Is Having the Bible as One’s Final Authority Idolatrous?

When Christians say the Bible is their highest authority, they are not implying that the Bible is itself fully God. At least that is not the sense that I get in my community of fellowship. The Bible is God’s word. It never works to say, “God, I trust you, but I don’t trust your word.” It doesn’t work with anyone. It doesn’t make sense to place someone over their own word, especially when that person has perfectly intentional communication.

One danger is a “Barthian” view of scripture, which says scripture is one step removed from God’s word—that it is a testimony to the word of God, but not the word of God itself (Barth argues for this partly by equivocating between the Word and the word, so as to make the idolatry seem more poignant). I think this is where a lot of Mormons unconsciously gravitate toward (irrespective of one’s view of the reliability of transmission or translation). Not a full bona fide Barthian position, that is, but a kind of one where the written word seems to function to point one to the real “word” (if you will) of one’s infallible, inerrant internal spiritual testimony, given directly by God. It’s almost like a dictation-by-emotion theory of inspiration. Anyways, one reason I don’t buy into a Barthian view of scripture is that scripture seems to have a higher view of itself. The Biblical authors weren’t merely inspired, but the words also were.

One complaint is that putting the Bible on the level of God is idolatry. But this is misplaced. Of course, ontologically placing the Bible itself on the level of God—ascribing all the attributes of God himself to the Bible—is idolatry. But that isn’t what verbal plenary inspiration is. Rather, it is ascribing a subset of divine attributes to scripture itself. We do that with sinful humans too: when a person isn’t reliable, their word isn’t. God is authoritative, and so is his word. There is a character-connection between a person and their word. Detaching one from the other impersonalizes their communication, and actually makes it harder for us to know that person or take them seriously.

The irony is that those who actually reject scripture (in practice) as their final authority, in the name of having God as their final authority, end up having to fill the vacuum with something else. For Mormons, that seems to often be their infallible, inerrant, internal, emotional, God-given, God-communicated testimonies. For others, it’s some other kind of perceived communication from God, be it philosophy, reason, academia, higher criticism, intuition, whatever. There is no way to have God himself as our final authority without simultaneously having some kind of communicative revelation from God as our final authority. I know the Word through the word. The Jesus I know is the Jesus the apostles gave me. Having a personal relationship through prayer, intuition, spiritual impressions, spiritual illumination, internal testimony, spiritual gifts, personal presence, etc., doesn’t change that. It all to be measured against God’s infallible word.

Another complaint against verbal plenary inspiration is having to defend some seemingly indefensible parts of the Bible. I think one can maintain a belief in verbal plenary inspiration (contra the Barthian view) while making a lot of room for more nuanced views of inerrancy and infallibility (which allow for more contextualization and divine accommodation). In other words, an approach to inerrancy that fits the spirit of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, but doesn’t necessarily accord with all the traditional evangelical applications of it. Applications that make better sense of the mustard seed not being the smallest, etc. But in the end, whatever we choose to fill our vacuum with—whatever mode of divine communication we submit to as the final authority—is something we have to take seriously, even with all the high stakes.

As for me and my house, we recognize the Bible as God’s decisive, finally authoritative word.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

(Psalm 19)