Sacred Texts and Digital Bibles

Recently, Matthew Barrett wrote a provocative article at the Gospel Coalition titled, "Dear Pastor, Bring Your Bible to Church," in which he argues that the growing practice of using electronic Bible apps "is subtly but quickly changing important, even indispensable aspects of Christianity." He offers five arguments in support of this thesis.

The Holy Bible

Barrett argues:

  1. The Bible is "a visible symbol of God speaking to his people," but electronic tablets symbolize social media and entertainment.
  2. Clicking links rather than thumbing through a book erodes biblical literacy.
  3. Electronic texts are "ephemeral," not physically real, and so are poor witnesses to the revelation of Christ in flesh and blood. He calls this the "spatio-temporal" nature of the church.
  4. The sacraments must be done in time and space and in community. Since electronic texts are not physically real, they hide from unbelievers that "we are a people of the book."
  5. A physical Bible is a conversation-starter for "unbelieving onlookers."

I am teaching a course this semester on "The Digital Bible," so this is a timely topic for me. I plan to write in more detail on each of these points, but here are some quick thoughts.

Electronic texts are "real" in every sense of the word, even if they do not appear in ink. Also, plenty of people thumb through the Bible while failing to grasp it as a whole text rather than an assembly of verses. This is a problem of the method of what passes for biblical interpretation in the church rather than of its medium.

But the most important problem is the claim of sacred status for the Bible as physical object. This morning, Pete Phillips posted an interesting reaction to Barrett's article, pointing out that if the Bible is sacred, an electronic version of that text is difficult to treat as such. It is much easier to delete a Bible app than to destroy a printed Bible because "we associate sacredness with bibles - they are sacral objects. But apps aren't."

Bibles should not be sacred objects. Turning a printed biblical text into a sacred object of veneration is idolatry.

The Sacred Word

"Sacredness" or "holiness" refers to how something is used and how it is regarded as special by the community, not what it is. Consider the consecration of priests in Leviticus 8-9 and the status of other holy objects such as utensils, animals, times, and events. A person or thing may become holy by being set apart for a special use, or by coming into proximity with God's holy presence. After a set time of service, for example, a priest would perform rituals to transfer themselves back into the mundane realm. The Priestly ritual system insists that there is nothing magical or intrinsically powerful about a priest or other sacred thing; his holiness comes from his special service, while he is serving.

There is always the possibility that this system of holiness can be corrupted, as in the iconic worship practices opposed by the prophets. For example, Moses comes down from Mount Sinai to find the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. Scholars argue that Aaron and the people probably associate that golden image with God himself, not with some other deity. The prohibition of images ("aniconism") in the Bible is a recognition that such association of a transcendent God with a physical object can become a distraction and limitation in one's worship of the one God. This is the definition of "idolatry."

In what sense is a physical Bible similar to a priestly implement or sacrificial animal? The important thing about the Bible is its message, and even more, its witness to God revealed in Jesus Christ, himself the eternal Word of God (John 1). Neither the physical object nor the words themselves are intrinsically holy, but they become sites of holiness for the congregation as they communicate truth and draw the community together.

When a pastor asserts the holiness of the Bible as an object, he draws attention to the object itself (and to himself as its bearer) and away from the divine presence mediated through Scripture. And that is idolatry.

I had a pastor once who was fond of holding his big, black leather-bound KJV in the air and pronouncing, "When the Bible speaks, God speaks!" In this way, he claimed divine authority for his own interpretation of the Bible. This attitude toward the Bible is deceptive because it conceals the interpretation process from the congregation, and it illegitimately bolsters the pastor's authority. And like all idolatry, it lends itself to spiritual abuse.