I read a thought-provoking article this week, “The Ridiculous Emphasis Christians Place on the Bible.” Take a deep breath before grabbing the torches and pitchforks. I think the article was intentionally provocative, but made some good points:
- We didn’t have the New Testament in its complete form until 367 A.D., when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed all 27 books of the New Testament for the first time. That’s over 300 years of a church without a bible. A period in which the church took over the known world.
- 100 years after Jesus left, some churches had copies of the collected letters of Paul and a gospel or two, but that’s it.
- Many had collections with books of debated authenticity that were later ferreted out.
- No-one owned their own copy of the Bible for personal “Bible study” unless they were wealthy enough to pay the real cost to have it transcribed (see Luke 1:3-4).
- With the high rate of illiteracy, having a personal copy of the Bible would have been useless anyway. Most Christians wouldn’t have been able to read it.
- The period of the church’s greatest growth and expansion (33–mid 300’s A.D.) occurred during the time when there wasn’t (1) a Bible in every Christian’s hand and (2) an obsessive preoccupation with Christians clustering to study it word by word, line by line and page by page?
The author concludes:
Most Christians today assume that to be a Christian means to have a personal relationship with the Bible instead of the risen Jesus.
Sadly, I think the author has a point. If my wife gives me a card for my birthday or anniversary, I cherish it; but I don’t substitute it for her. I don’t sleep with it, laugh with it or take it to dinner. I think for many Christians it’s easier to read about someone than to have a relationship with them. It’s easier to study in air-conditioning than to go and make disciples in a world that hates you. There is no substitute for Jesus, even if it’s a Holy Spirit inspired book about Him.
On the other hand, I think this trend to deemphasize the Bible grows not out of a wish to exchange scripture for a relationship with the real Jesus, but out of a discomfort about what the Bible tells us about who Jesus is. The Jesus we admire and proclaim is very different from the Jesus portrayed in scripture. He doesn’t call us to build structures or hire professionals to spread the word. He doesn’t promise prosperity but calls us to follow one who had no place to lay His head. He talks about cross carrying and dying and not about pew sitting and judging.
The Bible is a precious gift from God, even if it came 300 years after Jesus returned to the Father. It provides an unchanging vision of who we are, who the Father is and who Jesus is. It’s been the inspiring foundation of Western civilization. It’s a source of inspiration and motivation. It provides a challenging vision of what love really is and what the church is really supposed to be. Some may overemphasize the Bible but still haven’t learned all it’s lessons, adopted its model for church life or lived up to its standards of holiness.
As society slips further and further away from a biblically based morality, scripture becomes more, not less, significant. We should never substitute a book about Jesus for Jesus, but we should never forget what that book teaches us about Him, what He said, what He did, and that He’s coming back soon. The Bible is God’s love note in a bottle. I love to read it especially when Jesus seems far away and I feel alone. It’s no substitute for Him. It’s a just a reminder that He’s here.