Tennessee legislators recently sought to make history. They voted to declare the Bible the official state book of Tennessee that if signed would’ve been the first such law ever in America. Tennessee has a state tree (tulip poplar), state bird (mockingbird), state butterfly (zebra swallowtail), and state fish (largemouth bass, of course). Why not a state book?
I agree with Governor Haslam and am thankful he vetoed this bill. Not because I’m a theological liberal but precisely the opposite. State congressfolk certainly considered it a noble effort to retain or restore some semblance of Christian morality to the Volunteer State. But that’s all this law could do: semblance. And the Bible doesn’t deal in semblance. It is concerned with substance.
Declaring the Bible Tennessee’s state book would relegate it to a mere ceremonial position next to the state tree, bird, butterfly, fish and flower (iris). It wouldn’t actually mean anything beyond nostalgia. I’m not more fond of tulip poplars or zebra swallowtails because they’re recognized as state symbols. Likewise, declaring the Bible the state book wouldn’t actually accomplish much. In fact, it would dilute the very intent of Scripture and costliness of the gospel. It certainly wouldn’t accomplish the very thing for which the Bible was written: salvation through Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Tim 3.14-17).
Declaring Scripture a state book does not a moral state make. The Torah was/is Israel’s state book, but it became and remains a mere vestige of national heritage (Is 29.13). A souvenir of history. In fact, the more Israel paraded a Christless Torah around like a mascot the more idolatrous they became (cf. Lk 24.44; Jn 5.46). Neither Israel nor Tennessee need a ceremonial state book. They need a global Savior.
The place of Holy Scripture in Tennessee is not under congressional jurisdiction. The Bible cannot be domesticated. It is no state’s book.
Scripture is the Church’s book. She is its guardian (1 Tim 3.15). As only Thor can wield his hammer so the Church is the only one who rightly wields Scripture. The Bible is not interested in a token civil religion. It is a Living Word (Heb 4.12) declaring salvation through Christ alone (1 Cor 1.18-25). Using God’s holy things for any other purpose is vainly idolatrous, and dangerous (cf. 1 Sam 5.1-5; 2 Sam 6.6-7).
The state is at its finest when protecting the Church’s liberty to roam freely (Rom 13.1-7), not when trying to do the Church’s job. The state is a common grace institution, not a saving grace one.
I’m thankful for men and women who want to keep the Bible relevant and visible in state politics. But God has not ordained the state to protect his word. The Church does not need Tennessee to protect the Bible. Tennessee needs the Church to protect the Bible. Jesus enlists his own volunteers to do that.