The Bible Made Impossible (part 2)

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.

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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.

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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.

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If any of that came through coherently … good. Thanks for coming along today.

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9 Comments

  1. Oh my gosh, it really is huge, man. Very, very significant. I think I’ve “known” that but never been sure about it. But I need to read that book. Your summary just encouraged me a lot about that idea.

    Reply

  2. So based on our conversations about this I’ve been processing through the proposition made in the book. A couple thoughts related to this that may not be related to each other:

    1. I agree with the premise that the Bible at it’s most basic form is intended to point us to Jesus. The core purpose of Scripture is to provide the minimum amount of information necessary to bring a person to a saving faith in Jesus through pictures of who we are, who God is, and what has been done on our behalf to bring us to God.

    2. While I think the core purpose of Scripture is Christocentric, clearly there are more layers of meaning to the text. When God speaking through Paul says “flee sexual immorality,” he means just that. In understanding the full meaning of the text we must let ourselves not only be pointed to Jesus, but also examine the context of what is written and search for the authorial intent.

    3. The result of this secondary layer is all of the divisions you see in the church. Many people see this as some sort of negative, and to the extent that it restrains co-operative action among believers I think that that’s fair. On the other hand, it also means that a lot of people have worked really hard to understand this beautiful revelation God has given us in an effort to show our gratitude to Him. I think that’s pretty awesome, personally. Also, there are many other reasons for divisions in the Church: Style of worship, ethnic heritage, physical proximity. These are all reasons Christians don’t fellowship together on a regular basis, and I don’t think any of them are invalid, so long as we maintain our commonality in Jesus.

    4. I think in some ways this book may be a self-fulfilling prophecy for you. I think you personally, because of your background, already had a powerful skepticism towards systematic theology, or at least a distaste for it. I think it might be helpful to remind you that it may be your personal wiring to like the message of the book, not some objective reality. All of that to say, I see how it could be easy for people to read the book, read this, and then throw up their hands and stop really digging into the Bible to find Gods truth. I hope that’s not the case.

    I’m sure we’ll talk about this more at home. <3

    Reply

  3. You seem to be arguing that the written word is either gospel centered or systematic. I think you are missing the point. It is both.

    Reply

    1. Chris,
      Thanks for dropping a line. To be clear, I am still figuring this out, but have been writing in a forceful style to invite people to think hard about this.

      If you take a look at the original post, you’ll see that the assumptions through which we view the Word are what are being challenged with Smith’s book. I’ve done a poor job laying out the argument in its entirety because my space is limited here, but I think Smith brings a very well-reasoned concern to the table, and one that systematic theological-minded people need to take seriously. Systematic theology rests on a few basic assumptions about the nature of Scripture, but to my (limited) understanding, those basic assumptions have only been developed within the last 200-300 years.

      Anyway — I can’t directly respond yet to your comment about the word being gospel-centered or systematic. I think it is most definitely the former, but I’m figuring out the latter … to what extent that’s true, or what that assertion even means.

      I’d highly encourage you to read the book if you have any interest in at least reviewing the argument. Regardless of where you end up, I have no doubt that you’ll have a stronger intellectual and theological integrity in your position, at the end of it. That is basically my end goal in writing this.

      Reply

      1. I read your first post and appreciated most of it. I just think you’re throwing the baby out with the bath wash if you know what I mean. Yes all of scripture ultimately points us to Jesus, but that does not mean that other things it teaches are invalid.

        I always enjoy hearing what you are thinking, as you think very differently than I do. I will be staying tuned to what else you learn as this develops. As for reading the book, I would be happy to, but my docket is about 12 books deep at this point unfortunately.

        Reply

        1. Sounds good man. I appreciate the concern of course, but know that I haven’t thrown any babies or bath water anywhere, yet.

          Also, you said:
          “… but that does not mean that other things it teaches are invalid.”

          We cannot forget that WHAT the Bible teaches is a secondary set of conclusions; what preceded any of those doctrines was a pre-set of primary conclusions about *how* we read the Bible. Don’t forget, how we read the Bible has also changed through history, just like the doctrinal points of theology that have developed as a result.

          So, I think that it isn’t a fully valid thing to say simply “I just believe in what the Bible says, and that’s the end,” because millions and millions of evangelicals say the same thing, and yet we arrive at different conclusions on a variety of important doctrines.

          … anyway. Yeah. I’ll let you know.

          Reply

  4. Ian,

    Thanks for the blog. Interesting stuff.

    A question for you. “And so we lean on textbooks such as Systematic Theology to pull this mess of propositions together…” In this quote and the paragraph about the intro, are referring to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, or systematic theologies in general?

    – Drew

    Reply

    1. Drew,
      Thanks for dropping in, man!

      To be honest I’m not sure the distinction matters, I was speaking somewhat haphazardly. But, my general notion is this: I simply don’t have the time to search extensively through the Bible and find all the passages that seem to address … say … baseball. I work full-time, and not as a theologian, so I need to rely on other people to pick up the spadework for me.

      So, if I want to understand or discover a Biblical doctrine addressing baseball, I only have a few options:
      1) I can read a paperback book about the “right” Biblical perspective on baseball, which may or may not have citations or good logic, aka might just be one guy’s opinion, and he’s published it to make some money.
      2) I can use Google or BibleGateway.com to manually find all the verses that have to do with baseball, and try to piece together a summarizing doctrine on my own.
      3) I can find a scholarly or systematic theological treatise, where I follow a careful Bible scholar as he examines the relevant verses on baseball, critically considers various points and addresses necessary counter-arguments, and then settles on a Biblical doctrine of baseball.

      So, that’s what I mean. If I want to be thorough and careful, I’ll probably use all three of these methods, and more stuff on the internet, and I’ll pray. But in the end, what I’ll end up doing is either mirrored by #3, or could be easily replaced by #3.

      I am NOT trying to say that relying on a systematic theology book (of any kind) is lazy or dishonest. Didn’t mean to say that. What I meant is … an ordinary lay believer, like me or you, just doesn’t have the time or years of study behind us to be able to easily engage with the entire Bible in all its expanse … so we have to rely (A) on teachers of the Bible who have already done that, and who will help us to bypass the vast array of perspectives and verses by (B) showing us summarized doctrines that are meant to condense the mess for us.

      What I mean with (A) and (B) above is not meant to be a value judgment, ultimately. I think it’s just an honest description of what we’re capable of, as lay, non-professional Bible readers.

      Hope that makes sense enough.

      Reply

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