Scripture and Authority: Four Propositions

What is the Bible?

A very common observation is that you answer that question by what you look for. That is, a historian, using the methods of historians, limited to what historians can say and do, will say it is a collection of documents to be read and interpreted as one would read and interpret any historical document. But the Bible, so say John Walton and Brent Sandy in The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority, makes claims that transcend a purely artefact theory of the Bible. The Bible claims to be the Speech of God.

So, their argument is that at the core the Bible has an oral nature. (I sketched this view in The Blue Parakeet.) That is, God speaks and people listen — that’s what happens to oral communication. (I would also contend more emphasis in their book could be given to God as Person speaking as Person to persons.)

Their book uses speech-act theory (via Kevin Vanhoozer?) through the lens of orality culture to reconceptualize the doctrine of Scripture (and inerrancy). The book is safe for conservative evangelicals but it does open some adventurous doors on the limitations of inerrancy.

So they conclude their book with four affirmations:

1. Affirmations about the origin of Scripture confirm its fundamental oral nature, and here they focus on Hebrews 1 and 2 Peter 1:16-21, and they contend by “prophecy” Peter is not referring to written but to oral prophecies.

2Pet. 1:16   For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.  17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

2Pet. 1:19   So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.  20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,  21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (NRSV).

Do you take “prophecy” in 1:19-21 to be written or oral (only)? They see the written as the Voice of God as well. Thus, Scripture is God-speech. “Divine illocution passes through human locution” (262).

2. Affirmations about the authority of Scripture assert its divine source and illocution. Here they focus on 2 Timothy 3.

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,  15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work (NRSV).

They focus on the meaning of “inspired” or “God-breathed.” Left brain sees here the logic of authority. It is the breath of heaven. Here, and once again this was my focus in Blue Parakeet, is the intent: the power of God to transform. Thus, the source is God, it communicates God’s message, and it transforms with Spirit-driven power.

3. Inerrancy has essential roles and limitations, and they are not effusive in praise of this term. It is a term largely used to affirm what is denied in historiographical conclusions. They say it “may no longer be clear enough, strong enough or nuanced enough” (275). Inspiration is about source, authority about claim, inerrancy about meaning. Thus, without illocution, this term loses its value. They point out the errors of inerrantists, and explore to what inerrancy applies (it does not apply as typically said to original autographs when some texts did not come to us in a single autograph or to our doctrinal formulae or interpretations).

4. Belief in authority not only involves what the Bible is but also what we do with it. We need to be competent with respect to locutions, ethical with respect to illocutions, and virtuous with respect to perlocutions.

They find agreement with the problem Christian Smith discussed in his The Bible Made Impossible.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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