Over the Christmas holidays I read Christian Smith’s new book, “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture” (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com or Kalahari.net). I have followed Christian’s work for many years – he is a well known and insightful sociologist who has spent many years researching the state of the church, youth ministry and Christian culture, especially in the USA.
But in this book, he has turned his attention to how evangelical Christians in America interpret the Bible. It’s an interesting book, as he states often that he is not a ‘professional’ theologian, and is approaching the topic more from a sociological perspective. Yet, his insights are excellent and striking. I think the first half of the book is much better than the second. He starts by defining the type of Biblical readers he has in mind: conservative evangelicals who claim (among other things) that the Bible should be interpreted literally, contains absolutely no errors of any sort (inerrant), was written by God (inspired), represents the full extent of God’s communication with humanity and is sufficient for all matters of life, for all Christians of all ages. He shows that their version of Biblical interpretation is impossible.
Note that he shows it to be impossible. Logically impossible, theologically impossible and practically impossible. The book is a bit long winded, but that’s mainly because I think Smith is hoping that many of the people he is critiquing might read the book. He is therefore meticulous in ensuring his argument is well understood and covers all possible bases.
I find his argument very compelling.
And then on Sunday, the preacher at our church preached from Matthew 28 – the section often referred to as The Great Commission. And right there, I realised was an almost perfect example of the issue Smith’s book focuses in on.
Matthew 28:19 is translated in almost all of our English Bibles as “Therefore, go and make disciples…”. But almost everyone knows that the original Greek construction of the sentence is: “As you go, make disciples…”. Our preacher took this so for granted that he didn’t even mention the discrepancy between what we were reading, and what he was quoting. He simply said, “As you go, you are to make disciples”. This is the correct emphasis of the passage. The “going” is implied, and is not a command. The command is to make disciples, wherever it is that you go. There can be very few people who don’t know this.
So why have even the most modern of translations not updated the text?
I honestly couldn’t tell you. But the point is this: our whole theology does not come tumbling down because we identify this error (for error it is!) and correct it. The community of Christians working together comes to an understanding about what the verses are supposed to mean, and we adjust our thinking accordingly. If needed, we’d adjust our practice too.
We’ve done this so often throughout history, changing our interpretations and understanding of Scripture, and our practices, that it almost doesn’t feel like the point needs to be made. But, sadly it does.
A literalist interpretation of Scripture is not a good reading of Scripture. It believes that there is only one possible interpretation of each Scriptural passage, and that by diligent study we will come to agree on this. And anyone who doesn’t agree is an enemy of God.
So those who read the Bible literally often accuse those who do not of being “liberal”. This is a catch all label which is almost always used dismissively – and pejoratively – and as if it concludes all debate. But it’s just not true. Those who work hard to understand the Bible by looking for dynamic equivalents in order to translate and interpret culturally conditioned passages, and those who try and look beyond factual errors, internal inconsistencies and cultural issues to find the meaning and intent of the passages (without diminishing their belief that they are God’s Words), are not being “seduced by the world” or taking the easy interpretative route. In fact, in most cases, they do this work precisely because they are taking the Bible MORE seriously than they ever have.
You might find it valuable to read one of our archive posts: Confessions of a Bible Deist. If you’d like to read a book about this issue of how to interpret the Bible, then the best one written recently is Scott McKnight’s “The Blue Parakeet” (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com or Kalahari.net). The best textbook I can recommend is Fee and Stuart’s “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth” (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com or Kalahari.net).
If we’re going to deal correctly with issues such as creation versus evolution, science versus faith, the role of women, and homosexuality successfully, we have to start where Christian Smith starts: and look to show literalist Biblicists the error – and impossibility – of their approach to Biblical interpretation. Without that, all other attempts at engagement are futile.
As you go, do your best to take God’s Word seriously. Now go!