Biblicism—an approach to the Bible common among some American evangelicals—emphasizes together the Bible’s exclusive authority, infallibility, clarity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. Acclaimed sociologist Christian Smith argues that this approach is misguided and unable to live up to its own claims. If evangelical biblicism worked as its proponents say it should, there would not be the vast variety of interpretive differences that biblicists themselves reach when they actually read and interpret the Bible. Far from challenging the inspiration and authority of Scripture, Smith critiques a particular rendering of it, encouraging evangelicals to seek what he calls a more responsible, coherent, and defensible approach to biblical authority.
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“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.” (Page viii)
“The reality is that it is not possible to take fully seriously a Christocentric hermeneutic of scripture and to hold to biblicism. One or the other must give. In most cases to date, the biblicist tendencies overwhelm Christocentric gestures and intuitions. Nobody ends up explicitly denying that Christ is the purpose, center, meaning, and key to understanding scripture. But in actual practice Christ gets sidelined by the interest in defending every proposition and account as inerrant, universally applicable, contemporarily applicable, and so on, in ways that try to make the faith ‘relevant’ for everyday concerns.” (Page 109)
“Short of a divine miracle, the Bible therefore cannot function as an authority today, whether or not the Holy Spirit is involved, until it is interpreted and made sense of by readers. Every scriptural teaching is mediated through human reading and active interpretation, which involve choosing one among a larger number of possible readings. Thus every scriptural teaching is subject to the complexities and different outcomes of the interpretive process.” (Page 51)
“Merely asserting those believed facts itself contributes nothing to solving the functional problems of multiple, diverse, and incompatible ‘readings’ of or through them. Likewise, neither do increasingly insistent declarations of biblicist beliefs about the inerrancy, reliability, harmony, and perspicuity of the Bible actually address the fact and problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism concerning scripture, which is a major problem.” (Page 17)
Evangelicalism is cracking apart not because of theological drift to the left but because the only theology that can sustain a genuine evangelicalism is—to use the only word appropriate—a catholic theology. Many who were nurtured in American evangelicalism (as Christian Smith was) and now find it seriously deficient (as Christian Smith does) seem to be those on whom the light has dawned. I first saw a chapter of this book and was stunned; I’ve now read it all and am delighted. Here is a genuinely evangelical catholic understanding of scripture.
—Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament, Northern Seminary
Biblicism remains one of the most entrenched and pressing problems facing the church. In his characteristically lucid, direct, and fair-minded fashion, Christian Smith asks questions about biblicism that need to be answered. Smith also begins to articulate an alternative, Christ-centered approach to biblical interpretation that is supremely constructive—a truly evangelical account of Scripture.
—Douglas A. Campbell, associate professor of New Testament, Duke University Divinity School
I do not think that biblicism has been quite as destructive as Christian Smith describes it in this book (for example, among evangelicals there is very little ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ in understanding John 20:31). Despite this reservation, I think Smith has written an extremely valuable book. Although his account of the problems besetting biblicism is devastatingly effective, his appeal for a Christ-centered approach to Scripture is wise, encouraging, and even more effective.
—Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame
Smith demonstrates, respectfully but critically, that the type of biblicism that often characterizes evangelicalism cannot account for how scripture itself behaves. Biblicism is retained, however, because of its sociological value for ‘maintaining safe identity boundaries.’ Smith’s analysis of the problem of biblicism and his offer of a way forward are important contributions to the current developments surrounding evangelicalism and the Bible.
—Peter Enns, author, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins and Inspiration