Thoughts on the “Authority” of the Bible

There are many people who toss around phrases like “the authority of the Bible” without giving sufficient thought to what they are saying – much as we have seen politicians toss around the language of “God's will” with insufficient prior theological reflection. And so here are a few thoughts on the subject of “Biblical authority” which I hope will generate discussion.

1. The Bible is not inherently authoritative, any more than the Qur'an is, or the Code of Hammurabi, or any other text you might think of. These texts all exist in the world, but until people actually read them and grant them authority through an act of their own wills, the texts are merely there, powerless. The Enuma Elish was presumably once authoritative in some sense for someone – but now most people have never heard of it, and those who have grant it no authority. And so it is, as has always been the case, people who make these texts authoritative, not the other way around – whether one has in mind the status accorded to the contents by the church in assembling the canon, or the acceptance of that decision of the church by later individuals.

2. If you do not make the effort to understand the nuances of the languages in which the Bible was written, and the cultural background assumed by the Bible's authors and readers, then inevitably you will end up not reading the Bible, but instead reading your own concerns and culture into the Bible. There is no way to avoid that without a concerted effort, and even then it is not entirely avoidable. There are things in the Bible that we simply do not know how to translate, and others which, even though we can translate them, remain all but incomprehensible. And so keep in mind that, if you read in translation, you are delegating a certain amount of authority to the translators.

3. A text in human language cannot contain all the wisdom and insights of its human authors, to say nothing of divine wisdom and insight. And so the Bible should never be considered more authoritative than a human mind, should it?

4. Counterbalancing that last point, inasmuch as a collection of human minds is typically wiser than any one individual, any reading of the Bible that flattens its diversity of viewpoints reduces the wisdom embedded in it.

5. If you do not read the Bible, and understand the meaning of its words in their original context within the texts, and of the texts within their historical context, then you cannot say that the Bible is authoritative to you in any meaningful sense at all. But even if you do read the words, then as with any words, it is up to you to use them wisely. The Book of Proverbs warns that proverbs can be misused by fools. The same can be said about the Bible as a whole, and any part of it not limited to the proverbs.

6. The Bible only has as much authority as you grant it, and inevitably, there will be things in it to which you will not be willing to delegate authority. That is OK – more than OK, it is appropriate and normal. We see those who authored later parts of the Bible doing the same with respect to earlier parts of the Bible. Many mistakenly think that they can please God and get themselves off the hook by viewing the Bible as authoritative, deferring to others in an attempt to avoid responsibility and the potential blame that comes with it.

And so the truth is that the Bible has no authority other than what you give it, and since it contains diverse views and statements, there is no way to consistently grant all of it authority. And so it is your responsibility as a reader and interpreter of the Bible to take your own authority seriously and your own responsibility to be a wise and humane interpreter of these texts.

 

  • Susan Burns

    I was not indoctrinated as a child so it is hard to understand what you mean by “authority”. To me, the Enuma Elish, Book of the Dead, Pentateuch, etc. all have equal authority. They are all invaluable anthropological artifacts to be gleaned for clues to our cultural evolution. Why anthropologists do not use biblical texts as a source is hard to understand. It may be that we are still in the generation when most anthropologists were indoctrinated as children and view biblical texts as “authoritative”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-MacDonald/1043189517 Bob MacDonald

    Love the image! I was just wondering before I read your post why it is that Mormons don’t grant authority to the Qu’ran and why I don’t grant authority to the Book of Mormon or to the Qu’ran.

    My thoughts on authority come from close interaction with the text, especially the Psalms. They are Torah in the sense that I find myself taught – and some very difficult lessons – in the dialogue that they represent. Would I have learned these lessons from a close reading of the Qu’ran or the Book of Mormon? I can’t say that I know since I don’t have time to try it. But in both cases I doubt it.

    I think of the Qu’ran as created by a single author – but that is an oversimplification since I know it was rearranged in its order from the order that it was received in by Mohammad. I know there are traditions (Haddith) also – but I do not know them well or much about them.

    I think of the Book of Mormon as a complete hoax, a book created out of nothing, neither poetry nor a long tradition with multiple historical authors (which the TNK-NT is). I find it hard to believe that such a book is trustworthy. A book must have historical grounding to reflect the reality of real people in this real world. I find it difficult to trust those who have been raised in this tradition. (That’s a personal statement.)

    Out of the mouth of two or three witnesses… The Qur’an and the Book of Mormon each fail on this count. They are essentially the works of single individuals. The Qu’ran also has the merit of being historically grounded and poetic.

    As for the Bible – well, one has to be critical. I do not behave as Phineas did. Nor as Moses when he killed the Egyptian, nor as David when he abused his power. What I have come to trust is the work of the Spirit in me, an inner dialogue – with all my misgivings and weaknesses, and with the proddings that show me where I am and what I must turn from. This too comes from my tradition and through my reasoning, but not as if reason lets me be exclusively rational nor as if tradition is to be exclusively accepted.

    God is Spirit – worship is in spirit and in truth. Tough things to define rationally or traditionally.

    • Beau Quilter

      The Qur’an and book of Mormon are only two examples of nonchristian biblical texts. Your assessments of them would not apply well to other ancient scriptures, such as the I Ching taught by Confucius, the Tao Te Ching attributed to Laozi, the Sanskrit epics: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Buddhavacan (the Word of the Buddha), the Granth composed by the Sikh gurus, and many others around the world.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-MacDonald/1043189517 Bob MacDonald

        I love the Tao – thanks for noting it above

        • Beau Quilter

          Your welcome – Laozi was a mainstay of my grad school days.

    • Jason

      I think of the Book of Mormon as a complete hoax, a book created out of
      nothing, neither poetry nor a long tradition with multiple historical
      authors (which the TNK-NT is). I find it hard to believe that such a
      book is trustworthy. A book must have historical grounding to reflect
      the reality of real people in this real world.

      Bob,

      I was struck by your honesty about the Book of Mormon. I have observed the same reaction in my own mind, but I think there may be an underlying assumption here that needs to be assessed (and is probably not correct). The assumption seems to be that if a book is produced by a community at large and reflects their ongoing experience and concerns, it is more likely to have valuable insight. First of all, I’m not sure this is true at all. I find Plato’s dialogues a countless source of inspiration and they were written by one person with a specific agenda. I think “hoax” may simply be what we call someone’s agenda when we don’t agree with it. Second of all, even if it is true that texts produced by communities have more insight, the TNK-NT is not really that simple either. There are plenty of books that were probably either written or seriously edited by individual authors with very specific agendas. How does taking a bunch of individual texts and binding them together in an anthology make them more insightful. What if, for example, a 30 page excerpt were taken out of the Book of Morman and added as an apocryphal appendix to the NT? Relocated, the BOM would become one voice of human experience in a larger anthology. Would that make it less of a hoax?

      Also, what do you mean by “historical grounding” in this statement?

      “A book must have historical grounding to reflect
      the reality of real people in this real world.”

      • Beau Quilter

        Good points. The rewrite of Hebrew history in Josiah’s reign that came to be known as the Deuteronomistic sections of the Old Testament, is an agenda-driven text that could easily be called a hoax in today’s vernacular.

        The clearest example, perhaps, being 2 Kings 13:2, in which it appears that Josiah (or one of his supporters) rewrites history to prophecy his own reign and intent to expand.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-MacDonald/1043189517 Bob MacDonald

        My ‘definition’ of the ‘meaning’ of historical grounding. Whew – I could spend a lifetime on this but it’s not my subject. I also don’t feel the need to consider the historical Joseph Smith. I suspect he is historical – but as for the Angel Moroni in an addendum to the NT – well – I don’t have time.

        That’s why we have a canon – it’s big enough already. Align me with the Sadducees and Karaites – the accumulation of text is too much, the conversation too long – you might as well canonize twitter.

        Now – what’s it about? What’s the meaning? Maybe the truth won’t fit in a soundbite any more than it can be contained in a canon. But there is plenty enough in what we have in the canon and in the traditions to be misled about.

        As to the assumption of revelation by committee – it’s a nice move on your part to identify this assumption. There are plenty of individuals in the authorship of the texts of the canon – and likely a few collectors and redactors and copyists. There is also a tension with the individual often speaking on behalf of the community as a single collective voice – e.g. Psalms 42-43 preparing the plural 44. My point is not committee – but the independent witnesses – the defense rests.

  • rmwilliamsjr

    ken ham uses the idea that young earth creationism is the proper way to give authority to the Bible, thus making the claim that YECism is not a matter of salvation itself but of how seriously you take Scripture. so that it looks like a secondary non-creedal issue, but they really do seem to elevate it to a foremost way to distinguish friend from foe.

  • archaeologist

    You really are a heretic aren’t you

    • Susan Burns

      I also don’t understand the meaning of “heretic”. To me, heretic is what the witches of the inquisition were called so that priests had an excuse to commit sexual sadism.

  • Kaz

    I would say that the Bible’s authority doesn’t emerge because humans wrote it, or because we grant it such, but because God’s holy spirit acts through it. The author of Hebrews seemed to have had a glimpse of this:

    “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged
    sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of
    marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 14:12)

    I love the part where it says “of joints and of marrow”. To modernize this, we might say that God’s word can cut through the many boneheaded ideas that emerge from the hearts of sinful men.

  • Kaz

    I would say that the Bible’s authority doesn’t emerge because humans wrote it, or because we grant it such, but because God’s holy spirit acts through it. The author of Hebrews seemed to have had a glimpse of this:

    “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged
    sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of
    marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 14:12)

    I love the part where it says “of joints and of marrow”. To modernize this, we might say that God’s word can cut through the many boneheaded ideas that emerge from the hearts of sinful men.

  • Kaz

    I would say that the Bible’s authority doesn’t emerge because humans wrote it, or because we grant it such, but because God’s holy spirit acts through it. The author of Hebrews seemed to have had a glimpse of this:

    “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged
    sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of
    marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 14:12)

    I love the part where it says “of joints and of marrow”. To modernize this, we might say that God’s word can cut through the many boneheaded ideas that emerge from the hearts of sinful men.

    • Beau Quilter

      Or, as we learn from the Tao Te Ching:

      True words aren’t eloquent;
      eloquent words aren’t true.
      Wise men don’t need to prove their point;
      men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.

      The Master has no possessions.
      The more he does for others,
      the happier he is.
      The more he gives to others,
      the wealthier he is.

      The Tao nourishes by not forcing.
      By not dominating, the Master leads.

  • David Brodsky

    Just read the book The Rise and Fall of the Bible by Timmothy Beal. Clear and fascinating history of how the Bible came to be and how we might relate to it and interpret it in light of its history. Worth a read if you are more interested in the issue of Bible authority,

  • Jason

    James,

    I agree with all of your comments on the authority of the Bible and you are clearly combating a common fundamentalist tendency. My question is whether or not you still view the Bible as “special” in some way. In other words, as a progressive Christian, you essentially have a humanist perspective on the Bible. For many protestant fundamentalists, the authority of the Bible is THE question on which everything else hangs. Why do you bother with the Bible at all if it is no different from other ancient texts? I went into the humanities in college because I wanted to study the great books of history and literature, but it would have never occurred to me to start a religion or community center in which people live by and study some particular ancient text. Can you appeal to anything but tradition and emotional connection to justify keeping the Bible at the center of the progressive Christian life? Or perhaps it’s not at the center?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I would say that it isn’t at the center. It is rather like the great books – an important cultural heritage which have shaped our tradition to such an extent that, while there is no need to agree with them, reading them and engaging them in conversation remains important.

      • Jason

        If progressive Christianity (and I know that you are not the spokesperson for everyone) is Bible free (in the fundamentalist sense of authoritative text), then is it also doctrine free? Do traditional concepts like conversion even make sense in your Christian worldview? I suppose that I am wondering at what point Christianity ceases to have any relationship to earlier versions of Christianity.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Well, early Christians didn’t have the Bible, and if we consider the impression we get of Jesus’ view on divorce or Paul’s view on circumcision, we see them willing to depart from clear teachings of those writings that were viewed as Scripture in their time. So it does not seem clear to me that progressive or liberal Christianity has ceased to have a relationship to earlier versions of Christianity. It doesn’t look like fundamentalism when it comes to its approach to the Bible. But neither does a significant part of early Christianity! :-)

  • Bill S

    “I would say that the Bible’s authority doesn’t emerge because humans wrote it, or because we grant it such, but because God’s holy spirit acts through it.”
    Sorry, I don’t buy it. The Bible is just a collection of old myths. There is no special wisdom in antiquity. If there is any at all, it would be in the philosophy of the Greeks the continuation of which Justinian put an end to in order to protect Christianity from pagan ideas.

  • David Lee

    If you have read this far and are in need of encouragement after reading the claims in the article above (which can be explained by 1 Cor 2:14), the panel discussion in this video will be helpful to you: http://vimeo.com/41783506#


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