The Bible Made Impossible

Today some brainy stuff, written for Christians to read, and which might either upset, challenge, or relieve you.

But first, a story:
About a year ago my friend Jen* started telling me about how she had quit the mainstream church. She was instead studying on a regular basis with a group of believers who were certain that Jesus wanted us to dig into the Torah and stick with what it said to do, whereas the mainstream church had completely abandoned observing the Torah. Well, that’s a coarse summary, but there’s more information here if you want to have a quick look.

*Jen is a placeholder name

I approached this matter gingerly at first, and genuinely did a lot of my own research to figure out if there might be merit to this argument. The Torah-observant position linked above is apparently well-intentioned and sourced from a lot of scripture. But, I also researched opinions and scholarship on the “mainstream” side of things, and decided ultimately that the Torah-observant position was confused at best, or dangerous at worst.

What followed then was a prolonged email exchange with Jen, made of meticulous interminable scrutiny through verse after pertinent Bible verse, each of us trying to tease out a triumphant exegetical stroke so that the argument could be finished. Or at least that’s what I did.

There was never a triumphant stroke. The dialogue just mushroomed into a whirlwind of ever-longer emails and endless scriptural minutiae.

After several months of this, I was exhausted, and felt nervous and angry. I was irritated at Jen, but all she was doing was asking good questions and not settling for stupid answers. I was more accurately angry that there was no clear answer. Weeks and weeks of searching through the best scholarship of the mainstream church still hadn’t finally been sufficient to counter all the claims of the Torah-observant argument. And I think I had pissed Jen off in the meantime. But we got over it.

All told, this little research binge really damaged my faith. Well, perhaps not my faith in Jesus. It damaged my faith in the modern church, or in our understanding of what the Bible actually means. Essentially 100% of my peers told me they thought the idea of Torah observance was laughable and heretical. And yet not they nor the sharpest minds in the mainstream church could put together an opposing argument that was truly airtight. What the hell?? (two question marks for emphasis)

But even if neither myself nor any of my “normal” Christian friends were 100% positive of why we believed what we believed … I just knew somehow that we were right. But I couldn’t prove it from scripture. And that was infuriating.

In time, I got over it. Or rather I put the matter on the shelf and saved it for later. I couldn’t afford to think about that stuff anymore, for that season.

##

A couple of days ago I happened upon The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith, and I’m about to finish the first chunk of the book. I’m only going to go into that first part, today, so prepare yourselves for some cognitive dissonance or something.

I have to summarize in a small space here.**

1) Smith starts by defining a general attitude that pervades evangelicalism, which he calls biblicism: basically the idea that the Bible is the authoritative, direct Word of God to man, and that He (God) has made it sufficiently consistent, harmonious, and clearly-written such that the ordinary Christian should be able to study through it and arrive at correct and conclusive doctrines (about how God wants them to do their marriage, their job, their salvation, their taxes, their drapes, etc. etc.).

2) Smith proceeds to point out (using an effing mountain of contemporary evidence) that biblicism has failed, catastrophically, because millions and millions of Christians have arrived at thousands of different conclusions about what right Biblical doctrines actually are. And yes, even well-intentioned, apparently good-hearted, really really smart ones, who give to the poor and love their spouses, and are not theological liberals — they too have disagreed. Smith spends some time addressing the normal counter-arguments, and in summary makes an extremely good case.

**A more thorough summary is here

Now, before everyone panics, let’s clarify some things. Smith is not a theological liberal. He makes this quite clear. So far in my reading, he has not challenged the authority of the Bible, nor suggested anything fishy like universalism. So far he has simply pointed out that the tradition of biblicism is absurd, or more so that it’s central claims are simply irrelevant.

That is — yelling louder and louder that the Bible is divinely-inspired, inerrant, infallible, and authoritative, doesn’t do anybody any good at all if nobody can agree on what the Bible actually says.

And I have to say, I think that’s a pretty strong point.

If we back up to my debacle with Jen from last year, we can see that the biblicist presupposition was precisely what was so devastating to me. I was under the impression that with careful and honest study, a clear and logical consensus could be found regarding the issue of Torah observance. But, I found none. Instead I found clear and logical dissonance, from careful and honest believers.

Again, everyone, let’s not panic. You’ll want to tell me that I’m on a slippery slope, and I will tell you that I don’t care. I am certain about Jesus, and I don’t feel greatly endangered, but I do want to get to the bottom of this rabbit hole. I think it would do us all a little good if we could be less afraid of testing this particular issue.

I actually never even noticed the biblicist philosophy, quietly at work in my head, until Smith’s pointing it out. Now in retrospect, I see that this idea was passed to me almost as soon as I became a believer, and has been an implicit assumption of mine since then … and it is the assumption of basically everyone I know, too.

What would happen if we relieved ourselves of the terrible burden of harmonizing the Bible, and of inducing conclusive doctrines on every controversial subject? Would the church not be so effing fractured into a billion denominations and sects? Would everyone stop claiming a monopoly on the truth of the Gospel? Would non-Christians be less likely to think that we’re a bunch of arrogant idiots who can’t even agree with each other? I’m not sure. I think so. I think we should look carefully at this.

Of course, the question begs — if we suspend biblicism, what do we replace it with? I haven’t gotten to that part yet, though I’ve seen some hints of where Smith is headed. More on that stuff later. Meanwhile, discuss amongst yourselves. Don’t panic.

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3 Comments

  1. I’m really interested in this idea. I want to believe that there is systematic theology in the Bible. But not everything in it is systematic. To begin with, there are different types of books. There are historical narratives (paramount being the life of Jesus), poems, wise words, and philosophical ruminations. They serve different purposes. So what is doctrine and what is prose? I think that is a starting point.

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