Idolatry. That is a word that most of us intuitively know the meaning of (or can easily figure out). It means to worship something that isn’t God as though it were. Sometimes this can happen overtly, as is the case with many pagan religious practices; but for many in the West, idolatry can take on a much more subtle context. It is actually very possible for us to engage in the practice without even realizing it at all; and such may be the case with the phenomenon which prominent evangelical Christian philosopher and theologian J.P. Moreland termed “Bibliolatry;” in his 2007 essay written for the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting in La Mirada, California.
Dr. Moreland writes:
Today, I am more convinced of inerrancy than at any time in my Christian life, but the charge of bibliolatry, or at least a near, if not a kissing cousin, is one I fear is hard to rebut. To be more specific, in the actual practices of the Evangelical community in North America, there is an over-commitment to Scripture in a way that is false, irrational, and harmful to the cause of Christ. And it has produced a mean-spiritedness among the over-committed that is a grotesque and often, ignorant distortion of discipleship unto the Lord Jesus. – JP Moreland
I’m sure it wouldn’t be difficult for most of us to recall some examples of this sort of “mean-spiritedness” that has manifested (he believes) as a result of this problem. But, how does he explain this “over-commitment to Scripture” taking root within fundamentalist and evangelical movements? Primarily, he says, from a withdrawal of popular evangelical thought — away from a classical dialectic — into a corrupted thought experiment with the Protestant principle of “Sola Scriptura.”
Clearly, the idea that from within the Christian point of view, Scripture is the ultimate authority, the ultimate source of relevant knowledge, does not entail that it is the sole authority or source. But this fact has a severe public relations problem and, as I will illustrate below, many in our community make this entailment, or at least accept the consequent. Right reason, experience, Creeds, tradition have all been recognized as subordinate sources of knowledge and authority within the Christian point of view subject to the supreme and final authority of Scripture. – JP Moreland
Moreland believes (quite correctly as it seems to me) that a shift occurred in western universities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; away from holistically educating students to be good servants of God and their societies, and toward greater and greater empirically based specialization — founded on a growing scientism. A consequence of this change in focus resulted in the disciplines of theology and religion being reduced to a sphere of mere personal feeling; devoid of what secular positivists considered “real knowledge.” As a result, the American evangelical church largely withdrew from the realm of public thought and developed a philosophy / theology entrenched in fideism, and based around a powerful and enduring work of literary magnificence that they referred to as “the Word of God;” meaning the Bible.
By and large, Evangelicals responded during this shift by withdrawing from the broader world of ideas, developing a view of faith that was detached from knowledge and reason, and limiting truth and belief about God, theology and morality to the inerrant Word of God, the Bible. If I am right about this, then Evangelical over-commitment to the Bible is a result of the influence of secularization on the church and not of biblical or theological reflection. – JP Moreland
Moreland’s group session at this particular conference was packed (the average session had an attendance of 50; his had over 200), primarily because this topic was (and is still) considered to be highly controversial. And why wouldn’t it be? If people are worshiping an idol, how might you expect them to react when someone “attacks” one of their most holy doctrines concerning it? Irrationally? Angrily? Searching every which way to rationalize it? One problem with this movement away from a faith attached to knowledge and reason are the consequences that follow when such things are attempted with very little vantage. The Bible references the “Word (proper noun) of God,” but clearly isn’t talking about itself. A “useful” equivocation has occurred. In John chapter 1, the apostle records these words on the subject:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The Bible here, in the Gospel of John, clearly defines the Word of God as Jesus of Nazareth … the one and only Son who came from the Father.
Let’s be clear … the words of God are contained within scripture. But there has somehow occurred a grotesque equivocation between one of the names of Jesus (The Word [Greek “Logos”]) and the scripture (Greek – “graphé”) which tells us his story — a “book” that didn’t even exist in its entirety until approximately four centuries after Jesus’ resurrection. Amazingly, the church flourished all that time without it. The doctrine of inerrancy itself doesn’t seem to be a problem though. Dr. Moreland believes that the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts and inspired by God — the most important and fantastic collection of writing that has ever been put to page. It contains the the words that lead mankind to the knowledge of the only Way, Truth, and Life.
But the Bible is not God.
Don’t forget it.