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A few reflections about Christian Smith, Biblicism, and Barth

I highly recommend engagement with Christian Smith's two books released this summer:

Smith is a theologically-savvy sociologist of religion who teaches at Notre Dame.  He is also a feisty friend of mine who attended my church until he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism and to whom I unsuccessfully tried to defend evangelicalism over many cups of coffee.  Smith is well-worth engaging.  I wish I had more time to write and reflect about this but I need to keep working on my dissertation this year so a little blog post is all I can manage and hopefully the big project will bear fruit in conversations like this one some day. 

I agree with Smith that the people of God gathering to discuss the Scriptures together will indeed produce a variety of interpretations; but contra Smith I am convinced that the Scriptures (read in the Christian community through the Holy Spirit) still chasten and delimit "interpretive pluralism" and "divergent readings" in such a way that another check (such as leaders legitimized by "apostolic succession") is at worst, counter-productive and is at best, a secondary consideration.  

I must also register my objection that Karl Barth is not with Smith on this one but with me despite Smith's comment in his response to Peter Leithart that he is "following Barth" along these lines.  Barth is trying to facilitate in the Church Dogmatics a weighing of divergent readings of Scripture and proffering a fresh coherent synthesis for the Church to weigh and consider.  It is true that Barth could be hard on fundamentalists or biblicists (for taking verses out of context or for trying to prove the Bible is true with secular methods so as to construct an unassailable starting point and foundation) but Barth's vision of the church is largely compatible with the biblicist. Barth writes that the the apostolic Church is the church that is fixated on conforming to what the Scriptures teach.

What we have learned to know as apostolicity and therefore as the mark of the true Church is quite naturally identical in substance with the term which in a very different dogmatic context has been used to describe the authority of the Bible as the source and norm of the existence and doctrine and order of the Church--the "Scripture principle."

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4 vols. (New York: T&T Clark, 2009), IV/1, 721.

Barth envisions congregations gathered around the Scripture and he is confident that Jesus Christ will be their unity.  This strikes Roman Catholics like Smith as the licensing of appalling disunity.  Smith sees little "interpretive convergence" in biblicist evangelicalism, but rather only a "pervasive interpretive pluralism in biblical interpretation and theology."  I find this inherently subjective and therefore unpersuasive but can grant that there is certainly some biblicist interpretation that becomes heretical and cultish but like Barth I am optimistic that God is at work by his Spirit when people are sincerely gathered around the Scriptures.  In the following (admittedly difficult to understand) quote, Barth acknowledges the ubiquity of bad interpretation of Scripture but still insists that Jesus Christ is present when people gather together around the Scriptures to hear from God by the Spirit. 

Thus in the confession of the community that which is lawful and right takes place, and the community is constituted, even though--and when is this not the case?--it sets itself in the wrong with its human speaking and hearing; even in impotent witness and poor proclaiming and publishing and teaching and preaching. 

Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/2, 700. 

It is particularly interesting to read the litany of problems Barth is aware of: "impotent and poor . . . publishing and teaching and preaching" yet this in no way eliminates the possibility that God is at work.  

Roman Catholics will regard this approach (relying on the Scripture principle and the common hearing of the Spirit's leading while gathered around the Scriptures) as inadequate and unpersuasive.  Surely there is a need for a more stable hierarchical structure and a system of traditional creedal and episcopal precedents to facilitate unity, they will say.  Barth denies this.  He writes this about denominational structures,

It cannot supply, let alone create, the guarantee of unity, the mutual recognition of the individual communities . . . such an organ or institution is not an integral constituent of the essence of the Church . . . The one Church exists in its totality in each of the individual communities.

Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, 672-773.

If now Smith sees an absence of "fairly convergent readings of the Bible" [emphasis mine--this seems to be an entirely subjective judgment--Do they all acknowledge Jesus as Lord?  If so, that seems to be a pretty important convergence] as theologically indefensible, he also noted a decade ago the missionary power of the flexibility of evangelicalism. 

Of the four theories reviewed [Sheltered Enclave Theory, Status Discontent Theory, Strictness Theory, and Competitive Marketing Theory], Roger Finke, Rodney Starke, and Laurence Iannaccone’s competitive marketing theory seems to us to present the best orienting framework and set of assumptions with which to construct an explanation for evangelicalism’s vitality . . . Contemporary evangelicalism inhabits a pluralistic, competitive religious economy, on which it has very successfully capitalized . . .

Evangelicalism has created a meaningful identity-space on the American religious field that, under one banner, manages to accommodate a remarkable degree of theological and political diversity.  Evangelicalism incorporates Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Independents, Anabaptists, Restorationists, Congregationalists, Holiness Christians, even Episcopalians.  It also includes right-wing political conservatives, Republicans, moderates, Democrats, liberals, Independents, and political progressives.

Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 86-87.   

What Smith calls here "vitality"--that is, quantitatively verifiable growth documented by the sociologist--is a thin theological approximation of what Barth is aiming at when he repeatedly says the task of the church is to witness to Jesus Christ.  Barth is prepared to tolerate some "plurality" for the sake of freeing up space for witness. “Better something doubtful or over-bold, and therefore in need of correction and forgiveness than nothing at all” (Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.2, 780). He is prepared to listen, study and argue vigorously in the church for what God is saying to the church through the Scriptures knowing that this conversation will be unfinished (like his magnum opus the Church Dogmatics is) and knowing that some "impotent witness and poor proclaiming and publishing and teaching and preaching" will invariably be part of the process; rather than squelching the response to Scripture with the imposition of some drab synthesis that touts itself as apostolic though it has little resemblance to the missionary movement of the original apostles.

The Church is apostolic and therefore the true Church where its external order--what is called Church government--is made so loose by respect for the direction of Scripture that all encroachment on the lordship of the One who is alone the Lord is either avoided or so suppressed and eliminated in practice that there is place for His rule.

Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1 p. 723.

In other words, some "interpretive pluralism" is to be contested in the church with better interpretation, but other "interpretive pluralism" may be appropriate expressions of witness to Jesus Christ in the world.  As Leithart suggests, some "biblicist" books may perhaps be "very bad"--at a minimum they may strike readers of Smith as odd.  That oddness may be theological error to which true "biblicists" will presumably be open to "examining the Scriptures . . . to see" if what they had written "was true" (Acts 17:11).  But it may also seem odd merely because the world is a diverse place and faithful witness in the world may strike people in other parts of the world as odd.  Barth writes of the variety of forms that witness will take in the world.    

Intrinsically unholy possibilities in the structuring of man's life in society are sanctified and made serviceable to the gathering and upbuilding of the people of God in the service of its commission and for the purpose of its election and calling. The free God gives to this human people, which still cannot do anything more or different in this respect than what others can also do, the freedom to adopt its own form, i.e., the form corresponding to its calling and commission, in the sphere of general human possibilities.

Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.2 p. 741

Again, it pains me to not engage even more fully on these matters but these are the general lines of reflection I would want to contribute to the conversation surrounding Smith's two new books. 


See also:
Robert H. Gundry
Bible-reading and "pervasive interpretive pluralism."
Books & Culture
September/October 2011


Justin Taylor also highlights various articles: On Not Evading the Charges of “Bibliclism” and “Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism”