A Midweek Question

Here is a question that I have been thinking about: Is it possible for Christians to emphasize the Bible too much in their personal lives and ministries?

I have posed this question to several longtime members of UBF, and without exception, they immediately answered, “No.” Many committed evangelical Christians in other churches will instinctively react in the same way. We have always regarded Bible study as a good thing, and more of a good thing is always better. Or is it?

Before asking for your reaction, I will provide some background and explain why, in certain respects, I think the answer could be: Yes, it is possible for Christians to emphasize the Bible — or a particular approach to the Bible — too much.

During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Martin Luther and other Reformers taught that final authority in all matters of faith should rest in Scripture. In modern times, this principle of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”) is still proclaimed, but it is also widely misunderstood. Luther’s concept of sola scriptura led him to reject the authority of church leaders in his day. But it was not a blanket rejection of all tradition and authority outside of the Bible. For example, he did not reject the authority of the early church fathers and the ancient councils and creeds.

In reality, none of us can approach the Scripture as a blank slate and build our faith upon our own personal reading of the text with no external influences. John Wesley, who stood solidly in the Protestant tradition, taught that Christians actually build their faith on Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. These four authorities – which theologians now call the Wesleyan quadrilateral – do not have equal weight. Among the four, Scripture should have a position of preeminence. But trying to rest your faith solely on the Bible is like trying to sit on a chair with one leg. (You can sit on a chair with one leg, at least for a while. But the only way you can do it is by exerting a great deal of your own effort, keeping both feet firmly planted on the floor and using your legs as a substitute for the missing chair legs.)

Here are two specific ways in which I think it is possible to emphasize the Bible too much.

First, we can emphasize the Bible too much in the way that we talk about ourselves. Although many of us claim to be following the Bible alone, we read the Bible through lenses colored by our own culture, history and tradition. Everyone does that; it is inevitable. And I think we should openly admit it. N.T. Wright, a renowned New Testament scholar, says it very well:

Most heirs of the Reformation, not least evangelicals, take it for granted that we are to give scripture the primary place and that everything else has to be lined up in relation to scripture. There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’… But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give me some cause for concern. First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying. And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology. If we are not careful, the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.’

(from Wright, 1989, How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?)

Second, I think we can emphasize the Bible too much in how we use our time together. The first UBF conference that I attended was the 1982 Niagara Falls Summer Bible Conference held at at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. Since then I have attended numerous (maybe 100?) conferences of various types and sizes. The main activities at these conferences were group Bible study, expository messages and testimony writing. Although these conferences have been helpful to me, I have also felt that many of our programs were too heavily laden with pre-organized, highly scripted activities and staged presentations, leaving too little time for honest personal interaction. If the primary goal of a group Bible study is get through all of the written questions in time to move on to the next activity, discussion is going to be stifled. There are many questions on people’s minds that simply cannot be raised in these contexts without being seen as going off-topic. There are many other things that Christians need to learn and do, things that have a solid scriptural basis, which cannot easily fit into the paradigm of a group Bible study, expository message and testimony writing/sharing. The Scriptures themselves testify to this. For example, Acts 2:42 states that in the days and weeks after Pentecost, the early Christians devoted themselves to four activities: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. I believe it is possible to emphasize the study of Scripture – or one particular method or approach to studying the Scripture – so much that our faith becomes provincial and abstract, and we become disconnected from real community life and from God himself. Jesus himself hinted at this when he said, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). And here is a saying that I recently heard which often rings true: “The last thing that most Christians need is another Bible study.”

What do you think? Is it possible for Christians to emphasize the Bible, or their particular way of approaching the Bible, to an extent that it becomes a hindrance to spiritual growth?


  1. Tuf Francis

    As a Christian, my knee jerk reaction is – “No, how can we emphasize the Bible too much?!”
    But as a 12 year leader of high school ministry, and as a Bible teacher and mentor, my answer is changing to, “yes, we can.”

    As a young parent, one of the best pieces of advice I was given was by an elder of our ministry who said, “Don’t make them write testimonies. It was my biggest mistake as a parent.” In essence, this was what he believed inoculated (my word, just in case he wouldn’t agree with it) his children from a desire to know God more. I also don’t think we should send our kids to Christian schools (although sometimes it is necessary if our children are having a very tough time in other types). I don’t think kids thrive when surrounded ALL DAY, EVERYDAY by Christianity. It is creating a life for them that does not exist in reality. If we want our kids to be strong Christians who work on the front lines of gospel ministry, we had better help them understand fully the terrain in which they will be working. We need to arm them with the reality of the world, while arming them with the truth of the gospel. Reality cannot be taught to them by telling them “this is how the world is…” They need to see it and understand it first hand (note, I do not think they need to experience it or participate in sin firsthand).

    As a Bible teacher, about 7 years ago I was stumped with one of my Bible students and his difficult life. I had given him every cliche I could think of – by faith, pray about it, read the Bible – and to my surprise none of them helped. When I went to see our Pastor with this young man, he didn’t mention the Bible one time. He just talked to the young man about his practical life, what was happening, what could be done to help, what had happened to get there, and so on. We then prayed and ended. I understood then that sometimes Bible teachers need to help people with what they need most. If it is directly related to the Bible and their understanding of God’s word, then so be it. If they need practical help, then give it. The trick is, knowing what people need most at the time.

  2. Brian Karcher
    Brian Karcher

    Acts 2:42 answers this question quite well. The Christian life needs to be a balanced life, if we are to remain devoted to God our entire lifetime. Yes, it is certainly possible to emphasize the Bible too much. “Too much” means “more than a person can handle at that time”. Some may think my next statement is odd, but one of several reasons I have remained part of UBF ministry has been because there are so many things discussed outside of the Bible. Over the years, I’ve had such wonderful fellowship and deep conversations that have nothing to do with the Bible, but have everything to do with life, all the while keeping the focus of Bible study and worshipping God.

    What I’ve experienced is that a healthy Christian has the Bible as the “backbone” of life, and has tradition, reason, and experience as the “body” of life.

    I would insert a side note here: I am firmly against the “cultural Christian mindset” that I’ve seen so prevelant in America. That is, some people believe that a Christian can only see a Christian auto mechanice, go to see Christian movies, have a Christian baby-sitter, and so-on. They think that is the only way to justify activities outside of Bible study. I would rather not even tell people I am a Christian or know that I study the Bible and teach the Bible. I would much rather have them ask me if I am a Christian by my behavior, just as Jesus insisted that people not call him Christ. This has happend several times in my workplaces, and it gives great confirmation and seems to be a better witness.

    I would present a more important question though: Is it possible to emphasize certain parts or verses of the Bible too much? This is the greater danger, and is a resounding “yes”. We need a variety of Bible input from a variety of people for our spirits to be healthy. To draw on a UBF example, our Great Lakes Region chapters have been expanding our conferences the last five or six years. We include passages from books like Haggai and Psalms. We’ve been adding break-out sessions covering a wide array of topics such as marriage relationship growth, financial stewardship and visa problem resolution. This last conference we even had an excellent presentation of some of C.S. Lewis’ works (thanks Tuf!).

    In the end, I think we need to have balance when it comes to the Bible. And while we can emphasize the Bible passages too much at times, I suggest that we must always come back to the Bible as a sounding board and end with God.

  3. Ben Westerhoff


    Awesome question. Your example from Acts 2:42 is a good one. In the ancient world Christians got together, prayed, read a few verses, sung some hymns, had communion etc. The Bible-centered/sermon-centered worship service is a product of the Reformation. We need a balance between the two. Look at how short Jesus’ parables are! Why are we sermonizing for an hour or having hour and a half Bible studies? Paul Zahl in his book Grace in Practice calls for sermons to be 10-20 minutes. That comes after a lifetime of pastoring and mentoring pastors.

  4. “Can we emphasize our particular way of approaching the Bible too much?” Just by experience alone, I’d have to say “yes” to that one.

    To me, the more thought-provoking question is: “Can we emphasize THE BIBLE ITSELF too much?” I confess that I have been wondering about this question ever since one evangelical Christian scholar-friend I know nearly converted to Roman Catholicism over this very question.

    I think it is likely the case that we over-emphasize the Bible in the ways we arrange our community lives together as believers (as Joe suggests). But I sort of wonder if the deeper issue is the theology (whether we can name it or not) that leads us to arrange ourselves socially around the Bible in the first place (whether it be in the way we talk about ourselves, or the ways we spend time together). For evangelicals, is this all truly explained by a misused principle of sola scriptura, or something else? I have to think about this one a bit.

    It was mentioned above that perhaps Acts 2:42 depicts a model for a balanced Christian tradition. If so, are Christians from the evangelical tradition simply over-emphasizing the devotion to the “apostle’s teaching”? Are Christians from the more contemplative traditions over-emphasizing prayer? Are Christians from the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox traditions over-emphasizing the “breaking of bread?”(if this is referring to the Eucharist in Acts 2:42)? I’ll stop there since I can’t think of which Christian tradition might be over-emphasizing “fellowship” (social justice-driven Christian traditions?)

    Thinking of my Christian scholar-friend, I sort of wonder from time to time which Christian tradition in existence today balances Acts 2:42 well enough that warrants serious “conversion” to it out of Christian faithfulness. Or should I stick to my current, “Create-my-own evangelical-mutt, American-style, buffet-approach to Christian living that draws flavors from every Christian tradition? Or maybe just fall back to the de-facto pseudo-Reformed tradition of my particular church community, especially since my nephew’s middle name is Calvin, and my first name is John? :)

  5. Young Lee

    The topic is a little too heavy for me to respond now. But let me share my thought on easy one. I do agree with you on Bible study method. I don’t agree that there is only one or a few answers to the questions we raise during the Bible study. The written questions we generate and use is simply to provoke our thought. It also designed to bring up certain points. But we have to admit that they are not the only points or the best points. Rather each person should be inspired from variety of things things during the Bible study. Then it becomes personal. As long as it is sincere I presume that every questions are worth to explore.

    The serious issue is when one sticks to one kind of view and interpretation and fears to take anything else. In order that the Bible is relavant to the people, unwritten questions from people have to be raised and examined. We may not have all the answers, but I believe that Bible is deep enough to take every challenges.

  6. Dr. Bill

    This reminds me of something Joe said in his message over the weekend to the effect that born-again Spirit-filled believers can disagree. In Corinthians Paul wrote that there should be factions so that those who are right can be revealed as right – factions that lead to division, however, are not good. In any case, this point about disagreement is important I think – the mind of Christ is very broad – who can know it?, asks Paul. Although I would not stretch this point to include anything, I too believe that the mind of Christ is very broad, and the more I know Him the more broad I realize His mind is. This does not, however, imply that ‘anything goes’. Peter warns us to be careful not to twist Scripture, and that “no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.” (2nd Peter 1:20) So (as Joe also quoted someone as saying in his message yesterday), the Holy Spirit has to open our minds to understand Scripture. By extension I think the Holy Spirit has to guide us to study and use the Bible properly as well. And I believe the broad mind of Christ includes many different methods of teaching, preaching and Bible study. The history of the Christian church bears this out.

  7. This is a wonderfully thoughtful question and one that tends to create the initial response you suggest until you think about it more deeply. These responses/comments demonstrate a wonderful interaction with a question that everyone in a ministry like UBF should ponder very deeply. If one is in a church where Scripture is not given its proper place then the answer should be “No.” But the danger here is turning the knowledge of the Bible into the knowledge of Christ. One can, of course, know the Bible very well and not grow in the grace of Christ. Once this is admitted then the answer becomes, rightly so, more nuanced.

  8. Dr. Joe et al,

    I applaud you for opening up a forum to discuss issues that have been on the minds of many of our church members, as well as, I’m sure, the larger Christian community. I agree with the overall point that you have evoked in this post: that our practical application of the Bible to our lives may be unwarrantedly dogmatic and anxiously narrow-minded, with regard to the Bible as object. However, this is not immediately apparent because of the provocative ambiguity of the question (a rhetorical strategy mastered by all great professors!!). Perhaps this is the best way to initiate conversation, to welcome a wealth of responses, but I feel it is then incumbent on us to synthesize what we have shared to come to a more particular understanding. It is perhaps the clarification of what it means to “emphasize the Bible too much” that would be most beneficial moving forward, as I will attempt to do.

    Before I go any further, however, I would like to make a clarification in our definition of terms. I believe the definition of “sola scriptura” you provided is a bit incomplete and leads to somewhat of a straw man argument. Mark Driscoll provides some insight regarding the doctrine of “sola” (different than “solo”) scriptura in this sermon clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tuK2WJUlFM (beginning at 1:39), where we see that indeed, scripture should be viewed as the highest–and therefore not the only–authority. Admittedly, though, we still may be functionally using the definition you provided in our life, which is indeed problematic.

    A good portion of the issues raised both in the post and the subsequent comments deal with issues beyond the scope of the text of the Bible, and refer more to activities that involve the Bible, or, put another way, the Bible as object. Subtly, yet quite ironically, you have made this distinction in the formation of your argument, using the Bible (as text) to demonstrate how the Bible (object) should not be over-emphasized in your example from Acts 2:42. In some ways, the Bible must saturate our lives, and we should have a scripturally governed imagination. And, as you and Dr. Armstrong have mentioned, the Bible’s text should remain our highest authority. However, with regards to the Bible as object (e.g. the biblical words we have (ab)normalized into our vocabulary; our heavy emphasis on the activities of studying the Bible and writing testimonies) we should exercise more discernment.

    I look forward to the continued progress of this online community.

  9. Joe Schafer

    Hi Brendan, welcome to UBFriends. Your comment is very insightful. You are exactly right in pointing out that the question that began this post was intentionally vague and provocative. I wanted to stir up the pot to see what would float to the surface. I do not feel ready to synthesize or summarize my own understanding of sola scriptura because I am still trying to understand it. I like and agree with much of what Mark Driscoll says. But my current opinion is that when he speaks of scripture as the “highest court” — as distinct from the “lower courts” of reason, tradition, experience, etc. — that he understates the role of those latter faculties in the understanding and interpretation of scripture itself. It’s not so easy to separate scripture from those other spheres of influence. But that’s my current opinion, and I’m open to hearing what others have to say.

  10. Chris Kelly

    I wish to give an answer to Ben’s tacit endorsement of Paul Zahl’s call for a 10-20 minute limit on sermons. For even if we can and do emphasize the Bible too much, we cannot possibly emphasize or talk too long about our Lord if HE is our passion and “first love.” I would be sold out to the cause of Jesus even if it means losing the friendship of the world. [James 4:4] though, as our Lord, I will strive to be a “friend of sinners”.

    So, I can agree that some sermons and Bible studies run too long, especially when we thrust unprepared youngsters into the pulpit, which we are wont to do for reasons both good and selfish. And I am convinced that the problem is often worse in churches with seminary-trained preachers who merely pontificate cerebrally and stroke the pride of people they depend on for offerings.

    At the same time, (and poor preaching is partly to blame) there are those who would instead have us stand on our feet singing and clapping for 45 minutes and reduce the preaching of the Word to a bare minimum, squeezed in as a kind of concession to “old timers”. It always seems that the watchword to the messenger is, “Make it shorter,” while no such constraint is acceptable in other segments of our worship. (Willow Creek, I am told, went the opposite direction a few years ago—if megachurch precedents are important to anyone here.)

    But I want to assert that our Lord has commanded and ordained that His kingdom shall primarily be spread through the preaching of the word [Mk 16] and making of disciples, that is teaching [Mt 28]. True to the Master, the Early Church made their first priority “the apostles’ teaching” [Ac 2:42].

    So why do people get impatient with Bible studies and messages that are longer than 20 minutes? Why are today’s preachers, teachers and witnesses so irritating and/or boring? Aside from the obvious fact that our attention spans have been whittled away by TV and other modern contrivances, the most critical shortcoming is our lack of love—all around—both a lack of love in pastors for their flocks, and a reciprocal lack of love and support (esp. prayer support) for the pastor on the part of congregations. Both are essential but critically low. This means that, instead of teaching, preaching and making disciples out of love for Jesus and his flock, we do it out of a rational sense of duty. This sets me apart as distinctly NOT “post-modern”, but “modern” (which in a strange twist of fate is now understood to mean “antique”). I still believe in duty to God. But to move sinners hearts, there must be more than duty; there must be love and a work of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit comes only where the “believers are all together in one accord.” When it happens, the Spirit enables us to preach (prophesy) powerfully. THAT is the first sign of the Spirit’s empowering, and makes us witnesses to the wonders of God and His Son. “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to myself.” [Jn 12:23] Job One, then, is to lift HIM up, Him alone. That’s not Bible-centered; it’s Jesus-centered. Can a bride and groom be too much in love? I think not.

    My own personal problem is that I’ve been so often told, “Chris, you always act and talk as if you know you’re right.” The nuance is there in Joe’s original article, “Although many of us claim to be following the Bible alone, we read the Bible through lenses colored by our own culture, history and tradition.”—which I interpret as a politically correct caution not to sound too convinced or hold our beliefs too strongly. So I preach and teach tentatively, weakly, so as not to offendthe post-modern sensitivities of the disciples I’m trying to “go and make”. This is the most despicable of all preaching or teaching, like sails without wind and clouds without rain.

    If, as many of us believe, these are the Last Days, rather than trying to reinvent our way of “doing church” according to the whims of our youth, let’s bear in mind our Lord’s prophecy that in the last days, “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” [Mt 24:12] This is the greatest of all dangers. His prophecy applies to US Christians, not infidels. OUR love is growing cold. (I confess mine is.) Instead of preaching less, let us rather pray and preach and teach with greater and greater fervor and love for our Lord and his sheep, until “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

    Sorry for sounding preachy. Well, no I’m not! or am I? No! I’m sorry for apologizing for sounding preachy. Maybe. Help! Come, Lord Jesus!

  11. I say yes… to the extant that they deemphasize the role of the church. One way or another, people who overemphasize the bible and think of the church as some kind of spiritual energy or brotherhood have to answer to 1 Timothy 3:15, “If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
    It never did say the bible so I am unsure where people got that idea.

    So to the extant that the people look towards the bible as the sole authority in matters of Christian morals, then yes, the bible is overemphasized.