The Bible Made Impossible

Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture

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Biblicism, an approach to the Bible common among some American evangelicals, emphasizes together the Bible's exclusive authority, infallibility, clarity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. Acclaimed sociologist Christian Smith argues that this approach is misguided and unable to live up to its own claims. If evangelical biblicism worked as its proponents say it should, there would not be the vast variety of interpretive differences that biblicists themselves reach when they actually read and interpret the Bible. Far from challenging the inspiration and authority of Scripture, Smith critiques a particular rendering of it, encouraging evangelicals to seek a more responsible, coherent, and defensible approach to biblical authority.

This important book has generated lively discussion and debate. The paperback edition adds a new chapter responding to the conversation that the cloth edition has sparked.
Part 1: The Impossibility of Biblicism
1. Biblicism and the Problem of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism
2. The Extent and Source of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism
3. Some Relevant History, Sociology, and Psychology
4. Subsidiary Problems with Biblicism
Part 2: Toward a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture
5. The Christocentric Hermeneutical Key
6. Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity
7. Rethinking Human Knowledge, Authority, and Understanding


"Evangelicalism is cracking apart not because of theological drift to the left but because the only theology that can sustain a genuine evangelicalism is--to use the only word appropriate--a catholic theology. Many who were nurtured in American evangelicalism (as Christian Smith was) and now find it seriously deficient (as Christian Smith does) seem to be those on whom the light has dawned. I first saw a chapter of this book and was stunned; I've now read it all and am delighted. Here is a genuinely evangelical catholic understanding of scripture."

Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament, Northern Seminary

"Biblicism remains one of the most entrenched and pressing problems facing the church. In his characteristically lucid, direct, and fair-minded fashion, Christian Smith asks questions about biblicism that need to be answered. Smith also begins to articulate an alternative, Christ-centered approach to biblical interpretation that is supremely constructive--a truly evangelical account of scripture. Here his words fall like water on parched ground. We may expect the church to flourish as it reads them."

Douglas A. Campbell, associate professor of New Testament, Duke University Divinity School

"Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible is a slap across the conservative evangelical face: a challenge to a duel/debate over the nature and practice of biblical authority. Ever the sociologist, Smith forces readers to confront and account for the stubborn fact that not everyone who ascribes supreme authority to 'what the Bible says' hears God saying the same thing. Even those, like me, who are not persuaded by his 'truly evangelical' alternative will benefit from this strong dose of realism about the way in which evangelicals actually interpret and appeal to the Bible."

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, research professor of systematic theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

"I do not think that biblicism has been quite as destructive as Christian Smith describes it in this book (for example, among evangelicals there is very little 'pervasive interpretive pluralism' in understanding John 20:31). Despite this reservation, I think Smith has written an extremely valuable book. Although his account of the problems besetting biblicism is devastatingly effective, his appeal for a Christ-centered approach to scripture is wise, encouraging, and even more effective."

Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame

"Many books have been written either defending or detracting from an evangelical view of the Bible. Christian Smith, as a trained sociologist, offers a much-needed perspective: explaining evangelical biblicism as a sociological phenomenon. Smith demonstrates, respectfully but critically, that the type of biblicism that often characterizes evangelicalism cannot account for how scripture itself behaves. Biblicism is retained, however, because of its sociological value for 'maintaining safe identity boundaries.' Smith's analysis of the problem of biblicism and his offer of a way forward are important contributions to the current developments surrounding evangelicalism and the Bible."

Peter Enns, author, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins and Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament

"Christian Smith plainly says what so many others have been thinking or implying for some time--namely, that many strands of evangelicalism believe things about the Bible and theology that are simply impossible. Smith exposes the scholastic alchemy that holds this fragile theological edifice together and helps us understand that serious damage is done to the church and its witness when we perpetuate the errors of biblicism."

Kenton L. Sparks, professor of Hebrew Bible, Eastern University

"Smith vigorously presents a compelling possibility: The Bible could be more alive, the church could be more unified, those of us who care deeply about scripture could be less fearful about some collapse of authority and more honest about what is actually in the Bible if we simply began to listen with more humility and openness to what it is God seems most concerned to reveal. A great book for this time in the life of evangelicalism."

Debbie Blue, pastor, House of Mercy; author, Sensual Orthodoxy and From Stone to Living Word

The Author

  1. Christian Smith

    Christian Smith

    Christian Smith (PhD, Harvard University) is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where he has been cited as an outstanding...

    Continue reading about Christian Smith


2011 Jesus Creed Book of the Year
Named a "Best Book of 2011" by
Englewood Review of Books (most important theological work)

"[Smith] sets out in this finely constructed volume to question not just the wisdom but even the possibility of depending only on the Bible to define faith and practice. . . . Smith makes a persuasive case for shifting one's focus from the sole authority of the words of scripture to the one whom scripture proclaims to be 'the way, the truth and the life.' Such a shift, he insists, is necessary for American evangelicalism to move forward."

Publishers Weekly

"Buy this book, read it slowly and carefully, and ponder it . . . because this book is a very serious call for us to develop a more robust approach to the Bible."

Scot McKnight,

Jesus Creed blog

"Smith is one of America's finest scholars of evangelicalism, knows theology, and has poked populist evangelicalism in the eye--both eyes in fact. He has laid down a challenge that must be met."

Scot McKnight,

Jesus Creed blog

"Smith makes effective use of sociological concepts about identity formation and group process. But he also knows an impressive amount about the Bible and Protestant theology, and he has successfully integrated scientific objectivity and theological commitment to the gospel. His work reflects a promising intellectual seriousness among evangelical scholars. . . . Though addressed primarily to American evangelical Christians, this enlightening and passionate book deserves a wide audience, especially among professors of biblical studies who may regularly confront the phenomenon of biblicism in some of their students. . . . Given the importance and influence of biblicism in popular American religion and culture, [t]his book stands as a healthy corrective and a hopeful sign of good things to come."

Daniel J. Harrington, SJ,

Catholic Biblical Quarterly

"I am convinced that the Spirit is speaking to us through Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible. Smith . . . is an unlikely prophetic voice on the one hand, but a very appropriate one for the critical audience of such a book. . . . The value of the book . . . is its thorough . . . description of what Smith calls 'Biblicism.'. . . It comes along at a time when many Evangelicals are expressing suspicion towards the Biblicist approach to the Bible . . . it is the right time. It is written with an obvious appreciation for the Bible as the written Word of God . . . it is in the right spirit. It raises the most critical question effecting the debilitating divisions in the Church today, 'How do we hear the voice of God in the Bible?,' in a way accessible to most members in our churches. It is the right book!"

Michael Bowling,

Englewood Review of Books

"Those who are familiar with Christian Smith's various sociological studies of young adults may be surprised to read his skillful and eloquent foray into biblical studies. His immediate audience is Evangelical Christians but what he has to say can also be appreciated by Catholics."

Donald Senior, CP,

The Bible Today

"Given the importance and influence of evangelicalism in American religion and culture, this book is both a healthy corrective and a hopeful sign of positive developments within evangelicalism."

Daniel J. Harrington, SJ,


"Smith does well to rehearse the ways in which we can subject scripture to our agendas or deploy it to shore up our own sense of identity or our in-group cohesion. In these observations, Smith himself stands within biblical traditions of prophetic denunciation against idolatries that too easily equate our self-wrought images and messages with God himself and his word to us in Christ Jesus. Smith's argument, however, is not simply critical. He offers a positive, even if tentative, plan for rightly dividing the word of truth. . . . His positive account functions, in part, to rein in some of biblicism's more egregious results. . . . As a general approach to biblical interpretation, Smith's suggestions have much to commend and, in my estimation, cohere nicely with general trends in evangelical biblical scholarship."

S. Joel Garver,


"Smith argues that understanding Scripture as a 'here is who' book rather than a 'how to' book is an essential recalibration in order to recapture a biblical way of reading the Bible. Not all will agree with Smith's proposal, but all should consider the problems he raises."

Winn Collier,

Religious Herald

"One of the best books on how Christians should approach the Bible. . . . I heartily recommend [it] to every follower of Jesus."

Frank Viola,

Beyond Evangelical blog

"Smith's thesis deserves careful consideration, and I am sure it will receive the attention it richly deserves."

Peter Enns,

"The Bible Made Impossible is a friendly, albeit frank (and with no pulling of punches), confrontation. One that every thoughtful Evangelical Bible reader should agree to accept. This is a must read! Buy [it,] read it, discuss it. I'll keep mulling it over myself."

Joel Willitts,

Euangelion blog

"Smith has rightly focused our attention on what the Bible is, and what it is for--and these mean that other ways of thinking about, reading, and applying scripture are shown up as misguided at best. . . . The overall import of what he is advancing is so crucial that I . . . embrace Smith's work for the greater good. . . . He has put his finger on the problematic treatment of the Bible in evangelical circles, calling out the ways in which its understanding of scripture is insufficiently biblical, and insufficiently defined by the gospel."

J. R. Daniel Kirk,

Storied Theology blog

"[Smith] wisely and graciously deconstructs biblicism, an approach to reading the Bible common among American evangelicals. . . . I loved this book, and finished it on a single plane ride. Rather than discounting the authority and inspiration of Scripture, Smith provides better, more constructive and honest ways of reading it that put Christ at the center of our faith as the Word made flesh."

Rachel Held Evans,

blog (

"[An] excellent book. . . . Smith does a good job of addressing what has become a troublesome hallmark of American evangelical culture--biblicism."

Rachel Held Evans,

blog (

"The Bible Made Impossible contains a veritable battery of arguments against biblicism that deserve a very wide reading, not only because they offer evangelicals a way out of the biblicist impasse, but because Smith does so by modeling intellectual clarity, interpretive charity, and a deep sympathy for evangelicalism."

Kenneth Sheppard,


"Smith's hope is to sound a clarion call for evangelicals to change the way they read and use the Bible. Overall I agree with much of what he writes. . . . He is to be commended for his effort to raise awareness of this issue. Too many Christians have a handbook view of the Bible, and are often disappointed when the 'divine instruction manual' doesn't produce the desire results. . . . Perhaps . . . this book is best suited [for] those in teaching and preaching ministries. Hopefully they will read Smith and begin reversing the tide of Biblicism in America and beyond."

John Byron,

The Biblical World blog

"[This book is] frustrating and inspiring. It's obfuscating and clarifying. It's slippery and provocative. But ultimately I believe it may be worth your time to read and assess as a fresh presentation of an age-old objection that seems to have renewed resonance today. . . . Protestant pastors and academics would do well to take [Smith's] case seriously."

Matt McCullough,

The Gospel Coalition

"The relationship between Scripture and history, on Smith's account, and indeed from the standpoint of theological interpretation and the broader ecumenical consensus in the Christian tradition, is only mediated properly through Jesus Christ and the rule of faith in the practices of the church. This does not, and will not, cure every hermeneutical ill that the church suffers, but it does reframe the questions and the paths by which they can and will be resolved. . . . Setting aside the rhetorical tilt of Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible we can identify and appreciate some genuinely helpful lines of assistance for reading Scripture and recovering truly fitting practices of interpretation. In the end this is a good contribution to a very long ongoing conversation within the church on the perennially awkward relationship of science and philosophy to the theological practices of reading Scripture."

Mark Bowald,

The Colossian Forum blog

"The Bible Made Impossible will make for uncomfortable but necessary reading for all stripes of evangelicals. . . . Smith's learned but never pedantic, passionate but not pugnacious work will press upon its readers the multi-generational legacy of biblicism, namely the fact that the plausibility structures of the biblicist faith community crumble when their over-realized epistemology is applied to disciplines that eclipse the authorial intention of Scripture as divine witness to Jesus. . . . [An] eminently accessible and well-documented study. By making a compelling argument that christocentrism, not bibliocentrism, is the truly evangelical response to theological liberalism and cultural caricaturing, The Bible Made Impossible warrants mandatory reading by all thoughtful Christians and thorough discussion by Lutheran pastors, professors, and seminarians."

John J. Bombaro,

Concordia Journal

"Evangelicals have a thinking problem, and Smith is leading an intervention. It is not that evangelicals read too much Bible, but that they misread it. . . . The first step is admitting we have a problem. Smith pushes evangelicals toward rehab and suggests possible treatments. This book would be suitable for undergraduates, seminary students, or congregational study groups."

Christopher R. Hutson,

Restoration Quarterly

"Smith's book is an excellent demonstration of how sociology can contribute to theology through analysis of empirical realities. He also demonstrates that practitioners of the social sciences may be committed Christians."

Robert L. (Bob) Montgomery,

Presbyterian Outlook

"Analyzes the problems and positives of Biblicism and explains important connections between evangelical beliefs about the Bible and the realities of its message. Spiritual collections will find this a scholarly, intriguing survey."

Midwest Book Review

"Throughout this book, [Smith] works in a very interdisciplinary way by weaving sociology, theology, and historical and literary epistemology. . . . I have found Christian Smith's book to speak a lot of prophetic truth. . . . Although I do not fully embrace every single thing said in Smith's book, I do strongly recommend you pick it up, read it, wrestle with it, and apply it. This is no time for slacktivism--it's time to do what Smith is prophetically saying to the church--to be unified despite differences."

Daniel James Levy,

Near Emmaus blog

"[Smith's] critique of biblicism deserves an answer from those who hold to biblicism and provides a further warning of its dangers to those who do not."

A. T. B. McGowan,

Evangelical Quarterly