Are Christian Fundamentalists actually Polytheists?

I came across this quote recently from James A. Sanders, Old Testament scholar, translater and editor of the Psalm Scroll (Dead Sea Scrolls), and former professor (retired) from Claremont School of Theology

Another form of idolatry or polytheism that has emerged in Western Christianity in reaction, in part, to Enlightenment study of the Bible, and that needs also to be eschewed, is that of bibliolatry – viewing the Bible as somehow divine. God is divine, not the Bible! Hard-core fundamentalism and literalism, born in extreme reaction to contextual study of the Bible, have so idolized the Bible as to abuse it. Canonical criticism proposes to understand the Bible as canon not as a box of ancient jewels forever precious and valuable, but as a paradigm of the struggles of our ancestors in the faith over against the several forms of polytheism from the Bronze Age to the Roman Empire. (From Sacred Story to Sacred Text, p. 5)

Maybe not the most subtle way of putting it, but Sanders makes a good point.

I resonate with a couple of things here. First, I regularly come across a phobia in Fundamentalism concerning the historical context of Scripture. The reason is that such study presents regular challenges to Fundamentalist ideology. But, a serious study of Scripture in its historical context, however unsettling at first, will sooner or later lead to a deeper, more real place.

Second, when seen in historical context, the Bible is not a collection of proof texts, like loose earrings in a jewelry box, but a canonical narrative. The Bible, despite its historical variety, is a grand narrative compiled and composed in the wake of Israel’s grand national struggle in Babylonian exile, which recounts Israel’s religious struggles throughout its history, both as they contend with the polythiesm of the other nations and with their own struggles with their own God.

From this perspective, the Bible is not a series of verses that tell you what to do or think, but a grand story that shows you what the life of faith looks like.

To paraphrase Sanders, he is saying something like this:

Put the Bible in its place and then you will see its deep religious value. If you treat the Bible as a rulebook dropped out of heaven, you will miss the purpose for which the Bible was written in the first place. 

Just something to think about in this Labor Day afternoon.

[Sanders is also the author of Canon & Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism and Torah and Canon.]

10 New Testament passages that shape how I think about God
10th anniversary edition of Inspiration and Incarnation coming this summer
reviewing two reviews of “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” (3)
Here’s something new: Genesis is in “crisis” and if you don’t see that you’re “syncretistic”
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  • Leigh Copeland

    “sooner or later lead to a deeper, more real place.” Boy, I sure hope so. Bumping along in that ‘unsettled’ place. Often the fear is expressed that if the cultural conditioning of this ‘grand narrative’ will suck in the reports of the resurrection, what NTW calls ‘the challenge of Easter’. I hope to strengthen the distinction between the ancient myths and cosmologies through which God revealed himself and the contemporary experiences of the resurrected Christ. There’s a difference between Paul’s acceptance and use of the Adam and Eve account of creation and what happened to him on the way to Damascus. I don’t have to lose the latter along with the former; they are fundamentally different (I hope).

  • Caleb Greene

    Does not Scripture itself direct the Christian to submit under its doctrine for reproof, rebuke and instruction in righteousness? Does not a view promoting a narrative approach only somehow weaken Paul’s words to Timothy? I don’t know… just thinking through these implications for my own life.

    • Marina Lehman

      I don’t think that this approach has to weaken it (I say this from the perspective of a fellow questioner, not really somebody with real answers). Paul seems to be reminding Timothy of the efficacy of scripture in Timothy’s life to help him find truth and avoid being deceived. Scripture is “profitable” for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16, NASB) To me, saying that scripture is useful for these things seems to be different than saying that submitting to its doctrines brings about these things. Looking at it from this angle, would you still be concerned about the narrative approach weakening what Paul had to say?

  • Matteo Masiello

    I’m sorry to say that this issues is yet another one which makes me accept the veracity of Christianity. It is absolutely logical to make the observation that orthodoxy requires you to have a polytheistic view of the universe. I won’t let conservatives off the hook by marginalizing the belief to only fundamentalists, who deny the polytheistic reality of the Bible. Even theologians like Tim Keller are denying this about the Bible. Idols are not other gods, as they are portrayed in scripture, but things which we seek to replace God with. Dr. Enns, when you say that “the Bible, despite its historical variety, is a grand narrative compiled and composed in the wake of Israel’s grand national struggle in Babylonian exile, which recounts Israel’s religious struggles throughout its history, both as they contend with the polythiesm of the other nations and with their own struggles with their own God” you are not really supporting the historical truth to it. Don’t scholars agree that what constitutes the Hebrew scriptures took hundreds of years to construct. If this is true then the construction of the scriptures says more that it is a product a man and not a supernatural deity. To say that this is the way that being operates is a presupposition that cannot be proved (and denied, too, I admit). But still, it makes the Mormon story more credible in that at least this God give mankind one text. The scope of the history of ancient Israel shows (as reflected in scripture of the OT) that doctrines evolves, more than is revealed.

  • Chad Woodburn

    As Scripture commands us to do, praise the Bible. Therefore, I praise the Bible. I suppose those who want to evade its authority and dispute its statements, it is convenient to charge that praising the Bible is somehow “bibliolatry”. And so, those of us who believe everything it teaches without reservation are glibly accused of being polytheists. Such critics usually assume that if we affirm all it teaches, then we must not know what it teaches. Then when they find out that, no, we really do affirm all those “problem” passages, then we are crazy and evil.

  • Alfred Hickey

    Bibliolatory is definitely an evangelical issue. Fundamentalism though is not such a clear concept, we are all fundamentalist to something, our maxims, eg. the values expressed by this guy.

    The bible definitely tells us what to do and think. What this guy is saying while denying it.

    But the bible tells us that the Spirit will teach us all things, that hearts will be softened. The bible takes on more of a discernment and testing role, basically what you should be thinking and already be doing when the Spirit is there. It depends on your situation.

    If you don’t have the Spirit though, or be inspired by it, it won’t make sense. Because that’s what the bible suggests.

    The writer actually seems the biblIolator. But he is right that the bible speaks of something outside itself. God.

  • Matteo

    Chad there’s nothing glib about saying bible literalists are polytheistic. If you accept that Baal was real to the Israelites hen you accept it’s existence. In fact bible literalists are atheists too as they do not believe in the existence of other gods. They may say that Buddha is a god though the Buddha never made such a claim, or that Hindus worship other gods (which they don’t). Talk to any devout Hibdu and all they talk about is God and say that these “deities” are aspects of God and not real beings.

  • Bryan

    Pete, I really enjoyed this post and often thought along these same lines while in seminary. My only reservation is the last line from Sanders: “you will miss the purpose for which the Bible was written.” Maybe I’m splitting hairs but it might seem more accurate to state that we might miss the purpose for why the Bible was “compiled”. I think that one of the best contributions the church could receive is the actual history of the shaping of the canon. All too often, the evangelical community assumes just what Sanders indicated before this, that it dropped out of heaven. What is missed is the complexity and decision-making processes of the Constantinian led state church. This might permit time for reflection and consider how wonderously difficult it can be to choose from all of the hundreds of various intertestamental material floating around along with the Scriptures that were selected out of this group to become part of our canon today. To consider this, might put an end to the Bible-fell-out-of-heaven mentality and procure a greater amount of wonder to the formation of our canon. As a canonical critic, Sanders has indicated the importance of considering various Christian community’s values in books like 2 Clement and others which were held in high regard.

  • Herev

    It was only through letting the Bible fall from its pedestal that I was free to see the true beauty in its wonderfully written message of limitless love.

    Thanks for this well written piece.

  • Matteo

    Amen to that!

  • Craig Vick

    I don’t think anyone really makes an idol of the Bible. The idolatry that does occur is not listening to the Bible because we think we have God figured out. What might appear to be a high view of the Scriptures is actually a low view if it neglects to read and listen. I once heard a pastor say that those who stand on the Bible should step off it so that they can open it and read it.

    • Matteo Masiello

      Craig, I respectfully disagree. Whenever anyone says that “the bible is clear in that…” well, I admit that it is clear in the ethics of Jesus – what we should DO as Christians. But if the Bible were clear, there would be no such thing as theology. It seems that most Christians think that following Jesus, or doing works is enough. They always seem to add “if your theology is right” Well, whose theology? Baptists? Reformed? Roman Catholic? Orthodox? No one subscribes to every letter or word of the Bible, nor should they. I think we need to understand what it means to us now and not as those who wrote it understood it. I think we all cherrypick to some extent but more importantly, we read into it things that are not there. It means something different to our Jewish and Muslim brothers. Can it be reconciled? Well, I think it needs to be if the only altnerative is war and violence as all fundamentalists of these traditions desire. I want to understand what the Bible meant to people like Paul – but that is controversal isn’t it? What were the writers of the NT influenced by? We dismiss the noncanonical books. We don’t know what the supposed heresies really believed. I have to admit that I think most of the NT is nothing more than well formulated propaganda to serve a theological purpose and not to make accurate historical accounts. So, people make the Bible an idol by instilling it with power that it doesn’t have. I will walk away from Christianity if it means I need to think and act like a first century Jew. That is inconceivable to me and impossible for anyone to do, even the most devout Christian. Nor should they do this. Doesn’t everyone think they know Jesus or what God is all about? I think we can never know Jesus or God without acting less for ourselves and more and totally for others. That means all of Christianity as it exists today is, well, wrong. A tiny, tiny percentage of people today really live like Jesus wants us to live. So, what do we do with this temple we created?

      • Craig Vick

        I’m not sure I said the Bible is clear. I suppose as a PCA pastor I’m confessionally committed to the clarity of Scripture, but I would argue that what that means needs to be seen from the Bible itself. I think some of our “disagreement” is really semantics. I agree that we all read the Bible through our theology and even that we all cherrypick and read into it things that aren’t there. I don’t think that by itself is making the Bible an idol. That’s how we mere mortals read. We slip into idolatry when we refuse to allow our theology to be in dialog with Scripture. If we all listened to the Scriptures would we all end up being Presbyterians? I don’t think so. I’m still a bit of an optimist, however. I beleive that as we listen to the Scriptures we get better at listening to readers from other traditions.

        You are right that there’s a lot we don’t know in terms of how theology developed. I think what really bothers you, though, is the uncertainty of interpretation. As Derrida says somewhere, it’s interpretation all the way down. Note that Derrida wasn’t speaking of reading the Bible, but of reading in general. Some read well, some read better than others, some read poorly. There’s no answer book outside of a text that tells us whether or not we’re reading well. Does that mean we can’t really read (listen) at all? I don’t think so, though I do find wonder in the fact that reading is possible.

  • Keith Slough

    The Bible is not “divine” in that it is “God” — no, but we need to define our terms. The Bible IS divinely inspired, proved by the astounding fulfillments of very specific prophecies — something Nostradamous could not do, nor any modern “prophet.” These Biblical writers went into minute detail about certain cities and populations and those predictions have been fulfilled to the “nth” degree! The Bible is a metaphysical and supernaturally inspired book. It is indeed the revelation from the Creator of the universe to mankind. I am a college professor who teaches theology and have studied this for over 40 years.

  • Mark Erickson

    Whatever lets you sleep at night, Pete.
    PS Good points are often not subtle. Only in fancy apologetics is subtlety a virtue.

    • peteenns


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  • Rebecca Trotter

    Many years ago a Catholic priest of all people told me that the bible is the inspired record on one people’s relationship with God. A couple of decades later and it’s still the most useful description of scripture I’ve found. It’s unfortunately that so many people have been bound by their leaders to fear over scripture. They have been told that it means one thing and that to reject that thing is tantamount to rejecting God. People who delve deeply into scripture using all the tools available to us are held up as examples of those whose insistance on picking scripure apart ruins a simple faith.

    I know that it can be unsettling to have what you think of as foundational called into question, but perfect love casts out fear. I think we need to be as afraid that our insistance on resisting changes and challenges is cutting us off from God as we are of the changes that we might be facing.

  • Matteo

    Craig thank you for your response and I apologize for my misinterpretation. What I have found from reading scripture everyday for years now is a common sense approach toward living life which Jesus sums up loving God, loving others which would lead to loving yourself. Everything else is window dressing for me. I think all religious traditions ate garments of holiness and all equally valid in their own cultural context. People might move from one to the other , even denominatons, because these traditions have lacked something that the person is finding. I think the claims to authority and inspiration supposedly in the bible are not there. They are ultimately projected onto the text. I think the stories are true in their meaning which are supposed to be excavated but are not given from a super duper human being sitting on a throne somewhere in the sky. That is an example of the failure of fundamentalist methodology. They think that they are the only ones who are privy to the meaning of the story when I think all stories have more than meaning that is perpetually encountered when engaged by an individual. Just as nature affects people differently. There is no one right way to look at it and we have to tolerate one another as we live together. Again, thanks for your comment.

  • Matteo

    Keith, so are the Vedas for Hindus which are arguable older than the Hebrew Torah. The Vedas make the same claim of divine inspiration. Yet we reject their authenticity because we’re not Hindus. Talk about presuppositions.

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