13 December 2011

The Bible Made Impossible

A few paragraphs from my brother Gavin's brief interaction with Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible--

It seems significant to me that Smith, as he mentions in the preface, wrote this book around the time of his conversion to the Roman Catholicism (xiii). Much of the book feels directed against his evangelical upbringing, and I think I understand some of the attitudes towards the Bible at the popular level he is reacting against. A big part of what seems to annoy him, for example, is when people treat the Bible as a universal “handbook” for all kinds of issues, from dating to economics to how to train your pet, etc. Okay, I get that. But I think his book would have had greater value if he had engaged with evangelical treatment of Scripture against the backdrop of the classic Protestant doctrines of Scripture upon which it is founded, such as sola Scriptura (which was not opposed to tradition and creed) or the perspicuity of Scripture (which applied to matters of salvation, not all theological or a-theological topics). Much of what he is arguing against here seems to have less to do with different views of the Bible and more to do with different degrees of intellectual sophistication in practical use of the Bible. Christians of all traditions – including those, like Smith, in the Roman Catholic church – are guilty of treating the Bible in a simplistic way.

The core of Smith’s critique rests upon his thesis about “pervasive interpretative pluralism” – he frequently notes that even those with a high view of Scripture tend to disagree about all kinds of matters, and for him, this decisively argues against biblicism. My question is: why is “pervasive interpretative pluralism” anything more than a hermeneutical issue? Isn’t it simply a result of our finitude and fallibility as human thinkers, regardless of our doctrine of Scripture? Isn’t it just as much of a problem in the Roman Catholic church, for example – or really any sizable, diverse tradition, within or without Christendom? The myriad of different views on any given topic could be cataloged in Roman Catholicism quite easily – whether stretched back historically, focused on rulings and counter-rulings of different Popes and church councils, or seen today in the diverse opinions held on a multitude of issues within the Catholic Church. If one appeals to authoritative rulings from the Church to decide the issue, one must then adjudicate between the numerous interpretations of those rulings – and so on ad infinitum. Any authority source – whether the Bible or the Pope or human reason or the U.S. Constitution – can lead to “pervasive interpretative pluralism.” In no case does that fact as such discredit the authority.

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