The Bible as an Idol

“american idols” by Steve @ the alligator farm is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

As a Latter-day Saint, I find myself in a curious place on the ideological spectrum as a general thing, disagreeing with both the hyper-conservative Evangelical crowd and the hyper-progressive SJW crowd (and being hated and slandered by both as a result). In his recent Medium article about defending the Bible as a perfect and infallible work, Jeff Hilles discusses yet another issue in which I must take a position somewhere between Evangelicals aand social progressives. As is often the case when looking at statements made by sectarians today, while I reject the same pretentious modern revisionism that Hilles rejects, I simply cannot recognize his stated position as logically or spiritually sound. I do appreciate some of the thoughts Hilles has expressed, though, and I will make note of some of them along with my criticisms.

The God Who Accepts Everyone and Everything

Hilles is right in criticizing the progressive/secularist tendency to assume that God would never expect us to do anything difficult and would never issue any difficult moral teachings. A God who makes no demands is effectively no different from a God who does not exist. Righteousness is difficult. Progressives understand this when it comes to moral matters on which they have strong feelings. And yet, as soon as we are talking about their favorite sin, it is suddenly not “loving” to tell us to do the right thing. On this point, Hilles is absolutely correct. Progressives contradict themselves and construct for us a vision of a God that is ultimately without purpose.

Archaeological Evidence of the Bible

Hilles mentions uncited “archaeological discoveries that confirm Biblical authority”. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that he is suggesting that these “discoveries” amount to conclusive evidence that the Bible is true. If that is the case, I must disagree. Of course, we can point to the fact that the Bible largely matches up with what we know of the history of the Middle East. However, even if we can prove that Jesus of Nazareth existed, that does not in any way prove that He was born of a virgin, miraculously healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water, arose from the dead, and atoned for the sins of the world. I very much enjoy discussing archaeological evidence of such things, but at a fundamental level, our testimony of the truthfulness of the Bible is entirely a matter of faith and personal revelation from God. As the Bible itself says, these things are “spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).

I may have misinterpreted Hilles on this point, though, as he does admit that, after finding the apologetics compelling, “my salvation came a month after that, through a leap-of-faith and a conversion of the heart”. In my mind, such apologetics serve the purpose of helping us to ask God the right questions. But we still have to ask: if we have not asked God and received an answer from God, we do not really know the truth of such things.

Faith and Laziness

Hilles laments the sheer number of people who tell him that “the Bible is written by man and can’t be trusted”. However, he admits that, in debating such people, he always reaches a point when he must declare that “one accepts Christ by faith.” This contradicts his previous statement about how an appeal to “faith” is “lazy”. Should we rely upon faith or not?

Pascal’s Wager and the Pharisees

In his paragraph titled “The results of being correct,” Hilles uses an argument that is a bit of a spin on Pascal’s Wager: he says that, from the progressive perspective, all Christians will go to heaven…but from the more conservative perspective, only those who follow the “narrow path” will go to heaven. Therefore, it makes sense to follow what he calls the “narrow path”. This makes sense, but it is a bit simplistic, and it misses an important distinction.

Note the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were conservatives. The Pharisees read scripture. The Pharisees placed great value upon scripture. The Pharisees were highly antagonistic toward any who would question their exhaustive and highly literalist interpretation of scripture. The Pharisees believed very much in a “narrow path”, and they believed that they were walking it. And yet, they were among the most wicked of people.

A good visualization of this issue is the episode between Christ, the Pharisees, and the adulteress. Christ stopped the Pharisees from stoning her, but then He told her to “sin no more”. Progressives love to quote the first part of that while ignoring the second part. But today’s Pharisees tend to want to go around stoning people for the sake of supposedly advocating a “narrow path” just as the Pharisees did.

The Wrong Foundation

Hilles states that, without the Bible, “there is no foundation.” This statement is indicative of how Hilles has a flawed view of what the foundation of Christianity is and what it should be. Consider the following points:

  • The first Christians had no Bible. The first Bible was not assembled until centuries after Christ. What was their foundation? Hilles will likely say the Apostles, but there is a gap of literally centuries between the time of the Apostles and the first Bible. So what was the foundation in the interim?
  • For most of Christian history, the Bible has not been widely available. Even when the Bible did exist, it still was only available in small numbers. And for centuries, it was literally kept from the general body of Christians. If they had a religious question, they could not go and read the Bible to get an answer: they had to ask their religious leaders, and those leaders would give answers that, in many cases, Hilles would consider incorrect. Even after the Bible was translated into the vernacular language and printed, most Christians still could not read it themselves until well into the 1800s. So are we going to say that Christianity effectively had no foundation for over a millennium?
  • There are different translations. Some will say that the differences between common translations are negligible, but that is just not true. Consider Philippians 2:5–6. Read that passage in several common English translations, and you will see stark contradictions. Some tell us that we should mimic Christ by striving to become equal with God, while others tell us that we should mimic Christ by not doing that, because it is impossible. (Both translations are problematic for “mainstream” Christianity, as the first is supposedly blasphemous for saying that we can become like God, while the second is supposedly blasphemous for saying that Jesus is not God.) This is not the only passage with such differences between common translations. How do we know which translation is the right one? Who can authoritatively say? How can they all be right if they all contradict each other?
  • There are different interpretations. When Joseph Smith was a young man seeking truth, he had an experience that most of us have had at some point, in which he noted that “the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible” (JSH 1:12). Even among “mainstream” Christians, the differences in interpretation are massive. They do not even agree on things as basic as the nature of God (filioque) and how one is saved (antinomianism).
  • Human language is intrinsically imperfect. Even if we have a verbatim quotation from God (which most of the Bible is not), and even if we are sure that it has not been at all corrupted by errors in transcription or translation (which we are not), the simple reality is that human language is inherently ambiguous. A statement from God that may have been crystal clear to Jacob or Peter when they heard it can still be misunderstood by even the most sincere believers because words can have multiple meanings. This is not a matter of God not being able to relate things clearly. This is a matter of God using language that is not perfect and never will be. That is true for any human language.
  • The Bible itself says that something else is the foundation. In Ephesians 2:20, it says that the foundation of our faith is comprised of “the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (KJV). This makes sense because, again, the Bible did not even exist until centuries after the Apostles.

The Right Foundation

I know that many sectarians today will read that last point and say: “Okay, but we simply do not have apostles and prophets today, and that is that. So the Bible has to be the foundation!”

Well, that should elicit some reflection. Why don’t Christians today generally recognize the existence of living prophets and apostles? If the Bible gives us a religion of prophets and revelation, and if the religion of sectarians today does not include prophets and revelation in any real sense, what does that say about their religion? Consider the following passages of scripture:

  • Matthew 7:15–20: Jesus teaches us that we can distinguish between false and true prophets based on their “fruits”. But why do we need to make such distinctions if there are no more prophets? Obviously, the time of prophets was not supposed to end.
  • Ephesians 4:11: Paul lists apostles and prophets (along with evangelists, pastors, and teachers) as offices held within the normal operating structure of the Church. If a church does not have people who hold those offices in any real sense, it is not the church established by Christ.
  • Revelation 11: John the Revelator saw two prophets still to come near the end times. If there are no more prophets and apostles, how could this be?

As people who receive very real revelation from God in a very real sense, living apostles and prophets are vital to the Church and to the faith of all Christians. That is because, while the written word can be wildly misinterpreted even by well-meaning people, a living apostle or prophet can challenge those who would misinterpret his teachings. He can also receive revelation such that he can authoritatively say what the correct interpretation of existing scripture is.

Too often, well-intentioned Christians approach Bible interpretation as a matter of circular reasoning: they declare that their interpretation is correct because they are true Christians, and they declare that they must be true Christians because their interpretation of scripture is correct. In reality, unless you have a very real connection to God as Peter, Paul, and John did, at some point, you will inevitably become the blind leading the blind.

Biblical Idolatry

Sectarians today must declare that the Bible is perfect and infallible because they have rejected the principles of continuing revelation and living prophets and apostles. That is, they have rejected the actual foundation, and they need something to take its place, so they look to the Bible. Ultimately, this creates a situation in which people have come to believe that the beginning and the end of their religion is the Bible rather than God. They turn the Bible into something that it is not, and they effectively worship it. They declare that it is “perfect” and “infallible” because they know that only something perfect or infallible is fit for worship, so they need that to be true.

A Real Relationship

Hilles says something very poignant and true in his conclusion paragraph:

Ultimately, the ability to share God’s truth should begin with a relationship.

I think he is talking about establishing a relationship between people as a first step in sharing the Gospel, and on that point, he is right. However, there is another way in which this statement is even more accurate. That is, the ability to share God’s truth must begin with a very real relationship between us and God. Without that, all religion is vain.

Conclusion

The prophets who wrote the Bible were not perfect. The human languages they used are intrinsically imperfect. The scribes who transcribed the Bible were not perfect. The scholars who translate the Bible are not perfect. The ministers who interpret the Bible without the aid of one scrap of actual revelation from God are not perfect. Therefore, it is not reasonable to say that the Bible is perfect and present it as the beginning and the end of our relationship with God. Without a real, continuing, two-way relationship between us and God, all religion is a vain endeavor.

If the entirety of your idea of accessing divine truth is to just read the Bible and take its words as indisputable truth, you are effectively adopting the Bible as your God. If you think the Bible needs to be perfect, that is evidence of this fact. We do not need the Bible to be perfect. We need to have a real two-way relationship with God. We need to have leaders who receive very real revelation in a leadership capacity, and we need to receive real revelation ourselves to confirm which leaders we should follow and which doctrinal interpretations are the correct ones.

God is not the author of confusion, and the concept of sola scriptura is, ironically, the source of great confusion.

This is not to say that the Bible is not important. It is very, very important. But rather than viewing it as we would view God, we should view it as a very human testimony of God. And rather than viewing it as evidence of itself, we should view it as a claim — a claim that we can test by asking God and receiving direct revelation from Him ourselves. Rather than giving us all of the answers, the primary function of the Bible is to help us ask the right questions in the right way.

I am an entrepreneur, author, father, husband, and saint through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

See my recently finished book about Joseph Smith’s truly prescient prophecy of the American Civil War.

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