“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't.”
Bibliolatry usually comes in the form of an accusation, that is to say the word itself is derogatory. The word is usually used by progressive Christians or, dare I say, progressives feigning to be conservative to describe Christians who they might label as "fundamentalists" or "extremist" who hold the Bible as authoritative. The term itself is used to suggest that a person or group of people have committed the sin of worshiping the Bible rather than God. This would be the sin of Romans 1; the sin of confusing the creation and worshiping it, with the creator who we are supposed to worship. In short, it is the accusation that someone lost the distinction between the Bible and the God who inspired the Bible. But what does Bibliolatry really look like? Is it a real problem? If so, what would that look like?
I've been told on multiple occasions that "Bibliolatry" is a problem in evangelicalism. Some might even suggest that I am a Bibliolater (if that is actually a word). Angela Parker, a progressive Christian and professor of New Testament and Greek at McAfee suggests that this is a real problem. It hinders any real growth and maturity in the Christian faith. In her book If God Still Breathes, Why Can't I? She says, "Think of the phrase “the Bible says” and how it is often considered the be-all and end-all in an argument. The biblical text becomes a bludgeoning tool used to exert supremacist authoritarianism; what the Bible says (or rather, how the wielder interprets what the Bible says) goes" (p. 45). Parker makes the same mistake many make; she commits a category error. The way one interprets or uses the Bible is different and distinct from the authority of the Bible itself. Nevertheless, this deserves a little more examination. What exactly is the Bible?
Evangelical Christians believe the Bible is the word of God, not God Himself, but His word. It is not expected that non-Christians agree with this sentiment, but within Christianity this is a fundamental belief. The question of how we got the Bible requires a lengthy discussion that cannot be had here. For a full treatment see, From God to Us. Here is a short description of how this belief is derived. Paul instructs his young protégé, Timothy, that he should trust what he has been taught and that "πᾶσα γραφὴ" (all writings or Scripture) is "θεόπνευστος" (breathed by God). Timothy is to remember what he has been taught and the Scriptures are an integral part of that. The reason Paul admonishes Timothy in this way is so that Timothy can avoid being deceived (2 Tim. 3). In other words, the word of God, the Bible is to be the ultimate authority precisely because it is the word of God! That isn't the only relevant passage, there are many. Jesus reliance on the Old Testament for his own teaching, most prevalent in the Sermon on the Mount, speaks volumes. If the God-Man relies on Scripture as authoritative, shouldn't we? The author of Hebrews reminds his readers that God spoke through the prophets, but most recently through Jesus. The New Testament is a witness to the person of Jesus. Acts 1:8 is instruction to the apostles to be witnesses of Jesus, that includes their writings and the writings that record their witness. Paul not only was commissioned by Jesus himself, but the apostles confirmed His teachings (Gal. 2; Acts 13). There is much more Biblical evidence. While this may not be convincing to the non-Christian, for the Christian this speaks to the authority of the Bible. If it is God's word, then it has ultimate authority.
The Bible doesn't have ultimate authority because it is God, it has ultimate authority because it is the word of God.
What would Bibliolatry look like? To my knowledge, no one is putting the Bible on an altar and singing worship songs to the Bible. No one is praying, "dear Bible..." No one, to my knowledge, is making sacrifices to the Bible. While I do not know for sure, I can't imagine that those who make the accusation of Bibliolatry mean any of those things. So, what do they mean? Angela Parker uses the example of the phrase, "The Bible says..." being wielded as authoritative. Parker is right about one thing, there are people who hold their own interpretation of the Bible with the same authority as the text itself. That is wrong. However, let's look at the clear teachings of Scripture. Let's use the example of Exodus 20:14 "You shall not commit adultery." Is there anything unclear about this teaching? We all know what adultery is and we know it is prohibited. There aren't any exceptions to the commandment. If a person comes along and attempts to justify adultery with some kind of sophistry and faulty interpretation, it is the interpretation that is at fault, not the text of Scripture. The command against adultery stands regardless of whether there is faulty interpretation and regardless of whether or not the faulty interpreter erroneously claims his interpretation to be authoritative.
If the Bible actually says adultery is wrong and the interpretation of that command is correct, then, and only then, it is authoritative. Is that Bibliolatry? If so, count me guilty.
More often than not, that is not the issue. The accusation of Bibliolatry is actually an attack on the authority of Scripture. Parker and others would say they hold the Bible to be authoritative, just not ultimately authoritative. In fact, Parker says, "I also love the biblical text, and it is an authority in my life but not the authority in my life" (p. 45). Parker reduces the Bible to an authority that is on equal grounds with other authorities in her life. This enables her to pick and choose where the Bible is authoritative and where it is not. I can't help but ask, who is the ultimate authority for Parker and others like her? It is hard to imagine that the authority in Parker's life is anyone or anything except her. Isn't that the same sin Adam and Eve committed when they thought they could defy God and eat the fruit of knowledge of good and evil and become like God?
If the Bible is the word of God, then it is hard to imagine giving it too much authority in the life of the Christian. In the end, accusations of Bibliolatry are based on the straw man fallacy. No one is worshiping the Bible. Some may inappropriately elevate their own interpretation of Scriptures that are less clear to the level of authoritative, but that is another question. No doubt some will claim clear Scriptures are unclear or that unclear Scriptures are clear. Those wrongs need to be challenged. But accusations of Bibliolatry serve no good purpose. They only undermine the rightful authority of Scripture.
Those making the "Bibliolatry" accusation should look in the mirror. Who is the authority in your life? Is it God? If so, then the word of God should be authoritative as well. Worship God by being obedient to His word, not by undermining its authority.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.