Christian Smith, Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism, and Christocentric Readings of Scripture, Part I

Christian Smith, who I’ve mentioned before on this blog, was received into the Roman Catholic communion in 2011. I have no plans at this point of following him, but I am extremely interested in reading the books he put out in the process of coming to his decision to do so.  Earlier in the year, I read Robert Gundry’s critical review of The Bible Made Impossible, Smith’s book arguing that the predominant hermeneutic (method of reading Scripture in the contemporary context) of evangelicalism, which he calls ‘biblicism’, is self-defeating because it results in what he calls ‘Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism’ (PIP). Biblicism in its most basic form is ‘Bible-only-ism’, or the idea that one can and should read the Bible without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation. PIP refers to the massive number of private, idiosyncratic, often self-interested readings that result from biblicism. PIP is a problem for biblicists, because they believe that every aspect of life is addressed by Scripture either directly or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, through deduction by good and necessary consequence thereof. If in fact it turns out that PIP results from biblicism, this undermines the biblicist contention that the Scripture is clear and a sure guide in every area of life.
Gundry’s review of Smith’s book struck me as defensive and evasive, engaging in mostly ad hominem and tu quoque analyses of Smith’s book. Smith’s recommendation of Karl Barth’s Christocentric reading of Scripture meets with this purely anecdotal quip: ‘For in Basel during the fall of 1960 I regularly climbed out of the basement of biblical studies to attend the theological seminars held by Barth upstairs, only to hear him repeatedly engage in subjective judgments on what in the Bible carries authority and what therein does not’. Without further ado, Gundry dismisses Barth as a ‘subjectivist’. Pretty sure you can’t dismiss the 20th century’s most important Protestant theologian without a greater sense of gravitas. And in response to Smith’s recommendation of creedal readings of Scripture and a stronger teaching office in the church, Gundry’s sole response is that PIP can be found elsewhere than in biblicist evangelicalism. Of course, Gundry virtually ignores the fact that Smith concedes this point and that his argument is not that Christocentric and Christotelic readings of Scripture resolve PIP, but that they are more faithful to the apostolic hermeneutic of Scripture and to the tradition of interpretation in the church and therefore that they are more authentically evangelical readings of the text.  Smith’s point is that the Bible is not God’s ‘handbook’ for life but rather God’s self-revelation to his people culminating in Christ, who becomes the hermeneutical key that unlocks the meaning of the rest.

One response

  1. The extreme versions of sola Scriptura seem to me, to derive in part, from a lack of Latin education. Most folks interpret the phrase as a nominative, not an ablative and thus end up with a rather abstract understanding of scripture, that is, that it should be interpreted only with reference to itself and not its original or subsequent interpretive contexts. Such was, so I understand, the position of Bahnsen. The controversy concerning Enns has brought up this very issue (is the OT or early Judaism the grid for interpreting the NT?) thereby demonstrating that for many evangelicals, even (or especially?) of the Westminster mindset the matter is very well alive.

    Without having read the book, I can say that I suspect I’m very sympathetic to Smith’s hermeneutical concerns. Maybe I’ll get around to reading it, or perusing it at the very least.

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