From the Shepherd’s Nook, by John Frye

Harm in Holy Things

Imagining that merely possessing and studying the Scriptures, some of the Pharisees believed they had life; life with God in God’s kingdom (John 5:39-40). They were Book-obsessed; book worms; jot and tittle types who boasted in owning “the oracles of God.”  When “the Word made flesh” actually stood before, opposed, and warned them, these Book-centered religious folks dismissed Jesus as horribly misguided. To them Jesus was a life-destroyer, not the life-bringer.

This Book-centered flaw is still prevalent in USAmerican evangelicalism. Many Christians are much more at ease with studying the Bible than coming to Jesus. Reading a Book is safer, more comfortable than relating to a Person, especially an enigmatic, revolutionary Person like Jesus.  Insidious pride lurks in our hearts when we presume to know the Book, possess it, revere it and then misuse it to fence off undesirable types of people from our tidy lives. People, well-intentioned, begin to substitute finding something new and refreshing in the Bible without ever relating to the holy, very present God.

As a pastor I have observed how the Bible is used to distance a person from God the Spirit. If I view the Bible as a box of matches from which I can draw one match and light it and see the flame and feel the fleeting warmth and call that a devotional life, then I am happy. To walk into the flame-thrower named Jesus the Christ is a different story. I do not want to be burned up in the fiery passion and mission of God revealed in Jesus. I am happy with “this little light of mine.” We would rather have a nice, controlled “lamp to my feet” than a fire-breathing, untamable Spirit with Whom to contend. Living totally sold out to Jesus is too extreme. We want to stay in control of our commitment and piece-meal it out at our discretion. We all long to transform “dying to self” into a nice metaphor. We desire a cruciform life without any pain.

You diligently study the Scriptures…you refuse to come to me. Saints and scholars have not been reluctant to make daring parallels between the sexual life of a man and woman and life with God. The Song of Songs is notoriously used to make those parallels. Eugene H. Peterson, a pastor, strongly suggests that a person’s prayer life is a mirror of their sexual life (in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work on the “Song of Songs”). It is entirely possible to use the Bible as a book about intimacy with God and actually be very far from God. Jesus confronted folks who thought they were intimate with and passionate for God, but were, in fact, “evil-doers” (see Matthew 7:21-23).

A common objection is: “The only way I can know God is through the Bible. The Bible has to be first, God second. If I don’t go to the Bible first, then I may concoct crazy things about God.” This sounds noble and right, but is an error. God has not locked the awesome Trinitarian reality of Being inside a book. Jesus had to bluntly make this plain to Nicodemus in a night conversation about the workings of the Holy Spirit. The intimate life of a married couple that procreates children is never locked inside a sex manual. The living God-head, Three in One, has been and is and forever will be independent of the Bible. God is totally able and free to introduce God-reality to anyone, anytime, anywhere. However, the humbling strategy that the living God has chosen is for those of us who intimately know God to go and bear witness to God’s loving, present, gracious, saving Trinitarian Being. We are not commissioned to go and read a manual to people, but to bear fruit as we stay in union with and follow Jesus.

“In the beginning was the Bible and the Bible was with God and the Bible was God” is practiced, if not stated in many a Christian’s life. Behind the misguided insistence upon the Bible first and God second is the fear that God cannot make himself truly known without our help. God needs us who “know the Bible.”  I am very grateful for and study and preach the Bible. Yet, my passion is that the Bible find its rightful place in our lives. The Pharisees no doubt loved God. Yet, they made the fatal mistake of placing holy writings between themselves and Jesus. The paradox: holy things harmed them. Why do we think we cannot make the same grievous mistake? I am afraid many have. Yes, even pastors.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://antiitchmeditation.wordpress.com jeff weddle

    Although I see the potential danger, of all the problems in the Church today, reading our Bibles too much is not one of them.

    Too many people thinking they know the Bible, now that’s a problem, and if that’s the danger being pointed out here, I wholly agree.

  • Scott Gay

    Expand this to the scholastic method in general……Google scholasticism and scroll down to scholastic method. Now let’s talk about it as a way that “distances from God the Spirit”.

  • CGC

    Wow John,
    Great piece . . . I also loved the line how the Bible is often used to distance oneself from God the Spirit. I don’t know if Scot is going to do anything on this but I was watching CNN this morning about the White House distancing itself from Lou Giglio and Lou stepping down from praying at the President’s inaguaration. Some people may be horrified that politics is distancing itself from evangelicals on some of their views on social issues. Actually, I think this might be a good thing if the response if for Evangelicals to quit being so politicized or think worldly politics somehow represent the politics of Jesus. I wonder what the American Evangelical church might look like if they distanced themselves from the politics of the world and concentrated on the spiritual politics of the cross of Christ?

  • John Haselton

    I used to think that the trinity consisted of the Father, Son, and Holy Scripture. Thank you Jesus for showing me that I can only truly know your word by being filled with the Holy Spirit!

  • Percival

    Favorite lines:
    Reading a Book is safer, more comfortable than relating to a Person, especially an enigmatic, revolutionary Person like Jesus.

    God has not locked the awesome Trinitarian reality of Being inside a book.

  • El Conquistador

    I am with Jeff. There may be a small minority of Christians who “know the book” rather than “know the Lord”, but I’d say Biblical illiteracy is a far more prevalent problem for modern Christianity.

  • http://Tarabethleach.com Tara Beth

    Gosh, I’m struggling with this one. I agree with everything he said.

    However, it reminds me of the new study that came out from the CDC that concluded with, “slightly overweight people tend to live longer.” http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/02/health/overweight-mortality/

    Obviously, researchers from Harvard called this study “hogwash and a pile of rubbish.” This was a dangerous study to come out with in our nations obesity epidemic.

    Similarily, this could be a dangerous article for the average parishoner (at least in my context – a large mainline church). The lack of bible knowledge is frightening. I’m not talking about bible verse memorization or the ability to spout out the Romans Road (which I think is hogwash too!). What I am seeing is a people who are totally ignorant of the greater narrative. I am not seeing people replacing Jesus with the book. Could this be true in the more evangelical or conservative denominations? Possibly. However, the Church is in trouble if we continue to raise up people in the faith who refuse to know the greater narrative. We are in trouble if the Church continues to accept a “4 spiritual law” theology. We’ve got to inspire our people to dig deep in the “book.” Or else, it will be the death of us.

  • Adam

    I have a problem with statements that contain the word “dangerous”. Nothing ever appears to be as dangerous as people make it out to be. Similarly, with comments about the danger the church is in.

    1 Kings 19:13-14 “…Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

    14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

    1 Kings 19:18 “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

    Perhaps our efforts have failed and are failing, but I still think God reserves his 7000. The church exists and will continue to exist as long as God wants it too.

  • Dave Z

    I LOVE this. Thoughts like these first began to nag at me when I reflected on the fact that most evangelical statements of faith list the Bible first, then get around to God himself, as if it’s the Bible that is preeminent. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, which I understand, it seems inappropriate to put anything ahead of God himself.

    BTW, I love the match/flamethrower metaphor.

    Thanks for this!

  • Amanda F

    This problem rings so very true for me. I have used not only the Bible, but theology books, and other kinds of books and the internet and blogs and Bible studies to distance myself from God. My relationship to God (and people) became greatly defined by being right or trying desperately to figure out what right is so I could be on the right side and be right. Granted, a lot of real desire for God was mixed right in there, but it wasn’t pretty.

    I have been confronted very firmly and beautifully and specifically by the Holy Spirit on that account this past year, and it was an extremely painful and jaw-dropping revelation. Thankfully, Holy Spirit is comforter as well :)
    Of course it continues to be a great struggle, but the best struggle of my life! “Follow me” has much, much, much more tactile meaning now. “Come and die” isn’t just a theory.

    “To walk into the flame-thrower named Jesus the Christ is a different story. I do not want to be burned up in the fiery passion and mission of God revealed in Jesus. I am happy with “this little light of mine.” We would rather have a nice, controlled “lamp to my feet” than a fire-breathing, untamable Spirit with Whom to contend. Living totally sold out to Jesus is too extreme. We want to stay in control of our commitment and piece-meal it out at our discretion. We all long to transform “dying to self” into a nice metaphor. We desire a cruciform life without any pain.” – This paragraph is Right On. I would even say that I was obsessed with the idea of being radically sold out to Jesus, while still managing to keep this dangerous God at a nice intellectual distance…..ugh. Mind you, this wasn’t just a little phase, it lasted for some 10 years!

    I agree that this problem is likely pervasive. It is real. It is personal. Jesus give us the strength to continue to push into you and with you, despite the unknowing, the discomfort, the unfamiliarity with true intimacy, the fear of what a life in reality, in the present, out of the tomb actually looks like. Bring us back ever so swiftly when we are tempted to postulate about you without being with you. You are the point! You are the truth!

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Right on, John. Thanks! And thanks too, Amanda F. As well as other good comments here. I think the tendency for some evangelicals to be people of the Book according to our tradition can easily make us prey to this. At the same time, as Tara Beth notes, we need to be in scripture to hopefully begin to get the story of God, and the gospel that is at the heart of that story. But it needs to be as those who are unreservedly committed to God to continue that narrative through us in Jesus by the Spirit to the world.

  • http://nailtothedoor.com Dan Martin

    Very interesting points John (and Scot). I completely agree that the bibliolatry that characterizes many people’s approach to Scripture is unhealthy (and frankly, counter to the Bible’s own testimony about itself). Being one who’s never been granted that more intimate experience of God, I kinda find myself in the “but where else would I go?” situation…so agreeing with your argument while not exactly able to affirm the alternative you present.

    When you say (rightly, I think) “God has not locked the awesome Trinitarian reality of Being inside a book,” how do you counter the reality that some people come up with notions of God that are pretty far afield of Scriptural testimony? If we are not to reality-check those things against the broad witness of the Scriptures (not, you’ll notice, individual prooftexts), then how do you suggest that the necessary accountability be practiced?


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