Is Biblicism Impossible? A Review Article

John M. Frame
J. D. Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

Christian Smith. The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. xvi, 220 pp.

I was attracted to this book by the author’s use of the term “Biblicism,” which I also used in my article “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism.”[1] Smith himself read my article (p. 4) and describes it as “thoughtful,” though he does not respond to its specific content. In a footnote (p. 200), he says that what I define as Biblicism is “even more objectionable” than what he describes under his own definition. But even his own less objectionable concept is, in his mind, highly objectionable. He says,

The “biblicism” that pervades much of American evangelicalism is untenable and needs to be abandoned in favor of a better approach to Christian truth and authority. By untenable I do not simply mean that it is wrong, but rather that it is literally impossible, at least when attempted consistently on its own terms. It cannot literally be sustained, practiced, and defended. Biblicism is one kind of an attempt to explain and act on the authority of the Bible, but it is a misguided one. In the end it cannot and in fact does not work. (p. 3)

In this quoted passage, Smith says about seven times that biblicism is wrong. This is typical of the book. He frequently commends his own argument by asserting that it is definitive, certain, and irrefutable. He reminds me of a college debater who thinks he has to keep reminding his audience of what a good debater he is. Of course it is one thing to claim that your position is right, another thing to establish its truth.

In this response, I will first analyze Smith’s concept of “Biblicism,” asking if it is a coherent concept and whether it is an accurate description of the predominant evangelical approach to Scripture. Then I shall examine Smith’s reason for denying Biblicism in this sense, what he calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Finally I shall look at Smith’s alternative to Biblicism, a sort of Christocentric approach to the Bible.


Early in the book, he says,

By ‘biblicism’ I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self- evident meaning, and universal applicability. (p. viii)

Here, note that Smith makes the issue a matter of emphasis. One has to ask whether a theologian who believes in all these different items, but does not emphasize them, should be considered a Biblicist. And since emphasis is a matter of degree, that raises the question, how much does one need to emphasize these beliefs in order to be a Biblicist? What about a theologian who never mentions any of these ideas, except in one book which he writes about, say, the concept of infallibility?

Arguments about emphasis take some of the edge off of a discussion. If Smith were telling us not to believe in biblical infallibility, then he would provoke a sharp exchange; if he is telling us that we may believe it, but should not emphasize it so much, then he reduces the sharpness of his critique, and perhaps also of his opponents’ responses. But arguments about emphasis are necessarily vague and imprecise. They do not easily comport with claims that a rival view “needs to be abandoned.” If the discussion is about emphasis, Smith should be telling us that biblical infallibility in fact does not need to be abandoned, but that we need to quit emphasizing it so much. If emphasis is the issue, then it seems to me that Smith would have needed to employ a very different kind of critical argument.

In the rest of the book, Smith does not appear to be concerned with mere emphasis. Rather, he thinks that Biblicism is false, untenable, needs to be abandoned, is literally impossible, cannot literally be sustained, practiced, and defended, is misguided, cannot work, and does not work. What troubles Smith is clearly not an emphasis but a false belief. And I will treat his position as such in the remainder of this review.

Now on pp. 4-5, Smith presents the elements of Biblicism as he understands them, ten of them, in a somewhat more formal way. I will consider them in order, asking what they mean and whether they accurately describe the predominant evangelical view of Scripture.

1. Divine writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language. (p. 4)

This first principle of Biblicism is a pretty good statement of what evangelicals usually call “verbal inspiration.” It seems that at this point the battle is joined. Evangelicals defend verbal inspiration, and Smith opposes it. But it is not so simple. For he says earlier,

My argument as follows does not question the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Bible. Nor am I here discounting the crucially important role that the Bible must play…(p. viii)

So Smith denies verbal inspiration, but not inspiration as such. The cogency of his argument requires him to give us an alternative account of what inspiration is, but he adds in a footnote, “Although neither am I here developing a position on what exactly inspiration means and implies (p. 199).” He refers us then to a portion of Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture? which, I assume, sets forth a view of inspiration more acceptable to him.

Evangelicals will certainly find this unpersuasive. Given that Smith rejects the Biblicist formulation, he really ought to tell us what he thinks is wrong with it. Is it that God has inspired the words, but not the “details” of the words? What would that mean? Does Smith disagree with the very idea that God could inspire words, as opposed to thoughts or ideas? But countless evangelicals claim to have refuted the notion of “thought-inspiration” as opposed to verbal inspiration. The Bible itself often claims to record the words of God, but rarely if ever his non-verbal ideas.

Or is the key to Smith’s objection to be found in the idea that God’s words can be “written inerrantly in human language?” This is not the issue of “biblical inerrancy.” Biblical inerrancy is the view that the words of the Bible are all true, that they never assert anything erroneous. But “inerrantly” in Smith’s quoted definition refers to the writing of God’s words. So the question is whether God’s words are accurately reproduced in the biblical text. Evangelicals say that they are, though they typically restrict this kind of inerrancy to the autographs of Scripture.

But if the words of God are recorded in Scripture erroneously, then to that extent they are not recorded in Scripture at all, and Scripture is not the word of God. It is partly the word of God and partly the failed attempts of human beings to record that word accurately. Smith claims that he does not question the inspiration of the Bible. But inspiration refers to an act in which God creates an identity between his words and some human words. If Smith has a different definition in mind, he should certainly tell us what it is, rather than telling us in a footnote that he refuses to say what inspiration means and implies. Given the standard definition of inspiration, Smith implies that the Bible as a whole is not inspired, but that parts of it may be.

Smith’s second defining principle of Biblicism is this:

2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication. (p. 4)

This is an extremely sloppy formulation, since it ignores the doctrines both of general revelation and of Spiritual illumination which have been held by all branches of the church including evangelicals. Further, God’s “true communication,” according to all these branches of the church, includes the oral communications of the Father from heaven, of prophets and apostles, and of Jesus himself, not just the text of Scripture. I don’t believe that any professing Christian capable of understanding this statement would ever accept it.

Now Smith is not a theologian, but a sociologist (xii). But this is a book of theology, and its readers do not have the authority to cut him some slack. He is attacking certain theological views, so the debate must be conducted according to serious theological criteria. He has no hesitation about saying that his arguments make his opponents views “impossible.” Those opponents have the right to call him to account for misrepresentations and incompetent formulations.


3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible. (p. 4)

Here Smith appears to be trying to formulate the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, which has a long history in Protestantism, as in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6.[2] It is relevant here to point out that Smith joined the Roman Catholic Church after completing the book (p. xiii, 191).[3] The sufficiency of Scripture has since the Reformation been a point of contention between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

I don’t have much to object to in Smith’s formulation, but I am bothered a bit by its relation to his very objectionable formulation #2. Perhaps Smith thinks that #3 follows from #2 and that #2 provides the only basis for believing #3. I deny those claims. And though I agree with #3 that God’s will on all the issues relevant to Christian faith and life is “contained in” the Bible, I would insist on two distinctions: (1) a distinction between something being “contained” in the Bible and something being “explicit” in the Bible. The WCF distinguishes between what is “expressly” set forth in Scripture and what may be “deduced” from Scripture by “good and necessary consequence.” I can accept Smith’s #3 if “contained” includes truths that are not explicit, but only implicit and therefore available to us through good and necessary consequence. (2) We should also distinguish between what is “expressly” contained in Scripture and what are legitimate applications of Scripture. The eighth commandment forbids stealing, but it does not expressly forbid Joe from taking Jim’s wallet without authorization. The latter is an application of the former. But we normally assume that such applications are biblically warranted, though they are not explicit or expressly stated in Scripture. So to make applications of Scripture, we must of course have knowledge of matters outside Scripture.

If Smith’s #3 allows for these two distinctions, I can accept it as a formulation of the sufficiency of Scripture, that is, sola Scriptura. It is helpful to remember that sola Scriptura does not say that the Bible contains all the information we need to make decisions. What it says is that the Bible contains all the divine words that we need (“divine will” in Smith’s formulation).

4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text. (4)

Here, Smith tries to format the classic doctrine of the “clarity” or “perspicuity” of Scripture, another matter of disagreement between the Protestant Reformers and the Roman church. Again, it is interesting to compare Smith’s formulation with the classic formulation, as in WCF 1.7:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

The point of such statements in their original context was to reject the Roman Catholic view that laymen should not read the Scriptures since they were not adequately trained, but that laymen should simply bow before the teaching of the Roman magisterium. But given all the qualifications of this principle in the WCF formulation, it is misleading for Smith to call this doctrine “democratic.” We do need help in understanding the Bible (as the WCF puts it, “a due use of the ordinary means”), and one major source of help is the preachers and teachers that God has raised up.

5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts. (p. 4)

There is indeed among some evangelicals a kind of ignorant common-sense literalism that despises serious biblical scholarship. That is unfortunate. However (1) this problem also exists outside of evangelicalism, among some Roman Catholics, for example.[4] (2) In fact the Scriptures were written in the common languages of the Jews and Greeks. If its words are not exhaustively understandable by the most uneducated, neither is its gospel restricted to the wise of this world.

6. Solo[5] Scriptura: The significance of any biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch. (p. 4)

Again, this paragraph may rightly indict some evangelical theology, but certainly not all of it, and certainly not the most respected forms of it. What evangelical theologians do insist upon, at their best, is that the role of all secondary theological sources is to illumine the Bible, and that to the extent that they do not, they have no usefulness. That would be a topic worth discussing in Smith’s book, but so far as I know he does not discuss it; he prefers to thrash his straw man.

7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors. (p. 5)

Since evangelicals believe that Scripture is God’s speech in human words, it should not be surprising that they also think these words are true, and that these words are consistent with one another. Smith’s puzzle-pieces metaphor is gratuitous. Evangelical theology at its best understands that the “pieces” must be arranged in many patterns simultaneously and applied to a vast number of human life-contexts. But it is often important, when seeking guidance from Scripture, to look up multiple passages on the same subject and to deal with apparent inconsistencies. I see no reason to criticize such a procedure, assuming what evangelicals assume about the nature of Scripture.

8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching. (p. 5)

Every biblical teaching is universal in the sense that everyone should recognize it as the word of God. But every biblical teaching is also given with a particular situation in view. In Matt. 21:1-2, Jesus asked two disciples to bring to him a donkey and a colt. That command was given on one occasion, for that occasion only, for those particular disciples and not for every Christian. “Do not steal” is more universal, but even that command presupposes a situation: it is given to human beings, not animals or inanimate objects; it presupposes an economy in which people have their own private property. How does one determine the extent to which the meaning of a teaching is conditioned on a particular circumstance? By responsible exegesis. Sometimes “subsequent scriptural teaching” will settle the matter, but sometimes not. Jesus never explicitly revokes the command of Matt. 21:1-2. But its situational conditioning is obvious. Evangelicals (and other Christians!) do argue about the conditioning contexts of divine commands, and sometimes they argue irresponsibly. But I think they are usually fairly sensible about it.

9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches. (p. 5)

If sola Scriptura is true (see #3, #4, and #6 above), then certainly it is true that issues of Christian belief and practice should be resolved through Bible study. For the sense in which those teachings are “clear,” see #4 above. “Piecing together” is another of Smith’s metaphors which serves only to trivialize an important process. But to the extent that it intends to evoke the “internal harmony” presupposed by the evangelical doctrine of Scripture (#7) it does describe what evangelicals do. But that process ought to be, and usually is, far more complicated, communal, and prayerful than Smith’s metaphor suggests.

He then adds a tenth principle that he thinks follows from principles 1-9.

10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together these affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance. (5)

Here again Smith invokes a metaphor in order to trivialize[6] a process that he might have taken more seriously. Smith does not say exactly what makes this metaphor appropriate, and he ought to, since he evidently aspires to make here a significant critique of Biblicism. Does he deny that “the Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes?” That depends, perhaps, on one’s definition of doctrine and morals. But if the definition is fairly open-ended (doctrine is what I must believe, morals what I must do), and if “affirmation” means “state as God’s word,” then certainly every affirmation demands obedient belief or behavior.

Or is Smith objecting to the evangelical view of the breadth of Scripture’s subject matter (science, economics, etc.)? If so, he has a legitimate complaint. We do need to beware the temptation to make Scripture teach things (about science and the like) that it doesn’t teach; and I do think evangelicals are more susceptible than other professing Christians to fall to this temptation. On the other hand, we should not fall into the error of thinking that Scripture says nothing about these subjects. There is no principle of Scripture that God will speak to us only about A and not about B. Although Scripture focuses on certain subjects rather than others, God’s word never leaves any aspect of human existence alone (1 Cor. 10:31).

I am certainly inclined to agree with Smith (and many evangelicals) that Scripture is not a “textbook” of science, for example. Biblical teachings (including the personal rather than the impersonal origin of all things) are sometimes of great importance to science.[7] But you cannot learn physics from the Bible alone. On the other hand, the Bible has a great deal to say about marriage—much more than it says about physics. Any Christian who seeks to counsel people in a troubled marriage needs to understand, as his highest priority, what the Bible says, and does not say, about marriage. I cannot imagine that Smith would find this objectionable. But he evidently has not thought seriously about the range of content the Bible actually includes.

To summarize: Smith has listed ten characteristics of what he calls Biblicism. He makes the factual claim that most evangelicals are Biblicist in this sense and the value judgment that this is bad. He will expound that value judgment more fully in the rest of the book, but he begins it here, by phrasing the ten characteristics in pejorative and trivializing ways. I have tried to show that although some of these items truly represent evangelical belief and practice, others do not, and even those that do are sometimes phrased in misleading ways.

Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism

Smith’s most central critique of Biblicism is based, not on the nature of the Bible, but on the actual use of the Bible by Biblicists.[8] In short, the problem is that when Biblicists use the Bible for guidance they typically disagree on what it says to them. Smith narrates four scenarios in which people consult an “authoritative” source (a map, binoculars, an owner’s manual for a camera, a cookbook) that leads them in different directions (p. 16). He applies these illustrations to Biblicism:

These four hypothetical scenarios depict something like the quandary in which Biblicist believers find themselves. The very same Bible—which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious—gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest. Knowledge of “biblical” teachings, in short, is characterized by pervasive interpretive pluralism. (p. 17)

Whatever Scripture is, he says, it cannot function as biblicists expect it to, because readers differ on what it means. So Biblicism must be wrong. But then Smith returns to his scenarios:

Furthermore and very importantly, none of the differences among users that arose in these scenarios will ever get resolved simply by their focusing and insisting on the believed official, certified, or authorized qualities of the road map, binoculars, owner’s manual, and cookbook per se. (p. 17)

Evidently he believes that focusing on the Bible and its authority will never settle any of the disagreements within Christendom about what the Bible says.

Of course, it is not news to anybody that professing Christians disagree on all sorts of things. Smith, however, does an impressive job of presenting how extensive the disagreement is:

On most matters of significance concerning Christian doctrine, salvation, church life, practice, and morality, different Christians—including different Biblicist Christians—insist that the Bible teaches positions that are divergent and often incompatible with one another. (p. 22)

He then lists 34 different multiview books (three views, four views, five views) on different issues: the atonement, baptism, the doctrine of God, church government, etc. He adds,

Another popular evangelical book compares two, three, or four alternative, Bible-based, evangelical views on each of seventeen theological concerns about which contemporary evangelicals disagree—in theory creating more than five million unique, potential theological belief positions that any given person might espouse, composed of possible combinations of the alternative views. (p. 23-24)

The five million figure, of course, exaggerates the actual problem, and I’m sure that Smith understands that. But the amount of disagreement in the church is staggering on any account.

Smith then considers some Biblicist explanations for this pluralism. These are (1) the intellectual and spiritual deficiencies of readers, (2) textual corruption in the copies of Scripture, (3) the noetic effects of sin, (4) differing levels of illumination, (5) the truth as a higher synthesis of all the different interpretations, and (6) God’s intent to create ambiguity in Scripture for a good purpose. (p. 38-39)

I think that (1), (3), and (4) are essentially the same, focusing on inadequacies of the readers. I think that these are the ones most likely to answer Smith’s difficulties.[9] Citing (1), Smith grants that it may explain some differences of interpretation,

But that itself can hardly explain the divergent interpretations to which the Bible has recurrently given rise among well-meaning believers throughout church history and today. (p. 39)

He seems to be saying that although inadequacies in readers may explain some divergent interpretations, there are just too many of these to explain them all this way. The quantity of divergence is just too great.

But how does one measure quantity in such a context? Is the problem that one should expect 13% diversity on a Biblicist basis, but in fact we have 85%? How do we learn that 13% is the cutoff point?

I think we should look at the problem from a different angle. The rate of doctrinal diversity in the church is certainly high, and shamefully so.[10] But what Smith rarely if ever notes is that there is also a remarkable amount of doctrinal unity. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Chalcedonian creeds bear witness to that. There are some doctrines that every Christian confesses, so that they virtually define what a Christian is. Every Christian confesses the existence of one God, of Jesus Christ his only Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. Every Christian holds that Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died to deal with sin, and rose again from the dead. Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, all confess these truths. This is what the united church teaches, and this is what the Scriptures teach. Indeed, the church believes these doctrines “according to the Scriptures.” So in these areas the Bible is not irrelevant to the establishment of these doctrines. Indeed, in one sense Scripture is a cause of the church’s doctrinal unity.[11]

Among these basic doctrines, we should include the principles of the Ten Commandments in matters of ethics and worship. Surely, nobody can be accounted a Christian who believes that we may have other gods before Yahweh, or bow to graven images, or take God’s name in vain. Christians disagree, to be sure, on what it means to keep the Sabbath today. But nobody can claim to be a Christian who thinks it is legitimate to hate his father and mother, to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, to bear false witness against a neighbor, or to covet.

This degree of unity is substantial, and this unified message has carried the reach of the church from Palestine to nearly all the world, so that Christianity has become the most populous religion on earth, estimated at 2.1 billion adherents. That is 2.1 billion people who confess the propositions of the Apostles’ Creed. That is a significant degree of unity.

That unity comes from the unity of the message of the Word of God (Rom. 10:17), from the apostolic preaching of Christ to the written transcriptions of that preaching in the Holy Scriptures. Whatever diversity has arisen in the hearing of the word, the Scriptures have been sufficient to set forth the message that has brought together 2.1 billion people in amazing agreement. I would not call this a Biblicist model of gospel dissemination, for I don’t buy into the caricatures Smith incorporates into his concept of Biblicism. But this is a picture of a powerful, authoritative divine word, which sweeps the debris of sinful distortion aside and brings people together in Jesus’ name.

I am not suggesting that we should simply ignore the massive level of diversity that Smith has documented. But we need to see that in perspective. Consider a believer, whom I shall call Carl. When Carl commits his life to Christ, he thereby subscribes to the truths of the Gospel, the truths of the creed. Those truths become his spiritual and intellectual foundation, the ultimate certainties of his heart. Christ is more certain to him than any scientific, economic, political, or philosophical theory.

But beyond these certainties, there is much that Carl does not know, and would like to know. He would like to know how the church should be governed, whether infants should be baptized, whether the elements of the Lord’s Supper are the literal body and blood of Jesus. Different people tell him different things. He turns, then, to study the Scriptures prayerfully. He hopes to gain more certainty, but the process of study may be slow, full of ups and downs, acceptance and rejection of different doctrines.

Since different Christians make different choices through this process, a large amount of diversity develops. This increasing diversity is in part due to spiritual and other inadequacies in the readers. But it happens.

Can the church tolerate this? Yes, it can. Certainly it has, historically. Under God’s providence, and his promise to protect the church, the church has survived two thousand years of too much diversity. This diversity is in part a sin, in part a trial, in part a divine challenge to his people.

This model of divine guidance is strange; we would expect something much more straightforward. But it is perfectly compatible with the traditional[12] view of biblical inspiration and authority. Indeed, it is what we should expect if the traditional view of biblical authority is true. The church’s corporate study of Scripture has produced an astonishing level of agreement, but in many areas also disagreement.

Christological Hermeneutics

We have looked at Smith’s concept of Biblicism, and his main critique of it, “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” In my view, this pluralism, while substantial, is not nearly as pervasive as Smith thinks it is, and not at all inconsistent with the traditional evangelical doctrine of Scripture, which Smith calls “Biblicism.” Smith, however, thinks this pluralism makes the traditional view to be “impossible.” So he seeks to replace it with a different approach to Scripture, which we must now examine.

That different approach is to read Scripture with Christ at the center:

The purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ. It is embarrassing to have to write this, for it should be obvious to all Christians. But I am afraid this is not always so obvious in practice in Biblicist circles. At least the profound implications of this fact for reading scripture are not always obvious to many evangelicals. Truly believing that Jesus Christ is the real purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture causes one to read the Bible in a way that is very different than believing the Bible to be an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it seems to address. (p. 97-98)

Indeed, Smith is right to say that this “should be obvious to all Christians.” It was Jesus himself who taught us to see “in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Christians from all traditions have affirmed this principle—not only Karl Barth, to whom Smith appeals (p. 121-26), but also many Christians whom Smith is inclined to call “Biblicist.” Vern Poythress, for example, whom Smith criticizes several times (p. 22, 109, 110, 133) as biblicistic, is well-known as an advocate of Christocentric exegesis and preaching.[13] Poythress teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary[14] which Smith relegates to the Biblicist side (p. 13-14, 204, 211). But Westminster is deeply influenced by Geerhardus Vos, Edmund P. Clowney, and Richard B. Gaffin who, in addition to Poythress, are famous for understanding Scripture as a Christ-centered redemptive history. This emphasis on Christocentrism has become quite pervasive in evangelicalism, especially over the past fifty years or so. It would be very difficult today to find any evangelical theologian or pastor who would not subscribe to the first sentence of the paragraph I quoted above.

The question, then, is not whether Jesus Christ is the central theme of Scripture. The question concerns the negative side of Smith’s proposal.[15] Smith not only endorses Christological exegesis, but he wants also to insist that such a focus excludes “believing the Bible to be an instruction manual containing universally applicable divine oracles concerning every possible subject it seems to address.” Now we must first make some allowance for Smith’s tendency to create straw men. I know of nobody who thinks that the Bible is an “instructional manual” on “every possible subject it seems to address.” Indeed, I know of nobody who may be reasonably suspected of holding such a view of Scripture. Evangelicals are not so stupid as to think that the Bible is an instruction manual on car repairs, or even on the construction of boats (which arguably is “addressed” in Acts 27). But they do sometimes publish books on biblical views of politics, economics, family, and some other things.[16]

But there is a good reason to focus, sometimes, on what the Bible teaches on such issues. I mentioned in an earlier footnote Smith’s comments about Poythress on p. 109-110. In Symphonic Theology,[17] says Smith, Poythress moves from an initial Christocentric focus to a Biblicist perspective. The link between these is Poythress’s contention that Scripture contains a single worldview. But Poythress’ contention follows directly from a statement of basic doctrine that Smith approves, saying that it “sounds like the Apostles’ Creed” (p. 109). Smith approves of Poythress’s creedal language, but denies his worldview language.

It seems then that a crucial issue here is whether the Christological story entails a worldview. Poythress says yes, Smith no. In my view, Poythress is clearly right. The Christology of the Bible tells us that Jesus is Lord over all. If we believe this, it will affect what we believe about everything else, including politics, economics, and family. Those who trust Jesus as lord of all will search his word to find how that lordship affects all the affairs of life: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). If Christ authorizes a certain kind of politics or family structure, we need to learn what that is. And if he authorizes a particular kind of family structure, it would not be wrong under some circumstances to organize that teaching into a “handbook.”

The question is whether a Christocentric focus excludes, or may include, concerns with things and persons other than Christ. Smith is unclear here. From what we have seen so far, he seems to think that Christocentrism excludes such concerns. But on p. 111, he puts it this way:

This is not to say that evangelical Christians will never have theologically informed moral and practical views of dating and romance… They may and will. But the significance and content of all such views will be defined completely in terms of thinking about them in view of the larger facts of Jesus Christ and the gospel—not primarily by gathering and arranging pieces of scriptural texts that seem to be relevant to such topics in order to pinpoint “the biblical view” on them. Those are two very different kinds of theological exercises that can lead to very different outcomes.

Smith claims that these are “two very different kinds of theological exercises,” but he has not clarified to my satisfaction the difference between them. Obviously any Christian who writes about biblical principles will seek to make those principles subservient to Christ and the gospel. He may fail adequately to integrate his “biblical principles” with the gospel. But that is certainly a matter of degree and critics will see it in different ways. What is the actual difference? Does Smith think that “gathering and arranging pieces of scriptural texts” always detracts from Christocentricity? Why would he think that?[18] Scripture itself sometimes gathers and arranges pieces of Scripture texts on a common topic, as in Acts 2 and Heb. 1.

If Christ is lord, then Poythress is right: Scripture does teach a unified worldview. And if Scripture teaches a unified worldview, then it speaks not only to large theological realities, but also to the details of human life.

There are, of course, right and wrong ways to apply Scripture to our lives. We are all too prone to think that Scripture requires x when it does not. That is a hermeneutical and exegetical question. But such questions cannot always be resolved by telling one another to be more Christocentric.

The real question here, that Smith never addresses to my knowledge, is how his Christocentrism avoids the problem of “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Does he wish to say that the church’s unity on the gospel of Christ outweighs its differences on many other subjects? That is a plausible response, but it is essentially the same as my own response in the last section, and it is a plausible response for most any evangelical, even those whom Smith would call Biblicists.

Or does he wish to say that we should not even bother trying to answer the questions on which the church is divided (baptism, church government, etc.), since the focus of our lives in Christ himself rather than any specific matter? Sometimes he hints at a view like this, but I doubt that many Christians would find it plausible.

So my evaluation of Smith’s book can be summarized as follows:

  1. His concept of Biblicism is not an accurate, precise account of deficiencies in the evangelical approach to Scripture.
  2. What he calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a problem for all interpreters of Scripture, but it can be tolerated within the framework of the traditional evangelical doctrine of Scripture.
  3. All interpretation of Scripture ought to be Christocentric. But that does not exclude seeking an understanding of the relation of Christ to the creation and to all aspects of human life. It is good and right to seek understanding of all reality in relation to Christ.
  1. Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997), 269-318, with replies by David Wells and Richard Muller and a further reply by me. Also published as an Appendix to my Contemporary Worship Music (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishers, 1997).
  2. I have expounded the WCF statement at length in my Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 156-75 and elsewhere.
  3. He says, “an evangelical Catholic, I might add” (xiii).
  4. I am thinking of the traditional Catholic understandings of Matt. 16:18 and 1 Cor. 11:24.
  5. Smith uses solo instead of sola to indicate a corruption of the traditional doctrine of sola Scriptura (p. 200). But as a Latin construction, solo Scriptura is ungrammatical. Further, Smith has already addressed the substantive issues of sola Scriptura in #3.
  6. He also uses a great many illustrations: Bible slogans, bumper stickers, T-shirts, etc., that trivialize what he despises most in evangelicalism (p. 6-12). One gets the impression that his dislike for the evangelical movement has as much to do with aesthetics as theology: he doesn’t like the image of a Jesus bumper sticker on someone’s car. At points I share his aesthetic judgments. But those are a frail basis for establishing, or even verifying, a theological point. And two can play that game. To some Protestants, the statuary in Roman Catholic churches are aesthetically displeasing.
  7. For many other examples, see Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: a God-Centered Approach (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006). Also available at
  8. This is an important line of discussion. In David Kelsey’s The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), the author states that in order to understand a theologian’s view of Scripture it is important to examine, not only what the theologian says about Scripture, but also how he uses Scripture to warrant theological judgments. (cf. Wittgenstein: “The meaning is the use.”) Kelsey’s book is a very important study. See also my review of it in my Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010), 466-89.
  9. (2) explains some differences, but not many. (5) and (6), as Smith admits, are somewhat speculative, though there may be some truth in them. It is significant that Scripture itself typically points to deficiencies of readers when questions arise about why someone fails to believe and obey God’s word. See, e.g. Luke 24:25-27, John 5:39-40, Heb. 5:11-14.
  10. Even more shameful is the fact that the church over the years has divided into some 40,000 denominations, in part because of diversity in belief, but for many other reasons as well.
  11. I do not say “the only” cause or “the sufficient” cause, because of course the illumination of the Spirit and the providence of God are also necessary.
  12. I do not say “Biblicist,” but the traditional view has much in common with what Smith calls Biblicist.
  13. See especially his books The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Brentwood, TN: Wohlgemuth and Hyatt, 1991) and God-centered Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1999). Both are available at On p. 109 of the present volume, Smith gives Poythress credit at least for starting with a Christocentric focus. I shall comment later on Smith’s response to the rest of Poythress’s approach.
  14. Disclosure: my alma mater.
  15. For what it’s worth, I think most theological proposals are better in what they affirm than in what they deny. Smith’s proposal is only one of many examples.
  16. They don’t often call these treatments “instructional manuals,” but that sort of language pops up from time to time. An instructional manual is just a systematic way of teaching a body of content. And there is content to be covered on many of these subjects.
  17. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers, 1987, 2001.
  18. I suspect that the problem here, as with the bumper stickers I mentioned earlier, is aesthetic. Smith is repulsed by the image of “gathering and arranging pieces” of the word of God. But Smith’s aesthetics is not sufficient to constrain our methods of understanding Scripture.