“But when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” 1 Corinthians 13.10
Over the past month I’ve been reflecting on how very often Christians become obsessed with the Bible. You would think, as a pastor and someone with two Masters degrees in Biblical exegesis that I would be thrilled with such a development. But I’m not. Because what I’ve noticed is that people who become obsessed with the Bible tend to elevate Scripture and learning what it says (and thus, in their estimation, acquiring “correct doctrine”) above an encounter with Jesus. This is seen in many small ways. For instance, the verse quoted above. In my younger days I attended churches that were strictly against sign gifts. I often heard 1 Corinthians 13.10 quoted as meaning when Scripture (i.e., “the perfect”) was completed, then there would be no more need for tongues and prophecy and so they would cease. The problem, of course, is that in no way is that what the context means. When we encounter Jesus, then our partial knowledge will be done away. When the kingdom arrives, our partial embodiment of it will pass away. The Bible? No where within Scripture is Scripture given such beatific language.
Or take another example: “you just need to stay in the word of God!” By which folks mean, read Scripture a lot. Now, reading and memorizing Scripture is an important practice for the Christian life. But, when the New Testament talks about the word of God it almost always refers to Jesus. Even, arguably, in Hebrews 4.12 “word of God” refers not to the Old Testament (remembering that for the early Christians no New Testament Scriptures existed) but to Jesus himself.
When I talk to folks about spiritual formation, the conversation often turns to Bible study. “Oh, I’m trying to read my Bible more,” or “I don’t know if I understand this passage fully,” or “But what does the Bible say about this?” None of these statements are wrong, per se. The problem is when these statements take over for following Jesus. Spiritual formation is not chiefly about learning more doctrine or diving deeper into Scripture. Spiritual formation is about yielding our lives to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this means learning more from Scripture so we encounter Jesus or understand more about God. Sometimes it means learning to see God not only in Scripture but in creation. Sometimes it means yielding our busy lives to more prayer, silence, solitude, and contemplation. Sometimes it means realizing that Scripture is about connecting you with God, not teaching you what to believe. If you are trying to grow in your Christian walk, but all you do is study the Bible and you never pray, or journal, or paint, or sit outside in nature, or talk with Christians who don’t think like you about what you read, or read the Bible in ways other than for Bible study (devotionally, lectio divina, as part of an ignatian examen, or some other way), then you are doing it wrong.
One time, when Mandy and I were visiting a church, the service included a hymn which was addressed to the Bible and essentially praised its various traits. There is no other way to say this: such is idolatry. The Bible is not the perfect thing. The Bible is not the end. The Bible is merely a means to understanding and encountering God and continuing to tell the story of how he interacts with humans–with all the complications, difficulties, and joys that entails.