catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 19 :: 2005.10.21 — 2005.11.03


Late night thoughts on the Bible as idol

How often we hear it said, ?The Bible says . . .? Two results typically ensue after this declaration: the discussion is ended; or, a contest is engaged in which various biblical citations are used as cannon fodder. All manner of rules might be promulgated for the second alternative. Does number of mentions of a topic indicate significance? Do New Testament references trump Old? Does a word in the mouth of Jesus outweigh a Pauline utterance? Round and round we go. Add on the struggles over which version is ?best? according to what criteria, the fact that Jews order the Old Testament books differently than Christians, that some Christians include the Apocrypha while others do not, and that interpretive techniques abound, and the matter spirals into galaxial complexity.

The Bible says . . . At root, the problem is that there is little consensus on how the Bible is authoritative among people who think it so. The problem is confounded by the Bible?s very nature. How dare we think this collection of literature in so many forms, written over a millennium, in a wide variety of social-economic-political-geographical-cultural contexts speaks with a single voice. It is a near riot of opinions. If the identity of Jesus is a matter of clarity, why four such different portraits? If the Ten Commandments are foundational, why two versions with differing theological perspectives? What about the flat out contradictions? And then there?s always that wonderful dissenting writer of Ecclesiastes sitting in the corner, tossing in a ?So what!? every so often.

The Bible says . . . I do not mean to suggest the Bible is unimportant. I?ve given far too many years to prayer, study and proclamation to allow such a conclusion. But I fear that in our time, we have forgotten that it is what God says that matters most crucially to the life of faith and the faith community. And the Bible, albeit essential, is but one of the ways we hear the voice of the living God. All those means of grace?prayer, silence, sacraments, worship, discussion in community?are also ways we learn of the living God. And if we think the Bible trumps all other means of discernment, we turn it into an idol, an ironic and sinful turn, to say the least. Yes, it is somewhat more tangible, but we live by the Spirit, not by the material, do we not?

I sat in one of many meetings I?ve attended on my denomination?s position on homosexuality and ordination. At one point, one of the elect stormed to the microphone, Bible waving in hand, saying, ?This is all we?ve got! This is all we have to know what God thinks of homosexuality! And it says . . .? I was on my feet and headed to the mic to share the thought of the above paragraph when debate was closed. But the moment is not uncommon at all in contemporary thinking.

Do we believe God has disclosed no new wisdom to a humanity that shows some signs of growing in understanding over the last 2000 years? How did we decide God is not pro-slavery, since the Bible assumes it to be a normal human institution from beginning to end? How can so many assume capitalism and democracy, even what we think of as nations, are ordained by God, since they (at least in their present forms) were unknown in biblical eras? Most assume God is very much in favor of healthy families, but why are there virtually none to be found in the Bible? The book is wronged by some of our assumptions and utterly unfamiliar with others.

And then there?s that odd and wonderful statement in the Book of Acts, ?it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us? (15:28), suggestive of a communal act of decision making grounded, not on what ?the Bible says,? but on a shared engagement of the living God. Yes, the Reformation trumpeted ?sola scriptura,? but the context was that of placing church tradition in a secondary position of importance, not of eliminating it nor the means of grace as ways of knowing God.

If the Bible is treated as a self-evident answer book, it leads us but to itself, the very definition of idol. Thus it is made into idol instead of living in the community of faith as a witness that leads us to the living God in whom we live and move and have our being. This sin has become so common that few seem aware of our need to repent of it, but do we not, we shall come unto that famine of the word of the Living God, the worst there can be, of which the Bible itself so very clearly warns us (Amos 8:11). Then again, maybe that?s just what we most need.

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