The Bible made Impossible
Do we believe in the clarity of Scripture, and if so, what do we mean by it? If the disagreements within the evangelical community are anything to go by, the texts of Scripture appear to be far from clear on all sorts of issues that (you would think) are fairly important, and would certainly fall under the category of instruction, reproof, correction and training so that we may be equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:17). How do we respond to that?
Perhaps the clearest expression of this problem, at least in the last ten years or so, can be found in Christian Smith’s recent book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Smith, a recently converted Catholic and professor at the University of Notre Dame, argues that biblicism – “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability” – is bunk. But this is no Roman Catholic tirade against evangelical faith. What makes the book intriguing is that Smith is a former evangelical, and that a number of evangelical writers have endorsed the book as compelling, thought-provoking and demonstrably right.
What undermines biblicism, for Smith, is the presence of what he calls ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ (PIP) – in other words, the fact that people continually disagree about what the Bible means. If the Bible is internally consistent, clear and univocal, then there should not be widespread disagreement amongst Christians on baptism, hell, the end times, church government, charismatic gifts, warnings and assurance, predestination and so on. However,
… on important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches. That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever-present reality. It is, in fact, the single reality that has most shaped the organizational and cultural life of the Christian church, which now, particularly in the United States, exists in a state of massive fragmentation … So the question is this: if the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches? I know of no good, honest answer to that question. If the Bible is all that biblicism claims it to be, then Christians—especially those who share biblicist beliefs—ought to be able to come to a solid consensus about what it teaches, at least on most matters of importance. But they do not and apparently cannot. Quite the contrary: Christians, perhaps especially biblicist Christians, are “all over the map” on what the Bible teaches about most issues, topics, and questions. In this way, the actual functional outcome of the biblicist view of scripture belies biblicism’s theoretical claims about the Bible. Something is wrong in the biblicist picture that cannot be ignored. (pp. 25-26)
This is not the place for detailed engagement with Smith’s book. There has been illuminating dialogue about it at Jesus Creed, the Gospel Coalition and First Things, and there is no point in rehashing it all here. Briefly, although I find Smith’s argument fascinating, and he is obviously right about many things, it seems there are enough straw-men in his portrayal of ‘biblicism’ to make interacting with the book somewhat awkward; he switches from substantial points where many will disagree (such as the ‘undeniable reality’ that the Bible is ‘not clear, consistent and univocal enough’ for people to understand it) to trifling points where nobody will disagree (such as the invalidity of the mechanical dictation theory of Biblical inspiration, or the absurdity of believing that Scripture is fundamentally ‘about’ parenting, or dating, rather than Christ), and appears to lump together people who believe the former (almost every post-Reformation Christian, and quite a lot of pre-Reformation ones) with those who believe the latter (almost nobody). His definition of ‘biblicism’, also, includes points on which thinking evangelicals would strongly agree (Scripture’s authority, infallibility, and so on) alongside points which most would contest (‘self-evident meaning’, for example: why bother with teachers, then?)
So without defending all of what he criticises – much of which is also criticised by evangelical scholars of all stripes, as Kevin DeYoung, Peter Leithart and Bob Gundry point out – it is worth considering his main question carefully. “If the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches?”
Smith himself proposes that there are six possible answers to that question:
1. The readers are at fault. Some people are just wrong.
2. Confusion exists because we don’t have the original manuscripts.
3. The fall has corrupted humanity so that our minds cannot understand the Bible properly.
4. God, or Satan, or somebody, has deliberately blinded some Christians so they cannot understand.
5. Plurality reflects truth: it is in the varied, even contradictory, interpretations that the truth really lies.
6. Scripture is intended to be ambiguous on a bunch of issues.
The seventh option, of course, is that the premiss of the question is false: the Bible is not “an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices and morals.” Rather, in reality it expresses multivocality (speaking differently to different people) and polysemy (texts have underdetermined meaning). Our only hope – and here I oversimplify – is therefore to read it all as pointing to Christ, and to leave decisions on the multitude of issues on which it does not speak clearly to the church. This, it seems clear, is what Smith himself believes.
I am not so sure. In fact, there are biblical examples of all six of Smith’s explanations leading to theological confusion amongst believers, although numbers 2 and 5 are significantly less common than the others:
1. The readers of Scripture are at fault – ‘as yet they did not understand the Scripture’ (John 20:9). The implication here is that the scriptures are clear, and the disciples are dull (a theme which recurs frequently).
2. The lost autographs – do Christians have a guarantee that snake-handling and poison-drinking will never hurt them? (Mark 16:17-18). Among other things, it depends on whether Mark 16:9-20 was in the original text. Another good example is Gordon Fee’s text-critical argument that the passage urging women to be silent in the churches (1 Cor 14:33-35) was not original to Paul.
3. Damaged by the fall and sin – ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’ (Luke 24:25). Lots of people in the New Testament church are described as ‘dull’, ‘foolish’, ‘sluggish’, and so on, and in many cases this affects their reading of the scriptures.
4. Blinded readers – the New Testament is filled with examples of believers who were deliberately deceived, whether by demons (1 Tim 4:1), false teachers (2 Pet 2:1ff), false apostles (2 Cor 11:1-15) or Satan himself (Acts 5:1-10).
5. Plurality reflects truth – on occasion, two directly contradictory statements are set next to each other, and the plurality expresses true wisdom in a way that the singularity would not (Prov 26:4-5).
6. Deliberate ambiguity – is it better to be married (Gen 1:26-28; 2:18-25) or single (1 Cor 7:25-38)? Should a wife have a paid job outside the home (Prov 31:10-31) or not (Titus 2:3-5)? Should a Christian drink wine (1 Tim 5:23) or abstain for the sake of others (1 Cor 8:13)? It depends on the individual, the circumstances, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Bible does not make definitive statements on these things.
Most importantly, when you look at the way Jesus handled theological disagreements, he doesn’t seem to have identified the clarity of Scripture as the problem. He didn’t seem to think that ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ meant the scriptures were lacking in consistency, or clarity. Quite the opposite: he was comfortable simply saying ‘it is written in the Scriptures’, and he and the apostles would no doubt say that although the Scriptures were clear, yet misunderstandings, confusion and disagreement could result from human beings’ ignorance (Matt 22:29), foolishness and slowness of heart (Luke 24:25), established human tradition being put above God’s word (Matt 7:9-13), immaturity and lack of discernment (Heb 5:11-14), carnality (1 Cor 3:1-3), hypocrisy (Gal 2:11-14), legalism (1 Tim 1:3-11), false teaching (Gal 5:7-12), and so on.
Eschatologically, we await the day when the partial passes away and we know Jesus, and all ‘knowledge’, fully. In the meantime, we know in part – but that does not imply God’s word is inconsistent or insufficient. Rather, it implies that until the eschaton, we are.
Just to clarify, though: I am not saying that my/our views are correct, while all others are a result of sin, ignorance or immaturity. Smith would no doubt balk at this idea, as I do. What I am saying is that all of us will (in the end) turn out to have held some views which are wrong, and that these will probably turn out to have resulted from some combination of sin, ignorance, immaturity or the various other shortcomings listed above. I, for example, have already believed, and taught, lots of things that I have since discovered were based on wrong or very unreliable evidence, ranging from the trivial (the rope around the high priest’s leg when he went into the Most Holy Place), to the potentially quite important (Gehenna was a rubbish dump in Jesus’ day, which explains the language he uses about it), as well as several interpretations of texts that I would never advance now (Hebrews 10:26-31 is threatening Christians with a loss of reward). It’s not just me: DA Carson cited a whole bunch of his own blunders in his book Exegetical Fallacies, and one friend of mine tells me that in Terry Virgo’s early days, he preached that when we worship God, “we literally make him bigger”, so I’m in good company. Following Tom Wright, then, I now tell people on training courses I run that some chunks of what I teach them will be false – it’s just that I don’t know which chunks they are, or I would change them.
It is not hard to see how errors might result from ignorance, or sin, or putting human traditions above scripture, and none of us are immune from those things. My interpretation of Genesis 1 could well arise from sin in my heart: the desire to be wise in my own eyes, and the eyes of others. My view of hell could be shaped by judgmentalism, or pride. I imagine many prosperity gospel preachers are affected by greed, and many who propose new interpretations of the Bible’s sexual ethics may be partly motivated by lust. Debates about things like baptism and church government are bound to have ‘the traditions of men’ as a contributing factor, as well as the superiority and arrogance that derive from not thinking you have any (let the reader understand). And obviously, wrong beliefs can be based on ignorance: of the scriptures, of the historical and literary background, of Greek and Hebrew, of the power of God, and so on. If there wasn’t any ignorance, and if every Christian could be certain that what they thought the text meant was what it actually means – and here I agree with Christian Smith – then there wouldn’t have been any need for teachers (Eph 4:11), scholarly experts in the scriptures (Acts 18:24), or theological debates (Acts 15:5-21). Yet there was, and there still is.
But that’s because there’s a problem with us, not because there’s a problem with Scripture.
This is part two of a series on The Biggest Theological Debate of the Next Twenty Years by Andrew Wilson.