Is Bibliolatry Possible

Steven M. Baugh
Wednesday, August 8th 2007
May/Jun 1996

I'm not wont to read letters to editors. Time, I suppose, or a perceived lack thereof. Or perhaps it's outrage. All the posturing and petty outrage of our age shows up there. But I did read one letter in a religious periodical recently. It was from a science department chairman in a Christian college whom I will call Professor Psmith (the "P" is silent as in psychosis), a pseudonym of course. Professor Psmith tells us in his capacity as a "scientifically trained Christian" that he observes a grave danger rising from "North American fundamentalism" and its handling of the Bible. (We may assume that being trained scientifically has made Professor Psmith's powers of observation more piquant here than in the rest of us.) Specifically, he believes that "creation scientists" and their followers tend "to transform the biblical text, or a set of human assertions regarding the text, into an object of worship: biblicism bordering on bibliolatry."

Now, I would like to set aside the creation-evolution issue entirely, as interesting as it is. I only quote Professor Psmith here because he invokes the charge of bibliolatry against his opponents in this internecine squabble of the Scientifically Trained. In doing so, I must report in my capacity as a "theologically trained Christian" that Professor Psmith has wandered beyond his proper realm of pterodactyls and psyllae by bringing up bibliolatry. Idolatry of any sort is a theological idea, not a scientific one. And before he or anyone else may cry, "Bibliolater!", a prior question must be asked: Is bibliolatry possible? Because, of course, if it is not, then no one does it.

Oh, people do say that bibliolatry has been practiced in the past. For instance, in a somewhat sympathetic and therefore refreshing discussion on Calvinistic worship, J. S. Whale gravitates to the idea that some of Calvin's heirs turned the Bible into "an infallible legal code." How? By actually using the Decalogue in their Sunday morning worship and by fencing the Communion Table. And you know what these nefarious acts indicate: "The Biblicism which was the ruling principle of the whole system too often degenerated into Bibliolatry." (1) But we are not helped much by Professor Whale's use of the term. He tosses both "biblicism" and "bibliolatry" at us without clear definition and brings in no real evidence to justify these incriminations. "Is bibliolatry possible?" still begs an answer.

I should make it abundantly clear right here that neither Professors Psmith nor Whale seriously believes that anyone practices bibliolatry in any literal sense. Bowing down to the Book? No, not likely. John R. W. Stott does take pains to calm our fears in his own case. In his handbook on sermon preparation he tells us that he often kneels in prayer over his message with an open Bible before him. "This is not because I am a bibliolater and worship the Bible," Stott scrupulously explains. (2) He need not have worried. Not only our magnanimity, but our common sense would infallibly steer us away from believing that he or anyone else engages in literal worship of bits of paper today. (Though trees themselves have received quite too much veneration in the past. And who can tell about the future with the current craze over Mother Gaia?)

So bibliolatry must occur in some figurative sense of the term. Now, when I first read Professor Psmith's statement above, I thought he was saying that certain (creation science) interpretations of the biblical text are idolatrous. He could have expressed himself more clearly.

Is bibliolatry really possible?

Let us begin with God. Always. The God of the Book is a jealous God. He makes himself perfectly clear on this point. He is ardently offended when men or angels give worship due to him to anyone or to anything else. But, granted that we do not do obeisance to the folios, is God offended when we ascribe certain attributes of God himself to the ideas, truths, even to the very words of Holy Scripture? (Ideas and truths are best communicated through words, by the way. They are most elusive otherwise.)

For example, ideas like "infallibility" are ascribed to the Bible, because we believe that God himself is infallible. He cannot by his nature make a mistake. To do so would be to deny himself and to be God no more. Therefore, if the Bible does contain mistakes, either the infallible God did not inspire it, or he mistakenly (and cruelly) left us, more than six score thousand who know not their right hand from their left hand, to shift for ourselves in matters of truth. But God does nothing unfinished or unwell. As he puts it, "My word will not return to me void," "Behold, it was very good." So is it vulgar idol chasing to say that the Bible itself by good and necessary inference cannot contain error? Is God affronted by such ascriptions to the Book?

"The Scripture cannot be broken…Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away…Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God…It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law…for you have exalted your word over your name…I have treasured your word in my heart…Your testimonies are my delight, my counselors…Scripture locked up all under sin." These statements by Jesus and the biblical writers must suggest bibliolatry to some. So is bibliolatry truly possible?

A fine theologian of whom I asked the question thinks that bibliolatry is possible and that the scribes and Pharisees were guilty of it. Now we must guard against laying all the intellectual sins ever conceived at the feet of the poor scribes and Pharisees. They have quite enough sobering problems. But were they bibliolaters to boot? Well, they did highly honor the words of Scripture. Whatever else you say about scribes and Pharisees, they knew the Book. Look, for instance, at those of whom Herod inquired regarding the Messiah's birthplace. "Bethlehem of Judea!" they snapped off, "For so it has been written by the prophet, 'And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah…'" Let me ask you. How well do you know Micah's prophecy?

But it is a tragic fact that the scribes and Pharisees, though knowing the words of the Book, knew not its Author. "You know neither me nor my Father," pronounced Jesus. Perhaps it is bibliolatry to know the Book but not its Publisher. To know dead precepts, but not the living God. "Thou shalt love the Bible thy Book with all thine heart, soul, and strength. But God is expendable." However, let me ask you this: How did Jesus answer the bibliolatrous folk of his day?

"Have you not read what God said to you?…Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written…What is written in the Law? How do you read it? …In your own Law it is written…Have you not read in the book of Moses?…It is written in the Prophets…Then what is the meaning of that which is written?…The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him…Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms…Begone, Satan! For it is written…It stands written…As it is written…On the other hand, it is written…Is it not written?"

Jesus answered wrong users of the Book with the Book. Is bibliolatry possible then? Not easily, but yes, I suppose bibliolatry may possibly occur in some extreme cases. Yet is it bibliolatry to hold to a high view of Scripture or to attribute infallibility or other divine attributes to God's Word? How about substituting God's actions with the Bible's record of his acts? "The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith. . . ."

No, what some may call bibliolatry is not always- indeed, is rarely such. Let us truly love the Lord our God with all our hearts and worship him only. But "to reverently esteem" the Book, "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…is to give all glory to God." (3) Even to love God's Word has good precedent in our Lord Jesus himself: "Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day long…I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law…But these things were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life."

1 [ Back ] J. S. Whale, "Calvin," in Christian Worship (Nathaniel Micklem, ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936): 157.
2 [ Back ] John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982): 222.
3 [ Back ] Westminster Confession of Faith I:5.
Wednesday, August 8th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology