Do we worship the Bible?

…the Bible is a lens, and as a lens, it is not the object of belief but a means whereby we see. I do not think being a Christian is primarily about believing. It is not about believing in the lens, but about entering a deepening relationship to that which we see through the lens. It is not about believing in the Bible or the gospels or Christian teachings about Jesus, but about a relationship to the One whom we see through the lens of the Christian tradition as a whole…What matters is not believing in the lens but seeing through the lens.

…religious tradition understood as a lens or pointer to the sacred serves the very important function of mediating the sacred; it is only when it is mistaken as “the thing itself” that it becomes a snare and even idolatrous. (Marcus Borg in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, pp. 239-40, 244)

Borg here touches on a topic about which I often wonder. What should I believe about the Bible? Should I believe in the Bible, not as being the word of God, but in the sense of it almost being a holy object?

I grew up in Caronport, a town built literally around a Bible College. Missionaries would often come to the school and talk about their experiences abroad. Inevitably, as it should, persecution and martyrdom would come up. I have quite a vivid imagination, and as a (scared) young man I would imagine myself in various scenarios of persecution: in one, for example, a group of very foreign uniformed men would insist that I spit on the Bible (or something along those ‘desecration’ lines) or else they would kill me and those with me. As I wrestled with what I would do in such a situation I was torn between, on the one hand, thinking that such an act would be sacrilegious, and on the other, thinking, “Is this book, these printed words, divine? Are these sheets of paper and printed words worth more than a life?” I think it’s a worthwhile question to ask; and, setting aside for the moment the matter of what message my choice would send to my persecutors, the answer is not a given.

Perhaps looking at less volatile example will make the subject less divisive or repulsive: why do I feel hesitant to discard a worn-out Bible? Why would I feel like I might be committing an unforgivable sin if I were to use, for lack of other options, the pages of an old, out-of-use Bible as fire starter?

What is the Bible? Is it holy like the Ark of the Covenant was holy? Must this book be treated with reverence? Must its pages be handled gently? Do the words of God not exist apart from the pages of this book (in its hundred billionth printing)–did they have their beginning in these pages?

I once heard a sermon (from a man whom I respect) in which the preacher held out his Bible and said, repeatedly, “All the answers to life’s questions are in these pages; you got a problem? Go to this book” and so on. I was uncomfortable with this assertion from the start. Are all the answers in this book? Well, insofar as this book points towards Jesus, yes. But even then, does Jesus explain why children die of starvation or abusive parents? or does he answer the questions of science in anything but a roudabout way? My point is not about what the Bible tells us. I bring up the preacher’s sermon because it didn’t sit well with me, because it felt almost as if he thought the Bible was an end, rather than a means, that we should worship this book. I am confident that this was not the preacher’s intention, but I wonder if this isn’t the message that people are hearing and believing (even if only subconsciously).

As much as I disagree with Borg, I think he might be on the mark here. The Bible is not an end, it is a means to Jesus, a pointer to God. And it is in Jesus that we find “the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus may not give us all the answers, but he is the answer. The Bible isn’t.

Perhaps this is heretical, I don’t know; I’m open to correction. But something does not sit well with me with the Bible being the object of our affection.

Beliefs have very little ability to change our lives. One can believe all the right things and remain a jerk, or worse. Saints have been heretical, and people with correct beliefs have been cruel oppressors and brutal persecutors. Rather, the Christian life is about a relationship to the God to whom the tradition [and, therefore, the Bible] points. What matters is the relationship, for it can and does and will transform our lives….
The lens metaphor I have been using…needs to be modified slightly but importantly. Ultimately, I think of the Christian tradition [and also, presumably, the Bible] not simply as a lens, but as a sacrament. A sacrament is a means of grace, a mediator of the sacred. More than a lens through which we see, the tradition is also a sacrament that mediates to us that which we behold. If we let these stories shape our understanding of reality, life, and ourselves, they begin to mediate the life of which they speak and lead us into that life. Within this framework, being Chiristian is not about believing, but about a relationship wih the God who is sacramentally mediated to us through the Christian tradition in a comprehensive sense of the word: the Bible, the gospels, Jesus himself, and the worship and practices of our life together in Christian community. (Ibid., pp. 240, 250)

11 thoughts on “Do we worship the Bible?

  1. Andrew

    Good post. This is one of my beefs about evangelicalism – it’s often idolatrous view of scriptures. Although I think the formation of the Canon was an inspired process, I agree that Scripture points us to the Word of God (i.e., Jesus).

  2. Toni

    I too would say “good post”.

    For me the bible is the collection of writings inspired bt the Spirit of God that has been given for our guidance and correction in this particular age. As for being sacred – it’s the Spirit that makes the writings sacred, rather than the writings themselves. In practical terms a bible is just a section of pulped and reconstituted tree, and the words in it are just ink on a page. It requires God’s Spirit to put power into the words and make them live.

    So yes, it could be viewed as a lens.

  3. davevegt

    I would say that different denominations have cast various “prescriptions” through which the Bible is used. Can we really understand the Bible as a Lens in that it will automatically make for us a clearer picture of God? It seems that the abuse of Scripture through certain presuppositions have, if anything, obscured our understanding. We have read the Bible with a Modern, Western, Plutonic “lens”…is it possible to learn of God through the Bible as a sort of lens without all these other “lenses”?

  4. Marc

    Well, ‘lens’ maybe isn’t the best term, because we indeed to see everything through the ‘lens’ of our particular worldview. Perhaps the Bible would be better termed a ‘window’ and our worldviews a ‘filter’. I don’t know.

    However we say it, the point is that we shouldn’t look at the Bible as end in itself.

  5. Linea

    I really like this post. I feel drawn to the same views that Borg expresses here about the Bible and as well our traditions. They are a means by which we are brought into a life changing relationship with Christ. The things which bring us to the point of having a relationship are not the end in themselves but they are a means by which we begin to know God. I guess I treat most books as objects to be honored, the Bible more so since it is the word of God to us. It is not God but his Spirit speaks to us through it so it is certainly to be used with reverence.

  6. Marc

    Thanks Linea.

    I think Wright (his co-author/debate partner) would agree with him on this point, too

    I’m pretty sure there’s more underlying Borg’s statements than meets the eye, things that some of us probably wouldn’t agree with, but he does make a point. In fact, now that I think about it, as much as I disagreed with Borg throughout the book, these comments in the final pages of the final chapter may have been the defining ones for me.

  7. Johanna

    I would agree, but only to a point. The paper part of the bible, the cloth and ink, isn’t sacred. But the words ON the pages, I believe they are holy.

    I always understood John 1:1-5, when refering to “the Word”, to mean the bible, his words to us. I’ve never thought of it as Jesus before, but I guess that would work too.

    I’m not sure if in the post you meant the ink & paper words or the words themselves, so I might be talking uselessly, but whatever.

    I believe the Bible could contain all the answers, but having the answers doesn’t necesarily get you closer to God. Why do kids die of starvation? Because we don’t feed them. Why do people have abusive parents? Because the parents made bad choices, resulting in their child’s conditioning to bad choices.

    I understand the lens analogy, and it works. But I think there are other ways to view the Bible too. It’s an instruction booklet, a letter of love, a story or myth…tons of stuff.

    I just meant that the bible IS divine. Not physically, but the words are. and I don’t know if that’s even what you meant, and if it is, you can just ignore this whole ramble.

  8. Linea

    Johanna,

    I would say the Bible is Holy but the word “divine”, I would reserve for God. I believe the words recorded in the Bible are the record of how God worked and works throughout history and that somehow the words are inspired so that the story and the reality of God could be passed on to us. I believe the Holy Spirit takes those words and makes them living and in some way sacred. The paper and the printing stuff – no – not sacred in themselves. But a holy book is to be treated with respect even in the form in which the words are delivered.

  9. Kelly

    Great post. Borg neatly pointed out the difference between religion and relationship, the mistake for which the Pharisees were condemned by Jesus(an appropriate use of the passive voice there, no?).

    J.Budziszewski makes the point that learning what the Bible says is not enough. We must learn to think like the Bible thinks. Unfortunately, many Christians I know don’t bother to make that transformational effort.

  10. Marc

    Thanks for your comments, Johanna. Don’t get me wrong: I believe the Bible contains truth and points us towards God. This post isn’t about devaluing the Bible, but, rather, about putting it in perspective and in the place it belongs.

    This is a difficult subject to discuss, because how do you describe the words of the Bible in abstract terms? How can we discuss in abstract terms? When I say words, do I mean the characters formed in ink on paper? Yes–in that sense it isn’t holy. I don’t even know if the words “ON” the paper are holy, as much as the truth they convey is.

    But the words abstractly, as ideas, are ‘holy’. I suppose this also means that they could exist outside of the pages of my Zondervan NIV Bonded Leather Thompson Chain Reference Gold-embossed Bible. If it is truth, it is not limited to the written word.

    But I’m still working this out myself.

    Incidentally, I’ve always understood the “Word” in John 1:1-5 to refer to Jesus, not the text of the Bible. In verse 2, for instance, the Word is personified, and then the word became flesh, as Jesus. Jesus, then, is God’s word to us.

    And of course in many ways the Bible is an instruction booklet. But I hesitate to use that term because it can be easily misunderstood. It’s not an instruction booklet in the sense of “how do I put this IKEA furniture together”? But it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.

    Anyway, whatever the case may be, I do think that often spend a lot of time thinking about our Bibles and fighting for the Bible and arguing for the Bible instead of thinking about God. Sometimes the Bible is idolized.

  11. Andrew

    I’m with Kelly and Budziszewski; if we aren’t shaped to think and act in accordance with God’s story as expressed in the bible, it means nothing.

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