The Bible is not God, nor do symbols on a page contain God. God is not hiding in the ink or paper molecules/atoms of the Bible. God existed before the Bible. Every time we read or quote a passage of Scripture in an authoritative way, it doesn’t mean God is speaking either to us or through us. It simply means we are reading symbols on a page that represent meanings, which we then interpret. Whether or not we truly understand the meaning or purpose of those symbols is something else entirely. It’s possible I am idolizing my understanding of those symbols, rather than worshipping (or even interpreting correctly) what they may be pointing toward.
A person could memorize the entire Bible. They could quote a Scripture verse for every problem, argument, or issue at hand. One could study the Bible deeply every day, for a lifetime. One could do all this and never know the God of whom it speaks. One could do this and be a mean, angry, and selfish person. One could do this and never lift a finger for another human being. One could do this and be nothing more than a judgment machine, handing out judgments, opinions, and confident assertions about the world and everyone else.
How do I know this? Because I’ve experienced it. I know some of these people. I stopped being impressed by people who’ve memorized a lot of Scripture a long time ago. Why? Because I knew too many of them who were awful people.
Bible knowledge will never substitute for a relationship with the subject of that book. Imagine a woman named Susan. Suppose I have a book about her life. I could read all day long about Susan and memorize much of the information. I might even fall in love with the Susan I read about.
However, it may be the words, the description, the sense I get from the book in my own mind that I’m actually in love with. Not Susan. I’ve fooled myself. I’m actually in love with my knowledge of Susan—my mental picture of her. I might think to myself, other people know things about her too, but not as much as I do. I love how much I know about her (see the problem there?).
However, unless I actually met Susan and spent time with her and got to know her personally, outside that book, I DO NOT REALLY KNOW SUSAN.
An anticipated response: “But if the Bible is the primary way to know Jesus, if he reveals himself, his thinking, his desires, what he wants from us, in that book, isn’t that what is really happening—we are in fact meeting and knowing him through this book?”
First, note how this type of response situates the person contextually in a time (modern) and place (America/the West) where the Bible as we know it is common and readily accessible—as if our time and location (a short blip on the radar screen of history) was the pinnacle of wisdom on the subject. The response forgets the first Christians (or the Hebrews before), who did not have what we think of as the complete Bible today. In fact, such would not exist until several centuries after Christ. And guess what, they still knew Jesus, they still knew God. Jesus did not need for a complete Bible to be present before he communicated with his people.
The first Christians had the Hebrew Scriptures and the Apostle’s letters in circulation, but this was not a literate culture—most could not read. They came to know Jesus through the spoken words and lives of others, not primarily from a book or Bible as we know it.
As Australian systematic theologian Geoff Thompson has noted:
“…the fundamentals of Christian faith were already in place in creeds, liturgies and summary statements of faith before the extent of the Christian Scriptures was settled. It was not the Bible which produced Christian belief. Rather, the Bible emerged in the process of clarifying the details of Christian faith. In other words, it was because you believed certain things about Jesus and God that led you to believe certain things about the Bible.”
Even in its complete form, regardless of how we think the Bible is inspired or authoritative, it is still not God. The reader, the interpreter is not God. Our thoughts, views, and opinions about what we think the text means, are not God. Our vocal or quoted expressions of the text, are not God. Our typing out a verse of Scripture is not God. Our theological frameworks are not God.
Second, such a response completely eschews the ancient mysticism of the Church and the idea that experience, intuition, reason, communal teaching, acting, and the liturgical inhabiting of the faith were also ways in which God as Trinity “spoke” and communicated with the Church, apart from the Bible or written forms.
And just a side note to all this: Fundamentalist Christians (and some evangelicals), when the Church is discussing same-sex attraction, marriage, abortion, the death penalty, gender roles, or any other complicated issue where there is respectful disagreement on both sides, if you think merely quoting a Scripture verse somehow settles the matter, then you are incredibly shallow and, frankly, ignorant. If you really think the people in those discussions weren’t aware of those verses, then I feel sorry for you. It means you are a child who has wandered into an adult conversation.
Too many fundamentalists (and many evangelicals) make of the Bible, and their understanding of it, an idol. They worship a book and their knowledge of it. Their “relationship” is with a book, rather than with the one of whom it speaks. Christian: Don’t make of your Bible an idol—don’t be an idol worshipper.
Photo via Pixabay, edited by Dan Wilkinson.
About Darrell Lackey
Darrell Lackey has been a lead pastor and currently works in the private sector. He is part of a home gathering of some amazing, wonderful Christians and a graduate of the University of San Francisco and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (Now Gateway). You can follow him or read more of his writings at Divergence (A Journey Out of Funda-gelicalism). He and his wife reside in Northern California.