How should we read the Bible?

Christian Smith, 2011, The Bible made impossible: Why biblicism is not a truly evangelical reading of scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

In his introduction Christian Smith explains, ‘By “biblicism” 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.’ (There is a short blog post on a related topic here.)

Smith’s book is a critique of biblicism, an analysis of what it is and why it exists (the author is a sociologist) and of the harm it does to evangelicalism in the USA by rendering it less Christ-centred than it could be. Central to his critique is the fact that biblicists try to treat the Bible as a book of rules, resulting in distorted readings of its texts. Ironically, given the claims of biblicists, different biblicist groups draw different conclusions from it, a problem that Smith labels ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ . It has resulted in the fragmentation of US evangelicals into a plethora of denominations, each claiming biblical truth. As Smith argues forcibly, this outcome alone is enough to tell us that the Bible is not a rule book and is being read in the wrong way.

What is the right way to read the Bible? Smith answers, ‘Chistocentrically’. The whole Bible, he says, looks forward to or at Jesus. From creation to its final consummation in Revelation it is a narrative that culminates in Jesus. Smith is clear that this places the Bible in a different theological role than the one it occupies in biblicist theologies. In the latter, the Bible is taken as the starting point. In a Christ-centred theology, Jesus is the starting point and the Bible is a testimony to who he is.

This assertion initially took me by surprise. I have spent much of my life in the company of English and Australian evangelicals whose biblicism has been tempered by other ways of reading the BIble and is less extreme than its US counterpart (or so it seems to me). Nonetheless, I have inherited, almost without thought, the Bible-first precept as part of my intellectual baggage. With a little thought, however, its flaws become obvious. Smith makes the point that the first Christians had only their relationship with the risen Jesus, consolidated by the Holy Spirit’s work at Pentecost, along with the Old Testament scriptures to guide them. They did not have ‘the Bible’, and the way they read the Old Testament scriptures, to judge from the way Paul cites them, was not biblicist. Even the Old Testament canon (i.e., which books belong in the Old Testament) still had no formal definition, and it would take another 300 years before the leaders of the various Christian churches would agree on which of the documents circulating among them should form the New Testament. In the church’s history, then, the Bible did not come first: Jesus did.

As I read The Bible made impossible I wrote a sort of summary of it for my own use, as at the age of 75 I find that I often don’t retain what I would like to. It is a ‘sort of’ summary because it majors on the things I want to come back to and ignores the parts that interested me less. It is located here.

In some ways, I found the book mildly annoying. It is rather repetitive, sometimes forcible to the point of overkill, and at times too didactic for my taste. But this perhaps reflects its US context and the author’s passionate dismay. Sadly, I doubt that the book will have much impact on those who need to change their approach to the Bible, since, as Smith points out, their biblicism is a means of security. For others, though, who like me are at least vaguely aware of the difficulties of biblicism but haven’t come to terms with them, the book enables one to be clearer about certain aspects of what is amiss with biblicism (a little more on this below) and in particular to define a better way of reading the Bible. I have been travelling along this path for quite a while, particularly in the company of Tom Wright, whose books I have referred to in various posts, but Smith’s work introduced me to numerous other biblical scholars who have thought very seriously about post-biblicist evangelical Christianity (and how a post-biblicist reads the Bible). A number of them are mentioned in my summary, and references listed at the end. One of them is Karl Barth, who in many ways led the evangelical charge against 19th-century liberal Christianity, but did so without the over reaction that resulted in biblicism.

There are a few more respects in which I think the book could have been improved. I missed (or is it there and I missed it?) analysis and discussion of the text genres represented in the Bible, and how an understanding of these contributes to their post-biblicist reading. The conventions of Jewish apocalyptic literature, for example, must temper the way we read Daniel and Revelation. But perhaps Smith rightly feels that this has been dealt with thoroughly enough in various guides to the Bible.

Smith rightly says that a well-founded approach to reading the Bible requires an adequate philosophy. In the section entitled Breaking from modern epistemology in chapter 7 he recommends Critical Realism. Unfortunately I found his explanation of Critical Realism rather opaque, and I was unable to see how he relates this philosophy to his theology.[1]  In the same chapter, the section Understanding different ways of doing by saying discusses the relevance of the terms locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary to the way we read the biblical texts. I found the analysis here frustrating, although the author’s intention is laudable. I have discussed this briefly in my summary.

This brings me to what concerned me most—and this obviously reflects my own area of scholarship, linguistics—namely, the absence of language-related reasons why biblicism is, in the words of the book’s subtitle, impossible. All language depends on the hearer’s or reader’s inferences for its interpretation and understanding. It depends on the assumed shared knowledge of speaker/writer and hearer/reader and on its interactional, textual, social and cultural context.[2]  In daily spoken language we scarcely notice this, because the interactional context is obvious and because intonation provides indicators of known versus new information. Interactional context and intonational indicators are missing from written text. Furthermore, the more distant the text is from the reader socially and culturally and the less shared knowledge can be assumed to be present to writer and reader, the more difficult it is for the reader to determine what the writer intends to communicate—especially when the subject matter is quite abstract. Understanding the biblical text entails careful study of the knowledge and contexts that a reader contemporary with the writer would have brought to it.

To take two fairly trivial examples drawn at random from Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks to the crowd about John the Baptist in 11:17-18, he asks, “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.” The reference to the reed makes little sense if we do not know that Herod's symbol on coins was a Galilean reed blown by the wind.

Another example is in 8:21–22, where a disciple says to Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father [before I follow you].” This man is not saying that his father is dead (corpses were and are buried very quickly in the Middle East). He is saying that he wants to live at home until his father has died and he has inherited from him, then he pursue discipleship at his leisure. Jesus’ response, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead,” then means, "Let the spiritually dead live together at home." It is also helpful to know that the only duty that rabbis regarded as more important than saying the 'Hear, O Israel' prayer was burying one’s father. Hence Jesus' words were deeply shocking for his Jewish listeners.

Understanding these nuances of the text (and there must be many nuances that will always elude us) brings back something of the living context that it had for its first readers and draws me, the 21st-century reader, more closely into the first-century context and into Jesus’ presence.

There are other more detailed issues regarding the text we read. English-language readers often forget that the text they read is a translation. A well known example occurs in 1 Samuel 24:3, where the King James Version tells us that Saul went into the cave where David and his men were hiding ‘to cover his feet’, a literal and incomprehensible translation of the Hebrew which means ‘to relieve his bowel’. Much of language consists of idioms that are not obvious from the individual meanings of the words that make them up, and translators need to know Hebrew and Greek idioms. Smith does allude briefly to this fact in the section The reality of multivocality in chapter 2 where he discusses kephalē ‘head’ in Ephesians 5:23. Furthermore, we need to be aware when we are reading poetry, with its wealth of simile and metaphor.

A more significant translation challenge occurs in Romans 3:21-22. In the New International Version (1984) this reads:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

The New English Translation (NET Bible, 2005) is

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed—namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.

The differences in translation (italicised) have an important bearing on what these verses contribute to a theology of justification.[3]  The translation of the two phrases (the first occurs twice in this passage), depends partly on one’s interpretation of the Greek genitive case. The two phrases are dikaiosunē The-ou (righteousness God-of) and dia pisteōs Iēs-ou Christ-ou[4]  (through faith[fulness] Jesus-of Christ-of). By default the Greek genitive case, here -ou, is translated as ‘of’, as in the NET Bible, but it is polysemous (= has several meanings) and its interpretation depends hugely on context. In this instance the context includes a large chunk of Romans (and Paul’s argument here is notoriously complex), and scholars do not agree on how it affects these two phrases. In addition, the terms dikaiosunē and pisteōs are ambiguous. The former may be translated into English as ‘righteousness’ or as ‘justice’, the latter as ‘belief’, ‘faith’, ‘trust’ or faithfulness’. At issue here, then, is whether Paul is talking about God’s or the believer’s dikaiosunē and Jesus’ or the believer’s pisteōs.[5] 

The diluted biblicism with which I grew up completely ignored the writers of the biblical texts, presumably because acknowledging them would detract from the claim of divine inspiration. But, for example, I can’t read John’s gospel without being awed by it as a work of literature. From its extraordinary beginning, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ alluding to the first verse of Genesis and implying that a new creation is in the making, to Jesus’ ‘It is finished’ (19:30) marking the end of his new-creation accomplishment, via a series of ‘signs’ that Jesus is indeed who he says he is and the beautiful prose of Jesus’ discourses in chapters 14–17, John’s gospel is a magificent and remarkable piece of literary narrative—a fact that we miss if we search for proof texts or treat it simply as an account of Jesus’ ministry. For me, it is this magnificence that speaks of divine inspiration, not biblicist fiat.

These linguistic and literary considerations tell me that one may not with integrity declare that the biblical texts have, in Smith’s short definition of biblicism, ‘exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.’ Instead, we need to constantly come back to the texts with the goal of fathoming more deeply what God is saying to us through them, and inspecting them in the ways mentioned above makes the achievement of that goal more probable (and more fascinating). We need the humility to acknowledge that in these circumstances our own interpretations may be wrong, and to listen to those who disagree with us. If our approach to the Bible doesn’t allow us intelligently to take account of such issues, then the future of evangelicalism looks a bit bleak, and unity remains far off.


  • [^1]  But I will be intrigued enough to delve into this sometime soon.
  • [^2]  A fact implicitly recognised in the amazingly Byzantine efforts of past writers of English legalese to tie down their text so that only one reading was possible.
  • [^3]  A majority of translations I have looked at favour something like the first reading; others, like the Jewish New Testament and the Kingdom New Testament favour the second.
  • [^4]  δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ and διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.
  • [^5]  German translations have further twists. Luther’s 1545 translation has die Gerechtigkeit, die vor Gott gilt ‘the righteousness that counts before God’ and durch den Glauben an Jesum Christum ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’. The Gute Nachricht (2000) paraphrases as die Gerechtigkeit Gottes, nämlich seine rettende Treue, ‘God’s justice, that is, his saving faithfulness’ and im Glauben, das heißt im Vertrauen auf das, was Gott durch Jesus Christus getan ha ’in faith, that is, in trust in what God has done through Jesus’.