Feedback Files – Bibliolatry

It has been quite a while since I posted a “Feedback Files” article. I guess I have taken to answering more correspondence privately than publicly. For those not familiar with the term, “Feedback Files” refers to the times that I use this site to answer questions sent to me by readers. I’m often willing to research and address questions or theological conundrums. Of course I am really quite unqualified to answer many of these questions (except the ones on web design), but I can at least fall back on a great collection of books.

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I recently received a question from a reader who asked “can someone worship (idolize) the Bible?” Is it possible that a person can make the Bible into an idol? She mentioned a Sunday school teacher who had told her, in response to some of her “Reformed answers” to questions on the book of Romans, that he “needed to be careful not to worship the Bible.” And so she wanted to know if it was possible to do so.

In brief, I can affirm that it is entirely possible for a person to idolize the Bible. If I were to place a Bible upon an altar, light some candles around it, and bow down before the Bible, I would be worshipping a collection of paper, ink and leather (or “pleather”). I would be idolizing a created object rather than worshipping God. This would be no better than worshipping the image of a man or animal carved from wood or stone. But this is not what is most often meant when a person accuses another of idolizing the Bible. So today we will take a brief look at “bibliolatry” which we can define as “having excessive reverence for the letter of the Bible.”

I have been accused of being a bibliolater. I’m sure many other Reformed Christians have as well. This charge is most often levelled against a person who affirms the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture. It may also be levelled against a person who affirms the sufficiency of Scripture. Dr. A. William Merrell, in an article entitled “Bibliolatry–A Fraudulent Accusation,” discusses the charge that Southern Baptists are bibliolaters. He makes an insightful observation: “The truth is that those crying ‘bibliolatry’ may be covering their own aberrant view of Scripture.” It is truth that the charge of bibliolatry is most often spoken by those who have the lowest, most liberal theology of Scripture. These people object to what they feel is a woodenness of faith and practice that stems from too literal an understanding of Scripture.

The fact is that we, as sinful humans, have lost our ability to have unmediated access to God. Adam and Eve, before they fell into sin, had the privilege of walking and talking with God. They had direct, face-to-face access to the Creator through which they could walk and talk with Him in the cool of the day. This is a privilege we eagerly anticipate enjoying again when the Lord returns. But in the meantime, polluted as we are by sin, we have severed that direct communication so that we must now rely on the mediated word of God. That word is given to us through Scripture. Merrell quotes John Stott who once said, “God has clothed His thoughts in words, and there is no way to know Him except by knowing the Scriptures. … We can’t even read each other’s minds, much less what is in the mind of God.” And that is the truth. We can only know God through His word. So let’s seek to understand this word and see what it teaches about our attitude towards Scripture.

The Bible, as we commonly refer to it, is the word of God. But it is not the only word of God. God has, after all, revealed Himself in other ways, such as through creation, through visions and through the words of Jesus, some of which made their way into Scripture. John Frame, in Salvation Belongs To The Lord, defines the word of God as “God’s powerful, authoritative self-expression.” That seems to me a good way of defining the concept. God’s word is powerful in that it does more than merely communicate, but also creates and controls. Paul says that the preaching of this word is not only communication but also power. God’s word is authoritative in that it is not only power but also language. God shows his authority over nature by calling things and by giving them names. He has authority over the people He created and He expects that we obey His word. And finally, God’s word is self-expression. The words of God reveal not only his power and authority, but also Himself. Frame says, “the word is the very presence of God among us, the place where God dwells. So you cannot separate the word of God from God himself.”

Did you catch that? You cannot separate the word of God from God himself. The word reveals God. Frame goes on to show that the speech of God has divine attributes. It is righteous, faithful, wonderful, holy, eternal, omnipotent and perfect (most of these are drawn from Psalm 119). These are attributes of God and are, thus, also attributes of His word. He shows also that the word of God is an object of worship, quoting Psalm 56:4 where David writes, “In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” The Psalmist repeats this in verse ten, saying “In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise…” “This is remarkable, for only God is the object of religious praise. To worship something other than God is idolatrous. Since David worships the word here, we cannot escape the conclusion the word is divine.”

And, in fact, the word is God, for in the familiar words of the Apostle John we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This verse identifies God’s speech, His self-expression, with God Himself. “The Word that ‘was God’ in verse 1 was not only Jesus, as verse 14 clearly indicates (‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’), but also the speech of God commanding the light to come out of darkness in Genesis 1:3.”

Thus we see a unity between God and the word. God is the word and the word is God. The word is where God is and God is where the word is. God’s word is the presence of God among us. What is the implication of this? We’ll turn one final time to John Frame. “God’s word, wherever we find it, including Scripture, is an object worthy of reverence. I’m not advocating bibliolatry, which is worship of a material object with paper, ink, and so on. The paper and ink are creatures, not God, and we shouldn’t bow down to them. But the message of the Bible, what is says, is divine, and we should receive it with praise and worship.”

It is worth quoting the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith. “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God.”

And so, when we read the word or come under the teaching of the word, we must realize that we are in the very presence of God. We do not worship pen and ink, but we do treat Scripture with reverence, regarding it as the very presence, power and authority of God. If we rely on Scripture, regard it as infallible, inerrant and sufficient, and understand it to have many of the very attributes of God (the attributes that Scripture gives itself), we do not err. And we certainly do not become bibliolaters. I would suggest that it would be very difficult to have too high a view of Scripture. S.M. Baugh, in an article printed in Modern Reformation concludes that “what some may call bibliolatry is not always- indeed, is rarely such.” And I agree. There may be some who make an idol of Scripture, but very few. It is much more likely that our theology of Scripture is too low, too human, too safe.