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Christian Smith--professor at the University of Notre Dame, recently converted Catholic, and author of Soul Searching and Souls in Transition--has written a number of insightful, helpful books. This is not one of them. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture is Smith's attempt to prove that the way evangelicals approach the Bible in this country is wrong, and dreadfully so.

By his estimation, American evangelicalism is beholden to a biblicist hermeneutic. By "biblicist" he means "a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability" (viii). More thoroughly, Smith asserts that biblicism is the constellation of ten different assumptions or beliefs:

1. The words of the Bible are identical with God's words written inerrantly in human language.
2. The Bible represents the totality of God's will for humanity.
3. The divine will for all issues relevant to Christian life are contained in the Bible.
4. Any reasonable person can correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. The way to understand the Bible is to look at the obvious, literal sense.
6. The Bible can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, or historic church traditions.
7. The Bible possesses internal harmony and consistency.
8. The Bible is universally applicable for all Christians.
9. All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned through inductive Bible study.
10. The Bible is a kind of handbook or textbook for Christian faith and practice.

While some evangelicals may downplay or deny some of these points, Smith suggests as long as you hold to some of these points you are still a biblicist (4-5).

At first you may be tempted to think Smith is targeting the silly extremes of evangelicalism. And he does do this often--criticizing the books that claim to give the final biblical word on cooking or dating or handling stress. Evangelicals can make the mistake of thinking the Bible says everything about everything. They can also be guilty of majoring on the minors or forcing the Bible to address matters it never meant to address. Smith is right to deconstruct these tendencies.

But he's not just picking around the edges of the big tent. He's gutting the center. He sees biblicism in the official doctrinal statements from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Evangelical Free Church. He finds it in the statements of faith from Wheaton, Moody, Gordon-Conwell, Covenant, Westminster, Dallas, Talbot, Concordia, and Asbury. He cites what he deems to be biblicist instincts in respected scholars like D.A. Carson, G.K. Beale, J.I. Packer, and David Wells. (Surprisingly, he targets Vern Poythress for criticism as much as anyone, leading me to wonder if Westminster--whose Board Smith likens to a "Reformed quasi-papal Magisterium"--is particularly in the crosshairs because they dismissed Peter Enns. [14, 109-110]) Even extremely nuanced documents like the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy are routinely criticized, even lampooned, as unworkable, naïve and biblicist. In short, pretty much every evangelical preacher, institution, and scholar (save for "evangelical biblical scholars" like Enns and Kent Sparks) are hopelessly and shamelessly entrenched in biblicism.

What Gives?

The main problem with biblicism (as Smith defines it), and the recurring theme of the book, is the presence of "pervasive interpretive pluralism." Smith, who coined the term "moralistic therapeutic Deism" has a knack for labeling. I'm sure the phrase "pervasive interpretative pluralism" (or PIP for short) will be bandied about for some time. In essence, what Smith means is that biblicist approaches to Scripture cannot work because intelligent, sincere, fair-minded evangelicals can't begin to agree on what the Bible actually says. If the Bible were really clear, internally harmonious, and univocal, we should be able to come to agreement on what the Bible teaches (25). But we can't and never will, Smith argues. Instead, we have countless books that give multiple views on everything from the atonement to baptism to hell to the rapture to the historical Jesus (22-23). We disagree on periphery, but also on "essential matters of doctrine and faithful practice" (25). By Smith's calculation, evangelical disagreement is so severe that we have created, in theory, more than five million unique, potential belief positions (24).

The solution to this intractable problem is to ditch biblicism altogether in favor of Christocentric hermeneutic. A truly evangelical approach to Scripture understands that the evangel is at the center of the Bible's message. So we should be less sure and less concerned with most of the theological convictions dear to us. Instead we should "only, always, and everywhere read scripture in view of its real subject matter: Jesus Christ" (98). When we understand this, we will not expect the Bible to speak to all our questions, and we will not expect internal consistency (except, presumably, on the matter of the gospel). This is where Smith finds Karl Barth tremendously helpful. With Barth's guidance, evangelicals can stop divinizing the Bible and realize the written word is meant only to point to the Word incarnate. We will hold tenaciously to Jesus Christ and loosely to everything else.

Of course, very few evangelicals I know would disagree with the notion of a Christocentric hermeneutic. In fact, nothing in recent years has been talked about more in evangelical circles than the gospel itself. We have Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition and umpteen books with the word gospel in the title. We have conferences on preaching the gospel from the whole Bible and homiletical models that emphasize seeing Christ as the hero in every story. We even have children's books serving the same purpose. So I'm not sure why Smith thinks a Christocentric reading of Scripture stands in opposition to what he dubs "biblicism," especially when he admits to seeing it in people like John Stott and in the SBC "2000 Baptist Faith and Message" of all places (103, 108). A Barthian view may be missing from evangelical hermeneutics, but increasingly Christocentrism is not.

What's Wrong?

But there are bigger problems with Smith's proposal than overlooking good examples of his best ideas. For starters, the book is littered with straw men. Smith frequently attacks ideas that none of the mainstream institutions, documents, or persons he criticizes holds. He opposes mechanical dictation theory, admitting that "most" thoughtful evangelicals do not hold to it (81). I can't help but wonder which thoughtful evangelicals do? He chides biblicists for things I've never seen anyone do, like worshiping the Bible (124) and thinking that fellowship with God comes through paper and ink (119; see the quote from John Frame later in the review for a more sophisticated response). Likewise, he mocks the logic of biblicism for being equally certain about the divinity of Jesus as it is about the ethics of biblical dating (137). But who actually espouses any of this? These are simply cheap shots.

At other times it seems that Smith is ignorant of mainstream evangelical theology. He frequently attacks the notion that the Bible is completely clear, but then in the end he says the Bible is perfectly clear when it comes to the important stuff of the gospel (132). This is not very different from classic notions of perspicuity, which always pointed out that the Bible is not equally clear in every matter. Smith accuses evangelicals of buying into foundationalism whole hog (150), seemingly unaware that very few evangelical scholars today (including those he critiques as biblicists) defend full blown foundationalism in the way he understands it (for a careful, if now somewhat dated, interaction with postmodern thought and what to do with foundationalism see Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times). Smith frequently gives the impression that no one has ever considered the problems he sees, as if no one has ever thoughtfully dealt with problems of harmonization, genre, or questions of culture and context.  He goes on about how words have a semantic range and how certain passages have layered meanings. This is basic stuff taught in almost every "biblicist" seminary. In another place Smith launches a tirade against the word "inerrancy," saying it "is far too limited, narrow, restricted, flat, and weak a term to represent the many virtues of the Bible that are necessary to recognize, affirm, and commend the variety of speech acts performed in scripture" (160). Again I ask, where are the evangelicals writing books saying inerrancy is the only word we can use in talking about the Bible? I wonder whom is Smith arguing against when he says the Bible is much more than a collection of "error-free propositions with which to construct indubitably true systematic theologies" with "helpful tidbits" for how to dress, garden, cook, budget, parent, and run a business, but is instead a book that promises, confronts, commands, comforts, and commands.

Some of Smith's most important arguments rest on false dichotomies. Consider this paragraph.

The Bible is not about offering things like a biblical view of dating--but rather about how God the Father offered his Son, Jesus Christ, to death to redeem a rebellious world from the slavery and damnation of sin. The Bible is not about conveying divine principles and managing a Christian business--but is instead about Christ on the cross triumphing over all principalities and powers and so radically transforming everything we consider to be our business. Scripture, this view helps to see, is not about guiding Christian emotions management and conquering our anger problems--but is rather about Jesus Christ being guided by his unity with the Father to absorb the wrath of God against sin in his death and conquering the power of sin in his resurrection. Scripture then ceases to be about teaching about biblical manhood and womanhood or biblical motherhood and fatherhood--and becomes instead the story of how a covenant-making and promise-keeping God took on full human personhood in Jesus Christ in order to reconcile this alienated and wrecked world to the eternally gracious Father. (111)

Amen to all that, but why all the "not this, but that" language? Of course the Bible is not about biblical manhood and womanhood if "about" means "this is the main point." But doesn't the Bible have something to say about being a mom, or running a business, or going on a date? Or do only biblicists try to apply the Bible to all of life?

Strangely enough, Smith begins the next paragraph by admitting, "That is not to say that evangelical Christians will never have theologically informed moral and practical views of dating and romance, business dealings, emotions, gender identities and relations, and parenting" (111). So maybe the Bible is kinda sorta about handling our emotions after all, even if no one would say that's the main point.

Several times, Smith backtracks from his most provocative assertions. He bashes biblicism, only to come back to a proposal that sounds very much like what he calls biblicism. For example, he criticizes evangelicals for insisting on the Bible's internal consistency, but later says "we must believe in some kind of internal biblical coherence or unity" (102). At times he speaks of the Bible's contradictions and how its parts cannot be put together like a puzzle, but elsewhere he says the Bible is "apparently self-contradictory" (132, emphasis mine). Usually, for Smith, harmonization is what rationalist systematic theologians do, but he also acknowledges, "In some cases, to be sure, harmonizations of biblical accounts may actually be right." The problem is when they are forced or implausible (134). No "biblicist" scholar I know would disagree.

Likewise, early in the book, Smith rejects the slogan "in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; and in all things charity." He says it doesn't work because no one can agree on the essential doctrines or even on which doctrines are essential. But later (acknowledging apparent inconsistency on his part) he introduces the categories of dogma, doctrine, and opinion to help sort through which issues in the Bible are most important (134-38). Smith claims that biblicists have no way to interpret problem texts like those that deal with slavery. But then he handles the slavery question with the same approach I've seen from dozens of "biblicists" (167). Smith is critical of those who make the Bible into a how-to book with instructions for managing our Christian lives, but then he says we obviously should focus on loving God and our neighbor (143).

Over and over, Smith settles back on "biblicist" ways of reading the Bible. When it suits his rhetorical aim, Smith makes a big deal about the multiplicity of interpretations among evangelicals. But when he wants to make a point important to him, suddenly the Bible speaks clearly. For example, Ron Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger makes "a clear biblical case about poverty and hunger" (32). Similarly, the commandments that instruct Christians to give away their money generously are "pervasive, clear, straightforward, obvious, and simple" (144). He's radically uncertain of a lot of things, but he can conclude that Genesis 1-2 was written to banish rival pagan accounts of the world's origins (161). Even though PIP exists when it comes to issues of poverty and generosity, just like it does with baptism or the Lord's Supper, in cases like these Smith is eager to find a "proper interpretation" (95).

This gets to the Achilles heel of Smith's argument. His reliance on "pervasive interpretative pluralism" is not pervasive. The theory comes and goes. Smith argues that Jesus Christ is the center that holds the Bible together, that everything in the Bible should be read through the lens of the gospel, that we should all agree on Nicene orthodoxy. But surely Smith realizes there is no uniform agreement on these matters either. You can find professing Christians--sincere, intelligent persons--who disagree on the divinity of Christ, the reality of the Trinity, and the resurrection. So can we still hold to these doctrines even when so many people disagree? Or is that biblicism?

Smith seems to think everyone can, will and should agree on the matters he thinks are most essential. But as for the rest, PIP makes those relatively unimportant. To cite but one example, Smith says penal substitution should not be placed at the level of church dogma (135) and that with his approach to Scripture we don't have to lose anything of the gospel (176). But what about those who think penal substitution is at the heart of the gospel? Aren't they in danger of losing everything? Smith argues that we must have a canon within a canon if we are to interpret Scripture correctly (116). But what if Christians can't agree on that inner canon? It's hard not to conclude that in most cases PIP proves that we are asking the Bible questions it never meant to answer, but when it comes to doctrines or methods Smith thinks are central, then PIP is not insurmountable. There really are right interpretations that everyone should recognize, whether everyone does or not.

Look at these two quotes.

If scripture is as authoritative and clear on essentials as biblicists say it is, then why can't the Christian church--or even only biblicist churches--get it together and stay together, theologically and ecclessiologically? (175)

It should be possible for all sorts of Christians, if they really grasp the difference and importance of these three distinctions [dogma, doctrine, opinion], to agree on a short list of beliefs that genuinely belong at the level of dogma. (136)

On the one hand, biblicists naively think the Bible is clear and authoritative on essentials. On the other hand, all sorts of Christians should be able to agree on essential beliefs. So is it right or wrong to insist that the Bible speaks clearly and authoritatively on doctrinal essentials? Or perhaps the unstated assumption is that official Church Tradition can define our essential beliefs. But given the divisions and serious disagreements within the Catholic Church (despite external organizational unity), why shouldn't the problem of PIP also blow up a biblicist approach to Church Tradition?

A Few More

There are other problems I could mention. Like the fact that Smith is unduly focused on American evangelicalism. He wants to lay all our problems at the feet of Old Princeton and commonsense realism. But go back to his first definition of biblicism in the book's preface: biblicism is "a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability" (viii). Is it really the case that African evangelicals don't think the Bible is infallible, or that British evangelicals don't believe in its internal consistency, or that Korean evangelicals don't believe in its universal applicability? Not to mention the fact that the basic contours of a biblicist hermeneutic can be found in the likes of everyone from Augustine to Aquinas. Decades ago John Woodbridge demonstrated that the Reformers and the Church Fathers did not sharply distinguish between the saving truth of Scripture and all the other matters on which it speaks (e.g., history, science, ethics). If Smith wants a Bible that doesn't speak authoritatively to all of life, he'll have to swim upstream against the current of church history.

Smith's view of biblical authority is also troubling. While he often states that his aim is not to address the issues of inerrancy or scriptural inspiration, he nevertheless espouses a lower view of biblical authority than most evangelicals. When he states, "there is a lot of room between lying and complete and total inerrancy in revelatory communication," it's easy to see Smith is no fan of inerrancy (81). According to Smith, Scripture is only a subsidiary revelation. Its function is simply to point to Christ and testify to him (117, 120). But this does not do justice to the biblical reality that God also manifests himself through his word. The language of "the word" is used because it refers to God's self-disclosure. The Bible is the word of God inscripturated that continues to make Christ, the Word of God incarnate, available and knowable to us. In Matthew 10, Jesus equates rejection of the disciples' words with rejection of him (14-15, 40). In John 15, Jesus equates his words abiding in us with him abiding in us (4-5, 7-8). In Exodus 19, Israel's relationship to God is determined by their relationship to his words (v. 5). In Exodus 33, Moses asks the Lord to show him his glory and the Lord responds with words. First he declares his sovereignty (“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” 33:19). Then he proclaims his name and character (“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger” see 34:5-7). In other words, God is where his word is. As Timothy Ward says, "God has invested himself in words, or we could say that God has so identified himself with his words that whatever someone does to God's words (whether it is to obey or disobey) they do directly to God himself" (Words of Life, 27).

To say the word of God is only a pointer to the Word Christ is saying far too little. God is near to his people in the nearness of his words (Deut. 4:7-8; 30:11-14); God's Spirit is present where his words are present (Psalm 33:6; Isa. 34:16; 59:21; John 6:63); the speech of God has divine attributes (Psalm 19; 119); and the word of God does things only God can do (Heb. 4:12-13). We should not cower at the charge of bibliolatry, let alone water down our view of Scripture. Of course, we do not worship paper and ink or parchment or pixels on a screen or any other finite, created medium. But as John Frame points out, "The psalmists view the words of God with religious reverence and awe, attitudes appropriate only to an encounter with God himself. . . .This is extraordinary, since Scripture uniformly considers it idolatrous to worship anything other than God. But to praise or fear God's word is not idolatrous. To praise God's word is to praise God himself" (The Doctrine of the Word of God, 67).

Most disappointing of all is the way Smith resorts to psychological explanations for the foolishness he sees in evangelical biblicists. He not only thinks biblicism is horribly misguided; he practically labels it an emotional disorder:

I have no interest in psychoanalyzing individual biblicists, but I think it is fair to say that the general psychological structure underlying biblicism is one of a particular need to create order and security in an environment that would be otherwise chaotic and in error. That orientation seems itself to be driven by fear of disorder and discomfort with things not being "the way they ought to be." (64).

At a more academic and official levels, it might consist of establishing and defending watertight theological systems that provide all the answers (for those who believe them) and thus produce cognitive and emotional security in a very insecure world. (95)

American evangelicalism as a developing subculture simply had difficult shaking various analogous forms of flashbacks, anger, hypervigilance, and unwarranted fear of ideas and people associated with trauma. (122)

Thus, it is hard to conclude otherwise than that biblicists are shamefully untrusting and ungrateful when it comes to receiving God's written word as God has chosen to confer it. (128)

Given all our dysfunctions, it's strange that Smith still seems to care about being in the big tent of evangelicalism. He is always careful to refer to scholars that agree with him like Kent Sparks and Peter Enns as an "evangelical" or an "evangelical biblical scholar." What we see with this book is the coalescing of scholars like Sparks, Enns, Smith (and judging by the back blurb, Scot McKnight) who are dissatisfied with the traditional evangelical approach to Scripture. They are quick to employ Mark Noll's thesis about the baleful effects of Scottish commonsense realism on Old Princeton (a conclusion forcefully challenged by Paul Kjoss Helseth) and eager to adopt a neo-Barthian view of Scripture along with a "postconservative" epistemology. Whether these views are "evangelical" or not depends on how you define the terms, but it's clear that those challenging traditional evangelical views of Scripture are loathe to give up the term themselves--even if their approach to the Bible flies in the face of nearly every evangelical institution and formal evangelical statement. One of Smith's apparent aims is to critique most evangelicals without alienating all of them. He even went so far–in a move that now appears to be retracted–as to review his own book on Amazon (and give it five stars!) as a kind of preemptive strike against evangelical criticism.


In the end, I wonder what pastors are left with after they lose their "biblicism." I am all for gaining a Christocentric hermeneutic and keeping the main thing the main thing. But in Smith's mind the big problem with "expository preaching" today is that it "proceeds on the assumption that a minister can select virtually any passage of scripture and adduce from the text an authoritative, relevant, 'applicable' teaching to be believed and applied" by the congregation (12). I'm not sure what the alternative is--proceeding on the assumption that most passages of Scripture yield interesting stories that are more or less irrelevant to what we believe and do? I agree that evangelicals sometimes make Scripture speak definitively on matters it doesn't mean to address. But Smith's radical ambiguity about most doctrinal matters doesn't work in the real world. It is, to borrow a phrase, "the Bible made impossible." At some point, even with "pervasive interpretative pluralism" on the issue of divorce and remarriage, as a pastor I need to tell people what I think about their impending breakup. I can't fall back on PIP when deciding whether I will baptize a baby or ordain a woman elder. If a college student asks me for guidance in his dating relationship, I'm going to try to show him what it means to go out with this girl as a follower of Christ. If he wants to date a guy, well, there are Bible verses about that too--whether "good people" disagree on them or not. When I come to passages about election and predestination I'm going to preach them like they communicate something meaningful. When our people read through the Bible in a year, I'll encourage them to plow through the strange or boring parts because every part of sacred Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).

And later this fall, when my evening preaching series brings me to Titus 1:12-13 (where Paul says "all Cretans are liars") I'm certainly not going to conclude that "making such a proclamation violates many of Paul's own moral teachings in other Epistles" and that his harsh words about the Cretans (through the words of one of their poets) means Paul "still needed sanctification from the sin of ethnic prejudice" (73). I will approach the text understanding the Bible is consistent with itself and has something to say to all people in all places at all times. I will see how the passage points to Christ and how it applies today. I will use the best tools available to ascertain the correct meaning of the text, believing that texts do have meanings and they can be understood. In short, I suppose I will approach those verses like a biblicist. And I'm ok with that.

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155 thoughts on “Christian Smith Makes the Bible Impossible”

  1. Steve Martin says:

    When we baptize babies we look to the Bible.

    “For the promise is to you and your children.” When whole households were baptized (as the Bible tells us, it doesn’t mention who they left out)

    When Jesus told us in Matthew 28 to “go and baptize the whole world…” He didn’t give us any age requirements.

    What kind of a God do we have? Is He One who waits upon us BEFORE He acts for us? No. Our God is a real God who acts for us when we were dead in our sins and tresspasses.

    Biblicism stinks because it turns the Bible into a lawnmower manual for fixing your life. But the Bible is more like a rescue story where God is the actor.

    That’s my 2 cents.


  2. Sean Rice says:

    I’ll give this to Kevin: when he finds something worth giving a rebuttal to, he’s winsome and thorough (though, not as thorough as when he’s reviewing old Emergent authors). Thanks for this post Kevin. If I may (and please delete this if I may not), here’s a post that I wrote on the self-defeating beliefs of liberal Christianity: – it is confounding beyond belief how much the liberal view goes against reason, and yet many of its adherents think believing it makes them intellectuals. What should this inspire in us? Anger? Sadness? Pity? Prayer? All of the above?


  3. Kevin, this is an outstanding post. I was involved in the discussion at Jesus Creed yesterday, but without having read Christian’s book; this is a superb critique, and I found it very helpful. Keep up the good work!

  4. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    At least for the Southern Baptist (I know because I are one… reluctantly) the majority of preaching is “How to be… how to do… what/who not to be… what not to do” type of sermons rather than what has been done for us.
    To reiterate what Steve Martin says, when we as Christians look at the Bible as a “manual for living” we always, and I mean always, end up restricting other Christian’s freedoms to live with a good conscience before God because we want everyone around us to look at life from our personal perspective. “You can’t do this or that…” always using ‘loss of salvation’ as a pry-bar to get people to see things ‘your way.’

  5. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    I should also add that I do agree with much of Kevin’s assessments. I teach my own children things they should/shouldn’t do, so I’m not saying there aren’t Biblical principles for the way we should live. Some days are better than others as to whether we actually do them. But there are a multitude of issues that are left up to the individual’s conscience that the SBC has put forth as “do or die” that quite frankly I’m disgusted with.

  6. Eric says:

    Kevin, thanks for this detailed and very helpful review. I’m worried, however, that Smith will think it avoids the main question of his book: how can “biblicists” deal with the reality of “pervasive interpretative pluralism”? Why can faithful Christians read the same biblical text and come to opposite conclusions about what it means? Is there a good response we can give to these questions when we get them?

  7. Keith Plummer says:

    Kevin, I’m in the midst of reading Smith’s book myself and appreciate your efforts in offering this substantial critique. I share Eric’s concern that the will most likely respond that you have not addressed the crux of his argument. Smith offers six possible biblicist explanations for the phenomenon of pervasive interpretive pluralism all of which he finds wanting. Do you see an alternative to those he suggests? If not, which of the six explanations (or combination of explanations) do you find satisfactory and why do you find Smith’s arguments against them unsatisfactory?

  8. Keith Plummer says:

    The second sentence in my comment should read: “I share Eric’s concern that the *author* will most likely respond…”

  9. ChrisB says:

    I’m forced to wonder if his “throw out everything but the Christ arc” approach is the first step to a Christianity that stands for nothing. (Sin? That’s just your damaged attempts at interpreting the Bible.)

    It’s also worth noting that the author has since become a Roman Catholic.

  10. Jared O. says:

    Thanks very much for this, Kevin. You anticipated the readers’ questions really well and your answers are very helpful. Sounds right on.

  11. PBG says:

    WCF CHAP. XXIV. – Of Marriage and Divorce:
    “5. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce. and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.”

    However with a reported 50% divorce rate, even in the church, isn’t our witness to Christ already destroyed since we are taking our Christian spouses to court in droves?

    I don’t think we even understand how to interpret Matthew 19:9 (“except for pornea”) on divorce and remarriage.

    Biblicism has its limits.

  12. There is no excuse for the overreaching and misrepresentations in Smith’s work. One could see why Smith thinks evangelicals make the main concern of the bible to guide us in business, dating and anger management if his critique was primarily based on the typical pulpit ministry of self-help sermons offered in most evangelical Churches. But no doubt too many evangelicals have become crusaders for absolute biblical guidance on disputable matters. Legalism is always (at least partly) about security if not in its uglier forms, rivalry. We do need to be more forcefully corrective toward these tendencies. The book of Romans provides an excellent model for this: See: Unity in the Church based on the gospel,

  13. Jon says:

    Christian needs to read “Christianity and Barthianism” by VanTil and then “Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation” by G. Vos.


  14. Kevin,

    Thanks for an excellent review and critique. You have done the wider body of Christ a great service and that is the reason no doubt that the living Word has given you the mind and energy to do what you do. I am interesting in hearing your response to Keith Plummer and Eric’s comments above. may God give you grace to continue your ministry and exalt the name of the risen Christ and his word.

  15. John says:

    Kevin, this is a poor review. You haven’t actually interacted with any of Smith’s arguments. I’m just saying.

  16. Though I have not yet read Smith’s book, as a Lutheran (LCMS), (we are still here!) I would most likely side with a good amount, though not all, of Smith’s assessment. Perhaps Smith does prop up some straw men here and there, I will have to read for myself, but by-in-large, I am not sure if he is really creating the caricature of evangelicals that you (Kevin) seem to be asserting him to be.

    Nonetheless, Lutherans approach the Bible in terms of a “Formal principal” and a “Material principal” to ensure the very prevalent extremes of North American Biblicism (legalism and the bible as a manual for living) do not overtake our theology, nor reduce the salvific message of Jesus Christ in it.

    Namely, the “Formal Principle” is that which is the source of all doctrine within Lutheran theology—Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. No doctrine is derived from any other source. And when speaking of the “Material Principle,” at least within the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, it indicates that all theological thinking must begin at this point or this particular doctrine.

    Thus, for (LCMS) Lutherans the point at which all theological thinking begins is the article of Justification by Faith, or more simply put, the Gospel of Jesus Christ; his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. From this article emanates all thinking and understanding of Scripture, and the other doctrines that Scripture puts forth. Thus Lutherans have long upheld a Christocentric hermeneutic.

    Perhaps Smith’s assessment of Evangelical theologians is more of an indictment against the many lay evangelicals (some of them of notable fame) who do indeed treat the bible in the manner espoused by Smith. Having personally been affronted by more than a few evangelicals in this way, I would, at least at this point, be likely to side with many of Smith’s assertions. But again, I will have to read the book for myself.

  17. Could it be that the reason we end up with multiple positions on a subject is not that the Bible is unclear but we are sinners (though part of this involves asking the Bible questions it did not intend to answer). It seems to me if we throw out Scripture we are always left with something that is even more subjective and open to interpretation.

  18. Nate says:

    Sounds like Prof. Smith had to publish a book and this is what he came up with. A watered-down attempted to take a hard stand on something that isn’t really there. Publishing requirements, the downfall of academia, often lead to poorly written and thought through books.

  19. Mark says:

    Kevin, thanks for an excellent review. I also have been wrestling with Smith’s book the last two weeks and recently posted my review:

    It may also help answer some of the questions your readers have about answering Smith’s PIP argument.

  20. Josh says:

    Kevin, I love your work as a general matter, but this is not my favorite review of yours.

    One example of some heavy-handedness: one doesn’t need to look far to find evangelicals who worship the text in place of a mysterious, present God (who think “fellowship with God comes through paper and ink”). I am a devoted evangelical, and I meet fellow evangelicals like this almost every day; people who tend to make a piece of doctrinal, propositional truth roughly the same thing as truthful, earnest prayer behind closed doors.

    Which isn’t to say that anyone must choose between propositional truth or prayer, but only that I would side with prayer every time.

    (And note: I haven’t read the book, so maybe Smith does step too far, but if this is his actual concern, I see it as both true and constructive.)

    Is it possible that you haven’t met evangelicals like this because yours is the position criticized here? Perhaps we live in different branches of evangelical subculture, but I hardly think Smith “makes the Bible impossible” by offering these critiques.

  21. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    I think you speak along the same lines as Rod Rosenbladt who is also LCMS. That guy is fabulous. Anyway, what do Lutherans do with clear imperatives, principles for living, given in the New Testament? Is it all categorized as law?

    Mike the Mad Theologian,
    You hit on a tremendous point that the Bible doesn’t answer many of the questions we have. It’s almost as if American Evangelicals have resorted to trying to live life by there own personal “Cliff’s Notes” (for example trying to ask God whether they should marry someone or take a particular position at work) rather than using the mind God gave us to make sound wise decisions throughout our life. But your statement is unique in that, at least you seem to point out, much of the doctrine and theology we get from the Bible is subjective in some ways. Obviously we don’t include the way of salvation in that category but what can be done with a clear conscience varies between individuals. Am I understanding your statement or am I reading into it too much?

  22. Jeff Baxter says:

    Kevin, thank you for the vast amount of time and energy you took to write this long review. We must hold the line of sound doctrine, proper Biblical interpretation, the authority of Scripture and so on. Keep going!

  23. Mitchell,

    In short, yes, they would be categorized as law. Thus, when Christians are not living according to those imperatives, they need to repent and then receive the incredible absolution of Christ, who then frees them of that law/burden/guilt and invites them to the abundant life in Him (Christ).

    What Lutherans find so distasteful is making those “imperatives” to be what the Gospel is about, which, for us, then fundamentally changes what the Gospel of Christ is and what the Gospel does. Namely, Christ becomes a new law giver rather than a grace giver, sinner savior, sin remover, and resurrection giver.

    And yes, Rod Rosenbladt is wonderful at giving expression to Lutheran theology. And another who is also incredible at it, and who may be better able to answer your question to me regarding imperatives being categorized as law, would be Gene Veith. He has written beautifully on “vocation” which flows out of God’s creative orders (which in some ways is categorized as law) but where it is also understood as profound (Gospel) freedom knowing that you are a mask behind which God is working.

    Perhaps thinking of these issues in terms of the first and third articles of the Apostles’ Creed may be helpful (though certainly the second article must go with them). “God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” created the world and ordered all things (parents included), the fall into sin disorders them and curses us. Christ is sent to make satisfaction and give us the abundant life, and the Holy Spirit ensures this abundant life gets delivered, particualrly —”the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” The creed can help us (the church) to keep the Gospel, the Gospel, and the law, the law.

  24. David Strunk says:

    Great post Kevin.

    I particularly enjoyed the conclusion. Like many books from academicians, the deconstruction of a particular series of implicitly held beliefs is decent, but the reconstruction is terrible. There are decent critiques of evangelicalism here, but not enough to hold water. And PIP could never tell someone how to pastor.

    It’s another case of the ivory tower having no clue what it’s like to actually be someone who brings the Bible to bear on someone else’s life. Pastors and theologians share many things, but this is not one of them.

  25. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    I’ll look into Veith. I’ve heard of him but have never read anything by him. I believe some of his work is posted at the Modern Reformation website.
    Just one quick note though. Out of all the people to talk theology and the Christian life with I must say Lutherans have been by far the most rewarding to talk with. Thank you for your response.

  26. Dear Mitchell,
    If you are interested in hearing and seeing more of what confessional Lutherans are saying, a couple of more well known Lutheran sites for you to check out would be the vlog by Rev. Jonathan Fisk, as well as Gene Veith’s blog

  27. Nate Smith says:

    It would be nice to hear someone say something like “While I feel that Smith may occasionally overstate his case, he has raised some important questions that we Evangelicals need to take seriously .” Instead, we have defensiveness, passive-aggressiveness, a bit of condescension, and a young blogger who seems to have clear opinions on difficult matters.

  28. RazorsKiss says:

    What I see as missing here is 1) A response from Sola Scriptura to these view, and second, 2) An examination of where Smith is coming from, as a Romanist.

    Accepting terms such as “Biblicist” when you could just point out where 1) The people Smith critiques are in violation of Sola Scriptura and 2) Where Smith himself is in violation of Sola Scriptura might have been far more helpful.

    Let’s not reinvent the wheel.

  29. Ray Pennoyer says:

    Very substantial and helpful post. But why does Smith find this necessary? On one level this seems like a parting shot at the Reformation principle of “the priesthood of all believers” and the real, individual interpretive responsibility that that entails. Yes, protestantism is “messy” as sincere, informed believers can disagree on some things even while holding to the authority of Scripture. But really, there is AMAZING unity on central issues among evangelicals – even if we have “in-house” disputes on peripheral issues.

    P.S. I predict that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” will not catch on. But Smith’s “moralistic therapeutic Deism” was a winner.

  30. In plain terms, the Bible contains all the information we need to become sons of God and to overcome and to defeat the kingdom of evil. Its focus is the individual’s relationship with God–its focus is each of us abiding in the secret place of the most High. As the Holy Spirit brings each of us knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, we will find ourselves taking our places as sons of God.

  31. Nate (Smith),

    I appreciate what you’re saying but I also realize that when an author goes public as Smith has done, he invites critical response (and I am quite sure he expected it). Smith has been more than willing to use names and offer critical comment. I have benefitted from his previous books but in this one he appears to have a bee in his bonnet.

    As to Kevin’s age (and he is much younger than me), I am not sure it is relevant to mention it. If you feel his age has in some way limited or narrowed his perspective or tone, it’s probably more effective to address it without reference to age. I do agree that we all must work on the tone with which we analyze–especially when reviewing something that “gets under our skin.”

  32. Mitchell Hammonds,
    I do not know if we are on the same wavelength or not. But in my understanding the real issues of Scriptural interpretation are not just abstract truths that can looked at in a detached manner but involve life. I would therefore argue that many of our differences in interpretation are not so much due to the Scripture’s lack of clarity, but to our own biases from our own sinfulness. Please note I include myself in that category. I am certain there are issues where my own imperfections have distorted my understanding of Scripture though I am convinced it is not on the essential issues.

  33. Jason Nicholls says:

    Sociologists should stick to sociology, even sociology of religion. A trained, careful theologian Dr. Smith is not. I believe that the many shortcomings of his approach and argument which you (Kevin) have exposed in this review demonstrate this.

  34. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    I hear what you’re saying. I always am a little timid in using the word ‘subjective’ when talking about Scripture because it tends to give the impression of post-modern thinking. I certainly didn’t mean it in those respects. I was thinking more along the lines that the effect the gospel has on an individual isn’t always a standard response because it’s objective message/power hits us a bit differently from one individual to another. Aside from Baptism and Communion which outwardly look the same on everyone, repentance would look different. One may or may not have emotion attached with repentance or worship. Because someone is stoic in appearance doesn’t mean their hearts are. I hope I’m making my point.

  35. Coram Deo says:

    A Romanist attacking the perpiscuity of Scripture? Well that’s not something you see every day! No wait…yes it is! Nevermind.

    The first ten words of this review coupled with the title of Smith’s tome told me everything I needed to know. “Yea, hath God said?” redux.

    In Christ,

  36. James says:

    When I was a kid, I did not appreciate my mother giving me the chore of beating dust out of the rugs. Cleaning them seemed nearly impossible, but it had to be done without damaging the goods. It may be the case that the church in America, as profoundly influenced by evangelicalism, needs a good rug beating; I readily concur with those who point out excesses that don’t advance the sake of the Gospel. Having said that, how many more critiques must we endure by individuals who claim to have special knowledge of biblical authority while denying its essence. I fail to see the import of one more beatdown at the hands of the like who want to categorize evangelicals as a bunch of goofballs who rub the genie bottle of proof texted shallowness as a way of living. To finish the somewhat weak analogy, may we see correction at the hands of those who wish to clean the rug without destroying it? BTW, one muses: debate on bibliology AND Christology between Smith and Carson…..

  37. Chris E says:

    Looking at other reviews of the same book, it would appear that this particular review doesn’t actually address the bulk of the content in the book.

    So I’d tend to come to the same conclusion that Nate did upthread, rather than a careful examination of the arguments we seem to have just have a restatement of a position taking the least weighty parts of Smith’s book.

  38. Nate Smith says:

    Corem Deo

    Thank for judging a book by its cover.


    I appreciate your points. But, of course Smith views are subject to criticism! That is not the issue, though, as I see it. Put it another way: the review under discussion (and a good number of comments here) in my opinion support Smith’s main point that evangelical biblicism is a sociological boundary marker, and hackles get raised when it is under attack. Personally, I can’t see fair-minded evangelical (of which I am one) NOT coming away from Smith’s book willing to be more self critical.

    And as for Smith’s “Romanism” it is probably worth mentioning that it is evangelical biblicism that has helped drive him in that direction, which is a wide=spread phenomenon in evangelicalism–departure for RC and Orthodoxy because of the twisting and turning over Scripture. I would think we would welcome views that lay out why this is happening.

  39. Ray Pennoyer says:

    Hi Nate:

    Since “evangelicalism” is not a denomination with official membership rolls, it must have certain sociological boundary markers to be an identifiable movement. If Christian Smith’s point is that a high view of Scripture is one of the important boundary markers then my response would be “duh!”

    Judging from DeYoung’s review, it sounds like Smith has made something of a parody of the content of that boundary marker. That is unfortunate. And even though a high view of Scripture defines the movement, informed and convinced evangelicals should always model the truth that the love of Christ does not stop at that border. No, we are not the only ones who know and love Christ.

  40. Mitchell Hammonds says:

    As a member of a local evangelical church and having attended many churches I can honestly say… they are extremely shallow in their understanding of the Gospel and the Bible in general. It wasn’t until reading many of the reformation authors that the over-arching message of the Bible began to unfold.
    The beat-downs are well deserved… myself included in those beat-downs. Too many years of shallow thought, Biblical illiteracy (in the congregation as well as in the seminaries) and emotionalistic driven worship has stifled any maturing within the American evangelical churches. They have traded proclaiming the Gospel for preaching against what they think are moralistic taboos and cultural transformation work. I know… I’ve been one of them.

  41. Nate Smith says:


    I appreciate what you are getting at but Smith’s point is not that a “high view” of Scripture is an E. boundary marker, but that biblicism is. More to the point, Smith demonstrates that biblicism does not work, but continues to be maintained because of sociological function.

    I think the history of Christianity–beginning with Paul’s railings against Jewish boundary markers in Galatians–has taught us that boundary markers are always subject to scrutiny. DeYoung’s review is unnecessarily defensive (not to mention somewhat condescending) and, as I said in a previous comment, actually demonstrates the thesis of Smith’s book.

  42. Gary H. says:

    I haven’t read the book in question.

    As an evangelical, I believe evangelicalism is bound up in the Puritan/Anglican legacy of this country, where the Old Testament was considered as a guide for living. “In God We Trust” on our coinage and the 10 Commandments posted in government-based buildings give clear evidence that the essence of Christianity (regeneration) has been widely misunderstood by many of those who came before us.

  43. Coram Deo says:


    Perhaps if you had a higher view of Scripture you’d realize that Paul wasn’t “railing against Jewish boundary markers” in Galatians. Rather he was formally anathamatizing another gospel which was no gospel at all; one that added human works into the formula of justification, which is best represented today by the Romanist church.

    Carefully considering critical scholarship is one thing, giving weight to a straw man screed from a newly hatched son of hell is something quite different.

    I’ll take a pass on the latter.

    In Christ,

  44. Dan Larison says:

    DeYoung – thanks for drawing out the most obvious concerns and doing the hardwork of quoting Smith. Goldsworthy’s “Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics” is a helpful alternative view to Smith’s. Goldsworthy holds to the idea that the main things are the plain things but the main things illuminate the not-so-plain things in varying degrees so that we can at the very least navigate through the not-so-plain things.

  45. Scott says:

    Coram Deo,

    What a worthless post. Do us a favor, never attach “in christ” to a post in which you call another man a newly hatched son of hell. You’re words are an embarrassment to rational minded discourse and shame the gospel.

  46. Justin B. says:

    Coram Deo,

    I’ll echo Scott’s post that was directed at you (at 2:12 p.m.). Your post didn’t add a single thing to the discussion and was instead condescending to Nate and insulting to Smith. Just because someone has a different view than you on a certain passage or book doesn’t mean their view of the Bible isn’t as “high” as yours.

  47. SMELL The FART says:

    @Coram –

    Rebuke not a good brother.
    Rebuke the sin with your heart!

    Use such damning language sparingly. This brother you besmirch is no sinner but one bought by Christ.

    The Cross should humble our accusations and language.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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