Written by Dr. David Dunbar
Thursday, 15 March 2012 00:00
In recent blogs I have been reflecting on Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible (Brazos, 2011). He believes that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” among Evangelicals proves the un-workability of our hermeneutic: because we cannot agree on what Scripture teaches, we inevitably find ourselves in warring theological camps. How should we address the problem?
Smith offers two proposals that taken together could provide a greater degree of unity within the church. First, he argues that the Bible must be read Christocentrically: Jesus Christ is the true subject matter of the whole of the Scripture. “If believers today want to rightly understand scripture, every narrative, every prayer, every proverb, every law, every Epistle needs likewise to be read and understood always and only in light of Jesus Christ and God reconciling the world to himself through him” (p. 99). Few would deny what Smith affirms, but in practice Christ gets side-lined in our teaching and the resulting interpretations (particularly of the OT) are often little more than religious moralism.
Second, he argues that we must make value distinctions in our interpretation. Not all truths are equally important. We should avoid “flat” readings which value all biblical content equally. Smith adopts the threefold distinction of dogma, doctrine, and opinion used by the Baptist theologian Roger Olson.
Dogma refers to those teachings which are nearly universally agreed upon by believers. Doctrine refers to beliefs that are held not universally but by substantial groups of Christians and which may justly be considered important to the life and witness of the church. Opinions are those beliefs which are less central and more idiosyncratic.
Smith is persuaded that Evangelical Biblicism makes this three-fold distinction difficult. As a result much that is really just opinion gets moved up the ladder to the de facto status of Dogma. The result is theological warfare and the loss of Evangelical catholicity. The solution must be found in “. . . Christians actively agreeing on a short list of dogma, actively building bonds of Christian communion across their doctrinal differences, and deflating the importance of many of their own beliefs [opinions] to the levels at which they appropriately belong” (p. 138).
What I find particularly attractive in this book is the author’s repeated emphasis on the interpretive center (Christ) rather than the boundary markers (denominational distinctives). Focus on the former more than the latter is critically necessary for the missional effectiveness of the church, as is the humility that must mark our interpretive efforts and our relationships within the body of Christ.
Dave Dunbar is President and Professor of Theology at Biblical Seminary. He is married to Sharon, has four adult children and six grandchildren. See also http://biblical.edu/index.php/david-dunbar.