Christians sometimes accuse other Christians of “bibliolatry.” It’s a made-up word used to insult and denigrate one’s theological opponents. If it is difficult to square a value I hold with some part of the Christian scriptures, I can simply ignore the scriptures. “The God I know would never say that,” I have heard it argued.Those who point to portions of the scriptures as evidence for positions with which I disagree I can dismiss as “biblioloters.” That is, they are making the Bible into an idol.
The accusation that one is worshipping an idol instead of the true and living God is pretty serious stuff. Idolatry got people killed in the Old Testament. Idolatry is literally a damnable offense in the New Testament. No matter. Rather than argue on the basis of Biblical text itself, or discuss principles of interpretation or probe the nature of God’s self-revelation in the Holy Scriptures, I can just accuse my opponents of idolatry.
“I don’t worship the Bible,” I can say. “I worship God.” It’s a poor argument. What God do I worship, and how do I know him?
Christians claim to know God because God has revealed himself in history. He made himself known to Abraham and Moses and the prophets and, in the fullness of time, in Jesus of Nazareth. I, however, have no direct access to those events. The Holy Scriptures are the authoritative witnesses to God’ self-revelaiton in history. They are God’s authoritative self-disclosure to the post-apostolic generations. In that sense, they are God’s “word” to the church.
Now we could have a great discussion about what that means. How does God make himself known through the scriptures? What kinds of things does he make known? These are questions of interpretation. Without the scriptures, however, to say that “I worship God” is a content-less statement. Which God? What is he like? How do I know?
But what about my direct experience of God now? What about the Holy Spirit? Again, we could have a great discussion about how and to what degree God makes himself known directly to the human mind or human spirit. One of the reasons, however, that the church began to look on the writings of the New Testament as “scripture” was that people can say some pretty crazy things under the supposed inspiration of the Holy Spirit. How can I judge if my moment of inspiration is from God, or if it is really just a manifestation of my own ego? One of the words that Christians use to describe the Bible is “canon,” a word that means “measuring stick.” Whatever private revelation or experience I think I might have, I have to measure it against God’s public self-revelation.
But doesn’t this elevate the scriptures into something like a fourth member of the trinity? Aren’t we worshipping the Bible? Certainly not. We certainly don’t worship the leather binding or the printed page. We don’t even worship the words apart from whose words they are. If my wife or children tell me something, I should pay attention to them whether their words come in person or in an email. I can’t separate my attentiveness to their words from my love for them personally. If the Holy Scriptures are indeed God’s public self-expression to our generation, respectng him means respecting what he has to say.
Now some might object that “Jesus is God’s word, not the Bible.” It is true that Jesus is God’s word. But which Jesus? Again, the Holy Scriptures are our only divinely authoritative witness to who Jesus was and how the early church understood him. We have no direct access to Jesus. Certainly it is not the case that “In the beginning was the Bible.” The Bible is not the second person of the trinity. When we describe the Bible as the word of God, we are using “word” in a slightly different way than when we use it about Jesus. The New Testament is the word about the Word. It is the word about the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is the word about what God has done and how God has made himself known in history. If the Son is the Father’s self-revleation to humanity, the Bible is God’s way of making the Son known to the church of our generation.
How to interpret scripture is a matter of honest and vigorous debate within the church. Whether to place ourselves under the scriptures, however, is not.
To accuse my opponents of loving the Bible too much might just reveal my own form of idoltary. Let’s call it “ego-olatry” – the elevation of my own private judgments, biases, preferences and blind-spots above God’s self-revelation. If I have to choose, I think I would prefer to err on the side of the Bible.
- When God Says Something Offensive
- Out from Behind the Curtain
- God’s Bookshelf
- The Word of God and the People of God