Good trees produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit. Jesus says this is true of human character (Matt. 12:33).  But is this principle applicable elsewhere?  Christian Smith has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking book [The Bible Made Impossible (Brazos, 2011)] to argue that this is precisely what we find with much of the Evangelical approach to interpreting Scripture—a bad theory of what the Bible is and how we should interpret it leads to deplorable results.

The bad theory Smith describes as “Biblicism” which actually turns out to be a complex of ten inter-related ideas about the nature of the Bible and the appropriate ways to discern its meaning. It is not my concern at this point to examine or even list those ten points although I will do a bit of this in some future posts. Suffice it to say that Smith has pretty accurately captured the shape of a broad swath of biblical interpretation as practiced by Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.

He is convinced that the Biblicism he describes is wrong because it doesn’t in reality produce the results that it claims for itself.  Not only does not, but cannot. According to Smith, “Biblicism does not live up to its own promises to produce an authoritative biblical teaching by which Christians can believe and live”(p. 173). What it produces instead is “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” In other words, a theory which says that the Bible is clear and easily understood by anyone who approaches it without preconceptions produces a myriad of competing and even contradictory exegetical positions. This in turn results in a sad history of sectarian division and denominational infighting, i.e., a bad tree produces bad fruit. Evangelicals are not particularly troubled by this, Smith believes, because they live in denial of the true state of affairs. I would add that we are not sufficiently troubled by this also because we value a certain understanding of “truth” above the teaching of Jesus that his followers need to be one in the unity of the Father and the Son (John 17:20-23)--which is another kind of truth!

For now just a couple quick observations:  First, good teachers sometimes over-state their case to make a point.  Smith is no exception, but that is not a reason to ignore what he says. There is much here that can help us.  Second, Smith should not be read as a liberal Bible-basher.  He clearly distances himself from liberalism and reading him otherwise would not be fair to what he writes.  I would rather describe his approach with the proverb:  “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”

Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary.  He has been married to Sharon for 42 years.  They have four grown children and six grandchildren

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