The following is the second installment in a series of posts on why I believe the church must abandon evangelicalism. You can find part 1 here.
I love the Bible.
I always have.
I’ve read plenty of other books, but nothing that compares to the immensity, complexity, sheer audacity, and convicting power of the books that comprise the Old and New Testaments.
All Christians hold the Bible in esteem, of course, but none has placed it on a higher pedestal than those who call themselves “evangelical.” As many evangelicals would probably tell you, they are “a people of the Book”. So, I think it is fitting that I begin my critique of evangelicalism in the place where the faith of most evangelicals begins, the Bible.
I say most, because, once again, evangelicals come in all shapes and sizes and not all hold the Bible in as high esteem as others. So, when I talk about the evangelical approach to the Bible I’m talking about the “most”, not the minority.
In my experience, evangelicalism places the Bible on a pedestal far higher than it was ever intended. Of course, if you say that to a tried and true evangelical they will most likely look at you dumbstruck and remind you that the Bible is the Word of God.
Some of us would want to reply that the “w” in “Word” should be lowercase, and I think that is a very good distinction to make, but I’m not convinced that that distinction ultimately makes much difference to most evangelicals.
So, why does it matter if the Bible is placed on such a high pedestal?
When the Bible becomes the Word of God, then try as we might to prevent it from happening, it eventually takes the place of God. This is called biblical idolatry, or bibliolatry, and whether we realize it or not, it runs rampant in nearly every evangelical church. Bibliolatry happens when we forget or are too afraid to admit that, though certainly inspired or “God-breathed”, every single book, letter, and Psalm in the Bible was written by human beings.
This makes some people profoundly uncomfortable. If the Bible wasn’t passed down from heaven directly by God, then they reason it must be corrupt and untrustworthy. So, these people retrench into fundamentalism and inerrancy, convinced there are only 2 options for the Bible: divine perfection or human invention. They would tell you that if the Bible contains any error or contradiction, then the whole thing must be considered worthless and thrown out. In other words, if Jonah wasn’t literally holed up in a whale (actually a “big fish”), then somehow that must negate the resurrection of Jesus.
Talk to any police detective or historian and they’ll tell you how absolutely foolish this line of “reasoning” is. When detectives collect testimony from witnesses at a crime scene, or historians read various accounts of the same historical event, the discrepancies in the witness testimonies don’t necessarily negate the reality of the event. There’s still a murder victim. There was still a Civil War. If anything, those divergent testimonies and contradictions speak to the complexity and depth that reality actually possesses.
Likewise, when the Bible is nothing more than divine edict it creates a breeding ground for anti-intellectualism. God is never wrong. When the Bible becomes the literary incarnation of God is must therefore also be perfect. Any truth claim made by science or archaeology must conform to the divine page or else it is deemed untrue. Any Christians who attempt to incorporate scientific discoveries into their faith are branded heretics, deceivers, and wolves out to devour the sheep. This ignorant retrenchment only serves to make the church look foolish, and not the type of wisdom of God that is foolishness to men. It’s just foolishness.
Worst yet, when the Bible is considered a divine edict, free from the influence of man, it ceases to be the story of God’s relationship with His people and is transformed into a kind of legal document. It’s words can be picked apart at our convenience, ripped out of their context, and used to support any theological claim. Worse yet, those supporting efforts almost always result in cases of spiritual abuse. Look no further than the proof-texts used to oppress women and homosexuals, justify the absolute control of a local pastor, or damn anyone deemed a heretic. When this happens the Bible ceases to be a narrative that invites the reader to participate in the ongoing telling of the faith story and instead becomes nothing more than a weapon used to manipulate, oppress, and control others.
Ultimately, what makes the rejection of human contribution to the Bible most problematic is that it likewise rejects God’s desire and efforts to let humanity participate in the redemption of creation. It should tell us something that God could have chosen to literally drop the Bible from heaven, but instead chose to work through flawed human beings.
When the Bible is from God rather than being God, it is a gift rather than an edict. Seen this way it is the effort by a Creator not to simply dictate a divine will, but to dialogue with His creation. God had enough faith that the truth of the Gospel could shine through our imperfections and misunderstandings. We should have that same sort of faith. God wants our input.
Finally, I think one the biggest flaws in evangelicalism’s understanding of the Bible is its underlying assumption that the story of God and His people ended with the 22nd chapter of Revelation. The canon may have been closed, but the story of God’s people continues. Because the Bible is a story inspired by the Spirit, but written by people, and that Spirit continues to inspire people today, the story of God is not over….and that may be the biggest reason of all to reject the bibliolotry of evangelicalism.
Bibliolatry turns the Bible into a stagnant, outdated, and ultimately irrelevant relic of bygone era. The Bible as part of a larger narrative of God’s interaction with His people makes it a dynamic and perpetually relevant source of knowledge, hope, and abundant life.
So how should the Bible function in the life of the faithful?
I think that we should begin by remembering that the Bible has no meaning apart from the community of faith to which is belongs. We can’t use it to lord over those outside that community who haven’t entered into the covenant which produced that great collection of books. Neither should we beat those within the community over the head with the Bible either. The Bible exists to edify the people of God, not tear them down.
We must also find the courage to acknowledge that the purpose of the Bible is not to reveal all scientific and historical knowledge. Though these things may be sometimes found within its pages, ultimately the Bible is an invitation to participate in the life of God, to participate in the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. As such it is certainly both guide and limit setter for how that work should be done, but this guidance and limit setting doesn’t come from a “plain reading of the text” because no such thing exists.
We all come to the Bible within a personal context, with personal biases, preconceived ideas, and predetermined conclusions. We must continually wrestle with the text, knowing that though its truths may be eternal, the context in which those truths are spoken is constantly changing. Therefore, we must not deceive ourselves into believing that we have exhausted all possible interpretations and applications of the Bible.
Rather, we must remember that we are not the only ones who have ever read the Bible. Other people much different than ourselves have read the Bible for centuries and often came to conclusions about it that are very different than our own. Because of this, we must not be afraid to use the tools of tradition, experience, and reason to interpret the Bible. All of us do this to one extent or another anyway, but admitting and embracing it is the only hope we have for ending the tyranny of bibliolatry.
Finally, we must come to understand what it really means to honor and respect the Bible.
It is a good and right thing to show honor and respect to the Bible, but not to the point that it becomes an object of worship, unable to be critiqued or questioned. At my ordination service, the presiding pastor said, “We are not afraid to ask questions of the Bible, because we know that as soon as we do it will turn around and do the same to us.” We should heed these words. We will honor the Bible in so much as we take the time to actually read it, ask questions of it, and seek understanding of it through dialogue with each other. We will respect the Bible when we continuing to participate in the story of faith by being faithful, loving disciples of Jesus and inviting others to come and do the same.
I believe that this is the way forward for the Church and her most sacred collection of writings.
Grace and peace,