For someone questioning their Christian upbringing and background, there is perhaps no more important question than how to relate to the Bible. Some of us, myself included, take the leap away from believing in scriptural inerrancy and infallibility without having a completely intelligible explanation of why, other than that it grates against some deep-seated intuitions we have about what’s really going on. Admittedly, that’s a pretty scary jump, especially when so much of what we learned previously depends on those ideas.
I gave up on easy church answers, trading them for questions, instead. How would I relate to Holy Scripture? I didn’t know. In moments of weakness, it was easy to retreat back into old answers which I knew didn’t satisfy — mostly just to save face in front of people with expectations about what were and were not appropriate answers to that question. On my own, however, I sought to learn more.
Along the way, people have presented a number of different ways of thinking about Scripture. The view I liked best actually comes from one of the most famous and well-respected theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth. He argues that Scripture doesn’t become God’s Word until the Holy Spirit works in us. Or perhaps more accurately, Scripture points us to or leads us to God’s Word through the working of the Spirit, but Scripture is not God’s Word in and of itself.
I always found this view attractive but lacking. Who was to say that a beautiful tree or an emotional moment couldn’t do the very same thing? Scripture lacked a definite purpose. I could stare at the clouds or contemplate philosophy and learn about God’s truth. Why did I need Scripture?
The answer, for me, stems from a short passage I read two years ago during a course on Metaphysics. In this section, philosopher Jean-Luc Marion talks about the difference between icons and idols. In short, the difference between an icon and an idol is the way in which we use it for worship. When we treat something as an idol, we treat it as the thing that we should worship for its own sake. On the other hand, when we treat something as an icon, the icon points us beyond itself to something greater which demands our worship.
For example, we know an image of Christ is not Christ; rather, it points us beyond the image to Christ Himself. When we treat the image in that way, we treat it as an icon. If an ignorant or misled person were to come along and see this image, though, they might believe that the image itself demands worship, thereby treating it as an idol.
While it’s not my aim to offend people, I must say that the way people treat the Bible looks a lot like this sort of idolatry. This is largely how most of the Christians I know use Scripture: it is itself the object of reverence, not that toward which it points. It’s like a de facto fourth member of the Trinity.
A better approach would be to treat the Bible as an icon. While you may be able to come to know God through a beautiful landscape or an intimate moment, the Bible’s express purpose is to point you in that direction; however, it is not God Himself. It is not “God’s Word” as John 1:1 discusses.
A bit of a tangent, here: the “Word” or “logos” from John 1 is a reference to Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who used the concept of the “logos” as a way of describing the fundamental workings of the universe. For the Word to become flesh was not the Bible taking on human form, as I believed in my ignorance while growing up. Jesus is not the Bible in any way, shape, or form.
Anyhow, my point is that the Bible points us beyond itself to God. It is not the direct revelation of God, worthy of reverence in and of itself, but it is the collection of testaments from diverse people all interacting with God in unique ways. We should remain respectful of it, but we do not have to bow to it. To do so is idolatry, as we must instead worship God.