Have We Made the Bible Into an Idol?
Every now and then, I spot the following proclamation on a bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” If only Scriptural interpretation were really that easy!
After reading your responses to my post, “When a Theology Just Doesn’t Feel Right,” I felt it appropriate to address the topic of biblical authority, as our discussion often drifted in that direction. I’d like to explore the idea that the way the Bible is being used in modern Christian circles, particularly among conservative evangelicals, may in fact border on idolatry.
As Micah noted, even a Christian apologists committed to the doctrine of inerrancy has suggested that something is amiss. Apologist J.P. Morland wrote in a 2007 article, “Today, I am more convinced of inerrancy than at any time in my Christian life, but the charge of bibliolatry, or at least a near, if not kissing cousin, is one I fear is hard to rebut. To be more specific, in the actual practices of the Evangelical community in North America, there is an over-commitment to Scripture in a way that is false, irrational, and harmful to the cause of Christ.”
Moreland’s main objection seems to be with the notion that the Bible is the sole source of knowledge about God, morality, faith, and practice, when there are other forces at work, such as reason, experience and historical Creeds. I share in Moreland's reservations in this area, but also have concerns about how the term "inerrant" is used.
Rollins on Conceptual Idolatry
This topic coincides nicely with some ideas put forth by Peter Rollins in our Book Club selection for the month of May, How (Not) to Speak of God.
In Chapter 1, Rollins briefly explores the notion of idolatry. He writes that “the term can be understood to refer to any attempt that would render the essence of God accessible, bringing God into either aesthetic visibility (in the form of a physical structure, such as a statue) or conceptual visibility (in the form of a concept, such as a theological system.)…The only significant difference between the aesthetic idol and the conceptual idol lies in the fact that the former reduces God to a physical object while the latter reduces God to an intellectual object.” (12)
Rollins clarifies that “idolatry does not rest in the idea of the object itself but rather in the eye of the beholder. In other words, it is the way one engages with an object or idea that makes an idol and idol rather than some kind of property within it.” (12)
Rollins suggests that something like idolatry may be going on in the Western Church in regard to the Bible.
He writes that “in the Bible we find a vast array of competing stories concerning the character of God that are closely connected to the concrete circumstances of those who inhabit the narrative. Just as personality tests offer us an unrealistic image of ourselves as a single whole, overlooking the fact that we are not only many different things in many different situations but also changing over time, so Western theology has all too often reduced the beautifully varied and complex descriptions of God found in the Bible to a singular reading that does violence to its vibrant nature.” (12)
At the end of the post, you will see how Rollins resolves this issue, suggesting that the very nature of the Bible protects it from becoming an idol.
Picking and Choosing: Everybody’s Doing It
Last week, a reader responded to one of my posts by saying, “I guess I don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing scripture for my own personal comfort and conscience.” Another wrote, “The cold, hard fact remains that if you don’t accept all of the Bible, then you are the ultimate judge of which parts you do accept. That leaves you in the position of picking and choosing. This is a dangerous place to be since by nature we are all evil, corrupt people, bent on our own self desires.”
But don’t we all pick and choose which portions of the Bible we take literally? Very few evangelicals support polygamy, which was practiced by the godly patriarchs of the Bible. I don’t know a whole lot of friends who refuse to eat shrimp because they think it’s an abomination, as it was described in the Old Testament, (using the same terminology used to describe homosexuality.) Most mainline evangelical churches do not require women to cover their heads, despite Paul’s most emphatic admonition in 1 Corinthians that they do so. And I’ve only met a few people who have taken Jesus literally and sold all of their belongings to give to the poor.
We pick and choose which Scripture we want to take seriously every day! We do it with our theological positions as well. For example, as an inclusivist, I really like the Revelation 5:9 passage in which the saints claim of Christ that “with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” You might say that I take that verse literally. Now, I could claim that exclusivists are “picking and choosing” which passages they take literally, to the neglect of this one. However, I also see that there are other passages that can be used to support the exclusivist view, so despite the fact that I interpret those passages differently, I’m not prepared to claim that exclusivists are the ones picking and choosing. We all are!
An Infallible Scripture Requires an Infallible Reader
This brings me to my main objection to the use of the term inerrancy A friend of mine once summarized his commitment to inerrancy by proclaiming that “the Bible is the only thdoctrine of ing unaffected by the Fall.”
While I appreciate such reverence and respect for the Bible, I think the problem with this statement, and with the doctrine of inerrancy as it is often explained, is that it (inadvertently) relies on the inerrancy of the reader to hold together. You see, the Bible must ALWAYS be interpreted. It does not exist in a vacuum. As Crystal Downing argues, "The Bible is not self-interpreting. Humans must infer meaning even as they seek to extract God’s truth.” Intuition is not the only thing subject to (mis)interpretation.
God has chosen to reveal Himself with human words, written by human hands, read by human eyes, interpreted by human brains. Mitch is right when he says “we are all evil, corrupt people, bent on our own self desires.” Whether we like to admit it or not, whenever we read the Bible, we bring with us those selfish desires, those fallible minds, those cultural constructs and presuppositions. I really struggle to embrace the idea that a person can somehow read the Bible with 100 percent objectivity without interpreting it and without being influenced by his or her interpretive community. It doesn’t make sense to me.
A lot of Protestants object to the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility. As evangelicals, have we perhaps transferred that dogma to the Bible, resulting in the splintering off of countless denominations as each claims its interpretation as God’s own?
Of course, I’m not saying that we cannot interact with God through the Bible or make truth claims about what it says. However, I think that as evangelicals we must keep in mind how often we create the Bible in our own image. We must be wary of claiming that our interpretations are infallible, using the doctrine of inerrancy to immediately discount any ideas that differ from our own. And I think we must be wary of claiming that we can somehow read the Bible objectively, without a variety of other factors (tradition, experience, and reason) playing a role…which brings me to the lovely Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
We’ve got to keep in mind that having four different versions of the Bible stacked on top of one another in our bedrooms, available for reading at any time, is a relatively new phenomenon. For centuries, Christians have interacted with Scripture without being able to read it for themselves. They relied on priests or on oral tradition to learn and interpret the beloved Bible stories with which we are so familiar today.
(I think we underestimate the role that the Enlightenment has played in our belief in objective observation. This modernist-influenced hyper-individualism, the idea that “it’s just me and the Bible,” is naïve in that it ignores the other powerful ways in which God speaks to us…both today and throughout the Church’s history.)
As I mentioned before, I’m a big fan of what has been called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. John Wesley used four different sources in coming to theological conclusions:
2. Tradition (Church history)
3. Reason (rational thinking and sensible interpretation)
4. Experience (intuition, personal spiritual journey, etc.)
It is hard to argue that one can exist independently of the others. For example, we must have faith in our Christian tradition in order to give authority to the Bible because members of the early church picked which writings would be included in the Bible. We have to use reason to interpret the Bible and to pick and choose which traditions are most fitting in our culture. All of this is filtered through the lens of our experience. To say that one of these epistemological pillars ought to be elevated over the others…or that one doesn’t need to be there…throws everything off balance.
As I mentioned before, this is the attitude rejected by Moreland. However, Moreland still argues that Scripture is the ultimate authority.
The Purpose of the Bible
Finally, I think it’s appropriate to examine what the Bible says about itself.
Paul wrote that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (I Timothy 3:16-17)
I believe that the primary purpose of the Bible is to equip us to do good works, not to help us win arguments, not prove other people wrong, and not to support our own lusts for power or domination of others.
I like what Brian McLaren says about this in A Generous Orthodoxy:
“Interestingly, when Scripture talks about itself, it doesn’t use the language we often use in our explanations of its value. For modern Western Christians, words like authority, inerrancy, infallibility, revelation, objective, absolute, and literal are crucial. Many churches or denominations won’t allow people to become members unless they use these words in their description of Scripture…Oddly, I’ve never heard of a church or denomination that asked people to affirm a doctrinal statement like this: The purpose of Scripture is to equip God’s people for good works. Shouldn’t a simple statement like this be far more important than statements with words foreign to the Bible’s vocabulary about itself?” (182-183)
Rollins on the Bible as Idolatry-Proof
In How (Not) to Speak of God, Rollins concludes that the greatest hope for escaping an idolatrous relationship with the Bible is finding refuge in the dynamic and diverse narrative of the Bible itself. In one of my favorite passages from the book, he writes:
“The Bible itself is a dynamic text full of poetry, prose, history, law and myth all clashing together in a cacophony of voices. We are presented with a warrior God and a peacemaker, a God of territorial allegiance and a God who transcends all territorial divides, an unchanging God and a God who can be redirected…
“Evidently, such conflict were not judged to be problematic [by the writers and compilers of Scripture], but were accepted. Indeed, such fissures help to prevent us from forming an idolatrous image of God, ensuring that none of us can legitimately claim to understand God as God really is. Consequently, the text bars any attempt at colonization by individuals or groups who claim to possess an insight into its true meaning.” (13)
So what do you think? Have we made the Bible into an idol? Does the concept of inerrancy place too much emphasis on the infallibility of the reader? What is the primary purpose of the Bible?
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