Is It Possible for Christians to Idolize the Bible?

A few months ago, I read the following in an article by an author who self-identifies as an evangelical: “While the Bible is an important and authoritative guide for Christian faith and practice, it isn’t the foundation or center of our faith- Jesus is… Studying Scripture is valuable, but nowhere near as valuable as cultivating a day to day relationship with the God incarnate.

This author has a number of views that make him a bit of an outlier in the evangelical movement as it’s been traditionally defined.  However, I’m finding that his view of Scripture is increasingly common.  More and more, I hear sentiments within the Church like:

  • “Many Christians are putting too much emphasis on the Bible instead of Christ and the Holy Spirit.”
  • “The Trinity is not Father, Son, and Holy Scripture.”
  • “Beware of making the Bible an idol.”

Hence the question:  Is it possible for Christians to idolize the Bible?

The Importance of the Question

We should not dismiss this question too quickly.  It seems to me that those who express the above sentiments have had a bad experience with a church or with Christians when it comes to the Bible.  They’ve encountered numerous Christians who, though they know the Bible inside and out, seem “puffed up” by their knowledge, having little love for Christ or for others.  The worry is that putting so much focus on the Bible will only replicate these experiences.

Scripture says that some knowledge “puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) but that other knowledge is intimately interwoven with love (Philippians 1:9).  So, we must test ourselves:  Is my study of the Scriptures bearing the fruit of the Spirit, or is it bearing the fruit of arrogance?  The Bible has been misused widely in its history, so certainly we must be wary of misusing it, ourselves, turning it into a vehicle for pride over how much we know, rather than being rightly challenged by it to humble, loving service of God and others.

Further, Christ rebukes the Pharisees in John 5:39-40 for knowing the Scriptures inside and out, yet not receiving and believing in him as the Christ. So again we must test ourselves: Is my study of the Scriptures merely the accumulation of knowledge, like studying a textbook, or is it helping me follow Christ as my Lord and love him as my Savior?  In other words, we must understand that it’s possible to know the Scriptures yet ignore Jesus. We must also admit that many Christians have had interactions with believers or churches who treat the Bible just like the Pharisees did.

We must not be surprised by the question, but challenged and helped by it.

The Inaccuracy of the Question

Yet, as important and challenging as the question is, it’s rooted in an inaccurate understanding of Scripture.   Consider the primary descriptions of Scripture from the Bible itself:

  • All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16)
  • For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21)

Add to this that one of the favored names of Jesus Christ is “The Word,” and you have a Trinitarian testimony that the Bible is not divorced from the Godhead, but is the tangible work of the Trinity in perfect harmony speaking to us.

Simply put, the Bible is the voice of God.  The Father breathes out the Word.  The Son is the Word incarnate.  The Holy Spirit carried along the biblical authors so that they would speak “from God”.  The Bible is the voice of God – not just the red letters – the whole Bible. As such, the question “Is it possible for Christians to idolize the Bible?” is inaccurate, because it forces us to drive a false wedge between God and his voice.  Prioritizing God’s voice is prioritizing God, and thus prioritizing his voice cannot be thought of as idolatry.

Please know, I get it.  The Scriptures and Jesus Christ are different entities.  The Bible and the Spirit are unique from one another.  But that does not mean we can or should treat them as such, divorcing them from one another.

The Illustration of the Question

Consider your best friend.  How, precisely, are you in relationship with him or her?  You may work together and have shared hobbies, but primarily, you know your friend through his words.  Your conversations and every verbal interaction are essential to your friendship.

Sure, there is much about him that is not verbal – his character, talents, personality – but even then, most of what you know about his character, talents, and personality is known to you because of what he has said to you over the years.

You wouldn’t try to separate your friend from his words.  They are distinct entities, yes.  But they go hand-in-hand.

The Importance of the Question, Revisited

And so we return to the question, “Is it possible to idolize the Bible?”  The answer is a resounding, “No.” Prioritizing the Bible in our lives is far from idolatry.  Prioritizing the Bible is prioritizing God’s voice to us, and thus God himself.

You can misuse the Bible, as we’ve earlier described.  But if the Bible describes itself accurately, it is the voice of God speaking to us.  To know the Bible is to know God – his voice, his character, his attributes, his kingdom, his plan to save us! 

This is where I’d like to ask the author quoted earlier: How can you and I “cultivate a day to day relationship with God incarnate” apart from the Scriptures?  How can we separate Christ and his voice to such an extent that we can set one against the other or claim that listening to his voice can become an idol?  If the Bible is how Jesus speaks to us, how can we grow in relationship with Christ without emphasizing listening to him through his very Word?

This is where I find the question and the sentiments described at the beginning rather dangerous.  At best, these sentiments warn us of misuse, as we’ve seen.  But at worst, they provide us with a massive reason to distance ourselves from the Scriptures, thus distancing us from the voice of God speaking into our lives.

The Bible cannot be emphasized enough in our lives, in our small groups, in our churches, for it is how we hear the very voice of God speaking to us!  To cultivate a day to day relationship with God incarnate, we must listen to his voice.  How bizarre would it be to worry that you over-prioritized your best friends words?  If you long to know your best friend, you will listen to their words.

Don’t miss the encouraging truth in the midst of this discussion:  If the Bible is the voice of God, that means that you can hear from God!

So friend, let’s heed the important challenge that comes with this question, “Is it possible to make the Bible an idol?”  Let’s be Christians who grow in love and faith through the Scriptures.  But let’s not be confused: God has spoken to us through the Scriptures, so if we would truly know him and love him, we must make listening to him a passionate priority in our lives.

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Tom Olson (@tommyo) is the Campus Pastor at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church (@theorchardefc) in Barrington, Illinois

Date Posted: Jan 22nd, 2015

  • Archepoimen follower

    Wow, Tom, this article is both timely and relevant. Evangelical scholars and pastors have bought into this false dichotomy between God the Word and His words. I appreciate your clear stand on this issue! As a pastor, it can be hard to stand faithfully on the truth, God, including the Son, cannot be in opposition with the bible since the bible is His word and His word is truth,

  • Tom Harmon

    Thanks pastor Tom. Reading through the book of John right now. How many times Christ emphasizes the Word he spoken in regards to our relationship and faith in Him…totally connected!

  • Ken Abbott

    Thank you for this. As professed disciples of Jesus Christ, we must ask ourselves if our doctrine of Scripture, our regard for the word of God, matches that of our Lord. An honest assessment of his testimony as recorded in the gospels is that he held/holds the Scriptures in the highest esteem. “Your word is truth,” he declared to the Father in his high-priestly prayer. The Spirit of Christ, who knows the mind of Christ, is the divine author of Scripture. The Bible is the word of God inscripurated; Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate. We must be careful to distinguish them, but we ought not to separate them.

    • Keith Robinson

      Keith Robinson
      Thank you for the excellent and very helpful article.

  • Sarah

    Most excellent!

  • Kent Haley

    Interesting.. the scriptures themselves depict Christ and church as an inseparable union- this is indicated much more frequently and clearly in the scripture than God being inseparable from his word. So then is it possible for the church to be an idol?

  • Morris Brooks

    I will bow down toward Your holy temple and give thanks to Your name for Your lovingkindness and Your truth; for Your have maginfies Your word according to all Your name. Psalm 138:2 NASB
    The ESB says this, “for You have exalted above all things Your name and Your word.”
    Much to unpack here, but one can easily see the esteem the Lord has for His word. If this is the esteem He has for His word, should we not hold it in the same esteem. If we truly revere Him then we will also revere His word. The problem with the person quoted above is that they have a low view of Scripture and don’t want to be bound by it, which is indicative of their real view toward God.
    This view/mindset you are encountering is really not new. We encountered it all through the 90’s as we were going through the inerrancy controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention. Those of us who held to a high view of Scripture were accused of Bibliolatry.
    If we are truly devoted to the Lord, then we will also be devoted to His word. If we hold the Lord in high esteem, then we will also hold His word in high esteem. For to know His word is to know Him, not in a dry academic sense, but in a living dynamic sense as it is in and through the living Word that we encounter the living God.

  • Fundamentals

    ” The question “Is it possible for Christians to idolize the Bible?” is inaccurate, because it forces us to drive a false wedge between God and his voice.” This seems to me to be an oddly stated proposition, and as such somewhat skirts the issue. There are most definitely those in the evangelical world whose view of the Bible is misguided and superficial—they view it as a divinely inspired holy object. and almost have a superstitious regard for it. They remind me of Roman Catholics committing idolatry with a statue of Mary. They are sidetracked. These folks generally are legalistically hidebound, and do not actually feed on God’s Word to the nourishment and growth of their souls in Christ-likeness. Some of them show up as KJV Only people, basically “idolizing” a particular translation. I saw a pastor once hold up a Bible and tell the congregation that it was the Word, and Jesus is the Word, so the Bible is Jesus. Do not get me wrong– I love the scriptures, and do not intend in anyway to denigrate them or downplay God’s Word, and the work it does and the fruit it brings forth in a Christian’s heart and life, and how essential it is in sound doctrine and authentic faith. But sound teaching and discipling is crucial for Christians to mature properly.

  • Doulos

    Sometimes Jesus’ words in John 5:39 (“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…”) are cited to support the “worship Jesus, not the Bible” (or “it’s about relationship not doctrine/theology”) false dichotomy, as though Jesus is rebuking the unbelieving Jewish leaders for holding the Scriptures in too high regard. But he doesn’t continue by denying that the Scriptures hold the key to eternal life, he continues on claim that it is those Scriptures that witness to them, he relies upon the authority of those Scriptures to prove his own claims. The sin he cites is “refusing to come” to Jesus for life.

    We must never pit Jesus, the Word, against the written revelation
    of God in the Scriptures, because Jesus himself never did that. He always upheld the authority of
    the Scriptures, properly interpreted (pointing to Himself, that is). After his resurrection “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,
    He explained to them these things concerning Himself in all the
    Scriptures.” Jesus expected people of his day to use the Scriptures to test his claims and understand who he was, to know he truly was from God. Today Jesus’ Spirit works in the same way, directing people to God’s testimony in the Bible of who Jesus is. Any teaching or spirit who directs us away from God’s revelation in the Bible to some other authority is not from God.

  • Scott

    Great article. This question seems to have its root in quakerism. They will often quote Jesus’ words in John 5 “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,” arguing that Jesus is promoting a demotion of the Word (this is baffling to me).
    Another danger I would add is that it seems that those posing these questions are promoting this knowability of God outside the scriptures, and one possible reason could be their desire to promote their own subjective knowledge of God and use that as some sort of authority. This is dangerous indeed. Once this phantom authority is established without scriptural support then havoc can be wreaked on the young and impressionable.

  • George

    You have an awful lot of good things to say here. I think, however, that you forget to mention that by isolating ourselves totally to the Bible in order to cultivate a personal relationship with God we will be heavily limited to the amount of time we can spend with God.

    My relationship with God is all day long! In fact, right now, in this very moment I am connected with Him. We are deceived if we think we must take time out of our day to read the Bible before we can spend time with Him and hear from Him. Our connection with Him is in Spirit. While you iron, do the dishes, wash or drive your car, while you’re at work, in the shower, reading a book – the interface between myself and God remains online 24/24 through my router who is the Spirit. This is because God’s divine Spirit has been joined together with my spirit the day I first believed and now He lives in me – as the Bible also teaches.

    I also read the Bible quite extensively and I have received many truths and blessings from this activity. But I also believe that it is God’s divine Spirit joined to my spirit that verifies the truth behind what I read in the Bible and not vice-versa. Without the Spirit no one can fully understand the content of the Bible.

    And with God’s Spirit in us as children of God, we can converse with Him all day long – and without the Bible.

    God bless.

  • Jasmine

    Praise God. Your response is awesome. I definitely agree.

  • laughterjones

    John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    I wouldn’t put much weight to this issue. John 1 should be refreshing to you.

  • I’m new to your blog, so I just now read this post. I so appreciate its clarity in explaining the relationship between Christ and His Word.

    • UnlockingtheBible

      Hi Debbie, welcome to our blog! Thanks for reading and for the kind words.

  • Joel Stucki

    Be careful, please, how you use the term “Judaic.” Gain some real understanding of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith before you throw that term around this way. I have known these people nearly 40 years now–studied with them, prayed with them, worshipped with them–and I can assure you that you are quite wrong.

    The gospel account of Jesus’ interaction with Jewish leaders is accurate, of course. But it is not within the scope of the gospel message to give us a full account of Jewish history and religious thought. If you judge all of Judaism through Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees, your perspective will be very skewed. Please, learn to understand the Jewish people before you say such awful things. Please. Jewish ministry is hard enough without this kind of thing.

  • Stuart Farm

    I like how the Bible encourages me in so many ways. Like prospectors shouting, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” we see in Proverbs 2 the multiple avenues for seeking after the treasure of the probably-often-misunderstood fear of the LORD, the knowledge of God, and his wisdom, knowledge and understanding. In Acts 17, we see how the Bereans were noble, eager, and diligent in their receiving of the message and their examining of the Scriptures daily. Thinking on how Jesus talked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), he would have been quoting various Old Testament passages that speak about or allude to himself (that’s an interesting study–looking for things that point to Jesus in the Old Testament!). Even just the fact that we have the Bible now after thousands of years of history is an encouragement to me, and in writing this I am freshly encouraged to read it and memorize it and meditate on it and properly put it into practice! Sometimes I liken the Bible to a precious letter written by my dear wife, or to a walkie-talkie in a time of war when I might be isolated from others in my company, or to a cell phone that still works even in the midst of a “dead zone” where there is no reception. The Bible is a vital gift given to us ultimately by God himself–let’s read it, memorize it, meditate on it, and put it into practice as God leads us!

  • lanette

    Thank you for this article. I agree with your answer.