I believe the Bible is an essential part of the Christian life. In fact, I believe it is impossible to completely know God without scripture. I believe scripture is an inspired and inspirational book. Not surprisingly, I’ve lived most of my life as part of a religious tradition that places a high emphasis on scripture. That is a good thing.
But . . . the danger in taking such a high view of scripture is that it becomes all too easy to see scripture as the end of things, as the focal point of our faith. “We’re a people of the book,” we say with pride.
These days I cringe a bit when I hear that.
Human beings have always had a problem with religious objects. There seems to be an almost overwhelming temptation to turn them into idols, things that take the place of God himself. My Heavenly Father is not contained in a book. He is far, far bigger than a book, even one that he inspired. And in the same way that “the Most High does not live in houses made by men” (Acts 7:48; see also 1 Kings 8:27 and Acts 17:24), he does not dwell in the pages of Scripture.
In the religious leaders of his own day, Jesus saw the danger of making scripture something it was never intended to be. “You diligently study the Scriptures,” he said, “because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).
Sadly, I’ve seen this all too frequently in my own tradition as well. We have experts in the text without the spirit of Christ. It’s not surprising, really, when you consider how the Restoration Movement began. In part, the quest of Thomas and Alexander Campbell in the early 1800s was to apply the lessons of Enlightenment-era scientific inquiry to the study of scripture, believing that if we brought reason and rational thought to bear on the study of scripture, we’d find greater agreement and unity and thus avoid the endless and bloody religious wars that had ravaged Europe. So the Restoration Movement was a unity movement based on the reasonable and rational study of scripture.
A hundred years later, though, and all that reason and rational thought has made us text-focused instead of God-focused. And it’s turned the Bible, in many cases, into another legal text over which we argue and with which we bludgeon those we disagree with in our heavy-handed attempt to strong-arm them back into compliance. Not exactly the spirit of Christ.
We must allow the Bible to be what it was intended to be – a guide. It gives our faith some parameters, it witnesses to God’s activity outside of our own generation, and it helps us to connect with God in a personal way.
It’s that last part that I have found the most helpful and is the most missing in my own tradition. I have found the Bible to be something like a heavenly cell phone. It’s not an MP3 player, only designed to work one way. Through scripture, I’ve found that I can dialogue with my Father. It’s not just a letter, old communication to long-dead people. No, on every page there is opportunity for a hundred fresh, new conversations with Father about his activity in my own life and heart. It’s what I think the Hebrew writer was getting at when he wrote that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12). The word of God is meant to spawn a living engagement with God at a heart level and often serves as the vehicle through which that engagement takes place.
I affirm with the apostle Paul that “all scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But scripture is not my God. It is an extremely helpful portal through which I can come to know God, and in which I can dialogue with him. I want to know the word. But I want to know the Father even more.
Study the scriptures, then, not merely to master the text, which is not nearly a lofty enough goal, but to meet God. And talk to him about what you read, and listen with the ears of your heart.