There’s a type of Christianity known as “Protestant fundamentalism” which by its nature focuses heavily on the Bible as such. It attempts to discern as much from the Bible as there is to be had, and also attempts to make its practices and beliefs fit with it as much as possible.

One can, of course, argue they don’t do a good job of this … e.g. these people believe in the Trinity, even if that word is found nowhere in the pages of the Bible, and if there are verses refuting it in addition to those that support it. And many of my blog postings describe ways in which they fall short of the content of the teachings recorded in the Bible, so I tend to agree, they have not actually accomplished the goal they set out to achieve.

Occasionally I’ve referred to them as “Bible-worshippers,” because in truth, it’s not God (or Jesus or any other specific form of God) they worship. Their allegiance to a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible is so fervent and so strong, that it can only be seen as a form of “worship” in and of itself.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who sees it this way. A “Guest Voices” piece in the On Faith blog at the Washington Post, by scholar Bart Ehrman, says almost the same thing, but in a more lucid way:

“Are you out to destroy the Christian religion?” I’ve been asked this question several times over the past month, as some evangelicals have expressed shock and outrage over my book, “Jesus Interrupted,” where I deal with the historical problems of the New Testament. These problems are rife, to be sure. … But doesn’t that make Christianity bogus? “Are you out to destroy the Christian religion?”

The truth is that I find this question more than a little odd. For one thing, I learned all of these problems in a leading Protestant theological seminary, while taking Bible classes in preparation for Christian ministry. …

The idea that to be a Christian you have to “believe in the Bible” (meaning, believe that it is in some sense infallible) is a modern invention. Church historians have traced the view, rather precisely, to the Niagara Conference on the Bible, in the 1870s, held over a number of years to foster belief in the Bible in opposition to liberal theologians who were accepting the results of historical scholarship. In 1878 the conference summarized the true faith in a series of fourteen statements. The very first one — to be believed above all else — was not belief in God, or in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was belief in the Bible.

Ehrman goes on to explain that this fierce fundamentalist “Bible-worship” was, prior to the late 19th century, fully alien to Christianity:

Throughout most of history most Christian thinkers would have been seen this view as theological nonsense. Or blasphemy. The Bible was never to be an object of faith. God through Christ was. Being a Christian meant believing in Christ, not believing in the Bible.

Here are the historical realities. Christianity existed before the Bible came into being: no one decided that our twenty-seven books of the New Testament should be “the” Christian Scripture until three hundred years after the death of the apostles. Since that time Christianity has existed in places where there were no Bibles to be found, where no one could read the Bible, where no one correctly understood the Bible. Yet it has existed. Christianity does not stand or fall with the Bible.

This is a truth that the “Bible-worshipping fundamentalists” simply cannot, or will not, deal with. Nevertheless it makes a great deal of sense. Did the apostles Jesus left behind have a New Testament when they started out? No. Did Paul have a New Testament when he was converted on the road to Damascus? Also, no. They did have “a Bible,” if you take that to be the then-vernacular translations of Hebrew scripture available to them, the Targum in Aramaic and/or the Septuagint in Greek. But not one single New Testament work had been written in the first couple decades or so of Christianity. The earliest of them … the genuine Pauline epistles … were not written until well after Paul had converted, meaning there was no New Testament at all for the first several years of his ministry.

Since all of these early Christians had no New Testament, it cannot be said that there was any “Christian Bible” for them to use. They had only their own oral traditions and/or various documents of their own (some of which became the New Testament, while most others did not). The Christian Bible as we know it did not exist for the first several centuries of Christianity.

The truth — as Ehrman states so clearly — is that you do not need to have a Bible, or even have seen one, in order to be a Christian. That so many people in the occidental world believe the Bible is necessary for all Christians, is a result of how vocal the Protestant fundamentalists have been over the last century or so. They have successfully made many of us believe — as they do — that the Bible is God and vice versa; however this is simply not the case.

All you need to do, in order to be a Christian, is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. If it sounds as though this cannot be done without a Bible in hand, it’s actually not the case, because it has happened, and will again.

It’s time for the “Bible-worshippers” to stop bowing before the altar of their book, to give up their scriptural idolatry, and begin actually to practice Christianity instead.

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