Well, it might not be long after you start getting serious about the discipline of the Bible and exhorting others to the same discipline that you receive the accusation of “bibliolatry.” There is no standard definition of the pejorative term, but “bibliolatry” is usually used to refer to excessive devotion to the Bible or even of worshipping the Bible instead of God. Unfortunately, as with the term “legalism,” the term “bibliolatry” is often unfairly used to dismiss those who are simply pursuing the Lord as any Christian should. Really, critics set up a false dichotomy when they suppose that you can pursue God without pursuing God’s word; if you truly revere the Lord, you will also revere what he says (Isa 66:2)! Still, there is such an error as devotion to the Bible without devotion to God, and we know this because of the persons who exemplified this error in the New Testament: the scribes and Pharisees.
Who Were the Scribes and Pharisees?
The scribes and Pharisees were two different groups often associated together. The scribes were experts in the Law and were responsible for copying the Scriptures, writing commentaries on the Scriptures, and providing legal contracts or advice in accordance with the Scriptures. Meanwhile, the Pharisees, whose name likely comes from a Hebrew word meaning “separated ones,” were a sect of the Jews devoted to the meticulous keeping of God’s law. Believing that there was an oral Torah just as binding as the written Torah, the Pharisees followed the interpretations of the scribes and taught such as necessary rules to the Jews. If any two groups in Israel during Jesus’ day ought to have been drawing close to God through study of and obedience to his word, surely it was the scribes and Pharisees! Yet Jesus frequently rebuked members of these two groups and warned them that they would not inherit the kingdom of God (Mt 5:20; 23:13).
How Did the Scribes and Pharisees Get Off Course?
Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees for many offenses: the scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites, teaching others to follow God’s commands when the scribes and Pharisees themselves would not (Mt 23:3-4, 27-28); they taught as divinely required their own man-made rules and traditions, in the process invalidating many of God’s commands (Mt 15:1-9; 23:16-22); they sought honor and approval from men rather than from God (Mt 23:5-7; cf. Jn 12:42-43); they had a lofty view of themselves and their own righteousness while they looked down on “sinners” (Mt 9:10-13; Lk 18:9-14); they kept the finest details of God’s law while neglecting its most important components, such as justice and mercy (Mt 23:23-24); they were lovers of money and used clever techniques to defraud the vulnerable while avoiding legal blame (Lk 16:14; 20:47); and they jealously opposed God’s own Son, who exposed their sin and threatened their true treasures (Mt 21:37-46). Ultimately, the scribes and Pharisees did not really love God, and so, rather than pursuing the Bible as a means to grow in the fear of God, they used God’s word to exalt themselves and pursue idols of the heart (Jn 5:37-47). How sobering that people so well-versed in God’s word could at the same time be so far from him!
What Can We Learn?
We need to learn from the negative example of the scribes and Pharisees. We should indeed pursue the Bible diligently, but not as they did. We must discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness—that is, for the purpose of eusebeia, devoutness, piety, the fear of Yahweh—not for the purpose of finding vaporous earthly gain (1 Tim 4:7-8; cf. Mt 6:19-21). We must remember that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor 8:1); indeed, even if we can recite all scripture, fathom all doctrine, and argue every theological controversy, if we have not love, it profits us nothing (1 Cor 13:2). We must realize that a greater understanding of God and ourselves via the Scriptures should lead to humility, not pride (Isa 6:3-5; Lk 18:13; 1 Cor 4:7; 1 Tim 1:15). And we should fundamentally embrace a mindset for life and ministry that is the same as Paul exhorts in 1 Timothy 1:5,
But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
Questions to Consider:
1. How can we Christians today fall into Pharisaic motives like those listed above for pursuing the Bible?
2. Have you ever wielded your Bible knowledge in an impatient and angry way? What was the result?
3. If a Christian’s Bible pursuit doesn’t result in greater love for God and others, has that Christian really understood the Bible?