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Bibliolatry: the Exvangelical Boogeyman

By David Beadle

During my first week of seminary, at chapel orientation, a professor said that Scripture was the foundation of Anglican worship. I knew I was going to an evangelical seminary, but I didn’t expect this kind of thing. I had assumed that the Eucharist, not Scripture, formed the foundation of Christian worship. It’s partly why I became Episcopalian. It was the conviction that bridged my exvangelical phase with my Anglo-Catholic phase. I’d had enough of fundamentalist Bible worship. How could a respectable Anglican theologian, priest, and professor fall into this trap? I questioned him to save us from “bibliolatry,” which any exvangelical worth the name must confront and condemn.

Over breakfast, the professor explained that Scripture is logically prior to the Eucharist — and all other sacraments, for that matter. They find their source and meaning in Scripture. This emphasis does not take away the Eucharist’s centrality in worship, he consoled me — rather, it recalibrates our approach to Scripture and everything else. Scripture takes functional priority in causing and grounding the shape and meaning of our worship. Now, that sounds simple enough. After all, the Eucharist is essentially the Words of Institution (not because they are included in the rite, but because the Eucharist is about them), which are given in the Gospels. But simple as it may seem, it was a foundational challenge for me.

What does this have to do with worshiping the Bible? My default option was implausible. The Eucharist is not and never has been a balancing weight on the opposite end of Scripture — as if word and sacrament stand side by side as distinct categories. If I’m honest, I assumed the sacrament served this purpose. With shorter sermons and weekly Eucharist, I could now recalibrate fundamentalism’s prioritization of the Bible and preaching according to a liturgy that culminated in the Eucharist, with a short detour for a “homily.” Take that, bibliolaters!

For the record, it does matter that we hear Scripture reading and sermons in the broader context of the Eucharist. The gathered church is Scripture’s intended setting, even as this setting is itself the result of Scripture’s prior speaking. I’m not discounting that. But the prior speaking is crucial. Scripture creates the Church as its hearers — it calls out for “those who hear the word of God” (Luke 11:28), thereby creating the possibility and condition of their obedience.

God makes the Church as those who listen to his voice (Isa. 28:23). The Christian life is no less than the hearing and heeding of Scripture as God’s eternal address. All worship, whether complex or simple, ancient or modern, sacramental or ordinary, is the fruit that God makes by the power of his Word. It is all — we are all — the obedient response of creation to God’s “let there be.” Given this commitment, I’m not even sure what would constitute bibliolatry, still less whether anyone is committing it.

The stereotype among many Episcopalians that the eucharistic context displaces the functional priority of Scripture is simply wrong. It is a view formed by anti-fundamentalist polemics — less a theology than a reaction to modern American evangelicalism. In reality, all sacraments find their source in Christ “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This is to say: sacraments are the fruit of Scripture’s spiritual power in the church. That Scripture is “inspired” means that it functions for us as God’s Word — not first and foremost a repository of divine facts, but as the efficacious Word of God, which creates and destroys according to God’s providence. Tradition, with its sacramental shape, is Scripture’s effect, not its cause.

The common trope that “the Church gave us the Bible” is as irrelevant as it is irreverent. Scripture’s chronological authorship, the timeline of its compilation, and the host of other historical observations of its writing contribute nothing to its meaning qua Scripture. Scripture qua Scripture is God’s revelatory Word to us, for us, of him, creation, and salvation. Claiming that the Church is the origin of Scripture is of the same cloth with claims like the Bible is a story of humans making sense of their divine experience. The opposite is true.

Scripture finds its source in God before it finds its source in us. Top down first, then bottom up. Most Christians know this intuitively. We don’t read the Bible because Moses, Daniel, Mark, or Paul wrote it; we read it because God wrote it. How? Through humans, according to God’s mysterious power and purposes. That’s all we can say. It is inspired. Somehow, human authorship has coincided with divine authorship such that these human words have divine significance. If this is not true, then Scripture is not Scripture at all.

So the question becomes, what even is bibliolatry? The second-century bishop and martyr St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote that “the Scriptures are indeed perfect since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit” (Against Heresies, Book II, Ch. 28.2 [ANF: 1.399]). This is an early and influential account of biblical inspiration. Was Iranaeus a bibliolater for believing in the perfection and divine source of the Scriptures? He certainly was not alone. The seventh-century monk and confessor Maximus understood the Scriptures to be, like creation, an incarnation of the Word.

“The Word,” he said, “for our sake became like us and came to us through the body, and likewise grew thick in syllables and letters” (Ambiguum, 10.32; emphasis mine). For Maximus, the Bible is the “thickening” of the Word, just like the flesh of Jesus. He also referred to Christ’s transfigured garments (Matt. 17:2) as “the words of Holy Scripture, which at that moment became bright, clear and transparent to [the disciples present], grasped by the intellect without any dark riddles or symbolic shadows, and pointing to the meaning that lay concealed within them” (Ambiguum, 10.29). Jesus’ transfigured body is clothed in the “words of Holy Scripture,” now illumined by Christ to reveal their hidden truth. Is there a higher view of Scripture in all of fundamentalism?

To be fair, some may clarify that “worshiping the Bible” means taking it too literally. I don’t think it’s necessary to rehearse here that only the most extreme allegorists of Church history refused the truth of Scripture’s literal and historical sense — even if not historical in the modern sense. Is everyone else worshiping the Bible? Or maybe worshiping the Bible means refusing to do anything in worship except what is explicit in the text? This kind of Reformed, especially nonconformist, minimalist tendency may seem an oddly nostalgic expression of Scripture’s authority, but is it “worship” in any meaningful sense? I’m not so sure.

For Christians, there has always been some notion of deeper meanings beneath the words, whether they be articulated as allegorical, typological, anagogical, figural, spiritual, etc. These deeper meanings have been expressed differently across the Church’s history. Still, they are founded upon the conviction of Scripture’s divine authorship, its totalizing reference to God in Christ, and its applicability for all times, places, cultures, and peoples. Scripture is not less than its original words, but it is more than their superficial meaning; this is why Scripture is translatable.

The “more” of Scripture can be seen in its ability to address all people at all times. Scripture’s words extend beyond their historical settings and find a new setting wherever they are read and heard in the Spirit. In Christ, all places are made Scripture’s setting, and all people are made Scripture’s hearers. Surely, Scripture somehow extends beyond its textual and historical limits and references. This is the basis of Christian Scripture reading, which various spiritual or figural modes of reading gesture toward and which historical criticism obscures.

While these figural, or spiritual, ways of reading assume a doctrine of Scripture that goes beyond the literal, they do not make the literal sense merely instrumental, ultimately disposable. Scripture’s literal sense cannot be reduced to rationalist concepts, life principles, or moral exemplars. The historical-narrative integrity of the literal sense remains. But the literal sense of Scripture alone fails to account for Scripture fully. If mere literalism is the definition of worshiping the Bible, then I’m ready to decry this peculiar idolatry. But what seems closer to worship: mere literalism or Scripture’s transcendent character and divine reference?

Maybe I just don’t know what it means to worship the Bible. But it’s my sneaking suspicion that protests of bibliolatry are just protests of Scripture’s inspiration and authority. The Church Fathers assumed Scripture’s divine origin and reference, and they were not modern fundamentalists.

Honestly, all of this may boil down to a certain mode of biblical interpretation rather than worship. Perhaps bibliolatry is not more than a stringent literalism, a minimalism that precludes liturgical and theological context, or a positivism that ignores interpretation altogether. However, if this is the case, then bibliolatry is ironically the reduction of Scripture, not its exaltation. The modern limitation of Scripture, methodologically and ontologically, might be the ironic character of bibliolatry. But if this is the case, we should find a new word than bibliolatry. This isn’t worship in any meaningful sense. And more importantly, the solution to this modern, fundamentalist approach to Scripture is its elevation, not its subversion.

Scripture must recover its divine source and reference, its active power and ontological breadth, for us to escape the issues of fundamentalism. As it stands, bibliolatry is a boogeyman. We shouldn’t take it too seriously. Rather, we should remember always that “the word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart” (Rom. 10:8).

The Rev. David Beadle serves at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He trained for ministry at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he received his M.Div. in 2022.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I think this is a fair reading of both fundamentalists and biblical critics. Both can go to extremes. As a Roman Catholic exvangelical, I too feel like I hold scripture truly higher than I ever did as a Protestant.

    I do, however, wonder what your professor meant by scripture “logically preceding the Eucharist.” This doesn’t seem sensical to me. If we celebrate the sacraments only because the scriptures tell us about them, how can they be means of grace? While Sacred Scripture is the Word of God, it does not transmit sanctifying grace as the sacraments do. The reading, hearing, and venerating of the scriptures can very well be a locus of another kind of grace (actual; possibly other divisions) based upon the openness to grace in the reader/hearer/venerator, but surely not sanctifying grace. Since the external rites of the seven sacraments (matter and form) of themselves cannot give grace, it is evident that all sacraments properly so called must originate in Divine appointment. If this sanctifying grace previously mentioned is sourced in God and is only communicated through the sacraments (and not the scriptures directly), then surely the sacraments logically precede the scriptures. Or at least they do not require the scriptures to exist, as they existed before the record New Testament. We cannot say that the New Testament existed for all time. One might say that its words existed in the Divine Mind, but this is highly speculative and unhelpful (not to say that speculation is without merit). To say that the books of the New Testament existed from all time is akin to saying Christ was incarnate from all time (which Aquinas shows to be at least unfitting in ST III.a1). Now here you didn’t say scripture qua scripture existed from all time. It just seems to be an implication I’m drawing, though perhaps I am wrong.

    I agree with you that some are too hasty with “Well the Church gave us the scriptures. (I do think this statement is true, but I don’t think it is the “gotcha” statement that many proclaim it to be). The Word existed for all time, and by His perfect will, He inspired the sacred authors to write down His words into books. Yet, we do not celebrate the sacraments because the scriptures tell us too. We celebrate them because Our Lord commanded us too. Indeed, we might know about them from the scriptures, but Our Lord said the words “For this is My Body” long before St. Luke conveyed the words to Theophilus or before St. Paul reminded the Corinthians of them.

    The sacraments do not flow from the Scriptures, rather both the Scriptures and the Sacraments flow from Christ Our Lord. To present the order as Christ>Scriptures>Sacraments (which perhaps is not what you are doing, so forgive me if I misunderstand) is the sort of bibliolatry that I consider to be very real.

  2. I suspect that some of the accusations of bibliolatry derive from the concept of verbal, plenary inspiration (inerrancy) that–despite protests to the contrary–ends up amounting to a simple dictation theory, one which essentially obliterates the human writers. This can look like Bible “worship” to some.

    Perhaps, too, the highly rational and doctrinal approach to the faith of many evangelicals (or more specifically neo-fundamentalists) as detailed by Harriet Harris in her Fundamentalism and Evangelicals (Oxford 1998) has something to do with it?

    But if so, this clearly plays to your argument: “Perhaps bibliolatry is not more than a stringent literalism, a minimalism that precludes liturgical and theological context, or a positivism that ignores interpretation altogether. However, if this is the case, then bibliolatry is ironically the reduction of Scripture, not its exaltation.”

    Very well said! And your arguments remind us to exercise care in how we think about not only the Scriptures but also our fellow Christians.

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