Icon: "Something finite that reflects the Ultimate."
Idol: "Something finite that we wish to make ultimate."
The Importance of Proper Use
Glenn Packiam recently delivered a sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes. For Packiam, Ecclesiastes is a cautionary tale. The Teacher's ponderings offer instruction for those prone to a false sense of optimism. While God's covenant people are called to have an eternal sense of hope, this does not negate the reality that life under the sun is difficult, monotonous, and often lackluster.
Qoheleth/The Teacher/Solomon offers the following observation in the very first chapter of the book:
3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again (NIV).
I think I would've really appreciated learning about the water cycle from the sentiments described in this passage. I can see it now. Ms. Newbert stands up in front of our 1st grade class, "Now pay close attention, everyone. Water rains from the sky. It rolls down the mountains and into streams. Those streams run into lakes and oceans. The water evaporates, and that very same water rains down on us again." Pretty standard stuff so far, and then BAM. She drops a truth bomb on us all, "Class, the water cycle is a lot like your life. You're going to grow up and do the same thing every day over and over and over again until you die. You should probably just give up now."
My first grade self would've probably loved that, but I'm sure it wouldn't have been a major hit with the administration.
Really though, according to Packiam, The Teacher in Ecclesiastes is offering a much different perspective than my fictitious first grade teacher. The solution to the daily grind, that feeling of slogging through life, is not defeat or extreme cynicism. The solution is a divinely balanced sense of realism. It's a life that walks in the balance of joy while simultaneously embracing pain and heartache. It's a life that acknowledges the limitations of our labors, our leisure, and our loves to fulfill us in all the ways we desire.
You see, when you acknowledge the limitations of thing, you are actually able to enjoy it most. When you ask a thing to be what it cannot be, you will most assuredly become frustrated with it. This applies to your job, your hobbies, your spouse, and yes, even your coffee.
Father, Son, and Holy Scripture?
It's often been remarked that the Holy Spirit has been replaced as a part of the Trinity in the West. I'm not here to comment on the neglect of the Holy Spirit in our spiritual lives, but rather want to point out the detrimental component of elevating the Bible beyond its intended use.
This too would have been a paradigm altering concept to my elementary school age self. In addition to being a near expert on all things pertaining to the water cycle, I was a faithful Awana attender. For those not familiar, Awana is a Bible club, usually hosted by local churches, that promotes intense amounts of Scripture memory. I loved it. It was something else to study beyond school, and getting stickers and candy was always a plus. Now, to my parents' credit, I actually learned a lot of great stuff through Awana, and still retain a good deal of Scripture to this day. Thanks guys!
Perhaps it was a part of the leaders' presentation, or perhaps it was the theological misunderstanding of a 10 year old, but one of my largest gleanings from Awana was that the Bible was a thing to be worshiped in and of itself. I'm not saying that our Awana teachers had us bow down before a gold plated Bible at the front of the room. That would've been a strange sight indeed. Rather, by virtue of instructional emphasis and conversational momentum, the Bible was THE focal point of early religious devotion.
Our modern obsession with infallibility and perfection in transmission is perhaps necessary in the sense that it helps us engage modern culture with modern questions, but I'm afraid we've lost something. I'm afraid we've spent so much time protecting the Bible from attacks on its accuracy and content, that we've lost sight of the fact that the Bible is an icon. It is an image that points us to the Ultimate. The most accurate and trustworthy image you can find. It is an image that is truthful in all that it affirms. But it is still just that, an image. It is not THE thing to which it points, and I hope we can begin nuancing the ways we speak and think about what is admittedly a holy thing.
"When you treat a finite thing like an ultimate thing, it becomes nothing, you've ruined it, and you've killed it's proper use." -Glenn Packiam
Now, to be clear, Glenn was not talking about an unhealthy sense of Biblicism when he offered this insight. And I certainly don't want to put words in his mouth. By extension however, I do think that we loose something when we ask the Bible to do something it cannot do; namely, be God.
If we wish consciously or subconsciously to make the Bible a thing of worship, rather than a thing of reverence which points beyond itself, then we fail to engage it properly. When the Bible becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, we miss the mark.
Knowing the Bible inside and out can only help you if it points you beyond its pages. Should the Bible be revered and trusted? Absolutely! Should it be an ultimate thing, a final thing? I think not. .
One of my favorite Awana verses was, "Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path" (Psalm 119:105). I wish I could say that I've always approached the Bible in such a way; as a tool that guides me to the divine. But I know that in discussion forums, theological debates, and perhaps even on Facebook, I haven't treated it as such. Somewhere in the back of my mind lurks the mis-memorized verse, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Bible Almighty."
When we approach the Bible as an Icon, as something that points us to the Ultimate, we rejoice in its proper use. When we attack, defend, or approach the Bible an Idol, we are doomed to experience that sense of vanity described in Ecclesiastes. We will run around and around in an endless cycle, but always fail to escape it or move beyond it.
"Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." Thank God for the Scriptures, which point us back to Him. He is certainly worthy of our worship.