I’ve recently blogged quite a bit on the twin subjects of biblical inspiration and inerrancy (examples are here, here, here and here). One of my Facebook friends has been asking me to follow this up with a post on authority. Denis, this one’s for you.
Before I go on, for anyone who has landed cold on this post without reading anything I’ve previously written about inspiration or inerrancy, let me sum up my position. I don’t believe the Bible is inerrant (which means “without error”); in fact, I don’t believe that’s a credible view at all. I do believe the Bible is inspired, in the sense that the Holy Spirit moved men to try to capture on paper their views of God and his relations with humankind. This means that the Bible contains a mix of voices, some of which assign characteristics and actions to God which, in reality, had nothing to do with him, and others that portray God more accurately. The ultimate and perfect portrayal of God is found in Jesus Christ.
Got it? Okay, let’s talk about authority.
Why is the subject of authority important to a discussion about scripture? The answer, perhaps, is obvious, but I’d suggest it bears thinking about nonetheless.
Authority, I would suggest, is essentially about who gets to make decisions. So, for example, in an organised society, different people and groups have differing opinions on a whole range of matters. Rather than tear ourselves apart arguing and fighting over these matters, we elect a government and vest it with the authority to make decisions, and to enforce those decisions. Authority, in this context, is shorthand for the ultimate arbiter of what is permitted and acceptable and what isn’t.
Now, it seems to me that many Christians want the Bible to function as the kind of authority described in the previous paragraph. They want it to act as the final arbiter in all potential disputes about life and faith. They believe their life and everyone else’s should be regulated by what the Bible says. This is a problem, first because there are many, many situations to which the Bible does not specifically speak. But the second and far bigger reason it’s a problem is that even where the Bible does have something relevant to say, it first has to be interpreted. Two people, each claiming to be guided by the Holy Spirit, can read even the simplest of biblical texts and come away with two different conclusions. (I wrote about this here.) Thus, whenever an appeal is made to the “authority” of the Bible to settle a dispute (whether doctrinal, ecclesiological, or whatever), the real question is whose interpretation of the Bible is going to be considered authoritative.
This line of thinking has led me to quite a striking conclusion: that in fact, those who appeal to the authority of the Bible are often, if not always, appealing to their own authority. Essentially, what they’re doing is using the Bible to validate their own opinion and make it authoritative.
Isn’t this rather a bold claim? Actually, I think it’s quite simple. If you appeal to the authority of the Bible based upon your own interpretation of it, what you’re really doing is deciding that of all the available interpretations, yours is the correct one. And if you appeal to the authority of the Bible based upon someone else’s interpretation of it (such as your pastor’s or your favourite teacher’s or author’s), what you’re really doing is deciding that of all the available interpretations, theirs is the correct one. Which, since you’ve decided you agree with them, means yours is now the correct interpretation. Either way, the bottom line is that you have the authoritative interpretation.
There is usually one more step, of course, in the process of appealing to the authority of scripture. Once we’ve decided what we believe is the correct interpretation of scripture, we tend to then hold it up and claim that others should also be subject to it. That’s mostly how authority works: it creates shoulds and musts that we want to apply not just to ourselves but to everyone else as well.
So far, then, I could sum up the major problem with appeals to the authority of scripture in two parts: first, to claim scripture as authoritative is, in reality, simply to claim our own authority; and second, appeals to the authority of scripture are often at the origin of attempts to control what others do, say or even think.
But there’s a third and much more important reason why, for me, the Bible is not our ultimate authority. Quite simply, the Bible cannot be our authority because all authority has already been given to someone else, namely Jesus Christ. In Matthew 28:18, Jesus announces to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”. And in Philippians 2:10, we read that God has highly exalted Jesus and given him the name that is above every name. That sounds like ultimate authority to me.
And so I conclude that the Bible has zero – ZERO – authority of its own. The Bible is only authoritative insofar as it points to the One in whom all authority in heaven and on earth is vested. In that sense, it is a signpost towards the true locus of authority.
This is why any attempt to make the Bible our ultimate authority is deeply problematic: Jesus is our authority, which means that to put anything else, including the Bible, in the place of authority is to commit idolatry. It’s also why I tend to break out in hives whenever I hear Christians express concern that the “textual foundation” of our faith is being eroded. Friend, if your faith has a textual foundation, that foundation needs to be eroded, and the sooner the better.
It’s my belief that the elevation of the Bible to the status of ultimate authority and arbiter is at the heart of all forms of Christian fundamentalism, and all of the ugliness and abuse that flow out of them.
Jesus tells us not to seek to wield authority over one another, and I don’t see why this instruction shouldn’t apply to how we use the Bible as much as it applies to any other area of life. So here’s my suggestion: if you believe something the Bible says is authoritative, go ahead and prayerfully submit yourself to it. Or better yet, submit yourself to Jesus and ask him to help you hear and apply what he might be saying to you through the pages of scripture.
But don’t go beating others over the head with the Bible and insisting that they should also submit to your interpretation of it. That, to my mind, is an abuse of authority.
(Note: whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. But please don’t assume from this one post that I consider the Bible unimportant, because I don’t. Quite the contrary. I also realise that this post leaves many related questions unanswered. That’s the nature of a thousand-word blog post.)
[ Image: macwagen ]