I have been alternating between a paper Bible and a digital one for several years. There have been things that I appreciated about digital copies and things that I appreciated about paper copies. However, recently I began to really think through this issue of whether I wanted to use a digital copy or a paper copy. It started as just a small mental exercise that soon developed into a philosophy that I have adopted in my own daily Bible use. It seemed to me that the arguments were strong enough to merit deep consideration. Thus I decided to post it in order to encourage such cogitation and reflection.
1. Easy access/relationship with God
There is something to be said for the ease of access that we have to the Word of God in a digital format. It is wonderful to be able to have the glorious riches of the Word of God just a click away. The convenience of a digital Bible certainly gives it an advantage over a paper Bible as it relates to accessibility. However, I find that this ease of access can actually take away from my devotional time with the Lord. It does this by making God’s Word too accessible. It is a paradox of a digital Bible that it is more accessible than it has ever been and yet I find that my heart has grown more distant to the Word. It turns out that the easy accessibility of a digital Bible makes it easy for me to forget that the heart of Bible reading is relationship. Relationships are not easy and convenient. They are tough and inconvenient. They take work. I would not think of cultivating my relationship with my fiance like I would clicking a link or opening an app. Relationships are not built on ease, nor are they built on the go. They require concentrated effort and a steady commitment. The inconvenience of a paper Bible serves to remind me that Bible reading is about a relationship. Using a paper Bible forces me to stop, prioritize my time, and put effort into the reading of God’s Word. I think this is a great advantage of a paper Bible.
2. Distinction between devotions and cell phone/tablet usage
Closely related to the relationship/ease of access argument above is that digital Bible reading is one more thing that I am doing on my phone or tablet. I use my phone or tablet to make calls, text, write emails, get on social media, store notes, build a grocery list, access YouTube, take pictures, set my alarm, and do mathematical calculations. Then I add to that list Bible reading. What this tends to do in my heart and mind is to blur the lines of distinction between a heart that is devoting itself to God as it reads His Word and my other regular daily cell phone or tablet usage. There is something to be said for the distinction of the use of a paper Bible for all things Bible related. It creates an association in my mind that maintains the distinction between time dedicated to God and time spent on my phone or tablet.
I realize that someone could accuse me of creating a false dichotomy between time dedicated to God and time for other things. They would argue that those things are not opposed to one another but actually complementary. I would fully agree with this line of thinking. However, I am arguing for something along the lines of a “quality time” type of approach. That is why I used the word “distinction” related to the time and means of my devotional time rather than the word “separation.” “Distinction” implies unity or coherence but not separation. Every good craftsman has tools that are devoted to certain projects or purposes. In the same way there is something to be said for having a tool that enables me to stay connected to the world and keep up with other aspects of my life (tablet and/or cell phone) and having a tool that is used specifically for the building up of my walk with God (a paper Bible). Thus I see another advantage to a paper Bible.
3. Distractions/wasted time and wasted mind
Closely related to the first two arguments is the issue of distractions. Doing my Bible reading on my phone, tablet, or laptop exposes me to a world of distractions that I would not have otherwise been exposed to. Because of the numerous applications, constant messages, emails, updates, lags, and phone calls I find that doing Bible reading can be a challenge when using a digital Bible. I have found that I often waste a vast amount of time doing other things on my phone instead of being entirely and completely focused on the Word. I sit down to read the Bible and I get an email or text from someone that I have been waiting to hear from. I am only one click away from checking it and responding. The temptation to distraction is great.
I also realize that distractions are very likely to occur with a paper Bible. Interruptions will happen. The phone may still ring. Someone may stop by my house. However, for me the question is, “Which format of the Bible, paper or digital, is going to provide the least temptation to distraction?” For me, the answer is obvious. I would see this as yet another advantage to a paper Bible.
4. Familiarity (Multiple versions-the struggle is real)
The ability to pull up a verse or a passage in any number of translations within a matter of seconds almost any time or any place is a tremendous advantage. When I stop to think of that degree of accessibility I am truly amazed. However, what I find in my own Bible reading is that this access of the Bible in multiple versions, almost simultaneously, lends itself to a degree of familiarity that may not necessarily result in knowing the actual words of a text. Instead, it can lend itself to a periphrastic understanding of a text. This argument is summed up in the two words that I used in the above statement “familiarity” and “knowing.” The ability to search the internet for a specific verse or story in the Bible creates familiarity and may diminish the need to truly “know” the Word. Having a plethora of Bible versions available almost simultaneously may lead to an inability to actually quote the words of a text thus leading to a periphrastic understanding of the text that may or may not be accurate. Having a stream of Bible verses on a smart phone or tablet even in the same chapter or book means that the verse is naturally separated from the context. Thus more effort must be given to determining the actual context of the verse or passage.
It is clear that these problems are not solved by a paper Bible. The “familiarity” versus “knowing” issue is one that must be faced no matter what format of the Bible one uses. Context, paraphrasing, and the cloudiness of a specific text by virtue of the use of multiple translations will remain issues for us as Christians. However, I think there is something to be said for a paper version in relation to these issues. With a paper Bible there is one translation that you are using for reading, studying, devotions, memorization, and teaching. Other translations may be and should be consulted, but having one translation that is used for all of these things is helpful. This could also be true for a digital version of the Bible and I would argue it should be true for digital versions. With a paper Bible much of the context for the text is right in front of you. This gives you the advantage of being able to see the broader context rather than having to scroll up or down on a screen in what could be a disconnected way with a digital version. Finally, having a paper Bible allows us to be more prepared for those opportunities that God affords us to share His Word with others as we are able to demonstrate a knowledge of the layout of the Bible, the words used, and the context in which the passage is set. This will hopefully lead to an accurate presentation of the Word of God that is full and true rather than a periphrastic understanding. Yet again, I see an advantage to a paper Bible.
One of the things that I heard John Piper discuss in an episode of “Ask Pastor John” was whether or not a digital Bible would do away with the need for memorization. He responded by pointing out the continued need for memorization even in the midst of the digital age. I want to affirm the continued need for memorization while also indicating that memorization itself is difficult for me with a digital version. Part of the way that my mind works while memorizing is through visualization of the words on the page. While I am memorizing the text an image is forming in my mind of where that verse is located on the page and how many lines are associated with the verse. This is clearly lacking with a digital Bible as the words almost always appear in the same way on the screen. Also, there is something intimate about the tactile stimulation of the hand on the page that aids in memorization beyond what is capable of a touch screen phone or tablet. It registers differently in my mind. Finally, there is something to be said about the ability to see the entire context for the passage you are memorizing that is not so with a digital version. This is not to say that memorization cannot be done with a digital copy of the Bible. Rather, I am arguing that there is a sort of mental stimulation that accompanies the use of a paper Bible that aids in memorization in a way that digital copies are unable to duplicate. I recognize that I cannot prove the above statement with any kind of biological appeal. It is a subjective argument based solely on my experience that leads me toward a paper Bible rather than a digital one.
6. The witness of carrying around a paper Bible (Incarnational)
People carry their phones with them everywhere. This is one of the great advantages of a digital copy of the Bible is that is always with us because our phones are always with us. Again, it is an amazing thing to be able to access God’s Word wherever we are. However, carrying a phone or tablet does not communicate the Gospel the way that carrying a paper Bible does. There is an incarnational aspect to walking into a public place with a paper copy of the Bible. People notice. People ask questions. It witnesses to the greatness of our God that His people carry His words openly, read them openly, and when asked about them discuss them openly and honestly. A digital copy of the Bible fails to testify to the grace and glory of God in the way that a paper copy does. Thus we miss the opportunity to show forth the praises of God to this lost world simply by not carrying our paper Bibles with us wherever we go.
I realize that someone would argue that incarnational witnessing can be done in any number of ways beyond carrying a paper Bible and that carrying a paper Bible does not guarantee a good witness. I agree with these two arguments and do not want to advocate a legalistic approach to witnessing. However, I do want to affirm the greater witness of carrying a paper Bible over carrying a phone or tablet. I also want to affirm that these are matters of the heart and not outward conformity. I can testify to the power of the witness of carrying a paper Bible. It created many conversations with many different kinds of people. I can also testify that I have not had those same kinds of experiences when I am reading my Bible on my phone or tablet. Thus the expression of my heart is that of longing to witness to the greatness of the grace of God and of His power to save, and thus I am resolved to use a paper Bible.
7. The ability to give someone a Bible in a very personal, loving way
Building on this incarnational idea associated with the carrying of a paper Bible is the idea of being able to give someone a copy of the Scriptures. Referring someone to an app or to a website lacks the personal loving nature of physically handing someone a paper copy of the Bible. There is no substitute for standing before someone, making eye contact, and placing a Bible into their hands. It is intimate, it is close, it is meaningful, and it is relational. It seems to me that one of the greatest weaknesses of digital copies of the Bible is their impersonal nature. The closest that a digital copy comes to meeting this standard set by a paper Bible is in the ability to text or email someone a verse or passage of Scripture. This is a wonderful expression of love and, as one who has received many such texts and emails, I would say that it can be very encouraging also. Nonetheless, a key element has been missed in such a transaction. Sacrifice as an expression of love is missing. If someone taking a couple of seconds to click a verse and then click “send” is meaningful and encouraging, how much more when someone has to take the time to go to a store, select a Bible, spend their money, and then arrange to met with the person, and place the Bible in their hands. At the end of the day it is clear that a paper Bible is the most personal and loving option for giving someone the Word of God.
8. The ability to leave behind a heritage of faith in a Bible
Continuing to build on the idea of incarnation associated with a paper Bible is this idea of being able to leave behind a heritage of faith. This thought was spawned by listening to John Piper’s thoughts about his fear of the “lack of permanence” related to note-taking and highlighting with a digital copy. (You can listen to his thoughts related to this issue on an episode of “Ask Pastor John” here.) I want to take this thought one step further and say that not only is there a “lack of permanence” related to one’s own growth in God, but there is a lack of the history of God’s working in one’s life for one’s children and grandchildren.This heritage of faith is one of the most precious gifts that we are able to pass down. It is both comforting and reassuring to know that I will be able to leave behind a life of pursuing God in the notes in my Bible and passages underlined or highlighted. Someone will be able to pick up that Bible and see, hear, and read my testimony. It is a way to say to those who come after us that our God is Great and our God is Good. Follow Him. Love Him. Trust Him.
I realize that one possible counter-option to this proposal would be journaling. One could use a digital copy of the Bible and take notes (journal) on a laptop or tablet. I like the idea and have used it myself. However, as I mentioned above, there is definitely something far more personal, intimate, and incarnational in giving someone a physical copy of a Bible where they can encounter the faith of the one who gave them the Bible as they read through it themselves and grow in their own faith. There is just no substitute for the personal and intimate nature of a handwritten document given to someone else for their joy and edification.
9. “The principle of identification”
This last point has to do with corporate solidarity with our brothers and sisters “in Christ” around the world who still do not yet have the Scriptures in the their own language. While we are having this discussion about paper Bibles versus digital Bibles, many people do not even have the Gospel of John in their own language. (For more information check out this video from Wycliffe Bible Translators on the necessity of Bible translation.) With all of the access and availability that we have to the Word of God we have no excuse for not knowing it well. Familiarity will not do. Failing to memorize it will not do. We must take seriously God’s Word and the truth of who He is as revealed in His Word. For me, choosing one paper Bible to read, memorize, teach, and preach from, rather than a digital copy, is a deliberate choice to identify with my brothers and sisters who do not yet have the Bible in their language or who have limited access to the Word. Every time I open my paper Bible I should be thankful and praise God for the gift of His Word and that it is available to me. For all our access to the Word of God I cannot say that I see an equal response of praise to God for His Word in my own heart. The plethora of choices even in regards to paper Bibles has diminished our ability to truly appreciate the wonder of the gift of God’s Word. We take it for granted. Choosing a paper Bible is a way for me to remind myself that there are others who have never heard the Word of God in their own language. There are others who would go to great lengths to have the access to God’s Word that I have. Let us choose to identify with out brothers and sisters around the world who are hungry and thirsty for God’s Word and who long for it to be made available to them. Finally, let us do our part to not only identify with them in their need, but help to meet that need as our hearts are stirred and empowered by the Holy Spirit applying the Word of God to our lives.
The end of the matter for me is that I am choosing to use a paper Bible rather than a digital one in my devotions, for memorization, for preaching and for teaching. I am resolved to identify with my brothers and sisters around the world in a deep love for the Word of God and an insatiable hunger and thirst for it. I am resolved to exhibit a heart of thanks and praise to God for the gift of His Word and to not take it for granted or treat it flippantly. If this post does nothing else, it is my desire that it will at least stir us up to know Jesus, being in relationship with Him, and thinking critically about the means that we choose to do that as it relates to His Word.
I am not advocating a legalistic approach or mindset related to Bible usage. I believe that the decision to use a digital copy or a paper copy is a matter of conscience and I would certainly not say that digital copies of the Bible are less than the Word of God, or that those who choose to use digital Bibles are wrong. I would advocate a position of caution towards them, although I certainly recognize their usefulness and pervasiveness. What is truly important is that one be fully convinced regarding their own decision on this matter with a heart full of faith and love for God as He is revealed in His Word.