some have gotten, I am not at all dismissive of Smith’s overall argument; I happen to think it is worthy of serious consideration. Otherwise I would not be engaging it in such detail. Nor do I disagree with it entirely; I have qualms about some parts of it.

Second, I think there is at least one cause of PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism) Smith overlooks that will inevitably plague any text and its interpretation: presuppositions people bring to the text that the text itself does not directly address. I’ve written about some pre-biblical philosophical and theological presuppositions previously here. One is nominalism versus realism with regard to universals generally and with regard to God’s nature specifically. Does God have an eternal, immutable character that governs his actions or is God entirely free from any constraints on his power and what he wills? Someone might try to argue that the Bible settles this, but I don’t think it does. Luther certainly read the Bible and took it seriously and thought voluntarism (nominalism applied to the doctrine of God) was the right way to read it. Others read the Bible, take it seriously, and think realism is the right way to read it. The Bible doesn’t settle the matter. To expect ANY text settle all possible ways of reading and interpreting it in advance is unrealistic.

Now, I realize Smith might say one thing wrong with biblicism is its expectation that the Bible can be read and understood without presuppositions or that it settles all such issues so that only one set of presuppositions can reasonably be brought to its interpretation. Perhaps some biblicists think that. But my point is that NO TEXT–and that includes any interpretive tradition or magisterium–can possibly settle all such potential presuppositional issues in advance. There will always be ambiguity in any interpretation precisely because of this matter of perspectives caused by philosophical presuppositions. So no proposed solution to PIP can be comprehensive. PIP is inevitable.

Okay, on to Chapter 3. There Smith discusses philosophical assumptions behind modern evangelical biblicism and what is called Scottish Commonsense Realism in particular. He traces the influence of SCR on the Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield and through them on contemporary conservative evangelicals such as Wayne Grudem. He concludes that, since SCR has been discredited and replaced by critical realism, “the philosophical assumptions on which Hodge and Warfield built their theologies of the Bible are seriously problematic.” (59) Since modern and contemporary evangelical biblicism is largely based on the theologies of Hodge and Warfield, then, biblicism is itself problematic.

Next Smith discusses sociological and psychological conjectures as to why PIP is not more troubling to biblicists. He goes through a laundry list of reasons and concludes that “the general psychological structure underlying biblicism is one of a particular need to create order and security in an environment that would be otherwise chaotic and in error.” (64) I think he could replace “biblicism” in that sentence with “fundamentalism” and it would be just as true if not truer (depending on how closely biblicism is tied to fundamentalism).

No doubt some philosophically trained or minded evangelicals will want to critique Smith’s treatment of SCR. No doubt some will object that his reasons for why PIP does not trouble conservative evangelical biblicists more are mere conjectures. But he admits the latter. His argument doesn’t seem to be scientific so much as impressionistic. The point is that he thinks these are reasons and you might too, if you consider them. I’m not a biblicist in Smith’s sense and I’m not as troubled by PIP as he is. But I don’t think it’s for any of the reasons he suggests. Although, one specific reason might apply to me.

Smith’s second reason (p. 61) is because, he says, many evangelicals are simply in denial about the depth of PIP; they claim the differences among evangelicals are minor compared with their areas of agreement. He rejects this reason and says that “Disagreements among biblicists (and other Bible-referring Christians) about what the Bible teaches on most issues, both essentials and secondary matters, are many and profound. If biblicists hope to maintain intellectual honesty and internal consistency, they must acknowledge them and explain them.” (62) I simply don’t agree. I find that evangelicals do agree on the essentials of the faith–matters Christians have historically considered cornerstones of orthodoxy. And when someone comes out and denies, say, the deity of Jesus Christ or the Trinity, evangelicals ostracize them from the evangelical movement. Sure, some may attempt to ostracize others over non-essential matters as well (e.g., inerrancy or premillennialism), but that isn’t true as a general rule. Most evangelicals are ready to accept as fellow Christian believers all who adhere to the few cornerstones of historic Christian orthodoxy.

I think the reason I’m not more troubled by PIP is because I have come to terms with it as inevitable. What I’d like to know is how Smith handles PIP. Oh, yes, he joins the Roman Catholic Church. (No sarcasm intended.) That a respectable move even if I disagree with it. I still consider him a Christian and possibly even an evangelical Christian (thought I think that would be in spite of some traditional beliefs of the RCC rather than because of them). What I think is that he will eventually discover PIP there as well. Who interprets papal pronouncements and conciliar decrees? Obviously they’re open to varying interpretations. Just because that particular church has a mechanism for expelling people who stray too far does not mean PIP doesn’t exist within it. It just means it can enforce conformity when it chooses to. But what if those with power to enforce are wrong in their interpretation of the Bible? Then nothing is really gained except artificial uniformity.

Chapter 4 deals with “subsidiary problems with biblicism.”

by Roger Olson
September 27, 2011

Some of these are: “blatantly ignored teachings” of the Bible (68-69); “arbitrary determinations of cultural relativism” (69-72); “strange passages” (72-74) and “populist and ‘expert’ practices deviate from biblicist theory” (75-78). Let’s take the first one and consider it. Smith argues that biblicists routinely flout clear commands and teachings of Scripture such as “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (68) One has to wonder if he really thinks serious biblical scholars have never examined these commands and explained why they are not universally applicable. Surely he knows better. But he seems to think biblicism REQUIRES that commands such as this be adhered to to the letter and not qualified–even by serious hermeneutical reasoning.

Smith admits that this argument does not in and of itself prove biblicism impossible. It may be, he suggests, that biblicists simply disobey such commands. But he doesn’t think that all there is to it. He thinks there are commands in Scripture that biblicism, as a theory of the Bible, should take literally and that biblicists, if they really believe in their theory of the Bible, would at least admit they are disobeying. Instead, he says, biblicists simply ignore these commands. They “simply [go] in one ear and out the other.” (68) I think that oversimplifies more sophisticated evangelical biblicism.

I think many of Smith’s criticisms of biblicism strike against folk religion and unsophisticated fundamentalism. But evangelical scholars who adhere to most, if not all, of what Smith calls biblicism early in the book have offered reasons for considering these commands culturally conditioned. But he thinks the reasons offered are “arbitrary.” (69) I just think he gives evangelical biblical scholars very little credit OR he would just say they are not biblicists insofar as they find and offer good reasons for considering these commands culturally conditioned and not universally applicable. Again, I think William Webb, author of Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (IVP Academic, 2001) is a biblicist (even if not exactly fitting Smith’s profile) who offers sound reasons for considering some biblical injunctions culturally conditioned.

Smith admits midway through the chapter that “none of these empirical observations necessarily discredit biblicism. It could be that biblicist theory is correct and that actual, empirical biblicist practices and experiences are often compromised. Life sometimes works this way.” (78) But Smith doesn’t think that’s the explanation. Rather, he says, “biblicism is impossible to practice in actual experience–because of, among other reasons, the multivocality and polysemy of the texts.” (78) Again, I wonder who exactly he means by “biblicists” here. Apparently, they would have to be literalists–what one of my seminary professors called “wooden literalists.” (I never quite figured out what the “wooden” meant unless “inflexible.”) In other words, old fashioned, unreconstructed, unsophisticated fundamentalists–such as I grew up among. Yes, one reason I left them is because I found their theory of the Bible, such as it was, impossible to believe consistently and impossible to practice. But at times Smith SEEMS to want to include ALL conservative evangelicals among his impossible biblicists. He specifically names Wayne Grudem a couple times. While I disagree with Grudem’s view of the Bible, I’m not sure it’s as unsophisticated as Smith makes it out to be. That is, I don’t think even Grudem is as literalistic as Smith suggests biblicism has to be or at least he offers reasons for not greeting fellow Christians with a holy kiss.

Another example Smith gives as a “subsidiary problem with biblicism” is “the genuine need for extrabiblical theological concepts.” (82-84) Here’s his explanation: “Biblicism suggests that all of the pieces of the Christian doctrine and morality puzzle are right there in the Bible as propositions to be pulled out and put together in their logical ordering. … Yet a bit of reflection on orthodox Christian theology makes clear that numerous absolutely crucial doctrinal terms are not themselves found in the Bible but were invented or appropriated by the church during the patristic era.” (82) His examples are the terms Trinity, homoousion and creatio ex nihilo.

Again, I would argue that only the most unsophisticated evangelicals steeped in fundamentalism or folk religion (or both) think the Bible contains every important theological term. I grew up in a very unsophisticated evangelical and even fundamentalist church and home and went to a college steeped in that tradition and I knew from a relatively young age that the Bible did not contain the term “Trinity” but it was something we were to believe anyway. Why? Because even though the Bible does not use the term, the concept it names is found in the Bible. At least all the ingredients for it are there such that it is inevitable as one reflects on them.

Now, Smith seems to think even that kind of thinking is inconsistent with biblicism. Maybe it is–as he defines biblicism. But again, that just raises the question who actually believes in that kind of biblicism? I do agree that many evangelicals, mostly ones I would call fundamentalists or folk religionists, are inconsistent about these matters. In other words, as Smith is pointing out, they say one thing in their doctrine of the Bible but practice something else and claim consistency. That is a problem. But I find that MOST non-fundamentalist evangelicals, even ones I consider conservative, do not actually make the claims for the Bible Smith says they do. Or they qualify them so severely (e.g., inerrancy, harmony, etc.) that the words they use are not really meant in their ordinary meanings. (For example, progressive revelation and accommodation are standard qualifications of harmony.)

Smith concludes Chapter 4 thus: “When we confront biblicism’s many problems, we come to see that it is untenable. Biblicism simply cannot be practiced with intellectual and practical honesty on its own terms. It is in this sense literally impossible.” (89) Again, I agree insofar as biblicism means rigid literalism, claims to absolute perspecuity such that all reasonable people will agree about its meaning exhaustively, technical inerrancy, etc. It’s just that I don’t think most evangelicals who call themselves biblicists adhere to these beliefs about the Bible in unqualified ways.

What I do think is that SOME conservative evangelicals, including some biblical scholars and theologians, pay LIP SERVICE to beliefs about the Bible (to keep constituents off their backs) that they KNOW are not true. I’ve been around in this evangelical movement for all my life and I’ve seen it frequently and perhaps done it myself at times. For example, I know evangelical scholars who teach at very conservative institutions who DO NOT believe in inerrancy IN ANY WAY similar to their constituent pastors and lay people but who pretend to in order to keep their jobs or not rock the boat. Now there’s a very real problem. And there are SOME conservative evangelical theologians and biblical scholars and certainly pastors and denominational leaders who do seem to adhere to biblicism as Smith describes it. It is impossible IF TAKEN THAT STRICTLY. But I think most non-fundamentalist evangelical scholars and many, if not most, non-fundamentalist pastors and administrators gave up that kind of UNQUALIFIED biblicism long ago.

In spite of all my qualms and questions, I think Smith is putting his finger on an important problem that especially conservative evangelicals are reluctant to face and deal with. It’s this: The grassroots of evangelicalism are much, much more conservative and unsophisticated in their biblicism than evangelical scholars and many evangelical scholars have to cater to that when they know better. They are biblicists themselves, in a highly qualified sense, but they know that unqualified biblicism of Smith’s description is impossible to reconcile with the phenomena of the text and impossible to live out consistently. They know that sophisticated hermeneutical moves are necessary to preserve biblicism and that it is necessary to qualify concepts like “inerrancy” almost to death (perhaps to death!). But they don’t tell their constituents out of fear of a backlash and losing their jobs. It happens. I won’t name names, but anyone who pays close attention knows of recent examples.

So, yes, unqualified, unsophisticated biblicism as Smith describes it is impossible, but I just don’t think most evangelical scholars and leaders really believe it. They preach it to the choir to keep the choir happy with them. And that’s a real problem. But there is a biblicism that is not that unsophisticated and unqualified and its not impossible even if it does raise some difficult questions and issues. The alternatives, however, are worse.