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Here is a provocative quote from James A. Sanders, Old Testament scholar, translater and editor of the Psalm Scroll (Dead Sea Scrolls), and former professor (retired) from Claremont School of Theology

Another form of idolatry or polytheism that has emerged in Western Christianity in reaction, in part, to Enlightenment study of the Bible, and that needs also to be eschewed, is that of bibliolatry—viewing the Bible as somehow divine. God is divine, not the Bible! Hard-core fundamentalism and literalism, born in extreme reaction to contextual study of the Bible, have so idolized the Bible as to abuse it. Canonical criticism proposes to understand the Bible as canon not as a box of ancient jewels forever precious and valuable, but as a paradigm of the struggles of our ancestors in the faith over against the several forms of polytheism from the Bronze Age to the Roman Empire. (From Sacred Story to Sacred Text, p. 5)

Maybe not the most subtle way of putting it, but Sanders makes a good point.

I resonate with a few things here.

First, the type of inerrancy that is current in Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism today is largely (I would say essentially) a reaction to the Enlightenment and modern historical criticism. Modern “inerrancy” is not—I repeat, not—to be simply equated with earlier expressions of the authority and inspiration of Scripture espoused by key figures of the Christian past (like Augustine, Paul, or Jesus).

Second, the uneasiness concerning the historical context of Scripture in Fundamentalism stems from the fact that the historical study of Scripture challenges Fundamentalist ideology about the Bible. Fear of losing their defining narrative drives their reaction.

Third, when seen in historical context, the Bible is not a collection of proof-texts, like loose earrings in a jewelry box, but a canonical narrative. The Bible, despite its historical variety, is a grand narrative compiled and composed in the wake of Israel’s grand national struggle in Babylonian exile, which recounts Israel’s religious struggles throughout its history, both as they contend with the polytheism of the other nations and with their own struggles with their own God.

From this perspective, the Bible is much more than a series of verses that tell us what to do or think (and more often than not the Bible cannot be read this way). Rather it is a diverse, fluid, and often surprising grand narrative that shows us the variety of experiences in the life of faith. (I explore this idea more fully in The Bible Tells Me So.)

To paraphrase Sanders, he is saying something like this:

Put the Bible in its place and then you will see its deep religious value. If you treat the Bible as a rulebook dropped out of heaven, you will miss the purpose for which the Bible was written in the first place. 

[Sanders is also the author of Canon & Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism and Torah and Canon.]

An earlier version of this post appeared in January 2012.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.