Do you believe that Jesus was a baby sheep or a cat with a tawny mane? Do you think that a ten-headed dragon is going to crawl onto the beach at the end of time?
If you answer No, then you do not believe in a literal interpretation of Scripture. Each of those are symbols used by the Bible: the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, and the Dragon of the Apocalypse. Dedication to a truly literalist interpretation would force you to answer Yes to the questions above.
Even so, many leaders of the Christian community who would certainly answer No to the above questions still insist that their interpretation of the Bible is “literal.” Clearly their claims are either dishonest or deluded. Even worse, the fact that Jesus taught with fictional parables clearly shows that stories do not need to be literally true in order to be spiritually valuable, which means that the attitude of some church leaders that religion requires the Bible to be historically and materially factual implies that Jesus was a fraud.
So why do so many insist on scriptural literalism and bibliolatry?
For some, the ancient understanding of the divine Logos has been lost, leading them to confuse the Word with words. In honoring the words of language, which is a human invention, they falsely believe they are honoring the Word of God which St. Irenaeus — the student of John the Evangelist’s student Polycarp — described as “the fashioner demiurge of everything, who rests upon the cherubim and connects all things together.”
For others, a Bestial authoritarian impulse compels them to set up their sectarian reading of Scripture as a talking image, a false god, demanding that people bow down to it or else.
Regardless of the reason behind the mistake, bibliolaters claim the Bible is perfect and sufficient. It is not, and many parts of the Bible even say so. In fact, many parts of the Bible are not even God’s word, and those passages are explicit about that, too. In order to believe the Bible is perfect, sufficient, and 100% God’s word, one would have to also believe that the Bible lies about itself.
The following are certain proof texts used by bibliolaters to justify worshiping the created Bible rather than the uncreated Creator:
Second Letter of Peter
1:3 His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
Firstly, note that this book is identified explicitly as the words of Peter, not God.
Curiously, this verse is often cited as a declaration that the Bible is sufficient, even though it never refers specifically to Scripture at all, and certainly cannot be referring to that part of scripture written after the Second Letter of Peter.
In fact, at the time this letter was being written, neither the Hebrew Bible nor New Testament canons had been finalized, and wouldn’t be finalized for centuries. Different churches still disagree on what is or is not canonical Scripture.
This text is not “proof” of biblical sufficiency or perfection; it represents the assertion by Peter that God has given us all we need through knowledge of the Word, without specifying what the knowledge is or where it is to be found.
While the verse is certainly true, it does not sanction bibliolatry.
Second Letter to Timothy
3:14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it 15 and how from infancy you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in the Messiah Jesus.
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Note that verse 15 only says that the scriptures “are able to” make you wise, which implies that they could also make you unwise (if misinterpreted, for example) are not necessarily even required for wisdom. Verse 16 asserts that scripture is “useful” for a good man to be thoroughly equipped. “Useful” also implies neither necessity nor sufficiency.
Also, as with the Second Letter of Peter, this letter identifies itself as the writing of a man, and could not reasonably be referring to itself or anything written afterward as “scripture.” Note that it says “from infancy you have known the holy scriptures” indicating that the works being referenced were around when the author was a baby, which would certainly exclude all New Testament writings and the officially canonized Old Testament. It must refer to the loosely authoritative collection of Jewish scriptures current around the turn of the millennium.
Moreover, from a purely theological standpoint, for those who worship the Creator of the Universe (and not some lesser, false god) all things are “God-breathed.”
Scripture may have special significance, but the concept of special revelation is anathema to true monotheism; all of Creation reveals its Creator in some way. To believe otherwise is to believe that the Creator lies through His Creation — which, of course, would make the Letter to Titus 1:2 incorrect.
And, addressing the revelatory nature of Nature, we come to what is perhaps the most inexplicable of proof texts cited by bibliolaters.
For the director of music. A psalm of David.
1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
3 There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, 5 which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. 6 It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.
7 The law of YHWH is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of YHWH are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of YHWH are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of YHWH are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of YHWH is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of YHWH are sure and altogether righteous.
10 They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
11 By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression.
14 May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O YHWH, my Rock and my Redeemer.
It is a truly bizarre dysgesis that find scriptural inerrancy in this psalm. Firstly, once again, this text identifies itself as the words of a man, David. The first six verses, ironically, identify the Creation itself as a source of revelation about God, something that bibliolaters often explicitly condemn.*
Afterward, the characteristics of the Lord (YHWH) are praised, never identifying these as a specific written book.
Most tellingly, the Psalm ends with the author hoping that the psalm be accepted by YHWH, meaning that the author himself believes that it may not be so accepted. Those who insist that these words are sufficient not only contradict the author and fall short of his pious humility, but usurp the decision of the Lord.
Life vs. Death
Unlike scripturalists and bibliolaters, Reform Unitarian Christians respect scripture** but do not worship it by attributing to it characteristics like sufficiency and perfection, which properly are God’s alone. Written instructions (and “written” is all that the word “scripture” means) are useful, but dead, and when they become the centerpiece of a religion that religion itself becomes dead. As Paul wrote in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians:
3:3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…
6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory… 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?
* Idolatrous devotion to Scripture makes some bibliolaters so dismissive of the rest of God’s Creation that they cannot faithfully read the words of Scripture themselves, even interpreting the passage “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Letter to the Romans 1:20) as an indictment against experience, reason, and natural revelation!
** For example, we respect its words as written without imposing bizarre, un-scriptural doctrines like Trinitarianism or biblical inerrancy.