Is There a “Christian Worldview”?

Always the instigator, my good friend Trevar drew me into a discussion that he knew I could not ignore.

The link leads to this post by Rachel Held Evans, “Is there a difference between a ‘Christian worldview’ and a ‘biblical worldview’?” She is working through Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible. Smith’s book works to tackle “biblicism” and to offer a solution to this problem. His solution is a “Christocentric hermeneutic.” Now Trevar is quite aware of how not-christocentric my reading of the Bible is. I imagine him chuckling as he sent that tweet. I often simply ignore these types of readings of the Bible because I recognize that we’re often not having the same conversation, but thought I’d take just a few moments this morning to lay out a few reasons why I think Smith’s “christocentric hermeneutic” is flawed.

Smith begins his exploration of a Christcentric hermeneutic in Chapter 5 by arguing that a truly evangelical reading of Scripture always filters Scripture “through the single lens of the gospel of Christ.” Noting that the word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means “good message,” Smith says that “to be evangelical, then, means having one’s life centered on the terrifically good message that God is reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ,” and that “hearing, grasping and making sense of that fantastic news for our lives is altogether different than, for example, simply following a life handbook of divine oracles or looking up information in a holy user’s manual to help fix a problem.” (p. 93)

Smith is certainly right about the root of the word “evangelical.” And I suppose his understanding of what an “evangelical” should be is acceptable. I do not consider myself an evangelical, though. This would not be a problem had Smith stayed on the topic of how an “evangelical” should read the Bible. Smith, instead, extrapolates his understanding of an “evangelical reading” of the Bible to everyone who reads the Bible in such a way as to try to get at what the appropriate “Christian” reading of the Bible is.

the purpose, center, and interpretive key to scripture is Jesus Christ

Smith does note that

This does not mean trying to detect Christ in every piece of scripture or forcing every verse in the Bible to somehow be directly about the gospel. That itself would be bad prooftexting. Rather, every part of scripture and scripture as a whole…is read in light of the centrally defining reality of Jesus Christ.

That would be bad prooftexting indeed, but what Smith is doing is not much better. He uses as an example the way that Paul read the OT and read everything through the “lens” of Christ. Ok. Paul took what he was reading out of context and often significantly changes any “original meaning” that a text may have had. I don’t find that to be a particularly meaningful or responsible way to read any text, let alone the Bible.

Smith wants to read the entire Bible as in harmony with itself, as one unified piece of work.

By this Christocentric account the internal harmony that scripture embodies does not stem from all of the propositions and narrative accounts fitting together perfectly like a neat jigsaw puzzle. Scripture’s internal unity or harmony, rather, derives from its central purpose in divine revelation of telling us about Jesus Christ.

There is an obvious problem with Smith’s reading here. The Bible is not unified and is not nearly as harmonious as he wants to imagine. The Bible is more of an anthology that contains works by various authors from various time periods with often wildly divergent opinions, perspectives, and beliefs. To say that all of the texts in the Bible evidence some sort of “internal unity or harmony” is simply factually wrong and, I think, shows that one doesn’t actually respect this book that they claim to so much.

Simply put, it is bad hermeneutics to blatantly ignore what the various texts actually say in favor of an imagined unity. Rather, I find it much more meaningful to read the Bible and hear the divergent voices for themselves.

Further, the larger issue looms of the fact that Smith thinks it is acceptable to read everything in the Bible as if it has a central purpose, namely, to tell us about Jesus. But certainly that was not the intent of the authors of the Pentateuch, nor were the prophets thinking about Jesus when they spoke their words of judgment against those whom they understood to be violating God’s laws. If the purpose of the Bible is simply to reveal Jesus, then much of it (most of it?) is pointless.

Now, to be fair, I understand that Smith’s views, which Rachel finds very compelling, are set in a larger context of him trying to dethrone biblicism. So he speaks then not of a “biblical worldview,” but rather of a “Christian worldview.” This move initially seems like a welcome move – he’s trying to get away from people talking about a biblical view of marriage, for instance. That makes sense, but the problem that he sees in biblicism is also present in his “Christian worldview.” He says this of biblicism:

Biblicism falls apart, Smith says, because of the “the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism,” for “even among presumably well-intentioned readers—including many evangelical biblicists—the Bible, after their very best efforts to understand it, says and teaches very different things about most significant topics…It becomes beside the point to assert a text to be solely authoritative or inerrant, for instance, when, lo and behold, it gives rise to a host of many divergent teachings on important matters.”

So, one should not expect to find one consistent “biblical worldview.” Yet, by following Smith’s “christocentric hermeneutic” we are supposed to be able to find one Christian worldview? Smith, and Rachel, are guilty of making normative statements about how a “Christian” should read the Bible and what a “Christian’s” worldview ought to be. Here are some of Rachel’s closing thoughts:

For it is through Jesus Christ that Christians should interpret and interact with the rest of the world, not in some flattened-out view of the Bible that treats every passage exactly the same. It is in the context of Christ’s  incarnation, Christ’s teachings, Christ’s life, Christ’s  death, Christ’s resurrection, and Christ’s abiding presence in the Eucharist, in our love for one another and in least of these that we process everything—from marriage to gender to economics to Scripture itself.

Her attempt to get people to read the text of the Bible differently is one I can get behind, but after that I can go no further. I simply am not interested in determining and defining how a Christian should read the Bible and view the world. This sort of move expresses a superiority that I cannot support and, I believe, a fundamental misunderstanding of the diversity within Christianities since its inception. Christians from the 1st to the 21st centuries have disagreed on everything ranging from the authority of texts (Which ones are authoritative and to what degree?), to the humanity/divinity of Jesus (Was he fully human? Fully divine? A paradoxical mixture of both?), to the number of gods (Is there only one God? Three? 365?). For just as long various groups have attempted to say how they are right, everyone else is wrong, and that to really be a “true” Christian one must do things as they do. I read that same perspective in Smith’s book and Rachel’s supporting comments.

I am not “orthodox” (this is of course a relative term used with polemical motivations just as much as “heresy” is) in my beliefs, the way I read the Bible, and a whole host of other things. I know that what I advocate is not mainstream and probably never will be. I am okay with that. What I am not okay with is saying how someone should read the Bible, how they should view Jesus, or what their “Christian worldview” should be.


2 thoughts on “Is There a “Christian Worldview”?

  1. “To say that all of the texts in the Bible evidence some sort of “internal unity or harmony” is simply factually wrong and, I think, shows that one doesn’t actually respect this book that they claim to so much.”

    And then

    “I simply am not interested in determining and defining how a Christian should read the Bible and view the world.”

    This seems to me to be a bit inconsistent. There seems to be a very thin line between the assertions you are making and what you are accusing Smith and Evans of doing. They believe there is a correct way of reading the Bible, so they are asserting it, and so are you. But then you are claiming that you aren’t doing that and to do so is wrong.

    You are probably right about you and people like Smith and Evans not having the same conversation. Smith is an evangelical Protestant that converted to Catholicism. He fully recognized the plurality of voices in the biblical texts, saw that there are any number of perfectly valid interpretations, and then decided that the only way to maintain any semblance of unity on “essentials” in the church was through some sort of authoritative interpreter. He decided that, for him, this would be the hierarchy of the Catholic church. The fact is, many Christians do see that there are multiple voices in their authoritative text, but they also believe that in order for them to use the entire text to build their worldview and guide their actions, they will need to find some systematic theology or some hermeneutical key that will create some unity. They see the Bible as a collection of texts that are somehow different from other texts. That is an assumption they are working with that you just aren’t working with. You will assert that it is just wrong to treat some texts differently from other texts based on non-scientific or non-historical critical criteria, but they will give you experiential evidence for their conclusions. You and they will simply not agree. However, I don’t think you should assert that they shouldn’t read their text this way, then assert that they are wrong because they are asserting others should read the text in a certain way.

    I just like to antagonize you, Thomas.

    1. Good point, Daniel. As you know from our conversations, I do think there are facts and that stating facts is essential. That said, I think stating that the Bible is not a unity and is not harmonious in any historical, literary, or sociological way is a fact. It does very much look like I am making the same mistakes they are. Maybe I am. The main point I wanted to get across, though, is that none of us should be making these types of normative statements.

      You are also probably right that my jumping into their conversation is what is causing some of the problem. We are not having the same conversation.

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