On Burning Religious Books

September 11th is four days away, and it will mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11. As a large portion of the world mourns, one church in Florida plans to celebrate with “Burn a Qur’an” day. How many copies of the Qur’an it will take to make a newsworthy flame I’m not sure, but I am sure the media will be there when the pile is lit.

The top US military commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, says this anti-Muslim act will only vex America’s enemies in the Middle East and give Islamic radicals more clout in the eyes of the moderate Islamic world. The Florida church now says it will be “praying about” whether to continue with the burning ceremony. Whether the event will actually happen is yet to be seen, but my guess is that Islamic moderates around the world have learned to distinguish religious devotion from the meretricious display of zealots.

The Bible, as far as I can tell, mentions one account where religious texts are thrown to the flames (Acts 19:11-20). On the heels of the great work of God in Ephesus, the people had come to fear God and to trust in the Savior. As a result, “a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver” (v. 19). In modern terms they ignited a bonfire using very expensive magic books.

What were these books? According to Eckhard Schnabel, they were occultist documents that described how to make amulets to protect against demons and how to make love charms (Early Christian Mission, 1221). The books gave directions for casting spells on others, either for good or ill, and they would have been quite expensive, which highlights the effect of the gospel upon the wealthy inhabitants of Ephesus. That Paul went toe-to-toe with the owners of documents, which later led to a book burning, tells me they qualify as religious texts, and probubly comprised the pop religion of the day.

From this account here are six points to ponder:

1. The Ephesian people burned their own books. These new believers renounced their past. This was not an act of Christians barging into homes to ransack libraries for kindling, or weeding out the public library, or buying up all available copies from the local bookshop. They gathered the valuable books from their own houses.

2. No Christian leader encouraged the book burning. At least the text doesn’t say it. Or would have been better for the books to be sold and the money given to the Apostolic ministry? Perish the thought. There there is no indication that Paul advised the people to burn (or sell) their occultist books.

3. The books posed no threat to the gospel. The gospel overcame the magic power of the books. The gospel is like a hurricane and nothing will stop its wind, certainly not a book of demonic spells.

4. God’s display of power convinced the people that their books were worthless. There was no need to address the value of the magic books directly. Once God’s power and his gospel were seen in the city, the matter was settled.

5. The book burning was a display of godly sorrow. The recently converted Christians wanted to confess their sin before “all.” The high value of the books (50,000 days wages worth!) made a strong statement. It was an act of personal sorrow for their own sin.

6. The burning illustrated the victory of the gospel. The magic books were burned because the gospel was spreading like wildfire: “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (v. 20).

These six points should make us very hesitant about burning other people’s religious books.

May God give the Church open doors to preach the gospel, and may he bless his Word with self-authenticating gospel fruit. If we take our eyes off the priority of the gospel, we will be tempted to settle for the sparks of a small bonfire in a church parking lot, a miniature replica of what happened in Ephesus. The true gospel spreads like a wildfire, if we are faithful to lovingly and boldly proclaim it.

35 thoughts on “On Burning Religious Books

  1. Good points Tony, although I must take issue with your remark that “it would have been better for the books to be sold and the money given to the Apostolic ministry”. Would you give the same counsel to a new convert wondering what to do with his porn collection?

  2. I’m here making a rhetorical point that distances the Apostle from the decision on what to do with the books. It’s something of a historical point of discussion on this text. Of course it was best that they were destroyed.

  3. Well, being hesitant is to put it mildly. In my humble opinion, all true christians, should be outraged and call it what it is :a repulsive,vengeful act that is totally un- christian.Jesus Christ told us to pray for our enemies and
    those who persecute us. And one wonder which reference book
    or scripture these kind of christians use. Many bad things had been done in the names of Christ and Christians, just like many bad things’re being done in the names of Mohammed
    and Islam. So,if we start doing what Muslems do that put us at odds with them and if we start humiliating and provoking
    them by sheer quarrels picking,who then is better than the other? In this day and age when’run-away liberalism’ is taking over the world, I think that all people of faith and
    especially the three monotheist religions, Judeaism,
    Christianity and Islam, should work together to preserve and maintain their respective religion and leave the issue of whos good or redeemed to the devine merciful justice. I know on one hand that Islam has a long way to go in terms of
    acknowledging,tolerating and respecting other religious faiths.On the other hand, i think that genuine and lasting reforms in Islam will be achieved from within. And we don’t reach that point by constantly pocking their eyes just to
    ‘righteously’ cry you see!!!! Let us all go back to the law
    of the prophets : Do onto others what you would have them do
    onto you.

  4. Thank you for this, Tony. My unbelieving bil lives about 100 feet from this church. He commented that he is the only one in the neighborhood prepared to stay over the weekend. The only way in or out of his neighborhood is past this church, and it has been grievous to us over the years to read the hateful messages on their marquee, knowing that my bil sees every one and thinks his nice Muslim and B’hai friends have a better understanding of how to reach God than Christians. To use my bil’s quote (which I believe he took from George Harrison), “It’s not the journey, it’s the destination.” These current events have opened up the door for us to resume a dialogue with him, reminding him that, with no disrespect to George Harrison, the journey is important and the only Way is through the Cross, but as of last night, he remained resistent. Prayers for the lost souls in that community are greatly appreciated. Again, thank you. I will be sharing these points with my bil.

  5. Thanks for the list. I left a similarly thought comment on the ‘Dove World Outreach’ blog where they prooftext this passage as their justification.

    Cannot say it makes sense to burn religious books to draw attention to the problem that is the ‘Koran’ and it’s proponents.

    This act is an admission that there is no power in ‘their’ gospel.

  6. Thank you for your post. I was reading the Voice of the Martyrs newsletter about the seizure and burning of people’s Bible. I cannot believe someone calling on the Name of Christ is doing this. The burdenit will place on our brothers and sisters in Muslim countries is unfathomable.

  7. Agree 100%. This pastor and the congregation in favor of burning Koran books is a clear tool of satan.
    None of tru followers of Jesus teaching will ever do that. Spreading hatred,annimosity and igniting unbelievers to loath , to resent anything which really comes from real God.
    That church is not a christian one…

  8. He did follow immediately with, “perish the thought.” I think he too agrees it’s not appropriate. That’s not a rebuke, just a defense that I don’t think the other said what was taken and might be worth a re-read.

  9. We live in a Muslim country where my husband pastors an evangelical church. I think your article will be exceedingly helpful to us as we dialogue with our neighbors who are deeply offended by the notion of their book being burned. Thank you!

  10. Good post, Tony. I don’t see how this Koran burning furthers the cause of Christ. It’s rather unhelpful and seems to blur the lines between the gospel and American politics on some levels.

  11. [...] I need to get this out of the way right off the bat.  I think this whole business about burning Qurans is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard .  This is a classic example of confusing politics with religion in the worst way.  The gospel is not served, nor advanced in any way through the stunt that Pastor Terry Jones is planning on pulling this coming Saturday.  Incidentally, Tony Reinke has some excellent thoughts on what the Bible has to say about burning religious books on his blog. [...]

  12. [...] On Burning Religious Books (via Miscellanies.) September 9, 2010 Travis Leave a comment Go to comments Great post by Tony Reinke on the current conflagration planned by the Dove World Outreach Center. (Which, after reading this and hearing about their unChristlike plans for September 11, I find to be a creepy bunch.) His response to the lunacy of the DWOC is wonderful, not because I agree with it, but because it is Biblically based and argued. September 11th is four days away, and it will mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11. As a large portion of the world mourns, one church in Florida plans to celebrate with “Burn a Qur’an” day. How many copies of the Qur’an it will take to make a newsworthy flame I’m not sure, but I am sure the media will be there when the pile is lit. The top US military commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, says this anti-Muslim act will only vex America’s ene … Read More [...]

  13. “Most Muslims treat paper copies of the Qur’an with veneration, ritually washing before reading the Qur’an. Worn out, torn, or errant (for example, pages out of order) Qur’ans are not discarded as wastepaper, but rather are left free to flow in a river, kept somewhere safe, BURNED, or buried in a remote location.” emphasis added … quote taken from Wikipdia and uncontested as of today … reference: Kugle (2006), p.47; Esposito (2000a), p.275
    http://www.dianedew.com/islam.htm – referecne for comparison the section on Murder, Violence, War & Oppression. How are people so confused about the differences and intentions?

  14. Alas, I was late in coming to this post, but I had a similar conversation with a friend that same week and made some of the same points you did. I wrote a post on my own blog that focused more on a true gospel missionary, the reformed Baptist William Carey, who did not burn the religious books of the Indian people he sought to convert, but actually translated them from the Sanskrit into their own tongues so they could read them for themselves. This was a minister who truly believed in the power of the gospel! Here’s the link if anyone is interested:

    http://simplemann.net/?p=1362

    Blessings!
    Simple Mann

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