The Bible’s Authority: Thoughts

The Bible’s Authority: Thoughts December 16, 2013

There are people who listen to a Shakespeare play about ancient Rome and think the man was an authority on Roman politics and history; there are those who read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and think the man had special insight on what heaven would be like; and there are those who read the Bible and think it is talking about their pet peeve — or special concern, like science or business or leadership.

Where is the Bible authoritative? Or over what is the Bible authoritative? How do we know?

In my own experience with this word “authority” I have found that the term is often claimed too late in the game and has become a hammer term instead of a good, solid word about how the believer is related to God’s Word. The fundamental word in the Bible of our relationship to God’s Word is not “submit” (which follows in deductive logic for many from God, revelation, inspiration/Word, inerrancy, authority, submission) but “listen” (which can mean something like submit). The fundamental set of categories is about God as person, God as speaking, God creating a people who have learned to listen, and our listening to God. Authority, in other words, if contained in “God’s speech” or our “listening” is fine; if turned into a logical order, I fear it misses vital elements of the Bible’s depiction of how God’s people relate to the God who speaks in the Word.

In their new and useful textbook-ish book, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority, John Walton and Brent Sandy turn to this whole issue of authority. They limit their discussion to four major propositions, each of which could be a landmine for some:

First, the authority of the Old Testament narrative literature is more connected to to revelation than to history. They are concerned with “historiography” and “mythography” and the author’s intent. The author may be truth-telling, but the author chooses which truth to tell. Hence, mythography has a different referent but is no less real. There is then the important element of illocution– what the author is doing with the events the author is using. Outcomes matter more to the ancients than events. OK, I say to myself, John, talk about Jonah or something that is often purported to be mythological. Let’s see how authority works out — and I think he’d say it has to do with the illocution, whether we can prove events or not. Listen to this one:

Once an event is reduced to narration, there is no longer an event, but only a text (210).

Put differently, authority resides in the illocution. The events, at times, are bound up in the illocution so that without the event the illocution loses its value. Yes. The aim is to listen well to the illocution, which (to repeat) has an implied event wrapped in it. [I’m hearing lots of Hans Frei in this proposition.]

Obsessions with historicity — for and against — violate the illocutionary focus of the text.

Second, the authority of OT legal literature is more connected to revelation than to law. Once again, the appeal is to illocution in context. The authority is in revelation of God’s character and holiness.  But the legal sayings reveal what holiness for us looks like — but are we now back to their being legal statements? Something I want to think about.

Third, the authority of OT prophetic literature is more connected to revelation than to future-telling. Fulfillment language is illocutionary, even a new illocution from the original prophecy. On authorship questions, Walton is open but wants to avoid that issue — though he sometimes contrasts skepticism with faith. He enters into inerrancy discussions at times, arguing that inerrancy often has nothing to do with these authorship debates.

Fourth, the genres of the NT are more connected to orality than to textuality. He enters orality and Paul’s letters by way of co-authorship of Paul’s letters, and sees them as expressing that ongoing conversation. He sees a similar oral culture at work in the Gospels, which are the ongoing oral deposit. This memory culture and the Gospels is an interesting set of ideas, but two questions arise: Are they written (and what difference does that make)? and Did Matthew, for instance, use a literary deposit called Mark? That changes the whole discussion from orality vs. textuality to orality and textuality.

On their own, these propositions don’t get us far but they do point us to important discussions. They sure do point us toward the idea of revelation.

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