Bibliolatry: The term bibliolatry is derived from the word idolatry, or the worship of idols. Thus, bibliolatry refers to the worship of the bible – taking it so seriously and so literally that it becomes the entire focus of religious devotion, even to the exclusion of everything else. Fundamentalism is often accused of engaging in bibliolatry.
A few years ago, Bishop John Spong wrote a book entitled Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism. It was one of the few at the time, written from a Christian perspective, that challenged the notion of the inerrancy and infallibility of the bible. It caused quite a stir among fundamentalists because it brought modern scholarship to bear on a long-time controversy and forced people to confront the issue. While I didn’t read the book myself, I was familiar with the arguments found in it. The argument Spong offers is that the bible is not an inerrant or infallible document because the books of the bible were formed into one canon long after the early church had already been in existence and that the bible, as a culturally bound book, contains errors of science, geography, and also contains examples of questionable morality. I propose that there is even a bigger issue that Christians should deal with: by accepting the inerrant bible position you usurp the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life and that this position is nothing more than an attempt by preachers and teachers to control what believers are supposed to believe to keep themselves in power.There is an inherent mistrust of the average person’s powers of reasoning in Christianity, as there should be since some people can believe some pretty ridiculous things. Those who would “worship” the bible are those personalities that are unable to deal with subtlety; the subtlety of distinguishing between the literal and the figurative; between punishment and correction; between the concrete and the abstract, between free will and coercion. You get the idea. Most bible literalists cannot discern moral lessons figuratively without a God ready and waiting to bash them over the head with the punishment if they don’t and such people are upset if others are able to do so.
When my husband and I converted to Catholicism, biblical inerrancy and infallibility was a recurrent topic for us, since we came from an ultra-fundamentalist background. We were young, had young children, and we desired concrete guidelines by which to lead our lives. The fundamentalist church claims to have all those answers, but in our spiritual journeys we surprisingly learned that different churches had different answers; all from the same bible! The Roman Catholic Church, however, has always asserted that the bible is not the last point of authority for believers without the magisterium to interpret it for them. This new idea appealed to us, because we reasoned that SOMEONE had to have the last word, right? Someone had to be appealed to as authority. (We never thought at that time to think of ourselves as the last word). The bible, for Catholics and for progressive Protestant Christians, merely chronicles the faith journeys of the Israelites and then the faith journeys of the early Christians. It relates their relationship with their Gods (Yes, I do believe the god portrayed in the Jewish scriptures is different than the god portrayed in the Christian scriptures). The Orthodox and Catholic positions have always been that scripture plays a role in the church’s life, but that scripture is not the end game for most Christians. Tradition is. Bible literalists could not have been found before 300 AD because there was no “bible” to take literally. Even throughout the Middle Ages there was no bible for the common folk. The Roman Church kept it under lock and key to avoid misinterpretation! 🙂
Fundamentalism as we know it, then, is a fairly recent phenomenon, probably dating back to the clash between scientists and the church during the Scopes trial of 1925. But the seeds were sown much earlier. Some preachers and bible teachers needed guidelines to allow them to decide who was considered truly Christian and who wasn’t, especially when science began to capture the minds and hearts of people more than religion. So these preachers and teachers (all men) came up with The Fundamentals. Since there was no central church hierarchy for Protestantism, bible teachers had to come up with a method to discern who was a believer and who wasn’t. This would allow them to control their church memberships and therefore control who they could include and exclude because of sins. No longer was faith in Jesus the criteria. Faith in the Bible was. So as far as time and history go, biblical inerrancy is a fairly new doctrine. (I’m not saying there weren’t literalists before this time period. I’m saying that fundamentalism as a modern social and political movement began during this time period. The seeds were sown by dissenters, puritans, covenanters, etc. during the reformation and continues to this day).
Coming out of the fundamentalist church, and throughout my struggle with faith, I wrestled with this odd idea of an “error free” bible more than any other doctrine in Christianity, especially when leaving the fundamentalist fold for more progressive spiritual waters. This doctrine is elevated in importance even above the doctrine of the person of God or faith in Jesus or the work of the Holy Spirit. I found that in the church no one really cared what you thought about God, as long as you believed the bible was infallible. Then, and only then, were you considered a Christian. This is fundamentalism’s dirty little secret: For them, the bible is the test of faith, not Jesus, when it comes to church membership. How do I know? Look at the creeds before the Reformation. And here. Now look at the creeds after. Here. Here. And here. Do you see the difference? All the creeds before the Reformation begin with God as the source and beginning of faith. The definition of God is the first article of fai (the ten commandments begin with God also). All the creeds after the Reformation BEGIN with the scriptures as their number one article of faith. It’s not hard to see that before the bible was formed as canon and during the time of Roman Catholic control of the scriptures, the bible was never a test of faith for anyone. Faith in God alone was.
So how can anyone insist that a set of writings from an itinerant group of desert dwellers and shepherds about 4000 years before the Christian era, combined with writings from some mystical Jews and Gnostic Christians in the 1st century can possibly guide the faith of millions of believers in the 20th century? Because of its “consistent message?” Yet, when one reads the bible over and over, as I have, one can’t help but see the inconsistencies and the blatant lack of scientific perspective throughout. Eventually, you will run across something in the bible that doesn’t seem quite right. For me the chapter that didn’t seem right was Ezekiel 16. This chapter alone is the most repugnant example of why the bible should never be taught to children (I can think of many others, but we’ll leave those be for now). The Israelites portray their God as someone whose personality matches the psychological profile of the sexual abuser. No matter how it is explained away, you are left with one sick example of a God’s “love” for his people. Discovering this brought my whole belief system into question. Some choose to gloss over such passages or ignore them entirely (ever heard a sermon on Ezekiel 16?) Or they choose to explain it away as a metaphor or analogy that we can’t take literally (amazing how they decide which we can take literally and which we can’t). And who cares if it’s metaphor anyway, it’s still a sick metaphor implying God’s agreement. This discovery and the feelings it engenders can be quite scary to an indoctrinated believer. You believe, disbelieve, repent, and go back to the abuser over and over and over again. It’s a vicious and seemingly endless cycle for the one caught in it. How did I get out of the endless cycle? I educated myself. I read things that Christian teachers said was dangerous to my faith. I went to college and challenged my own beliefs. I actually put myself in other peoples’ shoes and imagined the other side of the arguments. In other words, I thought critically. And (gasp) I applied critical thinking to the bible.
Therefore, the conclusion that I’m forced to confront daily is that we cannot take the bible literally, or we will go insane trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. No wonder some Christians snap and become violent or depressed or homicidal or suicidal. The pressure to believe the unbelievable is immense. But, someone will always ask “If the Bible is mistaken in its history, how does one know that there is any reliable information about Jesus?” Yes, how DOES one know if anything is reliable when it comes to religious matters? Is there a reliable “textbook” that we can turn to to give us all the answers? No, there is no textbook. As a believer, how about simply taking Jesus’ life and ministry solely on faith alone? “How then do you know you are “saved” of we can’t turn to the bible to tell us we are?” someone will ask. Well, that’s just it, we can’t know. Christians even take that on faith as well. Think back to when you first became a Christian. All we did then was come in faith when we came to Jesus in the first place. We heard no bells or choirs of angels or voice from heaven proclaiming that our name was now written in the book of life, did we? No, we listened to an evangelist or we read a book and we thought, “Hey, I’ll try this too. I need help in my life. What have I got to lose?” All any of us can therefore do is assume and hope that what others tell us is true. There is no guarantee. Even with a bible that some claim to be inerrant, there is no guarantee. Just look at all the interpretations of salvation! It seems one can’t know anything for sure from the bible, except that people lived and wrote about their God back then. So, my advice? Read the ancient texts if you must and then make a decision to have faith or not. You just can’t know and you can’t tell others they can know either.
So in summary, biblical inerrantists want you to believe the bible is the final source of truth so they can interpret it for you and TELL you what to believe and keep you in or out of church membership. It’s a control and power issue. It always has been and always will be. And truth changes over time. As one of my most excellent blog commentors, Noogatiger, put it:
When I was growing up I was taught “the truth”. Then I discovered as I grew older that we changed some of our own ideas about “the truth”. Then, I discovered that we as a family did not even understand some sections of “the truth”. Then I discovered that even people in our own Church had different ideas about “the truth”. Then I discovered that many Churches even within our own denomination had different ideas about “the truth”. Then I discovered that there were many Church denominations, hundreds of them with many different ideas about “the truth”. Then I discovered that people in my own family had different ideas about “the truth”. Then I discovered that there were these people called Scholars, Theologians, and Apologists, who had studied “the truth” in depth for many years, and were even college trained in “the truth”, who have very different ideas about “the truth”, and some of them are not even sure that this is “the truth”. Then I discovered that even the early Christian church did not have complete copies of, nor did they agree on what constituted “the truth” themselves, (for almost 300 years), and it took many councils and meetings and compromises to finally at least come to some kind of agreement. Lastly I was told that us lowly humans will never have the capacity to totally comprehend all of “the truth” anyway, nor can it be absolutely proven that it is “the truth”, so the best we can do is to simply have faith that it is “the truth”.
If none of the churches, teachers, pastors, and bible scholars can agree about what is the “truth,” which they claim to glean from the bible, are Christians really willing to make bible inerrancy first in their creedal statements and a test of someone’s faith? Let me ask you, if all the bibles and every shred of text containing the biblical texts disappeared tomorrow, could there be converts to Christianity? If there were no book to look things up in, how would you know the “truth?” I suggest that you take this test, just to see if your beliefs ABOUT the books we call the bible aren’t skewed by your emotional investment in what a book like that means for your faith; a security blanket.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the bible just as much as I love all books of fiction, non-fiction, history, and biography. Some parts are beautiful. Other parts should remain hidden from innocent eyes. And, I love the bible enough to try to wrestle it from the clutches of fundamentalism and place it back in it’s proper context; as mythology and world literature and nothing more.