Some Christians use (parts of) the Bible to dictate their thinking and opinions. Isn’t that idolatry?
The issue of idolatrous worship of the Bible is one that has worried me for many years. I think it is more prevalent than people realise, possibly encouraged by sayings such as that of Calvin, “We owe to scripture the same reverence as we owe to God.”
Part of the problem is knowing where to draw the line between having opinions informed by scripture (which surely we all must, if we take it seriously) and having opinions dictated by scripture, which is idolatrous. I have reached no firm conclusions, but I would put forward the following as possible symptoms of bibliolatry:
The belief that one should not engage the faculty of reason in interpreting scripture, but submit wholly to the text. This is a strange view, since one cannot receive any meaning at all from a text except through the mediation of human reason.
The belief that the Bible, as a holy book, is exempt from critical examination. This can lead to models of biblical authority which are inconsistent with what is now known about the redaction history of the text (and texts in general).
The belief that the Bible can be interpreted without reference to the cultural context in which it was written. This is an early symptom that can develop into some of those described below.
The belief that there is only one correct interpretation of a passage; such people may dismiss alternatives unheard as necessarily incorrect. In its most advanced form, this leads to the attitude: “My opinions are derived from scripture; so anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong.”
Distorted interpretations of passages to fit a fixed interpretation of another passage. An obvious example is those who take a literal reading of the creation story in Genesis 1, and require major reinterpretations of Genesis 2 to accommodate this.
Again, there is a more advanced form of this symptom, in which someone may start rejecting passages of scripture which do not agree with their interpretation. Even Luther came close to this trap, wishing to relegate biblical books such as James. If one’s criterion for canonicity is whether a text agrees with one’s own ideas, one is setting oneself above some parts of scripture just as one idolises other parts.
The belief that scripture — according to a particular interpretation — trumps scientific fact. This error is exemplified by the 16th-century clerics who rejected the emerging scientific knowledge of the structure of the solar system in favour of their interpretation of biblical descriptions.
We should all guard against these, and in their place cultivate a willingness to engage with others’ opinions and interpretations. We should not regard particular passages as “key” in the sense that their interpretation is fixed and not subject to other biblical — or even post-biblical — ideas, but continue to engage in reasoned dialogue to discern which parts of the Bible are important to each situation that we encounter.
Associated online with Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Winchester, is a claim that he often retold the story of his encounter with the ghost of a priest or monk. Is there any authentic record of the Bishop’s telling such a story or committing this to writing?
I would be delighted if anyone could suggest hymns suitable for a service to with the railways and steam engines.
M. A. B.
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