Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Biblicisms Possible and Impossible: The Deeper Issue Between Richard Beck and Christian Smith

Last Friday Richard Beck posted a thoughtful piece on Christian Smith's recent book, titled "Why The Bible Made Impossible is Impossible." Thought I haven't read Smith's book, I felt Beck left unexplored an important aspect of what I understand to be the position Smith is representing and thereby bringing to bear on his former evangelical brethren. I emailed Richard and he effectively agreed, having simply decided to go in a different direction (in more than one way, as you'll see below). I thought I would share my response here as well for others' reflection.

In reading the piece, what most interested me was the fact that Beck didn't mention Smith's conversion to Catholicism. And as I understand the Catholic position more broadly -- less so the specific argument of the book -- it is that the ambiguity of the Bible, and the acceptance of that ambiguity, is not a psychological problem in need of addressing in the way Beck presents it. Why? Because we needn't worry about every single person in the pew reading, say, Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes and Chronicles and Revelation, and wondering how to fit it all together. That just is not what ordinary Christians ought to be doing in their spare time. Sure, they should read Scripture: Torah, Psalms, Proverbs, Amos, the New Testament, and the rest. But the call of theological interpretation and authoritative harmonization isn't something laypersons have to worry about, isn't something they must accomplish or achieve on their own, because they trust -- in the most robust sense of the term -- the leading of God's Spirit in the teaching office of the church. That is to say, on this view one's faith as a Christian is just the faith of the church; it is not contingent upon a personal, individual ability to make sense of the Bible on one's own.

Of course, Beck doesn't exactly endorse the latter approach (at least I don't think so -- though perhaps he might say it's not an unworthy endeavor for anyone who wants to try). However, the perspective he finds himself representing at the end of the argument does seem to inhabit that latter view; and this for a simple reason. It's his people and my people, church of Christ-ers -- i.e., the biblicists.

But isn't that Smith's very argument? The issue starts to feel a bit circular.

Smith says: Biblicism doesn't work because of pervasive interpretive pluralism. Beck rejoins: That's great for psychologically hyper-healthy folks, but not for most! To which Smith responds: Who said you should come to the Bible with that mindset in the first place?

That is: don't merely come to the Bible expecting ambiguity, and prepared to accept it. Rather, don't come at all carrying the assumption/hermeneutical M.O. that it is your job (uncalled as priest, untrained as theologian) to read-it-all, make-sense-of-it-all, put-it-all-together. It's okay to come for other things -- reassurance, faith, edification, devotion -- than just the logical, kataphatic component. And it's okay to come expecting not to understand, and nonetheless believing based on the authority of trusted others by and through whom God speaks and leads. But a chastened hermeneutic primed for ambiguity is not the final goal; the supposed charge to come to Scripture with the task of Comprehensive Understanding is already suspect from the first, and invariably doomed to fail.

Put another way, one ought to avoid being a biblicist on both the front end and the back end.

Thus, what seems to be the deeper point of disjunction here are the respective ecclesiologies underlying Smith's and Beck's perspectives, not their bibliologies per se. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as some may see it), while that clarification opens up space for dialogue on a different front, it also makes quite clear, with Beck's and Smith's (along with one's own) ecclesial commitments on the table, just how deep the differences really are.


  1. I think the thing I'd add is that I was reacting to Smith's book as it stood, on its own terms. Smith wrote a book about evangelicals, for evangelicals, who will remain evangelicals. That is, he doesn't get to the end of the book and say: The solution to your bible-problem is Catholicism. If he had then I think the clash of ecclesiologies becomes more relevant (as most Protestants wouldn't want to follow that advice). But since Smith doesn't make this move in the book I restricted my critique to the book as we have it: A recommendation for evangelicals who will remain evangelicals.

    Of course, Smith's conversion to Catholicism raises a lot of questions here. Namely, does he even believe what he writes in his book? Or is he, following your observation, effectively handing off the burden to the Church? If he's doing that he's not practicing what he's preaching. In a post a few months ago Tony Jones argued that Smith's conversion to Catholicism effectively negated Smith's book. Smith responded (echoing what he says in the book) that his problems with pervasive interpretive pluralism were only partly involved in his conversion to Catholicism and that his book stands on its own. But if that's his argument, as I describe in my post, I think he's wrong. The book can't work in the Protestant church. So it really does boil down to ecclesiologies and, thus, there is a real disjoint between the book as it stands and Smith's own spiritual biography.

    Tony's post:

  2. This is a bit of a foolish post, not having read the book; but here's a few more uneducated thoughts:

    It's fascinating to me that Smith would deny that the answer, or at least one of the answers, is ecclesiological, given that his other book released last year is called How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps! Hm.

    To your original point, Beck, I'm wondering what your proposed approach is; or, put differently, what the alternative to Smith's solution is. Because if Smith's reading of Scripture is correct -- that there is indeed pervasive interpretive pluralism -- then aren't biblicists deluding themselves in coming to the Bible expecting resolution of ambiguity? And isn't that a worse set-up for a fall than coming with the expectation of ambiguity?

    In other words, even if it is psychologically naive to expect ordinary folks to be fine with the Bible being fundamentally ambiguous in many ways (let's say: open to all sorts of readings), wouldn't Smith say in response that that is just the case? And that better to approach the reading of Scripture knowing (and accepting) the truth rather than the alternative? The latter seems, in theory and in practice, to be fooling ourselves because we can't handle the truth (pardon the phrasing).

    1. Hey, why do you keep calling me Beck? We know each other! :-)

      I'm running to class, but here's a quick reply.

      I don't know if resting in Mother Church fixes the problem either. Yes, it fixes the "bible problem" but you're still moving in this direction for existential comfort. You're trading a "bible problem" for a "church authority problem." Which is worse? Hard to say.

      So the solution? Emancipation from the "slavery to the fear of death" (Heb. 2.14-15), not using either the bible or the church as an existential fetish. What that looks like I'm struggling with right now on my blog. Needless to say, whatever it looks like I doubt it will be the majority strain in Christianity. So I guess I'm reaching a pessimistic conclusion: There's no global fix. Most of Christianity will remain idol worship in one form or another.