A friend told me he doesn’t mark up his Bible or underline verses because that would imply that some verses are more important than others, which doesn’t fit with the reality that the same God has given us all of Scripture. God is the source of every word. So every word is of equal importance. So if we underline, that will undermine the divine origin. The sincerity in his reasoning was evident and easy to appreciate. But I’m not ready to put up my underlining pen just yet, for at least two reasons.
First, some passages are more important than others. In Matthew 23, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites and condemns them for being attentive to tithing spices yet neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” He then tells them they ought to have observed the weightier commands without neglecting the others. The laws that led them to tithe spices had significance—Jesus affirms this. But justice, mercy and faithfulness are more important. And by extension, we could appropriately say that the passages that command these weightier matters are also more important. Micah 6:8 is more important than Leviticus 27:30.
Passages that address the orientation of the heart transcend prescriptions for external conformity. Both are important, but one is more so.
Additionally, when Jesus is asked “Which is the great[est] commandment in the law?” he replies without equivocation, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great[est] and first [most important] commandment” (Matthew 22:34-40). Whether you translate those words as superlatives or not, the point Jesus makes is clear. There is one command that rises above the others in importance, because it summarizes the whole. In this instance, the surpassing importance of the command to love God with our whole being lies in the fact that it encases the rest of the law. It has summarizing power.
Passages that have “summarizing power” have a unique sense of importance.
Paul also sees gradation of significance within revelation. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1Cor 15:3-5). Within his teaching some elements of the message were more important than others.
Is it appropriate describe some things that God has said as “more (or less) important” than other things God has said? I think it is.
Second, underlining is a tool to help us see how it all fits together. If you were to open my Bible to Hebrews, you’d see “hope” and “hold fast” underlined numerous times throughout the book. Turning over to 1 Peter, you’d see every occurrence of “conduct” [behavior] and “do good” circled. What’s the purpose for that? It helps me visualize certain themes within those letters. Marking up our Bibles is an aid to understanding and memory. Thus as Mortimer Adler has said, “marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love.”
So even if you still can’t bring yourself to affirm that some passages are more important than others, you can still underline verses with an easy conscience, knowing that your markings are only an aid to you and not an offense to the text.