Rhyne Putman On Evangelicals and “Bibliolatry”
I’m currently reading Rhyne Putman’s recent book from Fortress Press, In Defense of Doctrine, which gives an evangelical justification for doctrinal development beyond Scripture. In the introduction he summarizes evangelical belief concerning the supremacy of Scripture, and in doing so he defends evangelicals against the charge of Bibliolatry. Christian Smith and others have recently offered some form of this claim (and I see it from Twitter theologians in a slightly, er, less charitable sense), so what I think Putman says here is important and worth understanding for those inside and outside the evangelical camp:
The evangelical commitment to biblical authority is not, as many of its critics often decry, “bibliolatry.” We do not serve a “paper pope” or attribute to the inspired texts any kind of independent authority. Books cannot “possess” or “exercise” authority. When the ink hits the page at Bible printing presses, no transubstantiation occurs; the letters do not take on magical qualities. Words and sentences are merely instruments, complex aggregates of spoken and written signs utilized by a speaker or author to address hearers or readers. The Bible does not “say” anything of its own accord. Such personification makes for strange syntax and even stranger doctrines of revelation. Rather, evangelicals, with the consensus of Christian believers for the past two millennia, recognize that biblical authority is God’s authority. The divinely inspired and human words of Scripture serve as the primary instrument or vehicle of divine authority in the world today.
I think Putman’s most important point here is that Scripture does not possess independent authority. This means that it is not considered by evangelicals to be the fourth member of the Trinity or an independent logos apart from Christ. Rather, Scripture is an instrument (in his words, the primary instrument) of God’s authority in the world today. We don’t worship the Bible, but because we do believe it is God’s instrument of authority, we don’t search for a different or contradicting authority outside of the Bible.
I know that there is plenty of debate to be had on this subject, and I know sincere and faithful believers that think differently, but I think that this paragraph is an important “ground-clearing” of sorts to understand what evangelicals do and do not mean when we talk about scriptural authority.