In Defense of Bibliolatry

Perhaps you have heard statements like these before:

I believe that Jesus, not Scripture, is our final authority.

I believe in the infallible, inerrant Word of God … and he had a beard.

The Bible is not the word of God; Jesus is.

The Bible is not the fourth member of the Trinity.

I’ve written on this topic before, here, and here.

But recently, as I was re-reading a book by a former New Testament professor mine, Moisés Silva, God, Language, and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the Light of General Linguistics (Zondervan, 1991), I was again struck by how absolutely absurd statements like these are. Here is an extended excerpt from Silva’s book:

We should mark, incidentally, that to recognize the Son of God as the Word is not to minimize his words. It is sometimes argued that what really matters in our relationship with God is the personal element rather than the propositional and that, consequently, when evangelicals insist that revelation conveys information—and infallible information, no less—they are not only misconstruing the nature of revelation, they are also committing “bibliolatry” by putting the Bible where God alone belongs (as it is sometimes stated, they have replaced a human pope with a paper pope!)

Now this charge of “bibliolatry,” in spite of its popularity, is really quite disconcerting. Imagine a ten-year-old who, after disobeying a parental instruction and having been scolded for it, defends herself as follows:

Why are you scolding me? I am not being disobedient or disrespectful. Quite the contrary. I hold you in the highest esteem and am fully submissive to your authority. And just because of that I must regard your words as having only derived authority. Surely you would not want me to debase my commitment to you by elevating what is merely propositional to the level of the personal, would you? Indeed, hardly anything would be more offensive to your character than such an indiscriminate subservience to mere words.

Granted, this particular child is unusually precocious. But her logic approximates that of modern theologians who tell us that we should be submissive to God rather than to his words. Such a dichotomy between a person’s authority and the authority of what that person says is both false and meaningless. It probably would not sit very well in the armed forces, either. And certainly the very John who stressed the personal character of the Word knew nothing of such a distinction, since he reports Jesus as saying: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life”; “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say [lit. to hear my word]” (John 5:24; 8:43; and many other passages). The psalmists, for their part, seemed quite unconcerned about the charge of bibliolatry: “In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust” (Ps. 56:4; cf. v. 10; 68:4); “You have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Ps. 138:2).

What Silva also calls attention to in a footnote (no. 22) is especially important in our current theological climate:

Since this dichotomy approaches absurdity, I assume that the theologians in question are bothered not so much by the principle that a person’s authority is bound by the authority of his or her words but rather by the view that the Bible can in fact be identified as God’s words. But modern theologians are not always straightforward in identifying clearly the object of their dislike. If they were, it might become all too obvious how distant is their religious frame of reference from that of the biblical writers.

Silva is completely on target in his assessment. Given a choice between two stark approaches as to how to understand the authoritative status of Scripture, bibliolatry is the preferable option any day.

Jerry Shepherd
July 25, 2019