Sometimes when I try to convey a strong opinion, I am careful and rigorous about it. Today is not one of those times. This book, The Bible Made Impossible, is changing my paradigm of doctrine, and of the Bible and the Gospel altogether, and today I’m just letting it all come out in a haphazard fashion. If you have any particular curiosities or objections on this topic, I encourage you to leave a comment, contact me directly, or just buy the book and read it yourself. It’s excellent.
The quiet undercurrent that propagates through the conservative evangelical world is that there is this body of correct knowledge, this doctrine, that any Christian is responsible for finding, absorbing, and internalizing; and somehow it’s all hidden in the Bible, scattered amongst its thousand chapters and segments. So, we’re supposed to go through and find all these correspondences and puzzle pieces and see how they fit together cohesively. The notion is that there is a thing that some call the Biblical “worldview”, and if we can just study well enough, any ordinary believer should be able to piece it together and apply it to their lives. But, this task is so complex and time-consuming due to the vast extent of the Bible, that we’ve had to rely on theologians to do a lot of the heavy lifting for us. And so we lean on textbooks such as Systematic Theology to pull this mess of propositions together into a digestible form that the human mind can actually grasp and hold.
First thought: if this is a description of discipleship or of maturing Christ, it sounds profoundly dull. Second: it feels instinctively not the Gospel.
And for a long time I avoided systematized theology entirely, avoided thick books of that flavor at all, because of an intuition in my gut. My gut said: these books lead to a cerebral mountain climb, and a spiritual flatline. A while ago I sought a wise man’s help in investigating through this, and he pointed out to me that the men who have written many of these books in fact loved Jesus themselves, and for that reason I could move forward into theological study without great fear. So I pressed forward.
The intro to Systematic explains that we (all believers, the Church) may have any number of curiosities about things, and the way to start answering those questions would be to catalog and assemble all the pieces of the Bible that seem to relate or provide answers. By studying through each of these assembled pieces, we can inductively generate a summary, a doctrine, of foundational canonical assumptions. From there we can extrapolate further predicate truths that lead to wherever the hell you want to go. The underlying notion is that we can expand this map of axioms logically outward until we have a Biblical “worldview” that covers all facets and corners of our reality.
Well, at least if that’s not the explicit intro to Systematic, it is a general summary of systematic theology. I have to admit, it’s a beautiful picture. It appeals to every faculty in us that is studious, meticulous, orderly, and constructive; it appeals to our inner architect, who would want the Bible to be the bedrock, upon which we can build cathedrals into the clouds. It’s a great idea. I can’t blame anyone for wanting that picture to be true. And yet, as I started to read further, I still felt the old intuitive caution rise up.
The problem, as I mentioned in my first post on Impossible, is that it doesn’t work. The Bible is not that kind of substance. And in the meantime I believe this idea harms us a whole lot.
I shall leave it there for now. If you want to know more, see my notice at the top of the page.
The back half of Smith’s book is compelling. He moves forward by weaving some gorgeous portraits of what the Gospel, and Scripture, really are.
Somewhere in the evangelical story, we seem to have lost sight of a few things. The Bible does not contain the Gospel — rather, the Bible is a witness to it, a hyperlink, as is the Holy Spirit, who counsels us toward the same good news.
The Gospel … IS … Jesus. It is alive. In him.
He is the living Word of God, and the written word is a subsidiary, an auxiliary resource, a collection of wisdom, which is for guiding us to the true source of life.
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
We forget that in the first three centuries of the church, there was no canon of Scripture. In this transitive period, there was something else that existed first, which the ancient believers called “The Rule of Faith”. It was, in essence, an inner understanding of the Gospel of Jesus, and it was against this (pre-)canonical rule that scriptural candidates were judged to be read aloud, circulated, and propagated. The development of the scriptural canon depended on a preceding theology that existed solely within the hearts and minds of the early Church, and in the mind of the spirit of Christ that filled them and instructed them.
That. Is. Badass.
In short, the Gospel came first. And it should continue to come first, and last too.
Also, this idea is somewhat shocking to my own mind, given that I am a product of a modern, Western, intellectual culture, particularly influenced by this evangelical Biblicism which touts a far different notion of truth than the early church. I am not saying we should return to (and become) the early church in every aspect. The church has grown and diversified immensely, and I don’t believe that is some historical accident — I don’t believe the Spirit has said “Oops!” to 2000 years of history. But I do think that with this Biblicism, we have painted ourselves into an untenable corner.
The Bible is not the Gospel, and the Gospel is not the Bible. The book is not the God, is not our living guide, is not even The Word (capital ‘w’) to which we look for our salvation. The written word is subject to the living Word, and we desperately need to get this if we’ll ever be brave enough to step on the wet paint and walk out of this confining room we’ve occupied.
Smith advocates instead that we read scripture Christocentrically. That is, we should not assume that the value of each verse and chapter of scripture is in the propositional statements that are offered, which together harmonize and create some set of doctrines that comprise a Biblical “worldview”. Instead, we should assume that the value of each verse and chapter is as a supernatural revelator of the person of Jesus. Smith pushes that the holy word of God ought to be better than an ethics textbook, better than a self-improvement course, better even than a high theological treatise — that it should instead, must be, and is … a centrally-organized, polyphonic choir of authors painting a gorgeously-detailed, multi-vocal portrait of this man, this God, this Christ who has offered us salvation.
That’s what I’m starting to think too. That’s huge.
There are a lot of implications in that. Much more than I have space to explore today.
If any of that came through coherently … good. Thanks for coming along today.