A personal summary of Christian Smith’s 'The Bible made impossible'

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

Introduction

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.’ He suggests that a combination of some or all of these elements defines the way many American evangelicals approach the Bible. His contention is that the biblicist position ‘is ‘misguided and impossible. It does not and cannot live up to its own claims.’

He writes, ’In order for evangelical biblicism to appear to work, therefore, those who believe in it have to engage in various forms of textual selectivity, denial, and contortion—which actually end up violating biblicist intentions.’

Smith is at pains to emphasise that he is an evangelical and that he believes in the Bible’s divine inspiration. His problem with biblicism is that it leads to ‘many divergent teachings on important matters’, which, if biblicist claims were true, it shouldn’t. Thus biblicism undermines the very integrity it is supposed to support. This book is about finding a viable evangelical way of reading the Bible.

Part 1: The impossibility of biblicism

Ch 1: Biblicism and the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism


The first three chapters of the book ‘seek to persuade readers that biblicism is a dead end, best to be abandoned.’

What Is biblicism?


Here Smith gives a fuller definition of biblicism, which is best quoted in full, along with its footnoted sources:

  1. Divine writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
  2. Total representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.[1] 
  3. Complete coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.[2] 
  4. Democratic perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.[3] 
  5. Commonsense hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
  6. Solo [sic] scriptura:[4]  The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
  7. Internal harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviours.
  8. Universal applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
  9. Inductive method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
  10. Handbook model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.

Popular, institutional, and scholarly examples of biblicism


Smith then offers the biblicist statements of numerous American evangelical organisations and institutions, a number of which he quotes at some length. They range from citations from web sites to the official doctrinal statements of Christian churches and colleges.

The problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism


In this section Smith cites many Christian scholars, from John Nevin in 1849 onward, who have written about American sectarian fragmentation and observed that it is due to different interpretations of the Bible. Indeed, Martin Luther made a similar observation as a wide variety of doctrinal positions emerged after the Reformation. A similar process was occurring in the early third century when Tertullian wrote that it was impossible to use scripture to show heretics the errors of their ways. In more recent times publishers have cashed in on such differences , producing books with titles like The nature of the atonement: Four views. Smith lists dozens of these.

He comments that these point to

the larger, more serious problem they represent: that 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.

Ch 2: The extent and source of pervasive interpretive pluralism


Facing the extent of pluralism


At the admitted risk of overkill, Smith spends this section on a more detailed examination of doctrinal differences on eleven issues. He shows that seemingly plausible, biblically based arguments can be made for two or more positions on each issue. They are: church polity; free will and predestination; keeping the Sabbath; the morality of slavery; gender difference and equality; wealth, prosperity, poverty and blessing; war, peace and non-violence; charismatic gifts; atonement and justification; God-honouring worship; the general Christian relationship to culture.

Considering possible biblicist replies


Smith considers how biblicists might respond to interpretive pluralism. He offers six possibilities, none of which in his view stands up. He admits that he has never seen the last three arguments made, so I omit them here. The first three responses are:

  1. Most Christians who study the Bible do so from problematic motives that prevent them from seeing the Bible’s coherent truth.
  2. Human readers are so badly damaged by the noetic (intellectual) effects of sin that they simply can’t see the truth of scripture clearly.
  3. If we had the original manuscripts of the Bible, these difficulties would not be present.

The problem with all three is that they call into question the very principles of biblicism itself.[5] 

The reality of multivocality


Smith analyses how interpretive pluralism arises. Christians find such a confusing array of thoughts in the Bible that they seek an interpretive paradigm: salvation history, covenant and election, historical dispensations, the kingdom of God, liberation from oppression, law and grace, unconditional divine love, or divine command, (dis)obedience, judgment, punishment and reward. Each of these can be made to work, more or less, but each leaves over a collection of texts that do not make sense within the paradigm.

Smith sums up this situation by saying that the Bible is ‘multivocal’ and ‘polysemic’. ‘This means,’ he writes, ‘that the Bible often confronts the reader with “semantic indeterminacy”. Sometimes single words are polysemic. He cites kephalē ‘head’ in Ephesians 5:23 (“the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church”), which can plausibly read as ‘authority’ or as ‘source’. As an example of a polysemic passage Smith cites the Catholic and Protestant readings of Matthew 16:18 (“And I tell you that you are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”).[6]  He then goes on to enumerate seventeen readings of the story of Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1–42).

Conclusions drawn from the Bible are thus, says Smith, ‘underdetermined’ by the text in much the same way as a scientific theory may be underdetermined by the evidence. He points out that this is not a new observation: many scholars have drawn attention to it, and it partly explains why Protestantism, championing sola scriptura, has become so fragmented, especially in the US.

I find rather unfortunate both Smith’s choice of words here to describe the scriptures (‘multivocal’, ‘polysemic’, ‘multivalent’) and their comparison with evidence for a theory . These terms imply that Smith attributes multiple readings of scripture to the (deficient?) nature of the text itself rather than to deficiencies in its readers. Happily, this implication is contradicted in the first section of the next chapter, where he discusses the nature of language.

Ch 3: Some relevant history, sociology, and psychology


Philosophical assumptions underwriting American biblicism


The historical roots of American evangelical biblicism are complex, Smith observes, but can be traced back in the English-speaking world to the 1648 Westminster Confession of Faith, in particular Chapter 1, §6, where the phrase ‘by good and necessary consequence’ is used in the sense of ‘logically’:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (Italics mine)

Bovell (2009) examines the genealogy of ‘biblicist foundationalism’ and shows that this clause, an important intellectual plank of evangelical biblicism, was was an innovative theological move by the Confession’s authors. They were responding to a widespread late Renaissance philosophical skepticism that defined all reliable knowledge as deductively derived from absolutely certain premises. This drove Protestant theologians of the day to derive all Christian theological knowledge from scriptural propositions and their logical deductions in a way that mimicked the epistemology of Descartes—a move that today seems philosophically naive and inappropriate.

This thinking continues into present-day biblicism, in opposition to Kant’s idealism and the theological liberalism that followed it. Smith focusses on two Princeton Theological Seminary professors, Charles Hodge (1797–1878) and Benjamin Warfield (1851–1921), whose teachings relied on two phiiosophical tracks. One was Scottish commonsense realism, which asserted ‘the God-given capacity of human perceptions and mind to directly grasp the essential nature of objects perceived’. This implied a ‘picture theory’ of language, that words are direct representations of the objects to which they refer. The second track was the Baconian inductive-empirical philosophy which saw science as gathering and organising natural specimens as facts and from them understanding inductively the rational intelligibility of the world in the form of general laws.

Hodge defined theology as a science whose method was to

begin with collecting well-established facts, and from them [to] infer the general laws which determine their occurrence.

The source of such facts was the Bible, containing

all the facts which God has revealed concerning Himself and our relation to him. . . . The Bible contains all the facts or truths which form the content of theology, just as the facts of nature are the contents of the natural sciences. (Hodge 1871-73: 3, 11, 17)

This presupposed that “The Bible is a plain book . . . intelligible by the people,” who are “everywhere assumed to be competent to understand what is written.” (Hodge 1871-73:183–184)

Warfield expressed similar assumptions:

We follow the inductive method. When we approach the Scriptures to ascertain their doctrine . . . we proceed by collecting the whole body of relevant facts. (Warfield 1894:115)

“We have the Bible in our hands, and we are accustomed to reading it. . . . The proof of this is pervasive and level to the apprehension of every reader. It would be an insult to our intelligence were we to presume that we had not observed it, or could not apprehend its meaning. (Warfield 1894:118)

For Warfield, Smith writes, “The issue is not, what does the Bible teach? but, Is what the Bible teaches true?” (Warfield 1894:210) and, given his doctrine of biblical inspiration, the answer was an unequivocal yes.[7] 

Grudem’s ubiquitous Systematic theology continues these ideas.

Smith holds that these philosophical underpinnings have meanwhile proven untenable, and that to maintain them is “naive”, as

Perception, knowledge, science, and language do not function in the real world the way these theories say they do. To build scriptural theological orthodoxy on them is therefore to build on a foundation of sand.

I quote Smith at some length here, as I find it difficult to summarise him without adding my linguist’s bias.

All human knowledge is conceptually mediated in ways that require the active interpretation and signification of the knower. Interpretation, among other things, means judging among the various possibilities the best or most compelling meanings that are attributable to the signs or texts. And that is not an infallible process—it requires uncertain human judgment.

All interpretations are also shaped by the particular historical and cultural locations and interests of the interpreters.

Moreover, science is not simply about inductively and objectively piecing together specimens gathered from the world in order to identify big-picture laws. Rather, for starters, science always operates within informing theoretical paradigms and epistemic communities of inquiry, which govern definitions of problems to solve and the kind of evidence that might solve them.

Smith’s own philosophy is critical realism, according to which science explains causal processes that are empirically unobservable. Its methods are not only induction and deduction, but also retrodiction[8]  and abduction.[9]  The latter are less definitive and so open up possible alternative interpretations. He concludes, ‘Biblicists apparently have not yet entirely realized that or come to terms with its implications.’

Why pervasive interpretive pluralism is not more troubling to biblicists: sociological and psychological conjectures


One might expect that biblicists would be concerned by interpretive pluralism, as it threatens their position. But this is not the case, and Smith, a sociologist, explores reasons why not. One is that biblicists, like other people, tend to live within their fairly small tightknit social networks and not to be faced with other views. Another is a common tendency to minimise real interpretive differences. A third possibility, in apparent opposition to the second, is to use one’s disagreement with other groups to establish one’s identity. This entails ceasing to take seriously the claims of other groups. A fourth feature of biblicist groups is that they take congregational growth to be a sign that the Holy Spirit is blessing them. The fragmentation to which this leads is unbiblical, but this is overlooked. Indeed, overcoming differences sounds like ‘ecumenism’, and this sounds like liberal Protestantism, which is to be shunned.

Smith suggests that another motivation for biblicism is a need to create order in an environment that would otherwise appear disordered. Unfortunately, this motivation is effectively a lack of trust in God that grasps for human control.

Ch 4: Subsidiary problems with biblicism


Blatantly ignored teachings


Biblicists believe that scripture communicates divine authority that Christians must obey, but (mdr: in rather trivial ways) they generally choose to selectively ignore it. They don’t ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’ (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14). They don’t require women to be silent in church (1Cor 14:34, 1Tim 2:12). They don’t wash each other’s feet (John 13:14–15). They ignore the command not to resist an evil person (Matt 5:39).

Arbitrary determinations of cultural relativism


Some biblicists appeal to cultural context to suggest that some passages are less relevant to modern readers, but this appeal sometimes seems capricious, and no one has offered a coherent account of how cultural context arguments should be consistently applied within biblicism.

Strange passages


The Bible contains some passages that are simply strange, and tend to be ignored, despite the biblicist claim that the whole of scripture is the word of God. One such passage is Titus 1:12–13, on the Cretans, which seems to be an example of the writer’s ethnic prejudice.[10]  Genesis 6:1–4 has the ‘daughters of men’ marrying the ‘sons of God’ in the days of the Nephilim (of unknown origin; cf Numbers 13:33). In Judges 11:29–39 Jephthah slays his own daughter to fulfil a vow he has made to God in return for God’s help in slaughtering the Ammonites. In 1 Samuel 16:23 an evil spirit from God comes upon King Saul. Psalm 137:8–9 says of the women of Babylon, “Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

What sense does a biblicist make of such passages?

Populist and “expert” practices deviate from biblicist theory


Another problem with evangelical biblicism is that it is often not practised by those who believe in it as its theory says it should be. Recent sociological and anthropological studies of scripture reading have focused on how biblicist evangelicals—popular book authors and ordinary church members—read and interpret scripture in real practice. The overall conclusion is that ‘the authority of scripture conceived in biblicist terms is displaced by the prior functional weight of its interpreter’s interests and presuppositions.’

Smith summarises conclusions of work by Malley (2004). The biblicist logic of scriptural authority should go like this:

The Bible teaches propositional content X;

I should believe and obey what the Bible teaches;

therefore, I believe and obey propositional content X.

Instead, what is found in practice is:

I already believe, think, or feel Y;

the Bible contains an idea that seems to relate to Y;

therefore, my belief, thought, or feeling of Y is ‘biblically’ confirmed.

In group Bible studies, few spoke about the meaning of a passage in question but instead usually talked about what impressed them in the passage and what that might mean for their lives (see also Bielo 2008, 2009a).

Bartkowski (1996) studied the interpretive practices of Larry Christenson and Ginger Gabriel in their books on biblical marriage relationships and of James Dobson and Ross Campbell on Christian parenting, which arrive at different conclusions. Again the differing interpretations could be traced back to the different presuppositions these authors brought to the biblical texts.

Ironically, a large literature on the sociology of religion also shows that, while evangelicals are very likely to profess believing the Bible to teach the ‘spiritual headship’ of husbands, they in practice live out relatively egalitarian marriages (e.g. Gallagher and Smith 1999).

In a volume edited by Bielo (2009b) social scientists show how different Christian biblicist groups in the USA and elsewhere use and interpret the Bible in ways that often diverge from those prescribed by biblicist theory.

In sum, biblicist readers bring the exigencies of their personal, cultural and political contexts to bear on the texts so as to legitimate predetermined concerns or beliefs, rather than to seek the authority of the text.

Lack of biblicist self-attestation


Biblicists tend to claim that the text of the Bible itself provides grounds for biblicist doctrine (defined in Ch 1). The claim is inaccurate first because whatever the scriptures say about the text refers only to the then existing scriptures, i.e. the Old Testament. In any case, the texts they cite do not explicitly provide a basis for their doctrine. Instead, some biblicists claim that their teaching is deducible from scripture because it is implicitly present in scripture. They appeal to five texts in particular:

  • John 10:35, in which Jesus says that scripture cannot be broken, i.e. ‘set aside’.
  • Romans 15:4: everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.Scriupture gives us hope.
  • 1 Timothy 4:13: Paul says that, until he arrives, Timothy is to devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture. A pastor should ensure that scripture is read publicly.
  • 2 Timothy 3:15–17 observes of Timothy that from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.Thus all scripture is divinely inspired, prepares believers for good work and for salvation and provides them with teaching and discipline.
  • 2 Peter 1:20–21: No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.Prophecy, at least, is never purely human but comes from God through men by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.

Smith comments that these passages say a lot. They certainly assert that scripture is divinely inspired, but they do not add up to grounds for biblicism as it is outlined in chapter 1. The argument runs, “The Bible is inspired by God; God does not and cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18); therefore everything in the Bible is true; therefore the Bible is inerrant.” But, writes Smith, this argument involves unwarranted logical leaps (cf Seely 1989). The first leap is from believing (rightly) that scripture is ‘God-breathed’ to (wrongly) assuming that this endorses some biblicists’ belief in “divine writing,” that the Bible consists of and is identical with God’s very own words (cf Wolterstorff 1995). The second leap is to apply New Testament statements about God’s inability to lie, which in context concern the hope of eternal life and God’s covenant promise to Abraham, to the ontological nature of the Bible (Goldingay 1994:275–276).

Further, as many more sophisticated biblicist writers agree, the diversity of literary genres in the Bible means that truths are conveyed in various ways.

The genuine need for extrabiblical theological concepts


Smith writes,

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. These doctrinal developments give conceptual expression to what was and is believed (by most) to be the best reading of scripture.

Smith gives three well known examples. The first is the term ‘Trinity’, found nowhere in scripture. The second is the Greek term homooúsios , used to say (in the Nicene Creed, composed at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD) that Jesus is ‘one in being’ with or ‘of the same essence’ as God the Father, in opposition to Arius’ teaching that Jesus is the Son of God who was begotten by God the Father at a point in time and is therefore subordinate to him. Hart (2009:205) points out that each side in this argument could find plenty of biblical evidence for their case, but, he writes,

Ultimately, though, the Arian position was untenable simply because it reduced to incoherence the Christian story of redemption as it had been understood, proclaimed, prayed, and lived for generations.

Smith’s third example is the concept of divine creation ex nihilo ‘from nothing’. The concept is not found in the Bible (it is the Apocrypha in 2 Maccabees 7:28), and on a literal reading contradicts the text of Gen 1:2.[11]  However, the second-century church fathers found that it was supported by a broader range of texts (e.g. Hebrews 11:3)[12]  and by extra-biblical reasoning that avoided the pitfalls of contemporary Greek philosophy (May 1994).

The dubious genealogy of the Bible-only tradition


Smith cites scholars who have tracked the history of American biblicism. Ironically, biblicism has its roots in the Bible-only philosophy of liberal protestants who rejected the creeds and doctrines of the church and opposed the First Great Awakening. Their Bible-only approach was supposed to purify theology in order to arrive at the simplicity of biblical beliefs. Early American evangelicals, on the other hand, typically accepted the need to learn the creeds and doctrines of their church, mediated by a well educated minister, as a framework for Bible reading.

Lack of a biblicist social ethic


Biblicism is unable to deliver a coherent and comprehensive social ethic simply because the biblical texts do not readily provide one. One can adduce general principles: humans beings are created in God’s image; the state is established by God to execute justice, There are also some extremely specific instructions, such as the New Testament “household codes” (Col. 3:18–4:1; Eph. 5:21–6:9; Titus 2:1–10; 1 Pet. 2:18–3:7).

This partly explains why social ethics have been one of the weakest dimensions of American evangelicalism, and helps explain why American evangelicals have been easily swayed by new political concepts.

Setting up youth for unnecessary crises of faith


When young people who have been brought up in a particular brand of biblicism come to face the wider world, attacks on their biblicism and the realisation that it is untenable are liable to lead to a loss of faith.

John Goldingay summarises his concern about inerrancey as follows:

A stress on inerrancy cannot safeguard people from a slippery slope that carries them from abandoning inerrancy to an eventual reneging on all other Christian doctrines. Indeed, it more likely impels them toward such a slope. The claim that scripture is factually inerrant sets up misleading expectations regarding the precision of narratives and then requires such far-fetched defenses . . . that it presses people toward rejecting it.” (Goldingay 2004:278)

Smith thinks the same dynamic applies to biblicism more generally.

Part 2: Toward a truly evangelical reading of scripture


Ch 5: The christocentric hermeneutical key


Smith's tone shifts to one of excitement as he begins this chapter:

But really and truly 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. . .

A truly evangelical reading of scripture confronts us with a particular story and message that, if taken seriously, blow the doors off every assumption, outlook, and experience that we have ever had apart from Jesus Christ. The evangelical message of scripture shakes loose from us every misguided and idolatrous preconception about everything, literally everything, that we thought we knew, and then begins to rebuild us in light of the singularly radical fact of who God really is and therefore who we really are in relation to God and what he has done for us. The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important thing we will ever need to hear and know, and it has the power to reframe and transform everything else.

By contrast Smith sees biblicism for at least some of its adherents as a protection from the earthshaking nature of the gospel, which is, as he notes, a tragic irony:

Biblicism too often traps, domesticates, and controls the life-quaking kerygma (proclamation) of the gospel in order to provide the Bible reader with the security, certainty, and protection that humans naturally want.

What is needed is 'an alternative approach to scripture that still remains essentially faithful to the sensibilities of the evangelical tradition.'

The Centrality of Jesus Christ


For Smith the interpretive key to reading scripture is Jesus himself:

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. . .

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. With regard to the Old Testament this is made explicit in the New:

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. (Heb. 10: 1).

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).

Jesus himself explained to the disciples on the Emmaus road how he was the culmination of the scriptures (Luke 24: 25–32).

Smith quotes Ward (2004:27)—

To put it bluntly, it is not the words of the Bible that are ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’ It is the person of Christ, to whom the Bible witnesses.

—and Bonhoeffer (1970:312):

In its entirety and in all its parts it is nothing but this witness of Christ, his life, his death, and his resurrection.

Reading the Bible christocentrically changes its theological position. Webster (2003:12) writes that in biblicism the Bible has the task ‘of furnishing the epistemological warrant for Christian claims.’ This ‘absorption of revelation into foundations, is a mislocation and . . . reassignment to undertake duties which it was not intended to perform.’ Instead, Webster puts the trinitarian doctrine of God first, and understands revelation and the Bible as attesting to this theology.

Smith quotes a number of writers at some length in support of a Christ-centred approach to the Bible: Berkouwer (1975), Bloesch (1994), Bromiley (1958), Enns (2005), Stott (1999) and Vanhoozer (2005).

Enns (2005:110) writes:

Can Christians speak of a unity to the Bible? Yes, but it is not a superficial unity based on the surface content of the words of passages taken in isolation. The unity of the Bible is more subtle but at the same time deeper. It is a unity that should ultimately be sought in Christ himself, the living word. . . . We believe not only that the Bible is the word of God, but that Christ himself is the word. . . . The written word bears witness to the incarnate word, Christ. . . . The Bible bears witness to Christ by Christ’s design. He is over the Bible, beyond it, separate from it, even though the Bible is his word and thus bears witness to him. Christ is supreme, and it is in him, the embodied word, that the written word ultimately finds its unity. Christ is the final destiny of Israel’s story, and it is to him that the Bible as a whole bears witness.

Thus the internal harmony of scripture does not come from its being a neat jigsaw puzzle but from ‘its central purpose in divine revelation of telling us about Jesus Christ.’

A few pages later Smith quotes John Stott (1999:14, 16, 18–19, 20), who asks, “How can the Bible . . . possibly be said to have a ‘purpose’?” His reply:

The Bible is primarily a book neither of science, nor of literature, nor of philosophy, but of salvation. . . . The salvation for which the Bible instructs us is available “through faith in Christ Jesus.” Therefore, since scripture concerns salvation and salvation is through Christ, Scripture is full of Christ. Jesus himself thus understood the nature and function of the Bible. “The Scriptures,” he said, “testify about me.” . . . Our savior Jesus Christ himself (in terms of promise and fulfillment) is Scripture’s unifying theme.

In other words, faith precedes our understanding of scripture. Scripture is the witness to Jesus, the foundation of our faith.

This was also true of the early church: it was the centrality of the gospel of Jesus that not only guided the church’s interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures but also helped determine the texts that entered what became the New Testament.

The Bible’s function and the reader’s responsibility

Smith tentatively takes his argument a step further. It may be that God does not intend the Bible to inform us about topics like cooking and stress management, nor to provide us with specific instruction about such things as church government, the “end times,” the ethics of war, divine foreknowledge, the science of creation, the correct modes of baptism, proper elements of worship, the exact nature of sanctification, or the destiny of the unevangelised. ‘Perhaps,’ he writes, ‘those are simply not scripture’s central point.’ Once people have grasped what really matters—the good news of Jesus—they will be able to work these things out for themselves. Some of them will be what theologians have called adiaphora’things indifferent’, things not essential to faith. Indeed, this is Paul’s position in Romans 14 and with regard to eating food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8. We need to think christocentrally about these things (1 Cor 10:31 and Col 3:17), and not try to piece them together from verses of scripture.

This means, of course, that we have to decide for ourselves and, by implication, decide what is central in scripture and what is not. Biblicists sometimes object to this individual decision-making, but in practice they also make such decisions. What we need to do is to own our decision-making and take responsibility for our role in interpreting scripture. Of course there is a danger that interpretation becomes overly subjective, but only if Jesus is not the centre of our reading.

Jesus Christ: the true and final word


Smith begins, ‘Jesus Christ is the true and final Word of God, in relation to whom scripture is God’s secondary, written word of witness and testimony.’

Much of his argument in this section repeats the argument of earlier sections from various angles.

He quotes C. S. Lewis,

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit, and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. (Lewis 2004 [1993]:247)

This position goes back to the first century. St Ignatius of Antioch, responding to those who said they could believe about the gospel only what they could find in the Old Testament scriptures, wrote that the “records” that really matter are not written texts but ‘Jesus Christ. For me, the sacrosanct records are the cross and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the faith that comes through him.’[13] l

By contrast, writes Smith, ‘Biblicism borders on idolatry when it fails to maintain this perspective.’

Bibicists have sometimes charged the christocentric view of the Bible with “liberalism”, a charge Smith rejects with vigour. The christocentric view is evangelical, whilst ‘Liberalism gives prior authorization to some or other human philosophical or political system.’ (italics mine)

Learning from Karl Barth’s Church dogmatics


In this section Smith explains the christocentricity of Barth’s position, and critiques North American rejection of Barth by evangelicals who have not understood his undoubtedly difficult work.[14] 

As Smith sees it, Barth makes two moves with regard to reading the Bible. The first ‘is to properly affirm scripture as God’s word, written within the larger context of God’s true Word in Jesus Christ and God’s word spoken in church proclamation.’ The second is ‘ that all of scripture must be read through a strongly christological lens’.

To refuse to make these moves is to invite a poor outcome. The Scottish Presbyterian theologian T. F. Torrance, a disciple of Barth, wrote,

The effect . . . is to give an infallible Bible and a set of rigid evangelical beliefs primacy over God’s self-revelation [in Christ] which is mediated through the Bible. This effect is reinforced by the regular fundamentalist identification of biblical statements about the truth with the Truth itself to which they refer. . . . The living reality of God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit is in point of fact made secondary to the Scriptures. (Torrance 2003 [1982]:17–18)

Ch 6: Accepting complexity and ambiguity


As Smith writes, ‘This chapter continues with more proposals focused on the need to learn to live with more complexity and ambiguity than biblicism allows.’

Embracing the Bible for what it obviously is


He writes:

Regardless of the actual Bible that God has given his church, biblicists want a Bible that is different. They want a Bible that answers all their questions, that tells them how to have marital intimacy, that gives principles for economics and medicine and science and cooking—and does so inerrantly. They essentially demand—in God’s name, yet actually based on a faulty modern philosophy of language and knowledge—a sacred text that will make them certain and secure, even though that is not actually the kind of text that God gave.

Instead, he cites Gordon Fee (2005:270):

God did not choose to give us a series of timeless, non-culture-bound theological propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed. Rather, he chose to speak his eternal word this way, in historically particular circumstances and in every kind of literary genre. By the very way God gave us this Word, he locked in the ambiguity. One should not fight God and insist that he give us his Word in another way or, as we are more apt to do, rework his Word along theological or cultural prejudgments that turn it into a minefield of principles, propositions or imperatives but denude it of its ad hoc character as truly human. The ambiguity is part of what God did in giving us the Word in this way.

Smith goes on to discuss at some length the concept of ‘divine accommodation’ (or ‘divine condescension’), the idea that God accommodates himself in scripture to the limitations of human perception, cognition, and understanding (a position rejected by some eminent biblicists, e.g. Wayne Grudem, on the grounds that it attributes to God the characteristic of telling something other than the truth).

Living with scriptural ambiguities


Smith discusses here the fact that scripture is sometimes confusing, ambiguous and incomplete. The New Testament itself includes comments of this nature about the Old Testament, and the author of 2 Peter says of Paul’s writings that, ‘his letters contain some things that are hard to understand’ (3:16). Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading a passage from Isaiah (53:7–8) but who simply could not understand it. “How can I,” he reasonably asked, “unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31). It was only by pointing him to the good news about Jesus, i.e. reading christocentrically, that the passage came to make any sense to him.

It has been asserted of Martin Luther that he took a biblicist position against Erasmus in declining to admit the ambiguities of scripture, but a careful reading shows that he distinguishes between scripture and res scripturae ‘the matter of scripture’: he was saying that the gospel message of scripture is clear (Berkouer 1975:276).

Dropping the compulsion to harmonize


Here Smith attacks the biblicist tendency to ‘harmonise’ inconsistent passages of scripture. In order to overcome the differences between Matthew 26:34 and 73–74, Mark 14:30 and 72, Luke 22:34 and 60–61, and John 13:38 and 18:27 Harold Lindsell argues in his Battle for the Bible that Peter denied Christ six times on two separate occasions before the cock crowed. Allert (2007:162) comments that “rather than demonstrate the accuracy and truthfulness of the gospel, Lindsell has actually shown that none of the Gospels give an accurate account of how many denials there were.”

Distinguishing dogma, doctrine and opinion


Ironically, in view of the section’s title, Smith becomes increasingly didactic in this and the next two sections.

His basic point here, however, is valid, even if the threeway distinction among dogma, doctrine and opinion is not as sharp as he implies. There are basic dogmas of the Christian faith, as expressed in the creeds, that are ‘nonnegotiable for any believer’. Then there are beliefs that are strongly held by a given group, e.g. penal substitution, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that are ‘doctrines’. But there is a tendency among Christians to promote doctrines to dogmas, and opinions to doctrines. This reflects the sociological tendency of human groups to promote values that give them social identity and to downplay the values of those outside the group. Unfortunately the very logic of biblicism does this: if I have an allegedly certain view of biblical truth, then of course I am right and others wrong.

Smith pleads for the humility to recognise that our own doctrines and opinions are not necessarily correct.

Not everything must be replicated


The argument of this section is that, because God’s people did or obeyed something in their own time and place, this behaviour is not necessarily God’s command to us today.

Living on a need-to-know basis


We need to be content with the fact that God deals with us on a need-to-know basis. We need to accept that the Bible does not tell us everything we might like to know.

Ch 7: Rethinking human knowledge, authority and understanding


In this the final chapter of the book, Smith presents an epistemological framework for reading the Bible. First, however, he deals with what he considers to be the biblicist epistemological framework.

Breaking from modern epistemology


Smith returns to a matter he touched on in the first section of chapter 3, namely that biblicist philosophy draws on the epistemological foundationalism of the Enlightenment:

Epistemological foundationalism is 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.

However, epistemological foundationalism is typically founded on rationalism or empiricism, but evangelicals simply took the Bible, and only the Bible, as their foundation. They took traditional Christian belief about the Bible’s reliability and truthfulness and projected it onto the foundationalist agenda. Where the study of the Bible should have challenged foundationalism as misguided, ‘the Bible itself started to be defended on the very grounds that it successfully met the independent foundationalist criteria for reliable truth, based on theories of its plenary inspiration and inerrancy,’ a view driven less by scripture itself than by Cartesian preoccupations with the certainty of knowledge.

How do evangelicals respond to this? Not by jumping into postmodern relativism (a move that some biblicists rightly fear), but by adopting a critical realist philosophy. Smith’s explanation of critical realism is somewhat opaque:

Suffice it for present purposes to say that it provides a coherent account of reality and knowledge that abandons foundationalist illusions, acknowledges the conceptually mediated and fallible nature of all human knowledge, accounts for the influence of historical and cultural context, and (unlike positivism and much of biblicism) recognizes the inescapably hermeneutical, cultural-historical, and interpretive character of all knowledge—while maintaining against postmodernism an insistence on the objectivity of reality, the oftentimes object-referencing nature of language, and an “alethic” theory of truth that calls knowing agents to pursue truth as it is and not to pursue their subjective constructions of truth as they wish it to be.

Not starting with a theory of inspiration


Biblicism gets into trouble by starting from a theory of biblical inspiration, something the Bible does not instruct its readers to do, and a move that became prominent only after the Reformation. The doctrine of inspiration became important in conservative American Protestantism in the 19th century, in response to the threats to religious authority—higher criticism, modernism, and so on—that also led the Vatican to promulgate the doctrine of papal infallibility. Smith thinks that these are not helpful starting points. Instead, he proposes several starters for post-biblicist evangelicals:

  1. begin with the content of the biblical texts, without a preconceived theory;
  2. learn how the canon of the New Testament came into being;[15] 
  3. examine how the Church has interpreted scripture over the past 2000 years;
  4. discover how believers read the scripture in other parts of the world.

Understanding different ways of doing by saying


This is perhaps the weakest section in the book. The author makes the point that any spoken or written communication is simultaneously a locutionary, an illocutionary and a perlocutionary act. He examines the implications of this for our reading of scripture. Unfortunately he seems not to have sorted out quite what he means by the three terms. On my (mdr’s) understanding, basic definitions from the philosophical literature are as follows. The locutionary act of ‘It’s cold in here’ conveys its semantic content: the temperature in the room. An illocutionary act is the act the speaker intends to perform with an utterance: depending on its context, ‘It’s cold in here’ may be intended as a perceived factual statement or as a request to shut the door. The term perlocutionary is the fuzziest of the three, but an example in Wikipedia captures its essence: if I say, ‘By the way, I have a CD of Debussy; would you like to borrow it?’, my illocutionary act is an offer, while my perlocutionary intention might be to impress, or to display friendship, or to encourage an interest in a particular type of music.

To be fair to Smith, definitions of the three kinds of act scattered across the literature sometimes seem to overlap, are often imprecise, and fail to specify whether the terms refer to the utterer’s (or writer’s) intention or to the hearer’s (or reader’s) reception of the utterance (or text). Smith seems rightly to interpret them as denoting the speaker’s/writer’s intentions, but he wavers in his interpretation. The difficulty for Bible readers is that, even if they think they know a text’s locutionary meaning (and this is not guaranteed), there are sometimes ambiguities regarding the illocutionary and perlocutionary acts the writer is intending to perform.

Unconventionally, Smith applies the three terms to chunks of scripture, rather than to single utterances, but his argument stands. He writes,

For example, the intended illocutionary effect of the creation accounts of Genesis 1–2 could very well have been to convey to the reader the fact that the God who was to become known as Yahweh, the God of Israel, created a good world in sovereign power; modern biblicist readers may wrongly take the intended illocutionary effect of the same accounts to be providing literal scientific information about the exact method and time period involved in God’s creation of the world.

Following the example just given, the intended perlocutionary force of the Genesis 1–2 creation accounts could well be to banish rival pagan accounts of the world’s origins and place the reader in awe and gratitude for the good world that Yahweh created . . .

The many dimensions of “biblical authority”


Smith’s point in this section follows from much of what has gone before: that just as there are many different kinds of text in the Bible, there are many ways in which the term ‘authority’ can be applied to them. There is no easy definition of ’biblical authority’.

A historically growing grasp of the meaning of the Gospel


The presupposition behind this section is expressed in its first paragraph: ‘The authors of the New Testament did not understand and work out all the long-term implications of the gospel for theological knowledge, human life, and society.’

The New Testament authors set out enough to give believers a theological starting point but leave subsequent generations to work out its implications. It took 350 years after the apostles’ deaths to work out the doctrines that ‘most evangelicals still affirm as theologically nonnegotiable today’, including the doctrines of Jesus’ nature and the Trinity. This happened primarily at the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (AD 325), Constantinople (AD 381), Ephesus (AD 431), and Chalcedon (AD 451).’ Nonetheless, the primary source for the bishops who composed the creeds agreed on by these councils was the scriptures.

Smith takes slavery as an example: the New Testament writers had not worked out the moral implications of the very gospel they were proclaiming. For them, slavery simply existed, and they applied the gospel within it (1 Cor. 7:20–22; Eph. 6:5–9; 1 Tim. 6:1–2; Titus 2:9–10; 1 Pet. 2:18–19), although the seeds of emancipation were present in the radical thought that slaves and masters were brothers in Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; Philem. 1:15–17).

Numerous other gospel-based insights have shaped modern western society. Jesus himself ‘talked of the kingdom of God as something that would develop and grow’ (Matt. 13:24–33; Luke 13:18–21) and talked of his disciples surpassing his own ministry (John 14:12). Paul sees salvation as worked out over time (Phil. 2:12–13; Eph 3:17-19; 4:13). Smith concedes that Paul is mainly talking about the spiritual development of individuals, but he argues that this has a larger outworking over time for their societies.

Conclusion


Given the interpretive pluralism that pervades American evangelicalism, there is an urgent ‘need to find a way into a postbiblicist world’. American evangelicalism has been shaped by ‘the regrettable effects of the traumatic modernist-fundamentalist battles of the early twentieth century’ and is ‘stuck in biblicism’, which is often markedly unevangelical.

The key will be to approach scripture with a consistent and resolute focus on the evangelion, the good news of Jesus Christ, as the Bible’s interpretive focus, center, and purpose.

Conclusion


The conclusion is a forceful, compressed restatement of the book’s content. Smith’s view of biblicism is summed up in his first paragraph:

Biblicism is impossible. It literally does not work as it claims that it does and should. Biblicism does not live up to its own promises to produce an authoritative biblical teaching by which Christians can believe and live. Instead, biblicism produces myriad “biblical” teachings on a host of peripheral and crucial theological issues. Together, those teachings lack coherence and are not infrequently contradictory. Biblicism does not add up.

The way forward is that

Evangelicals should believe that pursuing truth and intellectual honesty under the governing authority of Jesus Christ is more important than protecting a particular, flawed, historically bound theory about the Bible.

Smith stresses, however, that he continues to believe in the divine inspiration of the biblical texts, and that the Bible ‘should … be a central authority in Christian faith and practice.’

One key to evangelicals moving into a postbiblicist world is to realize that nothing at all of the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to be lost in the rejection of biblicism.

Evangelicals need to realize that the Bible is not a “how to” book. It is a “HERE IS WHO!” book. First and foremost it tells everyone: Here is who Jesus Christ is and therefore here is who you are and need to become in relation to him.

[Biblicism] needs to be replaced with an approach that begins by asking: Who is God and what is God’s relation to us, to the world, to me? And that immediately moves us to ask: Who is Jesus Christ and who am I in relation to him?

References


Allert, Craig, 2007. A high view of Scripture? The authority of the Bible and the formation of the New Testament canon. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Bartkowski, John, 1996. Beyond Biblical literalism and inerrancy: Evangelicals and the hermeneutic interpretation of scripture. Sociology of Religion 57: 259–272.

Berkouwer, G. C.. 1975. Holy Scripture, trans. and ed. Jack B. Rogers. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Bielo, James , 2008. On the failure of ‘meaning’: Bible reading in the anthropology of Christianity. Culture and Religion 9:1–21.

–––, 2009. Words upon the Word: An ethnography of evangelical group bible study New York: New York University Press.

Bloesch, Donald, 1994. Holy Scripture: Revelation, inspiration, and interpretation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, 1970 [1965] No rusty swords, ed. Edwin H. Robertson, trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden (London: Fontana, 1970; reprint of 1965 publication).

Bovell, Carlos, 2009. By good and necessary consequence: A preliminary geneaology of biblicist foundationalism. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Bromiley, Geoffrey, 1958. The unity and disunity of the church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Busch, Eberhard, 2004. The great passion: An introduction to Karl Barth’s theology Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

–––, 2005 [1976]. Karl Barth: His life from letters and autobiographical texts, trans. John Bowden. London: SCM; reprinted, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Enns, Peter, 2005. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Fee, Gordon, 2005. Hermeneutics and the Gender Debate. In Discovering Biblical equality: Complementarity without hierarchy, ed. Ronald Pierce, Rebecca Groothuis, and Gordon Fee. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

Gallagher, Sally K. & Christian Smith, 1999. Symbolic traditionalism and pragmatic egalitarianism: Contemporary evangelicals, family, and gender. Gender and Society 13:211–33.

Goldingay, John, 2004. Models for scripture. Toronto: Clements.

Grudem, Wayne, 1994. Systematic theology: An introduction to Biblical doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Hart, David Bentley, 2009. Atheist delusions: The Christian revolution and its fashionable enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hodge, Charles, 1871–73. Systematic theology. New York, London and Edinburgh: Charles Scribner and Thomas Nelson. (Reprinted 1977 by Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI).

Hunsinger, George, 1991. How to read Karl Barth. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, C.S., 2004 [1993]. Letters of C. S. Lewis, revised and enlarged edn, ed. Walter Hooper. Harvest Books, 2003.

Malley, Brian, 2004. How the Bible works: An anthropological study of biblicism. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

May, Gerhard, 1994. Creation ex nihilo: The doctrine of “creation out of nothing” in early Christian thought, trans. A. S. Worrall. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

McCormack, Bruce L., 2004. The Being of Holy Scripture is in Becoming: Karl Barth in conversation with American evangelical criticism. In Vincent Bacote, Laura Miguélez & Dennis Okholm, eds, Evangelicals and scripture: Tradition, authority and hermeneutics. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

Packer, J.I., 1974. ‘Sola Scriptura’ in History and Today, In John Warwick Montgomery, ed., God’s Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture. Calgary: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology & Public Policy.

—–, 1993. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs .

––– and Thomas Oden, 2004. One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

Seely, Paul, 1989. Inerrant wisdom: Science and inerrancy in Biblical perspective. Portland, OR: Evangelical Reform.

Torrance, T. F., 2003 [1982]. Reality and evangelical theology Philadelphia: Westminster; reprinted, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Vanhoozer, Kevin, 2005. The drama of doctrine: A canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Van Til, Cornelius, 1963, The Defense of the Faith Philadelphia: P&R.

Ward, Keith, 2004. What the Bible really teaches: A challenge for fundamentalists. London: SPCK.

Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge, 1894. The inspiration and authority of the Bible, ed. Samuel Craig (Reprinted 1948 by P&R, Philadelphia).

Webb, W. J. 2009. A redemptive-movement model. In Gary T. Meadors, ed., Four views on moving beyond the Bible to theology, 228–241. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan.

Webster, John, ed. 2000. The Cambridge companion to Karl Barth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

–––, 2003. Holy Scripture: A dogmatic sketch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas, 1995. Divine discourse: Philosophical reflections on the claim that God speaks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Footnotes

  1. [^1]  J. I. Packer, e.g., defined the Reformation principle of sola scriptura in 1974 as “the view that Scripture, as the only Word of God in this world, is the only guide for conscience and the church, the only source of true knowledge of God and grace, and the only qualified judge of the church’s testimony and teaching, past and present.” Packer, “‘Sola Scriptura’ in History and Today,” in God’s Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Calgary: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology & Public Policy, 1974), 48, italics added for emphasis. A further note on Packer, for whom I have much respect, since I quote him repeatedly here: he is obviously no simple-minded biblicist; however, some of his writings over time lean in clearly biblicist directions. He is thus an ambiguous case concerning the present topic. The reader should not assume that because I am quoting him in this context I consider him to be a straight-out, hard-core biblicist.
  2. [^2]  Reformed theologian and apologetics professor Cornelius Van Til (1963), for instance, claimed that the Bible “speaks to everything either directly or indirectly. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work but it also tells us who God is and whence the universe has come. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole.”
  3. [^3]  J. I. Packer, for instance, writes, “All Christians have a right and duty not only to learn from the church’s heritage of faith but also to interpret Scripture for themselves. The church of Rome doubts this, alleging that individuals easily misinterpret the Scriptures. This is true; but the following rules, faithfully observed, will help prevent that from happening.” The rules Packer then suggests include basic guides such as don’t allegorize, pray, don’t read meaning “on” to Scripture, etc. Packer, Concise Theology, 6. Three years later, Packer writes with Thomas Oden, “Anyone who engages seriously with the Bible, humbling asking God for light, will duly see . . . this great picture [of God and godliness] in all its divine glory.” Packer and Oden, One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 19.
  4. [^4]  Smith uses the label Solo Scriptura, as distinct from Sola Scriptura, to distinguish a narrower view of the Bible associated with American biblicism from the arguably more sophisticated view of scripture developed by the original Protestant Reformers.
  5. [^5]  The last is almost nonsensical, as the biblical manuscripts, especially of the New Testament, are the best attested of all ancient manuscripts.
  6. [^6]  Protestants ‘believe the church is to be built upon the confession of Peter (in v. 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”).
  7. [^7]  Smith grants that he has chosen the least sophisticated of Hodge’s and Warfield’s statements. Both write with greater sophistication elsewhere, but it is these ideas that have shaped evangelical biblicism.
  8. [^8]  Better accounting for previous observations with an innovative theory.
  9. [^9]  Seeking the best explanation for a set of observations by applying the best available theory.
  10. [^10]  The author cites Epimenidies, writing derisively about his own people around 600 BC: Kretes aei pseustai ’Cretans, always liars’.
  11. [^11]  ‘Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’
  12. [^12]  ‘By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.’
  13. [^13]  Ignatius of Antioch, 1987. Philadelphians 8. In Early Christian writings: The apostolic fathers, trans. M. Stanifort; rev. translation by A. Louth. London: Penguin, 95.
  14. [^14]  Smith proposes starting points for understanding Barth. Besides Church Dogmatics, he mentions books by Busch (2004; 2005 [1976]), Webster ed. (2000) and Hunsinger (1991) and a paper by McCormack (2004). For a neo-Barthian view of scripture, see Webster (2003, esp. 5–41).
  15. [^15]  ‘Many biblicists will be surprised to learn that, while most of the texts that eventually ended up in the New Testament canon had been written by the late first century, few Christian communities possessed all of them, and the specific content of the canon itself was not decided upon until the late fourth century. Moreover, some texts that many Christian communities considered scriptural were not included in the canon, and some texts that some Christian communities considered not scriptural were eventually included in the canon.’

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