You’ve heard that phrase before.
You’ve read it on bumper stickers.
You may have even said it a time or two.
It’s an odd little religious mantra that perfectly captures the strange, often paradoxical relationship we modern Christians have with our mysterious ancient text:
Many of us have made The Bible the central pillar of our faith, while not really knowing what it actually says. (especially not the earlier, weirder stuff).
We’ll claim without question that it is filled with words “from the very mouth of God”, and yet we can’t really be bothered to crack it open all that often (and then, definitely not the earlier, weirder stuff).
We want it to be the clear, consistent, unquestioned, unfiltered voice of Truth in all matters, but to do that we often have to avoid, discard, or talk around a whole lot of it (absolutely, the earlier, weirder stuff).
We so crave a Bible that we can use quickly and neatly to support our various arguments and discussion points, when that Bible doesn’t really exist.
The Bible we do have, is an incredibly complex library of writings, culled from thousands of years and multiple, very human writers; books that cross genres and native languages. Understanding the cultural layers piled upon the words over time, and finding the irreducible core and practical application in any given passage is a monumental challenge, even for those who spend the majority of their lifetimes deeply devoted to study.
Try putting any well-meaning, good-intentioned, faithful handful of seminary students, pastors, or pew sitters in a room, and you’ll be hard pressed to find any two who can find unanimous agreement on very much, let alone the totality of its 800,000 words.
Rather than admit and wrestle with the obvious challenges we face in historical context, writing style, and author intent, too many Christians simply hide behind some incendiary, line-drawing, black and white, all-or-nothing rhetoric: You either believe it or you don’t.
Maybe that’s because the Bible has become for so many believers, a fourth addition to the Trinity; something to be blindly worshiped, rather than something to help us better seek the One worthy of worship. We’ve come to treat Scripture as the destination of our spiritual journey, rather than what it was for the earliest believers: essential reading material on the way to the Promised Land.
You can see this misplaced worship everywhere; on message boards and on talk shows and from pulpits and in conversations over coffee, when so many of us wield the Bible like a terribly oversized power tool that we couldn’t be bothered to consult the manual for.
We just fling it around wildly and awkwardly, stuff starts flying—and then people start getting hurt.
Studies show that even though they might claim it to be of vital importance, the average Christian doesn’t read the Bible regularly. Yet those same people (as poorly versed in the Scriptures as they admit to being) will violently defend them when they perceive them to be under attack. With only a cursory, peripheral understanding of the text at best, they’ll use it to form an iron-clad, irrefutable worldview on everything from war to money to guns to sex to love to politics.
So many of us casually throw around the phrase “God’s Word”, as if we all agree on what the Bible actually says or is. I’m here to tell you, we don’t all agree on what it says or what it is and that’s okay. When a Christian accuses another believer of misusing Scripture, they’re essentially claiming sole ownership of its only interpretation, conveniently setting-up the dissenting opinion as the enemy of God.
The difficult reality to come to terms with for so many who claim Christ, is that those who have come to a different conclusion about the Bible, in both large and small ways have done so through the same thoughtful study, the same prayerful reflection, the same sincere desire to know the very heart of God that they have.
Another answer doesn’t automatically equal disobedience or disrespect or immorality or heresy. It’s simply the spot one has landed on; the same earnest, careful, God-honoring process, only yielding a different outcome. If we as believers can’t respect our varied understandings of Scripture and can’t bear any conclusions outside of a very narrow and rigid orthodoxy, our God and our tradition are fairly flimsy.
We need to be able to disagree on the text, even in very fundamental ways, without anyone pulling the Going to Hell card. It’s a cheap conversation stopper, and it reeks of arrogance and lack of faith.
The real problem, is that too many of us are choosing to simply deify the Bible as Divinity itself; something the Bible itself never asks us to do. It is not, as we so often mischaracterize it, “The Word of God”. Jesus is.
We’ve decided that The Bible speaks every necessary thing that God ever has or ever will say (and that He’s said it exactly as we’ve determined, translated, and believe it to be).
In other words, by elevating the Bible to the same level as God and by leaning on our own understanding of its 66 books, we’ve crafted a Divine being who upon closer inspection seems to think a lot like we do, vote like we vote, hate who we hate, and bless what we bless.
The question we need to ask ourselves as modern believers, is whether or not we really trust God to speak clearly and directly to someone independently of the Bible. We know of course, that God can and does communicate through Scripture but is that the last, final, and only method He employs?
We believe that the fixed words of the Bible are, as it says, “living and active“, but do we believe that God is not?
The sad irony, is that too many Christ followers will fight for the veracity of a three-thousand year old library of rather muddy genesis and convoluted collation, while completely discounting a flesh-and-blood person’s realtime personal prayer encounter, with the God who they claim originally uttered those words.
The only religious worldview that makes the Bible the last and only word, is that of a God who is no longer living.
If we read the Scriptures like the will of a dead relative who is never coming back, then yes, we will cling to them as the sole voice through which He speaks. However, if we trust in a Jesus who is alive, and in a God who is fully present to individuals through His Holy Spirit, we will be fully expectant and confident that His voice and vocabulary are not confined to 66 books and 800,000 words. The Bible commands us not to add to the Scriptures but that doesn’t mean that God can’t. That’s what prayer often yields; not God reciting the ancient text verbatim but speaking anew to us.
Regardless of how much we trust in it or revere it the Bible can never be God, but despite what some Christians will tell you, it doesn’t need to be. We don’t pray to the Bible, though we can pray through and with it.
God is purely God and the only entity capable of being so.
The two can never ever be the exact same thing; (The Bible and the God of the Bible), and if we can’t honestly admit that, we’ll never be able to have meaningful discussion about either, without destroying each other.
As Christians, we should read, study, reflect on, respect, and where we feel personally convicted, obey the Bible—but we should never worship it.
The better and more honest option when coming to the Scriptures, might be for us to say: “The Bible appears to say that in this particular passage, I think I believe that interpretation, and now let’s talk about it.”