Optional page text here. The Beast's Lair: Bibliolatry

Monday, October 06, 2008


"Let us beware lest our words and thoughts go beyond what the Word of God tells us. We must leave to God His own knowledge. . .and conceive Him as He makes Himself known to us, without attempting to discover anything about His nature apart from His Word."

"We owe to Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God."
-John Calvin

"My conscience is captive to the Word of God."
-Martin Luther

Bibliolatry in its simplest form is the worship of the Bible. The concept of bibliolatry and the accompanying accusations of its growing presence among conservative evangelicals is becoming more popular among bloggers, writers, and religious commentators. This is especially true for those who are at best cynical and at worst hostile toward the SBC since the years of the so-called "resurgence." The argument is fairly simple. We worship God, not the Bible. The danger of bibliolatry is a strict and legalistic slant toward propositional truth rather than the freedom of worshipping and serving God and learning and growing in faith due to the experiential element of the relationship. Denominational conventions and local churches are being urged to carefully examine their approach to Scripture, lest it overshadow a sincere relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

What are we to make of such a claim?

First, no one ever admits to practicing bibliolatry. Even the most fundamental conservative would gasp at the notion of worshipping the Bible in place of God. The significance of this should not be overlooked. Most in the church would agree that God alone is to be worshipped. God alone is to be praised. God alone is merciful. God alone saves. So in part, the concept of bibliolatry serves as a welcomed reminder of the repulsive notion of ascribing worship and ultimate worth to anyone or anything but God. This is, of course, nothing new. I have heard preachers all my life speak to the dangers of acquiring a “head knowledge” of the Bible but not a “heart knowledge.” A person can know the Bible backwards and forwards, but if they are not living it through a relationship with Christ, then it is meaningless for faith.

But that does not quite capture the full argument of the bibliolatry position, at least in the ways I have heard it pronounced. Most are not as concerned with the "head knowledge" or priority aspect of the issue as they are with the way in which we receive a full and complete revelation and experience of Christ. The Bible, they say, is indeed the Word of God but does not disclose a full revelation of truth. Those additional “mysteries” can only be ascertained through a personal relationship with Christ. Boy, that sure sounds good. So why am I skeptical? Here are a few reasons why I think this line of thinking is dangerous.

1. Arguing for a distinct and separate means of revealed truth through Jesus apart from Scripture creates a fallacious distinction between the message of the Word of God (the Bible) and the Incarnate Word of God (Jesus Christ). Obviously, we can and should distinguish them in form and substance; one is the written Word while the other is the 2nd person of the Trinity. Yet, the two always perfectly complement one another. In other words, our experience and growth in Jesus Christ must and will follow the ways he has been revealed in Scripture. This is what the first quote above by John Calvin is all about. I think it is extraordinarily helpful.

2. How does one judge the credibility of newly acquired truths from a solely existential basis? This is the same major problem I see with denying inerrancy. There must a standard of some kind, but if new truths are found solely through a relationship with Christ apart from Scripture’s teaching, who decides what is orthodox and what is heretical? Only the one in the relationship can make that judgment call which means us preachers can call it quits. (Denying inerrancy creates a similar problem in that there must be some set of criteria by which a passage is deemed correct or not. Who has that set of criteria? God of course, and I just don’t think He messed it up the first go around).

3. From a pastoral perspective, I have been in full time church ministry for over a decade. I have yet to serve in a church where I was concerned that our people were putting too much emphasis on the Bible. I have yet to know a pastor who dealt with such a problem. We are correctly trying to encourage more bible reading, more bible study, and more emphasis on the bible. The issue in churches across the country today is certainly not an over adoration of Scripture. Thus, when we hear the cries of bibliolatry, they are usually masked in a political covering and targeted at the elite few in positions of leadership with whose interpretations and direction they do not agree. To challenge those leader’s positions is fine and good, but let’s be realistic. I wish the problem we had in our local church was an overemphasis on Scripture.

4. The example of Christ is perhaps the most helpful of all. He dealt with what would have been considered to be bibliolators; the Pharisees. They knew every word of Scripture, but they did not know God. Jesus’ response to them should parallel our response to those in similar circumstances. He turns them back to the Bible and he certainly does not cite the Bible as being the problem. He says, “have you not read. . .?” The problem was not the Pharisee’s devotion to and love of the Law. It was their lack of application. Which brings me to my last point.

5. I think the entire issue of bibliolatry centers around application. I agree with my colleagues who warn of loving Scripture more than loving Christ. I agree when they warn of loving Scripture more than loving each other. But the issue is not one of discovering new truths. Rather, it is failing to properly apply what the Bible teaches. So, the call for Christian leaders is to faithfully preach the message of the Bible and its application. The call for Christian laypeople is to work every day to better apply Scripture to our lives. The call of us all is to grow in our relationship with Christ. How do we do that? Read our Bible. And do what it says to do. Pray. Love God more. Love your neighbor more. Be thankful.


Blogger Michael Ruffin said...


This is a good, well-reasoned post. I'm glad that you put these thoughts to writing.

I would take some issue with your statements "This is especially true for those who are at best cynical and at worst hostile toward the SBC since the years of the so-called 'resurgence'" and "when we hear the cries of bibliolatry, they are usually masked in a political covering and targeted at the elite few in positions of leadership with whose interpretations and direction they do not agree."

While there is some truth to your first statement, I do regret that my friends in your generation cannot get in a way-back machine and live through the so-called "conservative resurgence." Philip, trust me--that movement had little or nothing to do with Jesus. The folks who did the "resurging" used brutal tactics, including character assassination, that would make the 2008 Presidential Election look like powder-puff football. It was done not in the name of allegiance to Jesus but rather in the name of allegiance to the Bible. That was terribly ironic, of course, because people who believed the Bible, particularly what the Bible said about Jesus, would not have behaved in such ways.

Now, in some ways we have to get past all of that. But I would call you to an appreciation of what actually happened in that movement. The battle cry was "biblical inerrancy" and much harm was done under that banner. So I would encourage you to have some sympathy with those who saw and experienced what was done by those who made fidelity to the Bible, by which they actually meant fidelity to their view of the Bible, the supreme test of faith.

Enough of that.

Here is the larger point as I see it: there is a difference between the "written Word" of the Bible and the "living Word" that is Jesus Christ our Lord. The Bible itself makes claims for Jesus that it does not make for itself. For example, the Bible says that Scripture is "God-breathed." The Bible also says that "God breathed" the breath of life into Adam. Did the fact that Adam was "God-breathed" keep Adam perfect? What then is the implication for Scripture being "God-breathed"? I know, I know--the argument for inerrancy applies only to the original autographs--but I don't have one of those any more than I have the first man in front of me. But of Jesus Christ the Bible says that "God was in Christ." It says that in Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. My point is simply this: the Bible itself makes claims for Jesus that the Bible does not make for itself. My submission to the authority of the Bible requires me to take that seriously.

The truth is, I think, that for many evangelicals and certainly for many fundamentalists, the Bible basically functions as a fourth member of the Trinity (I know that's mathematically unsound but I can't figure out another way to say it). You're right--nobody would admit to that, but it's still the case. I promise you this--in all of the SBC and state convention meetings that I've attended over the years, I've heard precious little preaching about Jesus but I've heard quite a lot about the inerrancy of Scripture. The SBC needs to take care lest a particular view of the Bible or particular interpretations of certain texts become a greater test of fellowship that a common devotion to Jesus Christ. They may already be there.

And I agree that the Bible points to Christ.

But here's the thing: salvation is in and through Jesus Christ, not in and through the Bible.

October 08, 2008 8:57 AM  

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