Russell and Duenes

Was Jesus Guilty of Bibliolatry?

with 2 comments

Some people seem to think that there’s a real danger today of “bibliolatry” in evangelical Christendom. In other words, we should be clear that Jesus himself is central to our faith, and he is the one we must worship, not the Bible, lest we be like the Pharisees, who knew every word of Scripture, but missed Jesus himself. The words in the Bible must not be exalted above knowing Christ. But was the Pharisees’ problem that they held the Scriptures in too high a regard? Do we miss Jesus when we put ponder and puzzle over the Scriptures at great length, and bank on its total truthfulness, infallibility and inerrancy? De we commit “bibliolatry?”  And then I wondered, if evangelicals can be guilty of “bibliolatry” today, if they can somehow worship the Bible itself, would Jesus himself be guilty of bibliolatry based on whatever criteria modern accusers are using? I would think so.

When Jesus was attempting to repel the devil, he said, “It is written…It is written…It is written.” His answers were Scripture and only Scripture. Jesus said that “until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen shall by any means disappear from the Law until everything accomplished.” Then comes the kicker: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” When Jesus cleansed the leper, he immediately sent him do what “Moses commanded” in the law. When John the Baptist asks whether Jesus is the One, Jesus responds by alluding to Isaiah 61. Jesus explains who John the Baptist is by quoting Scripture. Jesus describes his own ministry by analogy to Jonah in the fish and the Queen of Sheba coming to hear Solomon. When Jesus is explaining the truth about marriage and divorce, he explains it almost entirely in reference to Genesis 1. He speaks to the Rich, Young Ruler in terms of the Ten Commandments.

When we get to Holy Week, the week of Jesus suffering and death, we see him using the Scriptures quite frequently to make his points. The Temple has become a “den of robbers,” (Jeremiah), praise is ordained from the mouths of infants and children, (Psalms), Jesus portrays himself as the stone which the builders rejected, (Psalms), Jesus explains the resurrection by God’s words to Moses at the burning bush, (Exodus), Jesus conveys the most important thing by quoting the Scriptures which say we are to love God above all else and love our neighbor as ourselves, (Deuteronomy, Leviticus), and Jesus explains his own lordship based on God exalting David’s Lord to God’s right hand (Psalms). One could certainly go on to multiply examples.

Indeed, Jesus said that the Scriptures cannot be broken, (John 10:35), and he also said that it was the Scriptures that testified about him (John 5:39). I can think of no place in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John where Jesus explicitly says, or even implies, that one could read the Scriptures too much, meditate on them too much, think about them too carefully, puzzle over them for too long, revere them too highly, or somehow set them in tension with knowing God. If Jesus said that not one jot or tittle of God’s law could be set aside, then he agrees with Moses when he says: “These words [of God] are no trifle for you, but they are your life.”

The Pharisees and Scribes were not condemned by Jesus for exalting the Scripture to an unwarranted height, or for “bibliolatry.” Rather, Jesus charged them with failing to understand and apply the Scriptures they studied so diligently. They did not heed the Scriptures, even though they read them. That is why Jesus said to them: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life.” If you stop reading right there, you might think that the religious leaders’ searching of the Scriptures was the problem. But read on: “[I]t is these [Scriptures] that testify about me, and you are unwilling to come to me so that you may have eternal life.” Going to the Scriptures wasn’t the problem. Not allowing the Scriptures to take them to Jesus in humble repentance and faith, that was the problem. They did not listen to Scripture.

Jesus was Scripture-saturated. He quoted it extensively in his speech, alluded to it ubiquitously, and based almost everything he said off of the Scriptures’ teachings. I can’t see how, if he were an average Joe evangelical today, he would escape being called a “bibliolater” by some. Yet there is really no way of knowing the person of Jesus Christ, nor his saving work in history, without reading the Bible first. The Bible must be read as the very first spiritual move, otherwise the true knowledge of God is not even possible. So it’s false to pit a high reverence for the Bible against a high reverence for knowing Jesus. One comes with the other. That’s the way God has set it up. To my mind, there is absolutely no danger of “bibliolatry” in the evangelical church today. We suffer rather from the opposite problem, namely, a great neglect of our Bibles, given the importance we say that we place on them. Not only are the words of Scripture largely neglected and left unmemorized and unspoken in our day-to-day lives, but as Ken Myers says, we don’t even treat our physical Bibles very well. Perhaps we need not go the route of the Muslims and set our Bibles on a stand in the highest place in the house, nor kiss the Torah as it comes around each week as the orthodox Jews do in their synagogues. Yet I cannot believe we have nothing to learn from their practices. The Bible is precious beyond words. It is by far the most precious thing I own, and I need no encouragement to think less of it in any way, shape or form. Nor to think of it less.

Gordon Fee has a wonderful book entitled, Listening to the Spirit in the Text. I love that title, for it shows the true nature of the Scriptures. They are the authentic, reliable voice of the Spirit. When you read the Scriptures, you are listening to the Spirit of Jesus Christ, you are hearing Christ’s voice. If that’s true, then “bibliolatry” is largely a red herring. I’ll side with David, who said that the blessed man is the one who delights in God’s law and who meditates on it day and night. (Psalm 1:2).


Written by Michael Duenes

February 15, 2014 at 7:23 pm

2 Responses

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  1. We do indeed need to begin with the Bible (especially the New Testament) if we are to find the real Jesus. And Jesus was saturated with the Old Testament. A danger in this for evangelicals, and others, is that the whole Bible is seen as the authority for what Christians believe and do, missing the differences between the old covenant(s), especially the law of Moses, and Jesus’ new covenant.

    For example, we can read Jesus’ healing of the leper and how Jesus told him to do what Moses commanded (show himself to the priest) and miss that when Jesus touched the leper, he acted against the law of Moses. In Lev. 13:45-46 a leper must avoid others and warn anyone who approaches him that he is unclean. In Lev. 5:3,5 anyone who touches human uncleanness is guilty of sin. When Jesus touches the leper he shows that he is greater than Moses, and that Moses is not to be revered too highly; a new day (and covenant) has arrived.

    I think the authority for what Christians should think and do should be focused on Christ and the New Testament, with the Old Testament seen as the authority for what the kingdom of Israel was to think and do, with their covenant(s). Jesus fulfills the Old Testament on a new level, so that only the part of the Old Testament that Jesus and the New Testament confirm or fulfill should be part of our authority today.


    February 16, 2014 at 7:17 am

    • A well-made point. My point was simply to show that Jesus, by his use of the Scriptures, would be called a “bibliolater” by some today, which I take to be preposterous. How Christians ought to view the OT is a crucial issue, but not one I attempted to address here.


      russell and duenes

      February 16, 2014 at 1:06 pm

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