One of the hallmarks of evangelicalism is its emphasis on the Bible as the final authority regarding spiritual truths. Evangelicals hold the Bible in high regard, looking to it as God’s definitive revelation to humanity and the essential guide for Christian life. And while there is much to be commended about such an understanding, pushing this idea too far often results in distorted and dangerous theological positions.
I recently engaged in some online discussions with self-proclaimed conservative evangelical Christians — discussions that, sadly, were far from productive. The utter unwillingness of many Christians to even consider opposing viewpoints is not only disconcerting, but also profoundly disappointing. For many, there is simply no room for constructive disagreement. This lack of irenic engagement is often founded upon a view of the Bible that elevates it to the level of God. It is a distortion of the evangelical respect for Scripture into pure bibliolatry. It is truly Biblicism gone wild.
For example, while trying to discuss differing interpretations of the Bible, I ran afoul of this argument:
- The Bible is the Word of God (John 10.35, Mat. 16.5).
- Jesus is the Word of God (John 1.1, Rev. 19.13).
- Therefore rejecting any portion of the Bible (the Word) is equivalent to rejecting Jesus (the Word).
- Anyone who rejects Jesus is not a Christian and is destined for Hell.
- Therefore anyone who fails to fully accept the plain and obvious truths of the Bible has rejected Jesus, is not a Christian and is destined for Hell unless they repent, turn to Jesus and fully accept the truth of the Bible.
The flaws with this line of reasoning (if they aren’t already obvious to you!) are many, but I find two of them to be particularly problematic.
First, this argument is the rhetorical equivalent of an atom bomb. Deny that the Earth was created in six twenty-four-hour days 6,000 years ago? You’re not a Christian and are going to Hell! Deny that women are prohibited from teaching and preaching? Hell! Deny that homosexuality is a sin? An extra-hot section of Hell is ready and waiting for you!
There’s plenty of room for productive discussion of theology from all manner of viewpoints, but once you dig into your bunker and start lobbing Hell Grenades™ at the opposition, the conversation has ended and the war has begun. Of course that’s exactly how many Christians view their interactions with others: as a war. But entering into an ideological battle without evincing the “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) that should define Christian behavior is to allow dogma to overpower love.
Second, arguments in favor of the Bible as God’s divine Word commensurate with Jesus represent flawed exegesis and a cavalier hermeneutic. Such an overwrought Biblicism fails on its own terms, for the Bible never labels itself as “the word of God.” The New Testament doesn’t use the phrase ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ (the word of God) as a technical term for the Canon of Scripture. General usage of ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ throughout the New Testament doesn’t even refer to written scripture, but rather to a verbal proclamation of God’s message, especially in terms of the Gospel. Such usage does equate directly with the person of Christ, who is the Gospel, and who is the Word of God.
To be clear, I think it’s fine to call the Bible “the word of God” as a general term for a collection of writings about God and inspired by God. But to designate the Bible as “The Word of God” and then directly equate it with Jesus is at best misleading and at worst idolatrous. Scripture is only God’s word insofar as it reflects Christ. Any reading of the Bible that isn’t rooted in a Christocentric hermenutic runs the very real risk of reflecting Pharisaical legalism and ego-driven authoritarianism.
The truth of the matter is that the Bible is not God. The Bible is not Jesus. One can honestly wrestle with the Bible, trying to understand its language and context and message and truths, without rejecting Jesus. One can disagree with other Christians about important theological issues and still be a Christian. But to directly and simplistically reduce Jesus the Word to merely the written words of the Bible does a disservice to the true person of Christ and the Gospel he proclaims.