VENERATION OF SCRIPTURE
Among the Jews, the Torah is not just for reading; it is also an object of devotion. In the Jewish synagogue the Holy Scroll is kept at the front in an elevated shrine that is called “the Ark.” Part of the worship service consists of bowing to the Ark and of parading the Torah around the aisles for the people to touch and kiss. The Torah is adorned in a regal covering and even has a crown on its upper end. These garments are almost identical to those that pagans employ to clothe their idols and that Catholics use to dress up their statues. Also, the Torah is elevated before the people in the same manner that Catholic priests elevate the Host. Since the loss of the Ark of the Covenant at the destruction of their Temple, it is obvious that the palladium* of Judaism has become the sacred Torah Scroll.
Such veneration of a book as a sacred artifact is a special kind of idolatry known by the theological term, “bibliolatry.”** And bibliolatry seems to be a universal trait found in all the world’s religions, for the holy scriptures of each religion have received worship that should be due to the Deity alone.
Hindus wash before touching their Vedas. Even surpassing this, the Sikhs worship their scriptures outright. They bow gravely to the sacred book, solemnly walk around it, or abase themselves by sitting on the floor
to hear it read.*** Likewise, Muslims treat their Quran like the ultimate
*In ancient Troy, the most holy shrine was the temple of the virgin goddess of wisdom and war, Pallas Athena. Her statue was called the Palladium, and on it depended the welfare of the city. The “palladium” of the Hebrews at that same time in history was a golden box, the Ark of the Covenant. It went with them as a symbol of their God during the Exodus, in the conquest of Canaan, and in subsequent battles with Israel’s enemies. The Ark was housed in a Temple, and the Ark itself was treated as a miniature temple, a little house for the Glory to rest upon. And as such it was very close to being an idol.
**Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “Time, time only, can gradually wean us from our Epeolatry, or word-worship, by spiritualizing our ideas of the thing signified. Man is an idolater or symbol-worshiper by nature, which, of course, is no fault of his; but sooner or later all his local and temporary symbols must be ground to powder, like the golden calf, - word images as well as metal and wooden ones. Rough work, iconoclasm, - but the only way to get at truth” (The Professor At The Breakfast Table).
***In 1708 when the last Sikh guru was near death, he summoned the leaders of the faith to him and declared that the scriptures - rather than an individual - would be the Sikh guru after him. Therefore, this sect literally has a “paper Pope.”
oracle of God. In fact, it was because of this excessive idolization of this one Book that the Muslim general burned the great library of Alexandria - to get rid of rival books. Similarly, the Catholics through medieval times held back the Bible from the people - as though it were too sacred to be touched by peasants (even though it was written about the life of a peasant Carpenter). When Wycliffe translated the Vulgate Bible into English, the Church’s high officials exclaimed that he had “cast the Pearl before swine.”
Of special interest is the history of bibliolatry in Protestantism. With the severance of the Reformed Church from the Roman pontificate, a multitude of old allegiances was terminated. The typical Protestant no longer venerated the Pope, refusing to say “Your Holiness” or “Your Worship” to a mere man, or to bow down and kiss his hand, his ring, his garment, or his foot. Protestant groups were of one accord in rejecting as blasphemous the exaltation of a man as a god. Likewise, they ceased prayer to saints and to the Virgin. And so, lacking all these other avenues of devotion, they came around to an equally misguided veneration of the Bible.
The Bible to Protestants came to be as infallible as the Pope, as meritorious as prayer to a saint, and as full of healing and virtue as a vision of Mary. (Thus, “the Word of God” for Protestants attained to the sublime status of “the Mother of God” for Catholics.)
The open Bible freed man from the trammels of Church canons and traditions and set his mind on the quest for truth. But then the idolization of that same Book built a fence around truth and stifled progress toward a complete understanding of the universe and its Creator. It became a straitjacket on allowable practices, methods, philosophies, and doctrines of the Church, and on secular studies as well. Whenever man’s new-found knowledge was thought to be in conflict with the literal meaning of a scriptural passage, the innovative knowledge was rejected and condemned. Man was told to deny the obvious evidences of his research and observation and to accept patent falsehood on faith. As a consequence, great pioneers of thought like Bacon, Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Newton, Darwin, and Teilhard de Chardin all felt the lash of censure. And because of blind defenders of a holy, infallible Bible, it has become a pattern of history that progress can be bought only at the price of persecution.
So, bibliolatry stands condemned on two accounts: it steals worship from God, and it undermines the search for truth. The first is a sin against God, and the second an affront to sapient mankind. Thus it is time that Protestants put the Bible in its place. The Book itself makes no claims to being a final Word of God, for it admits that man under divine leadership will advance beyond its principles to still higher planes of ethical achievement. Jesus directed the eyes of His followers beyond Scripture with the words, “When the Holy Spirit comes, He will lead you into all truth...and the truth will make you free.”
As it stands, the Bible is the idol of Christian fundamentalists, for an idol is “any person or thing blindly adored or revered.” Blind devotion to anything transforms it into an idol. Any object to which a person renders full, unquestioning, unthinking, servile obedience is an idol. There is a difference between wholesome affinity for a material object and the radical extension of that affinity into idolization. When the object possesses the possessor it has become his idol - be it money, alcohol, a house, a boat, a job, one’s family, one’s own body, a club, a church, the Pope, or the Bible.
With respect to the object listed last: Holy Scriptures are worthy of the Christian’s respect and appreciation, but many people have developed a feeling of blind adoration for the Bible, such that all other books and all other avenues of revelation tend to be discounted when compared to “the Word of God.”
Since the Bible is a visible and tangible evidence of God (and it must be understood that any tangible representation of deity is a potential idol), there is a tendency for His more superstitious adherents to unconsciously elevate it to divine status. The Bible as an idol becomes a heavenly document dropped to earth from the hand of God - straight out of His mind and completely free of human error, completely accurate in all its details, and completely reliable in every discipline of human knowledge.
This first error leads to many others. The Bible comes to be misused as a book of magic, as a lucky charm, as a crystal ball, as an infallible “paper Pope,” as a science textbook, as a deterrent to thinking new ideas about God, as a straitjacket on church practices and methods, as a book of legalistic rules, and as an excuse for religious ignorance regarding obscure passages - rather than a challenge to continued seeking after truth with an open mind.
The term “Holy Bible” has come to mean “Inerrant Oracle” - the mind and thoughts of God captured in print or written by His finger in stone. But like any other idol this one is also man-made (out of paper and ink, thread and glue) and is not a true likeness of the Deity it represents. If it were a true likeness, it would merit man’s veneration, but there has been only one true Likeness available to man in his entire history. And it is to Him that worship is due, not to the record book of His appearing.
Now the prevalence of bibliolatry is easily demonstrated in modern society. Some examples are:
Swearing upon the Bible in taking an oath.
Waving a Bible in the pulpit (rather than just reading it).
Keeping a Bible in the automobile for luck.
Carrying a Testament into battle for protection.
Displaying a Bible in the home like a household god and covered with dust.
Randomly selecting a verse for divine guidance and knowledge of the future.*
Believing every punctuation mark in the King James Bible to be divinely dictated.
Accepting obvious contradictions of universally-accepted facts as being somehow true (as when references to the “four corners” of the global earth and the “pillars” supporting heaven are said to be merely “poetic language.”).
If a person never talks back to his Bible, it has become his idol. And the surest way to kill an idol, once it is recognized as such,* is to talk back to it. God Himself does not demand this kind of idolization, for even Jesus was driven to question Him, “My God, why?”**
*Divination by means of random selection of Bible verses is called “bibliomancy,” and this resembles the use of occult oracles by pagans and crystal balls by mediums.
What is the Bible then? It is the Christian’s text book. It is to be studied, memorized, digested, discussed, experienced, marked in, witnessed from, taught, and preached. It becomes the more precious when it is absorbed and not adored. The Bible is a map, not the Destination. The Bible is the record of Revelation, not the Revelation itself. The Bible is, like Christ, the Bread of Life, which must be broken and sliced to be eaten. The Bible is a signpost pointing to God. One must leave the sign and go where it points. The Bible is also a glass window through which one sees God. But if a person focuses on the glass, the Image beyond it is blurred.
Protestants, having no infallible human source of religious wisdom - neither Church dogma, Canon law, Tradition, or a Pope - upon which to lean for direction, have substituted the Bible. The Book has become the Vicar of Christ. It has become the neo-papist Dictator of Reformation ecclesiology. It has become the paper Prophet of all the deviant cults, who revel in its most obscure passages. It has become a pseudo-scientific Cosmic Encyclopædia for the ignorant, anti-intellectual lower classes.
To make matters worse, this particular idol often wears a mask - a mask of archaic English language. Being unintelligible to those not familiar with Shakespearian English, it has become, like the old Latin liturgy, mysterious and awesome. But once translated into modern speech forms, it loses its blinding aura and becomes the practical guide to God it was intended to be. To unmask this idol is to help in understanding it. Also, another mask, that of “divine inspiration” (in the sense of “oracular pronouncement”) is a factor of confusion. Those who must find a proof text for what to believe on moral issues are held back by obsolete biblical injunctions on “eye for eye” justice, racial segregation, undemocratic government, autocratic priestcraft, female inferiority, etc., that mar the pages of Holy Writ.
*Isaiah said, “The poor deluded fool feeds on ashes; he is trusting what can never give him any help at all. Yet he cannot bring himself to ask, ‘Is this thing, this idol that I am holding in my hand, a lie?” (44:20)
**Devotion to God should not be blind adoration. In the mature Christian, blind faith must give way to continually asking Him questions about life. Religion is striving to know more about God, trying to “see His face.” And He has encouraged this way of thinking by the challenging words, “Seek, and you shall find.”
So, what is one to do in the face of all this superstition? In reaction to the heresy of book worship, there might be the hasty temptation to destroy the Book. Every zealous iconoclast wants to simply pulverize every idol he sees. But a better approach, in this case, is simply to unmask the idol. And then when it is no longer idolized, the Bible can become the powerful instrument it was intended to be in mankind’s pursuit of spiritual truth.
Apis was a golden calf
Priest Aaron made to stand,
Defying Yahweh’s vengeful wrath
For the gods of Egypt land.
Nehushtan was a brazen snake
That Moses lifted high;
God’s worship did this seraph take
‘Til Hezekiah’s time.
To Bel and also baalim
The fickle Hebrews prayed.
Then Dagon, Moloch, terraphim,
And Ishtar had their day.
Now preachers elevate the Book
And shout, “Behold your god!”
And once again is God forsook
By the idol-loving clod.