Bibliolatry Placing the Bible in God's Place

In certain circles the word bibliolatry gets thrown around a lot.  I think it will be good for us to look at what it means, why it is important, and how we can respond.

What Is Biblolatry

Lots of people define it in lots of different ways.  Here’s a sampling:

Excessive reverence for the Bible as literally interpreted. ~Dictionary.com

Having excessive reverence for the letter of the Bible. ~Tim Challies

Worship of the Bible. It is often used as an accusation that those who take the Bible literally are placing the Bible in the position of God, worshiping the Bible rather than the God of the Bible. ~CompellingTruth.org

I think that I am more inclined toward the last definition.  Why?  Because I have known many hardcore fundamentalist Christians who attempt to interpret the Bible “literally” and who have extreme “reverence for the letter of the Bible” but who did not “worship” the Bible in any real sense.  To put it differently, they never placed the Bible in the place of God.

So, here’s my definition of biblolatry: Worshiping the Bible instead of the God of the Bible.

I want to unpack that a bit, because the phrase “worshiping the Bible” can be easily misunderstood.

According to the Bible itself, there is only one object of worship which is worthy of worship: God alone.  We see this most plainly in the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5.7).  Only God deserves that loftiest position.

And yet, from time to time and in a variety of ways, we may place the Bible in that position.  How might we do this?

All the things I’m about to list are things that I’ve been guilty of from time to time in my own life.  But they are all things that I now try to avoid:

  1. Treating a copy of the Bible we own with an unusual and superstitious amount of respect.  I’m sure you’ve seen what I’m talking about — not letting the Bible touch the floor, obsessing over the condition of each page of the Bible, never placing another book on top of the Bible, etc.  This is just silly.  The copy of the Bible in question is simply a collection of paper, ink, and (p)leather.  It is not God.
  2. Viewing the Bible as some sort of magical device to help us feel better.  I’ve done what I’m about to describe more often than I’d like to admit.  I’m having a bad day, so I flip his Bible open to a random page and scour that page for something to help mefeel better.  This is just silly.  Treating the Bible this way equates it with other silly things that people make into idols: like horoscopes and the like.
  3. Thinking that the words of the Bible are more important than the God who inspired them.  This one is harder to nail down into a concrete example.  But I fear that sometimes we all get so wrapped up in the words of the Bible itself that we become blinded to the God who stands behind them.  Again, this is just silly.  God is to be worshiped, not the Bible!  So perhaps from time to time we all need to lift our noses out of our Bibles and remember to direct the vast majority of spiritual attention toward God himself.  Even our study of the Bible should direct us toward God.  Instead of reading it for its own sake, maybe we should look for how our reading of the Bible points us to God, and dwell there instead of on the words themselves.
  4. Thinking that there exists within the Bible itself some secret code that will unlock the mysteries of the universe, the end times, etc., etc.  This isn’t one that I’ve gotten into much, though I dabbled in it a bit as a late teen thanks to my obsession then with eschatology.  This mentality has been most clearly seen in the all the Bible Code books (I’ll let you find them on your own if you want to).  This is just silly too.  The words of the Bible aren’t magic and they aren’t hiding anything.  Instead, they’re intended to turn us toward God, not Christian conspiracy theories!

Why Does Bibliolatry Matter?

You might be thinking something like this: Who cares Matt!  As long as someone is reading the Bible, that’s a good thing, right?  And you aren’t completely wrong.  It is better that someone worship the Bible than something else, I guess.

But in the end, bibliolatry is just as wrong as any other form of idolatry.  Why?  Because it violates the first commandment, plain and simple.

So then, if bibliolatry is wrong, which it is, and is to be avoided, which it should, then what is the correct way to view the Bible?  I’m so glad you asked!

Jesus talks about this very topic in John 5.  I’ve written some about this chapter of John before (here and here), but I’ll set the scene again.  Jesus healed a man who had been suffering for many, many years (John 5.1-9a).  This healing happened on the Sabbath, which made some Jewish leaders angry because they believed that what transpired was considered work and Jews weren’t to work on the Sabbath (John 5.9b-16a).  So these leaders confronted Jesus (John 5.16b) and Jesus came back at them with a long diatribe in which he expertly defended himself (John 5.17-47).

And during part of Jesus’ long speech he said this:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5.39-40)

Ouch!  Jesus really hits them where it hurts.  These Jewish leaders were likely Pharisees, who were considered to be experts in the law and taught it to the people with regularity.  And here Jesus tells them that their life’s work, studying the Scriptures diligently. was ultimately misguided.  This must have really struck at their core identity, which is never fun.

To put all of this in different words: Jesus told these Jewish leaders that they were guilty of bibliolatry.  They were worshiping the Bible and not the God of the Bible.  Specifically, they thought that they could be receive eternal life through their study of the Scriptures, when their only way of accessing eternal life, Jesus himself, was standing right in front of them!

So, to bring things back to today, bibliolatry matters because when we worship the Bible instead of Jesus, we run the risk of placing our faith and the hope of our salvation in the wrong place!

How Can We Respond to Bibliolatry?

Here are a few ideas about how to respond to the threat of bibliolatry:

  • Focus on Jesus. What makes the Bible special is that it is inspired by God and through it Jesus is best revealed to the world.  Thus, as we read the Bible, we should focus more on Jesus and less on the words themselves.  I know this is a fine distinction.  But we can easily be bogged down and miss Jesus who is revealed all throughout the Bible!
  • Allow the Bible to do its job.  In 2 Timothy 3.16-17 the job of the Bible is described this way: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  So as we read and study the Bible, are we allowing it to teach, rebuke, correct, and train us in righteousness?  And is their proof in our lives that our Bible reading and study is working?  What might that proof be?  Well the passage from 2 Timothy plainly tells us that if we let the Bible do its job in our lives, then we will be better equipped to do every good work.  Mindblown.  The true test of whether or not we are using the Bible properly just might be whether or not we are doing the good works that God has prepared for us to do (Ephesians 2.10)!
  • Read the Bible with others.  Like many other things in life, community can help!  If we only read the Bible alone, then we very well may become worshipers of it instead of Jesus.  Conversely, if we read and study the Bible with others, especially if that group of people is diverse in a variety of ways, then we can build in safeguards against bibliolatry.  (Please note that I’m not saying that we should never read the Bible alone.  I am, however, saying that we should always have a healthy dose of communal Bible reading!)
  • Obey what we read.  Perhaps the truest sign of bibliolatry is that we spend all of our time reading and studying the Bible and spend almost no time doing what it says (other than the whole “meditate on the law” part!).  Jesus didn’t die so that we could all sit with our faces gazing down at our Bible-filled laps.  No!  He died so that we could join him in his cosmic mission to make all things right by reconciling them himself!  And as we read the Bible, it should inspire us to join in that mission, not avoid it by merely learning more about it!

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Studying the Bible is greatly important!  I’ve devoted my entire adult life to this task.  But our love for the Bible should never rival our love for Jesus and our devotion to the Bible should never deter us from living out the mission of Jesus in the real world.

 

The danger of bibliolatry is real but quite subtle.  Do you agree?  If so, let me know how you think we should deal with this danger in the comments below.  If not, why not?  Let me know below!

#SmallGroups: New Wine Podcast #010 How can small groups help us be more missional?

Do small groups help or hinder followers of Jesus becoming more missional?  My answer: depends on the groups!

 

I answer this question in my latest podcast.  You can listen to it on the bottom of this post, on iTunes, or on Stitcher.

If you like it, would you please rate it and even leave a review on iTunes or Stitcher?  That would be super cool!

Thanks!

 

 

The Power of Labels: Proverbs 14.31

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I was recently asked to do a devotional at a local, Christian, non-profit organization.  I jumped at the opportunity because I really believe in the work that this group does (justice-focused ministries for folks in my very neighborhood) and because I always love sharing from the Bible with people.

But as I started thinking and praying about what I wanted to talk about I started hitting a brick wall.  What can or should I say to a group of believers who care deeply and passionately about the tangible good news of the kingdom of God?  Should I do a cheerleader kind of devotional which will pat them all on their proverbial backs?  Should I challenge them to give more deeply to the cause of the gospel?  Or should I approach this all a bit differently?

I chose the latter — I chose to look at a biblical picture of how we are to interact with those who are oppressed, those who are in need.  I was hoping that this would be powerful for two reasons: 1) That it would give them some Scriptural validation for the work that they do; and 2) That they would in fact be challenged by the witness of the Bible with regard to those who are impoverished.

While there are hundreds and hundreds of verses about poverty, those who are in need, and God’s opinion toward those who are oppressed, some verses are more powerful to me than others.  As I was trying to decide which of these verses to select, I went over to World Vision’s website and read through some of the verses regarding poverty that they highlight there.

Proverbs 14.31 stood out.  Here it is: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

The very first thing that ran through my head when I read this verse anew was how it connected with Matthew 25.37-40.  There, as in Proverbs 14, the way that the oppressed are treated reflects back on God himself.  To put it differently, those who are poor and God are specially connected.  In fact, I think that we can safely say that when we look into the lives of those who are in need we catch a glimpse of God’s character that we can’t see elsewhere.  And we can say with great confidence that God cares deeply about how those who are impoverished are treated.

As I was unpacking these ideas with the group at the non-profit most of the non-verbal feedback I got was positive.  I felt that I had taken the correct approach.  So I continued talking as I had planned.  I used the language of the text in Proverbs 14 as I talked, namely “poor” and “needy,” and didn’t think twice about it.

Then after I finished my devotional one of the members of the team, whom I greatly respect and I count as a true ally in the work of the kingdom, noted that he didn’t like the word “poor” all that much, even though the Bible uses it a bunch.  After he said this, many others agreed heartily!  They pointed out, rightly so, that the words “poor” and “needy” are judgmental, or at least they can be percieved to be so.  For some people being labeled as “poor” or “needy” brings with it shame and/or frustration.

Some of the preferred words that were shared with me were “vulnerable,” “marginalized,” and “underprivileged.”  I’m happy with all of these terms because they do tend to be less judgmental.

However, the text in Proverbs 14 might help here a bit.  The Hebrew word, dal, that the NIV renders “poor,” is an evocative word.  It means “one who is low” or “one who is thin.”  When applied in different contexts, this word can be translated as “weak” or “poor.”  The implication seems to be that the pressures of life, injustice, and oppression can press people down and squeeze them.

When I shared this lexical information with the folks who worked at the non-profit they seemed excited about it!  They were all aware, either personally or through those whom they served, that lots and lots of people in our world are “squeezed” beyond belief.

The word in the second half of the verse, which in Hebrew is ebyon, is different.  It is more clearly to be understood as “one who is in material need,” i.e., it really does mean “poor” as in “doesn’t have much money or many possessions.”  Sometimes, of course, the context of a passage may lead one to translate ebyon as “oppressed” but that is natural enough: all throughout history those who don’t have much have been taken advantage of by others.

However, because the two words are presented as synonyms in tandem, the more specific word, elyon, controls the meaning of the less specific word, dal.  Thus, both words do have a material context.  Both have to do with folks who are in need financially.  However, it would be wise of us to use words that are less shame- and frustration-inducing.  Perhaps instead of using “poor” we can use “dejected.”  And instead of “needy” we can use “person in need.”

Lastly, how does the text encourage us to interact with the dejected and those in need?  The NIV says that we are “to be kind” to them.  This translation isn’t all that good in my opinion.  The basic meaning of this word, hanan in Hebrew, is to show favor or grace.  In other words, God’s word is calling us to yearn toward the poor, to extend to them tangible expressions of the love and mercy God has shown to us.  And one simple way we can show grace toward those who are poor is to use the least offensive words to describe them as possible.

The labels we use are important, especially when they are used of people.  It’s well past time that we used more discretion when applying labels to human beings!