• A Critique of Kevin DeYoung’s Critique of Smith’s ‘The Bible Made Impossible,’ A Book About Evangelicals and Biblicism

 A Critique of Kevin DeYoung’s Critique of Smith’s ‘The Bible Made Impossible,’ A Book About Evangelicals and Biblicism

I wanted to make a few observations or criticisms of this critique by Kevin DeYoung of a book by Christian Smith:

A Catholic Laments the Evangelical Sin of “Biblicism”

Here’s what happened, as I understand it:

A few years ago, a Catholic guy named Christian Smith wrote a book called “The Bible Made Impossible,” where he discusses concepts for which he coined the terms “Biblicism” and P.I.P. (pervasive interpretive pluralism).

This book upset and ticked off a lot of Reformed and Protestant Christians who wrote reviews criticizing it out the ying yang, and you can find some of these reviews online.

I’m not a Roman Catholic, I don’t agree with all of Catholicism, and I am doubtful or skeptical that the solution for the problem of Biblicism and PIP is to dump relying on the Bible as a primary authoritative source regarding spiritual matters. (Not that Smith does so; he proposes another solution.)

Generally speaking, though, most Roman Catholics really hate sola scriptura or any sort of reliance on the written word (the Bible).

Catholics believe their church – specifically, their Pope speaking ex cathedra, their church tradition, and their magisterium, are authoritative for Christians – so of course they, or at least their apologists, expend a lot of time and energy criticizing a reliance on only the Bible as being a sole or primary spiritual yard-stick for believers.

Catholics – at least the extremists – would rather have you leave Protestantism or Baptist denominations and convert to Catholicism and rely on the Catholic Church to guide you in spiritual matters and to help save your soul, by going to Mass weekly, and so on.

Catholic guys do have a vested interest here in some of these debates or discussions about the Bible, one that is not friendly to sola scriptura or Protestantism, you should be aware.

However, Catholics having ulterior spiritual motives is not to say that all Catholics are always entirely wrong in any and all of their criticisms of how Protestants, evangelicals, and Baptists use, understand, and abuse the Bible.

I think some of their criticisms have some merit.

I’m going to quote DeYoung’s summarization of Smith’s book (again the source):

The main problem with biblicism (as Smith defines it), and the recurring theme of the book, is the presence of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (PIP).

…. 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).

Before I ever came across the terms “Biblicism” or “PIP” or had heard of Smith’s book, I had noticed a few years ago – when I was at least around 2 – 4 years into my faith crisis, where I’ve been having double thoughts about Christianity – that these were indeed issues.

It just dawned on me a few years ago, that while Baptists and Protestants claim to believe in the Bible, its infallibility, inerrancy, and authority, that they never agree with each other about what the Bible means, or how to apply it.

There is a guy on You Tube with a channel called “Christian Diversity” (the full video listing to his channel is here) who has made a series of videos detailing the many topics on which Christians disagree with one another. You can look to that for examples of the many topics on which Christians disagree with one another.

So a few years ago, I realized that Baptist and Protestant Christians, who all say they take the Bible literally, who believe in sola scriptura, biblical inerrancy, and so on, are constantly disagreeing with one another on what the Bible says and what it means.

Then it occurred to me, what difference does it make that one may have a book by God if one cannot understand it or know how to apply its lessons and concepts to one’s life? It becomes a pretty useless book.

Furthermore, all the Christians out there who insist that their opinion on this or that topic is “biblical” suddenly look very laughable.

Even regarding more “major” subjects such as salvation, Christians will say they agree with each other, but do they really? Because they even get into squabbles with one another about the atonement.  (You can read more about that on this Wikipedia page. This page at Theopedia has more examples and explanations.)

Here are a few more snippets from DeYoung’s review of Smith’s work, of which I will comment on below:

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?

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 have pointed out that the Bible is not equally clear in every matter.

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.

Those were the sections I wanted to comment upon.

I’m not so sure those are straw men arguments.

As a matter of fact, I will go so far as to boldly state, these are NOT straw men arguments – they are not even exaggerations.

I was brought up in conservative, evangelical and Southern Baptists churches and culture, and I’ve watched many hours of whatever programming is on TBN and Day Star, and these channels typically have evangelicals on them, sometimes Pentecostals, Charismatics, Baptists, and more.

I have, and have had, friends and family who are Pentecostal, Methodist, and who belong to other denominations.

I have been very exposed to evangelical culture for many years.  I still sometimes keep up with what evangelicals are doing. I read their blogs, magazines, and watch their television shows.

Now, it may be true, as DeYoung says, that technically and “classically” that evangelicals offer qualifications in their thoughts and teachings about the Bible. Again, to quote DeYoung on this:

This is not very different from classic notions of perspicuity, which always have pointed out that the Bible is not equally clear in every matter.

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.

[later in the review DeYoung writes]

…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.

The problem for DeYoung is, what good does it do if the seminaries, Christian universities, scholars, and Christian philosophers and theologians, have proper or deep understandings of perspicuity, when they are obviously not accurately conveying it to the average layperson in the pew?

And yes, I said “obviously.”

Because quite obviously this refined, hoity-toity, very specific, nit picky, academic understanding of perspicuity has not made it through to the common masses.

I can tell you this (and I’m sorry to be anecdotal) based on what I’ve personally experienced and seen in mainstream Christian television programming, blogs, books, and magazine articles over the four-decades long course of my life.

A few of the things I have learned, noticed, and observed:

Not all Christians are intellectual. Not all Christians are scholarly, or want to be. Not all Christians google for theological terms and concepts.

I’m willing to bet that the average American Christian has never even seen the word “perspicuity.”

At first glance, it looks a bit like the word “porcupine,” so most would probably tell you that “perspicuity” is an animal with quills.

I only know what this word is and means – prior to reading DeYoung’s review – because I read a lot,  and going back to my teen years, I’ve read a ton of information on Christian apologetics, which necessitated having to read a lot about the history of the Bible, and why Christians consider it as having been transmitted by God, and a host of other related subjects cropped up in the course of my research on all that, including “perspicuity.”

In short, I am aware of these terms and some of these concepts because I’m a nerd who likes to research. Most Christians are not and do not.

And, so yes, in some corners of American Christendom, in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches, mainstream “seeker friendly” non-denominational mega churches, and evangelicalism, you will find Christians in these groups who do have misunderstandings of the Bible and how it should be used.

Maybe in DeYoung’s circles, all professing believers in Christ have attended seminary, have perfect understandings of theological concepts and can win in a round of Theology on Religious Jeopardy!, but your average American evangelical has not attended seminary, or is even interested in deeper concepts such as “perspicuity.”

DeYoung should probably get out of his fancy-smancy evangelical bubble where everyone he knows is well acquainted with terms such as “perspicuity.”

I advise him to do so because if he starts hanging out with the very humble, average, sometimes countrified hicks from the sticks (the types of Christians I grew up with – as well as middle – middle class suburban, community- college- educated Christians), he would discover that yes, there are in fact a lot of American Christians out there who think the Bible is every bit as as clear and relevant about dating advice for singles as it is regarding the sacrifice and atonement of Christ.

This is not a stereotype or straw man created by Smith: such Christians do exist in the United States. I have known them.

I have read their blogs, talked with them on Christian forums, listened to their podcasts,  and watched their videos on You Tube, in all of which they opine on everything from how many children should a married Christian couple have, the timing of The Rapture, to abortion, to Arminian vs. Calvinist free will debates – and they use Bible verses to try to prove their views.

You will in fact find simpleton or sincere Christians who think the Bible is clear on every matter. Not only that, but such Christians assume that it should be so. They assume that if God wrote it, it IS simple and clear on every topic, precisely because it came from God.

These sorts of Christians regard the Bible as a manual for every subject in life no matter how trivial, as even DeYoung admits and agrees to earlier in his review:

Far from being straw men and cheap shots, there are actually Christians who are guilty of misusing or misunderstanding the Bible and the Bible’s purpose – which is how and why Smith was able to fill up his book with examples of such.

I’ve seen some of those examples first hand when watching Christian networks or visiting blogs by Christian lay persons.

There are in fact some Christians who view the Bible as a cooking or dietary information source.

There used to be a guy on TBN with a weekly show named Jordan Rubin who argued that God showed us, in the Bible, how he wants humanity to eat. Rubin started a “biblical diet,” where he gave tips in every episode, based on mentions of food in the Bible.

This may be a page about that show on TBN’s site: “Living Beyond Organic.” Here is a clip on You Tube of Rubin yakking about his biblical dietary views on a TBN show.

I have yes, seen some Christians who think the Bible, and the Bible only, should be a guide on, or treatment for, mental health issues (they tell Christians not to see or rely on secular psychology), and yes, there are Christians who treat the Bible as though it’s a history book, science text, or an advice manual for singles who’d like to get married.

By the way: there really is no such thing as “biblical marriage” in a manner of speaking, (see also: How Marriage Has Changed Over The Centuries), nor does the Bible support or teach what evangelicals refer to as “family values“.

Oh yes, the Bible has a lot to say about morality – such as stealing is immoral, so don’t do it – but it simply does not teach or support some of the concepts today’s Christians assume it does.

DeYoung says:

I can’t help but wonder which thoughtful evangelicals do? 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.

Ah, yes, spoken like a married person. I bet DeYoung was married when he wrote this review, and has been married for many years.

Married Christians, especially the ones who married before age 35, are typically extremely ignorant of the type of lessons, content, and message that is doled out to adult singles in Christianity, but I’m all too aware because I am a lifelong single.

But who actually espouses those views, DeYoung asks?

A lot of Christians, that is who.

As many of you know – if you’ve seen me post to Wartburg Watch blog and Spiritual Sounding Board – I’m in my 40s, have never married (in spite of wanting to be), and I grew up Southern Baptist. I’m very attuned to what Christians have said and written about dating (and how to get married).

Starting in my teens, I began reading a lot of Christian books, magazine articles, and of course, I periodically attended Southern Baptist church – I also watched a lot of Christian television. In the midst of all that reading and listening, yes, there were tips given about dating, tips that were supposedly “biblical”.

And yes, many Christians out there act as though “the ethics of biblical dating are as equally certain as the divinity of Jesus.” They convey this attitude in most of their blog posts and podcasts and when I was younger, it was in sermons, magazine articles, and books.

Some Christians go so far as to write up very long, complex “mate selection criteria” and dating guides. Here is one that is not terribly long, but the point being, many Christians who cling to “sola scriptura” and “perspicuity” never-the-less churn out marital and dating advice that they think is absolutely “biblical.”Such as:

10 Men Christian Women Should Never Marry by J. Lee Grady

All of this is in spite of the fact that the Bible is not intended to be a mate selection guide, and nor does it really contain dating tips or advice, nor does the Bible contain absolute dating commands. (Even the “equally yoked” rule that Christians cite in matters of dating and marriage is on somewhat shaky ground.)

Another example, this time from Christian publication “Boundless” (and no, I don’t even agree with their heading about women responding, men initiating, but regardless):

Biblical Dating: Men Initiate, Women Respond– by Scott Croft

The author of the piece, a Scott Croft, seems to feel that this concept of “men initiate, women respond” is “biblical,” but what does that mean?

Is there a New Testament command instructing Christian men to always initiate? I don’t think so.

Is the author assuming that because, generally, in the patriarchal culture of the Bible (especially the Old Testament) that the man initiated means that this ancient near east cultural practice should be true for Americans in the year 2018?

But then what of counter examples in that very same Bible, such as Ruth, who initiated with Boaz?

Croft does state at some point in his piece that, “Among the different roles assigned to men and women in the Bible, men are assigned the role of leadership,” which is actually not “in the Bible.”

The Bible does not say that “men are assigned the role of leadership.” He may be assuming the word “head” in certain New Testament passages indicates this meaning, but that is his assumption – it’s not what the Bible is saying.

The Bible sure as heck does not say anywhere that men are assigned, by God, a leadership role in dating.

This is a giant leap Croft is making because he’s likely been brought up in a complementarian church that has indoctrinated him to read the Bible while wearing a pair of “Male Hierachy” glasses in place.

But see how “biblical” and sure of himself he is?

I grew up complementarian (though I am no longer complementarian), and I recall seeing a lot of inane, sexist, and stupid dating advice written to Christian teen girls by Christians – which claims to be “biblical,” of course.

Why, complementarian Christians even affix the word “biblical” to the words “manhood” and “womanhood” and cooked up an entire organization called “The Council For Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.”

They clearly think the Bible deeply cares about gender roles and that they can conclusively define, from the Bible alone, what constitutes a “biblical” form of womanhood or of manhood.

Some complementarians think there is a “biblical” way for women to apply make-up and fix their hair, and a “biblical” way for them to think about their physical appearance. I’m not joking.

Southern Baptist complementarians even erected an entire site called Biblical Womanhood. 

Apparently, according to Southern Baptists, a woman needs the Bible (and maybe the Biblical Womanhood web site) in order to understand what it means to be a woman and how to be a woman. Being born a woman is not good enough, no, a woman has to what, read a Bible or visit a Biblical Womanhood site to figure it out.

And of course, those writing such lists or advice articles really think they are basing all their views on the bible, and that THEIR view of the Bible on how to date or whom to marry is just as certain as the divinity of Jesus.

DeYoung asks:

But doesn’t the Bible have something to say about being a mom, or running a business, or going on a date?

Not really, no. But evangelicals and other biblicists claim to see that content in there, because they want to see it in there, and they assume it’s in there, and that it’s what the Bible was meant for.

Evangelicals are not comfortable with uncertainty. They want certainty and lists. They want the God of the Bible to provide them with a list of rules for every aspect in life.

DeYoung writes:

Or do only biblicists try to apply the Bible to all of life?

I’m fairly sure that yes, biblicists are among the few who try to apply the Bible to all of life.

Why would one even want to turn to the Bible for dating advice?

A lot of Christians have been brought up in their churches to think that the Bible is a Dating Advice Manual (in addition as a science book, history book, diet book, etc). I don’t think it should be thought of in that way.

Rather than set up a false dichotomy, as DeYoung says Smith is doing, I think Smith is questioning are evangelicals using the Bible for what it’s meant for, or is it being misused? Do they have their priorities in place correctly?

DeYoung even admits that Smith is not truly setting up false dichotomies but is saying it’s a matter of mishandled priorities:

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.

If you want or need business advice, then consult a secular book by Warren Buffet or whomever is a multi-millionaire business guru – why turn to the Bible for so-called “biblical business advice”? Does the Bible even really contain “business advice”? I don’t think so.

DeYoung later criticizes that idea that the word (Bible) only points to Christ (The Word). The fact of the matter is that sometimes the word – printed words on a page, even if they were authored by a deity – is not enough and Christians who are undergoing a very painful crisis and need a personal touch from The Word.

DeYoung says,
In the end, I wonder what pastors are left with after they lose their “biblicism.”

Here’s what you are left with if you dispense with biblicism:

I’m not a pastor, but here’s my take: If you’re like me, and you’ve been in a faith crisis and come to realize that the Bible is not an exhaustive list of rules or Guide Book for Life that will tell you absolutely everything you need to know, you let go of it.

You realize, that to get through life, you will have to rely on your previous life experience, the life experience of others you meet or read about, and visit a library from time to time to read books by other people on various subjects. You will have to use your intellect and reasoning abilities.

The Bible does not contain all the answers for everything. Even the Bible says so. The Bible says the secret things belong to God, things in this life appear darkly to us, and, to make it in life, put the Bible down and seek emotional support from other people.

Toward the end of the piece, DeYoung writes this:

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.

…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.

What DeYoung is admitting to here is that he’s offering people who come to him for advice with his opinions and his interpretation of what he thinks the Bible means or says.

Assuming you are a literate, at least marginally intelligent person, DeYoung’s interpretation of the Bible is no more authoritative or correct than yours.

So why bother seeking DeYoung’s – or any pastor’s – opinion or approval for your choices in life?

You need to make up your own mind about what to do with your life and in dating, business deals, and whatever other else, not consulting with a preacher.

If you ask a preacher for advice with some problem you are having, the preacher is just going to give you his personal opinions on what he thinks you should do, and even if he sincerely believes his opinions are “based on the Bible,” his interpretation may be incorrect, for any number of reasons, including personal biases he’s reading back into the text.

I take it from DeYoung’s comment I excerpted above that he likely does not think that women can or should be church elders – but, if so, he is incorrect about that, due in part to a flawed biblical hermeneutic.

For many years, a lot of Christians believed that the Bible supported white people owning black people as slaves, but these days, most Christians realize that no, the Bible does no such thing: earlier Christians had the Bible wrong on that, and, they were no doubt allowing their personal prejudices to influence their reading of the Bible.

DeYoung’s review of Smith’s book goes on for quite a long ways, and I don’t care to dissect all of it. While Smith may be inconsistent on one or two points here or there, I think some of these other topics he raised are right on the mark and still remain problematic for Non-Catholic Christians who practice biblicism.

I wonder if DeYoung has read or heard of this following book ‘The Scandal Of The Evangelical Mind’?

In some senses, I do believe that evangelicals are dim-witted (not in the same way anti-theist atheists assume), but are dim-witted concerning things like how to view the Bible and how to apply or understand the Bible.

It takes a lot of stupidity to read the Bible in the shallow, overly simplistic, cherry-picked verses kind of way – what Smith calls  “Biblicism” –  that so many average, everyday Christians usually do.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 10 Years Later

I Still Think There Is a “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” and Here It Is: You’re Not Allowed to Use It

Snippet from that Peter Enns page:

The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that doctrine determines academic conclusions.

Behind all this is a deeper problem. Evangelicalism is not fundamentally an intellectual organism but an apologetic one. For whatever reasons Evangelicalism might have started, it has not come to inspire academic exploration but to maintain certain theological distinctives by intellectual means. These intellectual means are circumscribed by Evangelical dogma, though avoiding overt Fundamentalist anti-intellectualism.

DeYoung may believe that Bibliclism is not a problem because it’s not prevalent among those in his circle (all of whom have attended seminary I presume), but I have seen it from Christian laypersons quite often.

I think that what Smith calls Biblicism and PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism) are very common, even in mainstream Christianity, and that both are very problematic.

I have many reasons as to why I am skeptical of the Christian faith, and those two entities play a role in that skepticism.

Unfortunately, most Christians do not regard either as being very serious obstacles and have a difficult time understanding how it is a life long Christian such as I was could or would consider leaving the faith over it (though again, I have other reasons, not just those two).

I think many Christians underestimate just how damaging Biblicism and PIP are to the faith, and it’s difficult for me to explain it to them. I’ve seen others in my place try to explain in debates I’ve listened to on other sites, but the Christian apologists don’t truly grasp how damaging both are to the faith.


Insensitive, Clueless, or Off-Base Responses by Christians to Pedophile Preacher Article on Christian Site

You may be reading the Bible wrong. Pete Enns says the Bible itself shows a better way – RNS

One thought on “• A Critique of Kevin DeYoung’s Critique of Smith’s ‘The Bible Made Impossible,’ A Book About Evangelicals and Biblicism

  1. I used to be a fan of DeYoung. But he, like many of the “young, restless, and reformed” crowd, seems to know everything and be qualified to correct everyone. In love, of course.

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