For something to be “real” it helps if you can touch it, see it or taste it.
But can one touch faith, see faith or taste faith?
Of course the answer is no. Yet faith is an important basis of the Christian religion. “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” [Corinthians 4: 18].
Despite Corinthians 4:18, people still seem to need to “see” the cross, taste the sacraments, view statues of the Saints and gaze upon the beautiful cathedrals. The tangible can be very important for the believer. Tangible objects can be very inspiring.
But what about God’s word, The Bible?
Peter Gomes feels that many Christians make The Bible an object of “veneration” and ascribe to it the glory due to God. Many refer to it as “God’s word” as if God dictated it personally to the writers of Scripture [indeed some Christians do see it that way]. They feel it is much more than just a book.
What is the problem in all of this? Gomes states that idolatry is the problem. Moses returned from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law directly from God only to find his people worshipping a golden calf. He was furious with Aaron (who was left in charge), but Aaron had just given the Israelites a tangible manifestation to worship. They thought they needed that; God thought otherwise. God wanted to destroy them all for their ingratitude, but Moses saved them with his powerful petitions on their behalf. He was so angry that he broke the tablets and destroyed the calf. After all, the second commandment refers to idolatry: “you shall not make idols.”
Where do Christians (as a people) begin to get it wrong with our faith representations? Gomes points to Christian greats like John Calvin who felt that reading The Bible could inspire ordinary people to love and obey God. They no longer needed to be inspired by magnificent buildings with stories told in beautiful stained glass. Increases in world literacy and printing meant they could read for themselves. The Bible should be enough. Martin Luther adopted the slogan sola scripture [by Scripture alone} to emphasize the importance of reading God’s word for the ordinary believer.
Some would say “problem solved”, but I am not sure. Is there any guarantee that one reader of Scripture (making his or her own interpretation) will come to the same conclusion as another? It is best not to be naive; of course there is no guarantee of that. The Roman Catholic Church has tried for years to grapple with this problem. Their policy is that outside of priests, bishops and the Pope, The Bible could not really be understood except with teachings of the church. For them, this makes The Bible an “inaccessible book” for the average Christian with Roman Catholic clergy having a monopoly on the interpretation of Scripture. The Catholic Church has always been fearful of what it refers to as the “shifting sands of private judgement.”
Martin Luther seized on this attitude with his words sola scriptura, feeling that each believer should have a right to interpret Scripture for themselves. Roman Catholic comment on Luther says “each one should be able to make for himself a religion which suited his feelings. And the Bible, open before every literate man and women to interpret for themselves, was attractive bait for adherents.”*
Gomes feels that such harsh criticism of Protestant goals for Bible reading is uncalled for but one has to admit that sola scriptura may lead to some wrong-headed approaches to The Bible. Even well-meaning Protestants can get locked-in on meanings that are marginally supported by Scripture. Once they are “locked-in,” coupled with the feeling that The Bible belongs to God, individuals are prone to give into the temptation to elevate personal interpretations into “I know God said this” and “I know God means this” statements.
It is so difficult for some people to back off of strong statements of “faith” when those statements are based on sacred symbols on a page. Maybe there should be a balance between extremes. Somewhere between making The Bible a Holy Book that God dictated to Holy Men and The Bible is just a book of suggestions by well-meaning men two thousand years ago is a proper approach to Scripture. I read The Bible as God’s word, but I never forget that I read it with my 2023 lens on the page. I don’t understand Biblical context from many years ago in a foreign culture so I may consult scholars to help me with meaning. I have been around many Christians who do not want to admit that one “jot or tittle”** is open to outside interpretation. They are definite in what God’s word means and they are positive that their acts based on their faith in The Book are 100% correct.
For Gomes that is bibliolatry, worshipping God’s word so much that The Word becomes an idol. It leads to what I call “closemindedness” and what closeminded people declare in the name of God and in the pursuit of good can cause more harm than good.
I end with a story that Gomes recounts of a friend of his who went to a small Christian college in the south. A pastor came to chapel one day and began his sermon with a lesson from his Bible. He then closed the book and threw it out of the nearby open chancel window and said “Well there goes your God!”
What was his point? He was trying to illustrate that God is certainly in The Bible but one must not make God the Bible. God is much bigger than that, but in the absence of a visible God, man is always tempted to make something visible a God substitute. A Bible is meant to direct our senses and our spirits to the invisible spiritual qualities of our God but Gomes is right, “idolatry is a problem.”
Even if the object of idolatry is God’s word.
*from Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture
**reference to Matthew 5:18 [correct to the smallest detail].