The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture
by Christian Smith
Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI. 240 pages.
Christian Smith, a leading American sociologist of religion who declares himself to be an “evangelical” and not a “liberal,” is not challenging mainline Presbyterians who have never affirmed belief in an inerrant Bible. But given the reaction to his book described in the afterword of the 2012 edition, it may have an impact on some from the PC(USA) who have left or are contemplating leaving the denomination. At least he reports that the most negative responses have come from those in the conservative Reformed-Presbyterian groups who came out of the main body of Presbyterians in the past.
Smith’s thesis is that Biblicism is self-contradictory in the light of the actuality of “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” especially among those who profess belief in Biblicism. He describes Biblicism in ten points, the key belief of which is that the Bible is inerrant. Aside from its perfection, total representation of God’s communication to humanity and perspicuity (clarity for ordinary people in its most obvious and literal sense), the Bible is seen as a handbook for “inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects — including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.” A large number of belief statements by conservative evangelical institutions and organizations are given to support this description of Biblicism.
Smith then carefully sets forth what makes Biblicism so out of accord with reality in the different readings of the Bible given by conservative evangelicals on a variety of significant topics. These “are undeniable, historical, empirical, phenomenological facts.” The failure of evangelical Biblicism to recognize and grapple with these facts is traced to Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, both of Princeton Theological Seminary, and perhaps this is the reason for the Reformed-Presbyterian reaction against the book. Smith lists a number of problems that arise from the belief in Biblicism, one of the most important is the lack of a Biblicist social ethic. Smith points out, ironically, that it was liberals who first emphasized individual judgment in handling the Bible to offset the “dogmatic systems of orthodox Calvinism.” Smith, not claiming to be a theologian but pointing toward solutions, entitles Part 2, “Toward a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.”
For me, with training in sociology of religion as well as theology, Smith’s book is an excellent demonstration of how sociology can contribute to theology through analysis of empirical realities. He also demonstrates that practitioners of the social sciences may be committed Christians. A teacher at the University of North Carolina and now Notre Dame, Smith has joined the Roman Catholic Church. However, he is a strong supporter of evangelicalism as am I. If Biblicism is a type of idolatry, what are the effects — schism (no doubt), but also a certain hardness of heart? This requires further thought and historical investigation.
Robert L. (Bob) Montgomery is a former PC(USA) mission coworker in Taiwan (1956-1972) and a member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.