Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part 5): “The Bible”
NOTE: Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable. But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a theologian to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought. In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.
The B-I-B-L-E …yes, that’s the book for me! I stand alone on the Word of God…the B-I-B-L-E!
Yes, the Bible is the book for a lot of people and the most loved, generously quoted and best-selling book of all time. It’s translated into thousands of languages and paraphrased into countless contexts. I personally collect Bibles. I have an 1849 pocket KJV New Testament for a circuit-riding preacher. I have an interlinear Bible. I have a “parallel Bible” with four different translations. I have a Bible translated in Hawaiian pigeon called “Da Jesus Book,” and an African-American “Rappin’ With Jesus” Bible. I have the Greek New Testament, Bible on CD and often listen to the Word of God, digitally, via www.biblegateway.com.
I grew up reading, studying and memorizing the Bible. I participated in Bible Bowl, pitting my knowledge of Scripture texts against other high schoolers in a form of church-sanctioned righteous Christian combat (creating skills later used in Bible trivia games and arguments with whom I disagreed). I went to Bible studies, sang Bible songs, attended Bible movies and spent years in Bible college and seminary. I enjoy watching Bible documentaries, reading Bible commentaries and listening to biblical preaching. I just love the Bible!
I grew up in a church culture with a proud tradition as a “people of the Book.” The Bible was the centerpiece of our practices, teaching, preaching, ministries and programs. If you couldn’t defend it from Scripture, it wasn’t something to defend. One of our hallmark mantras was “if the Bible speaks, we speak; if it’s silent, we’re silent.” The Bible was the top and the bottom, the first and the last line for everything.
And then one day I discovered a terrible truth: the word “Bible” isn’t even in the Bible. Go ahead and search for it. I double dog dare you. It’s not there. Why? It’s because the Bible is actually a technology. The Bible (from the Greek word for book or biblos) is the product of renaissance Gutenberg print technology. The Bible is a book and a book is a form of print communication.
What we find in our printed book (or Holy Book/Bible) is a completely different vocabulary. For example, there’s the “Word of God” (Proverbs 30:5; Isaiah 40:8; John 10:35) or the “Holy Scriptures” (Romans 1:2; 2 Timothy 3:15) or just “Scriptures” (Daniel 9:2; Matthew 21:42; Luke 24:45; Acts 17:2; 18:28; I Corinthians 15:54) In fact, there are 20 occurrences for “Scriptures” and all refer to the collected books we now call the Old Testament.
In David’s infamous Psalm 119, he creates a living thesaurus for these “Scriptures” and refers to them as:
- “statutes” (vv. 2,14,22,24,31,36,46,59,79,88,95,99)
- “precepts” (vv. 4,15,27,40,45,56,63,69,78,87,93,94,100)
- “decrees” (vv. 5,8,12,16,23,26,33,48,54,64,68,71,80,83)
- “commands” (vv. 6,10,19,21,32,35,47,48,60,66,73,86,96,98)
- “law/laws”(vv. 1,7,13,18,20,29,30,34,39,43,44,55,61,62,70,72, 75,77,85,91,92,97),
- God’s “word/words” (vv. 9,11,16,17,25,28,37,42,49,51,52, 53,57,65,67,74,81,89)
- “word of truth” (v. 43)
And that’s just first 100 verses! David also cites “promises” in several verses. It’s no wonder the Scriptures are a “lamp” and “light” (Psalm 119:105).
Hebrews 4:12 states the “word of God” is living and active. Like any living thing, it’s constantly changing, not in its Message but in its applications, formats and interpretations. In a famous parable Jesus used a living “seed” as the metaphor for the Word of God (Luke 8:4-11). That’s why it’s short-sighted to profess being a “people of the Book.” The book is finite technology. The book can burn, rot, erode, fade and disappear but God’s Word does not. Jesus never reduced the Scriptures to scrolls and papyri, the written formats of His day. He simply referred to them as “the Scriptures.”
In a digital culture, the Word of God (Holy Scriptures) remains “living and active” but, let’s face facts, the print culture (of which the book or Bible operates) is dying. It’s had a great 500-year run but as digitization continues to reimagine how we read, transmit and learn, the book is on life support and death watch. Even if the book or the Bible survives, it will probably do so more as a relic or collectible (like vinyl records). Most people will read the Word from a screen, web page or live stream.
That’s why we must be careful in our desire to elevate God’s Word and His Message that we don’t venerate or idolize the format. The book (biblos or Bible) can go away but God’s Word lasts forever. In the Old Testament the “Word of God” came more from a voice than a book (I Chronicles 17:3; 2 Chronicles 11:2; 36:12; 36:16; Jeremiah 2:1; 19:3). In time the written “Word of God” became a cornerstone for generations (Jeremiah 30:2) and will remain so in a digital economy.
Jesus was the “Word” of God (John 1:14) and spoke the Word of God (Luke 5:1). In fact, he said blessing arose when those who “heard” the Word of God obeyed (Luke 11:28). In Acts, the “word of God” is the gospel according to Jesus (Acts 6:7; 8:14; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, 7, 46; 17:13; 18:11). This idea is echoed further in Paul’s epistles (1 Corinthians 14:36; 2 Corinthians 2:17).
One final New Testament phrase for the Holy Scriptures is “word of truth.” Paul encouraged Timothy to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).” Meanwhile James exhorts that we have been given new birth through the “word of truth” (James 1:18).
To summarize, you won’t find the word “Bible” in the Holy Scriptures. The reason is simple: it’s technology. And no technology is eternal. When we use words like “Bible” and “biblical” or phrases like “we’re a people of the Book,” we wed ourselves to fading technology. The Scriptures have been chiseled in stone, carved in wood, brushed on canvas, penned on papyrus, framed in stained glass and inked on paper. Today the emerging format just happens to be digital. Yes, the Bible is a good word, but it’s not THE word.
Maybe it’s time we rephrased the infamous B-I-B-L-E song we sang as kids:
The W-O-R-D…yes, that’s the Message for me. I stand alone on the Truth of God…the W-O-R-D!