Ever since the early Jewish Christian movement first pushed its way into the Greek-Roman world, the church has built its house on what appeared for many centuries to be the immovable and unshakeable sandstone of theology—that is, theology as post-biblical rational discourse, in its multiplicity of forms. The intellectual storms and floods of the last two hundred years, however, have severely eroded that foundation, and I think that the church would be well advised now to abandon its former habitation and rebuild its worldview on the granite of a narrative-historical hermeneutic.
Against this admittedly overstated background I think that Christian Smith’s response to the problem of biblicism in his book The Bible Made Impossible is not much more than an exercise in redecorating the walls of a house whose desolation has drawn near.
What Smith means by “biblicism” is “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability” (roughly loc. 65 in the Kindle version).
His argument against it is basically that it is refuted by the fact that sincere, intelligent interpreters cannot agree about the meaning of the Bible (Smith calls this “pervasive interpretive pluralism”), and that they cannot agree because the Bible is irreducibly ambiguous or multivocal.
So Smith suggests that evangelicals need to learn to live with the complexity and ambiguity of scripture, resisting the need to flatten out all the unsightly wrinkles and creases with the heavy steam-iron of the theory of biblical perfection, accepting that God has graciously accommodated himself to finite and fallen human perspectives.
He then argues that Christians “need to much better distinguish dogma from doctrine and both of those from opinion, in a way that demands much greater humility, discernment, and readiness to extend the fellowship of communion to those who understand scripture differently (loc. 2736).
The typology comes from Roger Olson’s book Reformed and Always Reforming (Baker Academic, 2007). “Dogmas” are the non-negotiable beliefs, such as the Trinity and Nicene Christology. “Doctrines” are less important—they have to do, generally speaking, with the beliefs that we feel that orthodox Christians can legitimately disagree over, such as the beliefs that divide Calvinists from Wesleyans. Then we have “opinions”, which are of least importance and include such adiaphora as the “preference for baptism by immersion rather than sprinkling”, or the choice of home schooling over public schooling.
So we have dogmas, doctrines, and opinions but no narrative—that is, none of the stuff of the biblical text as it determines its own relation to the believing community. Dogmas, doctrines and opinions are all forms of belief and are, therefore, a prejudgment of scripture—not least the non-negotiable dogmas—which means that the biblical narrative is not allowed to speak for itself.
Smith’s model is really just a way of doing theology nicely, tolerantly. It leaves unaddressed what to my mind is the much more fundamental challenge: do we continue to construct the evangelical worldview theologically or should we take the opportunity afforded to us by developments in New Testament studies—and, of course, by a massive shift in Western culture—to rebuild the evangelical worldview on historical foundations? The Reformation paradigm can be reformed until the cows come home, but it is still a pre-critical paradigm that is always going to struggle to understand how history works.
The prioritization of theology shows up in Smith’s Barthian hermeneutic (chapter 5). This is undoubtedly an improvement on the biblicist method of treating the Bible as “an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it seems to address”. But the centrality of Jesus for the reading of scripture has still patently been determined theologically:
We only, always, and everywhere read scripture in view of its real subject matter: Jesus Christ. This means that we always read scripture Christocentrically, christologically, and christotelically, as those who really believe what the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds say. (loc. 2000)
That is how theologians speak, not historians, and it presupposes later, post-biblical, culturally conditioned theological perspectives. This is not the “inductive” approach to biblical authority which elsewhere Smith is keen to advocate (loc. 2649). It is just another method of harmonization, which Smith is elsewhere keen to do without (loc. 2693-2723). It is a rejection of the principle of “accommodation”—not just to human understanding but to the contingencies of history—which elsewhere Smith is keen to affirm (loc. 2663-2693).
I think that there are properly narrative-historical ways to affirm the hermeneutical significance of Christ, but we won’t get there by starting from Nicaea.