When I took my first Bible class in college, I was required to memorize the books of the Bible. A lot of people in my class found that exercise of writing out the books of the Bible from memory in list form very difficult. The spelling of the Old Testament books was especially difficult. But it wasn’t difficult for this Baptist. I can still easily recite all 66 books in order, with a little refresher on the minor prophets.
Baptists often are called “people of the book” because we hold a high value of Scripture. We were raised with Scripture from an early age at church and often at home. Many of us participated in Bible drills, which required memorization of Scripture and speed in finding key passages. I wasn’t heavily into Bible drills, but I learned enough to create a foundation upon which to continue to love and learn about the Bible.
What I love about the Bible is the mystery. Often some of my fellow Baptists believe in inerrancy — that there is no error in Scripture, which precludes mystery. They claim we should take it at face value as literal truth. I believe we are selling the Bible short with this view because the Bible is filled with many genres and authors with different purposes and cultures that span an immense amount of time.
“We believe the Bible is divinely inspired, but it seems like the authors didn’t know that.”
We believe the Bible is divinely inspired, but it seems like the authors didn’t know that when they wrote down their stories, prophecy, poetry end-times thinking, gospels and letters, to name a few. Herein is the mystery in this collection of writing that requires our study, deep thought and interpretation. Our understanding of many passages changes and evolves with our understanding of God from our lives of faith influenced by the Holy Spirit. As Baptists, the priesthood of the believer — the idea that each of us is responsible to serve as our own priest — calls us into relationship with God who gives us the gift of wrestling with Scriptures to help us on our journey.
Many years ago, I met with an individual to train them on our new Sunday school curriculum and to share the goals I and the committee had created for our Sunday school ministry (they had missed the training). This teacher had been accustomed to picking their own Bible stories and creating their own lessons for the 2- and 3-year-olds in their class. They wanted me to know they were teaching the children in their class the Bible. I applauded their effort and expressed my gratefulness for their dedication and love.
I also shared why I wanted all the preschool classrooms to use the new material. One reason being that a larger breadth of Bible stories could be shared in a more structured way so that the children would hear more than a select few stories repeated each year. And I wanted the preschoolers to hear stories of Jesus. The curriculum I had carefully chosen reflected an emphasis on Gospel stories.
After I introduced the curriculum and demonstrated some activities, I was quite surprised to be met with resistance. The teacher said they just couldn’t get behind this plan because they believed strongly in teaching these young children “the Bible.”
“I was perplexed as to how teaching preschoolers about Jesus from the Gospels wasn’t teaching them the Bible.”
Meanwhile, I was perplexed as to how teaching preschoolers about Jesus from the Gospels wasn’t teaching them the Bible. They couldn’t answer that question. They could not articulate why they felt there was a problem.
Confused, I continued to talk about the importance of knowing the stories of Jesus, of building a foundation that as children grew and moved to the next Sunday school class, they would continue to grow in their faith, understanding that Jesus loves them, that they should love Jesus and their neighbor.
Both the teacher and I left that meeting frustrated. The teacher was so distraught about the direction of the Sunday school ministry they eventually left the church.
What I suspected then and now believe was that this well-meaning individual didn’t know what it meant to follow Jesus and to worship God in spirit and truth.
Perhaps we had failed to teach them about the difficult journey of faith. They only knew to worship the Bible.
“They only knew to worship the Bible.”
They only knew to teach preschoolers a dumbed-down version of Noah’s Ark, while in reality the story is about a bunch of people and animals that die by God’s hand. We rush right by that — thinking this story is helpful for children because it contains a rainbow.
They only knew to teach that God saves Moses as a baby in a basket in the river but not that Moses freed the people — a harsh story of death, slavery and finally some justice in freedom from the pharaoh.
They only knew to teach that Jesus was placed in a manger as a baby and this baby would save us because we are so horribly sinful. This baby would grow up to die a gruesome death on the cross, and we should feel guilty because we are not worthy of that sacrifice.
Instead of teaching that the great love of God sent Jesus to teach us how to love, live and serve, they only knew to teach one facet of Scripture — our sins are washed away with blood (yikes, also not great for the kids), thank God!
They didn’t know and wrestle with the Bible; they worshipped it.
This individual left and went to a church where they felt more comfortable. The problem is that Scripture isn’t meant to make us comfortable. It is meant to be difficult.
“We can be people of the book. But we cannot be people solely of the book.”
We can be people of the book. But we cannot be people solely of the book. We are believers who utilize Scripture to help us in our journey of faith. To point us to God, to keep us on the right path, to lead us to love our neighbors as Jesus teaches us.
Ultimately, the Bible is not a substitute for Jesus. When it is, bibliolatry is our religion.
Diana Bulter Bass says in Freeing Jesus, “Most American Christians are bibliolaters of a sort.” Jesus is the Word of God, Butler Bass goes on to explain. Not “word” in the sense of a literal word on a page, or Scripture, but something more mysterious. Jesus is somehow God, in a way we can’t quite understand, an embodiment of God. God made flesh. Divine.
We follow this Jesus who we have a chance to know in part through Scripture. When we speak of Scripture as being divinely inspired and a living, breathing word, we can celebrate its role in guiding our struggle to know God and to be more Christlike, but we must be careful not to elevate Scripture above belief in God. Belief changes our lives, while bibliolatry requires little from us.
“We must be careful not to elevate Scripture above belief in God.”
The recent rise of Christian nationalism tells us a lot. It is easy to replace Jesus when all you worship is the Bible. It’s easy to promote the falsehood that the Constitution of the United States was a divinely inspired document, and our country is meant to be a “Christian nation,” when all you worship is the Bible. It makes sense if you have replaced Jesus with who is in and out-ism and entitlement; then “God’s country” begins to sound right.
Former President Donald Trump is a bibliolater, as we saw when he lifted a Bible up in the air (sometimes upside down) attempting to justify his violent clearing of protesters from Lafayette Square. Just to be clear, Donald Trump is not a savior, nor should he be confused with someone who is Christlike.
Our Holy Trinity is not God, the Bible and the Holy Spirit. It is God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
We can love the Scriptures because they are a gift to us. Not to worship but to point us to a God of love and therefore point us to be people of love.
Unfortunately, I was unable to communicate meaningfully about this great love to the teacher in this story. I regret that I lost their friendship and trust because we could not agree. But I believe in a God who is at work in the world. Maybe, just maybe, we will reconcile that friendship one day because God loves both of us deeply and strongly without fail. In the meantime, I put my trust in the God of love.
Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
The command from Scripture is love. Let us love God and one another as Jesus has commanded us and keep our Bibles on our nightstands and in our pews, where they belong.
Julia Goldie Day is ordained through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and lives in Memphis, Tenn. She is a painter and proud mother to Jasper, Barak and Jillian. Learn more at her website.
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