As regular readers will know, lately I’ve been on a bit of a posting spree on the subject of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, the supremacy of Jesus over the Bible, and the question of biblical authority. (See my last post, which contains links to other recent related posts, here.)
If I’ve been on such a spree, this is in large part because these are questions I’ve been thinking and reading about a lot in recent times. But it’s also because they seem to be questions that many Christians are thinking about and wondering how to answer. I hope these posts might in some small way have helped some readers begin to find a different and, dare I say, better way to approach the Bible.
So today, I thought I’d try to tie up a few loose ends and offer some concluding thoughts on the subject… for now (I’d say the odds are reasonably high that I’ll be back on the topic before very long).
In my last post, I proposed that the Bible categorically should not be seen as our ultimate authority. I argued that when we claim the authority of the Bible for an opinion or position, what we are often doing is merely using the Bible to give ourselves authority. And, much more importantly, I pointed out that the Bible cannot be our guiding authority since all authority has already been given to Jesus. This means, in fact, that the Bible has no authority of its own; it can only be considered authoritative insofar as it faithfully witnesses to Jesus.
There is, of course, a question that naturally flows out of this argument: if the Bible is not our authority, how then can we trust anything it says?
Well, first of all, note what I did not say. Nowhere did I say that the Bible has no authority: I said it has no authority of its own. Whatever authority it has only derives from the fact that it is a signpost to Jesus.
Second, to say that the Bible is not our ultimate authority is categorically not to say that the Bible is utterly unreliable. That should sound obvious, but if I’m going to the trouble to say it, that’s because it’s what many Christians seem to think. How often, when you tell someone you don’t consider the Bible your ultimate authority, do they ask “So how can we trust it at all, then?” This, to me, is really quite childish logic, nothing more. The Bible is not an all or nothing proposition. It is a staggering collection of literature written over 1,500 years and spanning four millennia and many literary genres. It must be read, above all, with discernment.
I think the bottom line is this: we cannot and should not simply take the Bible as read. This is what fundamentalists do: they read the words, they assume they have the correct understanding, and they make their understanding into commandments. The belief that the Bible is simple, “the Bible clearly says…”, and so forth, has in my opinion done an incredible amount of damage in modern evangelicalism.
Here’s what I think we need to do: come to the Bible humbly, asking the Holy Spirit to guide and enlighten us, and also – and this is crucial – come to it as part of a community. This could be a local ecclesial community within which we seek to understand and apply the message of scripture together. But importantly, it could also be the community of theologians, scholars, mystics, churchmen, and so on down the ages who have done so much to wrestle with scripture. Evangelicalism largely throws all of this out the window. My belief is that if we come to scripture as part of this kind of ongoing community, and with humility, we position ourselves to allow the Holy Spirit to use the Bible as an effective means to lead us closer to Jesus.
In conclusion, let me share three more thoughts, in no particular order:
– Insofar as we want to see the Bible as authoritative, I think we should make its authority a matter of our own personal submission and not a matter of doctrinal correctness. If we make it primarily a matter of doctrinal correctness, very often we will end up simply feeling smug in our own perceived rightness, trying to manipulate others into submitting to our rightness, and defining salvation purely as “right belief” (attained by believing the same way we do).
– I think we should seek to approach the Bible mainly at a macro rather than a micro level. What this means is that we should be more interested in and guided by the big story, the overarching metanarrative that the Bible describes, than in the minutiae. Former Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright puts it this way: “Read the Bible like drinking beer, not sipping wine.” When we only read the Bible at the micro level, we are in danger of once again become obsessed by how correctly we understand its every jot and tittle. When we step back and read it at the macro level, we are more likely to be preoccupied with questions like, “Where do I fit into this story?” and “Given what the Bible tells us about the story of God up the time of Christ, what is God doing in the world today, and what is he wanting me to do?”
– Jesus said that following him was all about love: specifically, loving God and loving others. The Apostle Paul pointed out that without love, all wisdom and knowledge, however impressive, is worthless. I would therefore suggest that whatever method or approach we use to interpret the Bible, we should be asking ourselves this question: “Does my understanding of scripture make me more loving?” If your answer to that question is “No”, you’re doing it wrong.
[ Image: GeoWombats ]