[This post is part of the Idolatry series]
In following the last entry, we can now try to connect the dots to a potential manifestation of modern day Pharisees. To answer the question that ended the last post, regarding what symbol of our tradition gets functionally worshiped, my contention here is that for us today, this is how the Bible tends to function. Perhaps fueling this over-emphasis on the Scriptures, leading to a functional Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Bible, is a misuse of Hebrews 4:12. Most of us know how the passage reads, but let’s see it with the verse that follows:
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart. And no creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account. (Hebrews 4:12-13, NET)
The tendency is to assume “word of God” refers to the Bible, but judging from the verse that follows (and from what precedes), there is little reason to think that “word of God” means “Bible” like we use the phrase to mean today. It is rather referring to the literal “word of God” either in God’s literal spoken word, or more likely it is referring to Christ. This makes more sense, as Christ is living and active and able to judge the desires and thoughts of our hearts, something God alone can do, as we know from other passages of Scripture. It is not the Bible that is alive and active and searching our hearts. It is God who does so and God alone.
All of this gets complicated in that we believe that the Bible is in fact the words of God, however this may be where the distinction lies. The Bible is the written revelation of the words of God, while the Word of God is Christ. If I am remembering correctly, the Scriptures never refer to themselves as the word of God, we are the ones that do so. The spoken word of God as recorded in the Scriptures is living and active, but that is a different assertion than saying the Bible in and of itself is alive and active. Life is not something that an inanimate object can possess. But the words recorded within it can contain life, but only because they come from God. God is the ultimate object of worship, not the written record of his words.
Jesus as usual makes this point explicitly in the Gospel of John:
You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life. (John 5:39-40 NET)
We are simply being idolaters if we stop short in growing in our knowledge of Christ by simply growing in knowledge our the Scriptures without valuing them as revelation of Christ. This would be like my refusing to spend time with Ali and instead to simply sit and read and memorize the letters she had written me. Instead of valuing them as revelation of herself meant to point me toward her and her thoughts and feelings towards me so that I could then grow in affection and appreciation of her as a person, I would simply be absorbed in the written record of who she is, rather than her.
In the end this is very subtle form of idolatry, for it is ultimately a good thing to hold the Scriptures in high regard and I am in no way arguing for devaluing the Scriptures. I am simply arguing for not worshiping them and not pursuing a study of the Bible that is disconnected from growing in the knowledge of Christ and as a way to grow in relation with Him. As much as we may hold the Scriptures in high regard, it has been one too many times I’ve heard messages on Hebrews 4:12 extolling the power and worth of the Bible with only scant mention of the person and worth of Christ who is the express Word of God. This is simply an expression of idolatry and worshiping the emblem of a fundamentalist tradition of evangelical Christianity and the modern day equivalent of the Pharisees in our day.
This is the most likely explanation for those people we may know who have an impeccable knowledge of Scripture and theology but do not seem to embody a life of grace and truth like Jesus did (John 1:14). They have become like what they worship, rigid and inflexible (like a book) instead of living and active (like a person is and should be). The clearest revelations of God are always in action as God tends to take Truth and wrap it in flesh and bones. The Bible contains an account of God’s fullest revelation of Himself in Christ, but this should not lead us to over-value the Bible but should instead point us immediately back to God in Christ.
When the Bible stops being a conduit of understanding the person of Christ and becomes an object of worship and adoration in and of itself, idolatry has taken root. We are simply no better than the Pharisees if we refuse to worship the image of God in Christ and stop short and worship the emblem of our tradition instead. This is perhaps the most dangerous form of idolatry for the community of conservative Christians, particularly the Bible institutes movement. When enclaves of people who all share this same idolatry tend to be cut off from any outside critique in order to help correct the issue they can tend to become cul-de-sacs of Bible idolaters instead of conduits of God’s grace and truth living out in the world. Subtly misconstruing Bible study as the end goal rather than knowing God, they can become like athlete who goes to the gym in order to rigorously learn how to do all the exercises perfectly but who, when outside of the gym, shows a complete lack of athletic prowess the exercises were supposed to facilitate.
This may seem overly harsh on those people, but lest anyone think I am immune, I flirt with a similar idolatry, something will explore in the next post, Pharisees (C).