Three different conceptions of Biblical authority

Three different conceptions of Biblical authority January 13, 2014

Thanks very much for your responses to my last post on Biblical inerrancy. Though some were a bit snarky, they were actually quite helpful to my sermon preparation process, which was my goal with the post. What has emerged out of that wrestling is that there seem to be three ways of understanding Biblical authority, which basically amount to three interpretations of the most cited proof-text for Biblical authority: 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.”

1) Everything in the Bible is literal, historical, and biological unless clearly presented as otherwise.

This view of Biblical authority could be called “literalism,” which is often conflated with “inerrancy.” For a Biblical literalist, if the Bible says the entire world was covered with water in the story of Noah’s Ark, that means that the oceans rose 29,000+ feet to cover Mount Everest. If the Bible says that Adam and Eve were kicked out of a garden whose entrance is guarded by an angel with a sword, then there is still a physical location on Earth where the Garden of Eden historically was located that may or may not still be guarded by an angel with a sword (16th century conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon thought it was in Florida). The “literalist” position is perhaps best represented by Young Earth Creationists like Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis. For a Biblical literalist, the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 that I dealt with in my last post is entirely literal. That is, all of humanity not only had one language but lived in a single location in the plain of Shinar (rather than being nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes who had to migrate constantly for survival).

2) The human author’s intended meaning of every Biblical passage is always correct.

This seems to be the most definitive way to capture the Biblical “inerrantist” position. Portions of the Bible can be metaphorical or allegorical. There are multiple genres at work in the Bible. But the author’s intended meaning is without error. This is the position I was critiquing in my last post, though I probably wasn’t precise enough in the claim I was making. It doesn’t matter whether the Tower of Babel story is considered to be historical or not. What God says in the story makes God look bad in a way that most inerrantists would not want God to look: “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7).

A consistent inerrantist has to concede that the God of this quote does not have any morally punitive reason for confusing the languages of humanity. He says rather, “Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” So God is pitting Himself against human progress for being human progress because He considers progress itself to be a threat. The God represented by this quote is a God that the atheists would love to pin on Christianity, a God who wants humanity to remain illiterate, prescientific, and governed by superstition. An inerrantist can certainly weigh this quote in balance with all the other representations of God in the Bible and say that God is not only against human progress but He’s also holy, loving, all-powerful, etc. But to be an inerrantist means that you cannot consider any Biblically attributed act or speech of God to be less accurate than any other because all are equally inerrant, faithful representations of God. There cannot be a range of accuracy without the concession of error. Maybe I’m wrong. If so, offer a more precise definition of inerrancy.

3) The Holy Spirit has a teaching purpose for everything in the Bible even if it goes against the human author’s intended meaning.

This third option is the view of Biblical authority to which I hold, because I take 2 Timothy 3:16 at face value and add nothing to it. If “all scripture is God-breathed,” that means no more and no less than to say that the Holy Spirit is the editor-in-chief who has reigned over the compilation process from start to finish. It doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit told Moses to sit on a rock and start taking dictations. It simply means that whatever combination of historical events, myths, and legends the Bible is derived from, the Holy Spirit had a reason to keep what has been kept, which based on 2 Timothy 3:16 has something to do with “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.”

Where I am going to part ways with the inerrantists is that I believe the Israelites may have grown over time in their ability to represent God faithfully, with the culmination of this growth being the unity of the God of Israel and the Israel of God in Jesus Christ. Another way of saying this is God prepared His people over hundreds of years for the coming of their messiah, and the Old Testament documents God’s refinement of their understanding of what He really wants from them. While I have used the Tower of Babel story for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness,” I do not think that the words attributed to God in the Tower of Babel story are an inerrant representation of God’s character. Likewise, I suspect that some of the violent events in the Old Testament attributed to God are less accurate representations of God’s character than the witness of Jesus in the New Testament.

John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” No one has ever seen God? Really? Uh… what about Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc? This verse’s claim is pretty huge. Yes, I know you can sidestep and dismiss it by saying, well it just means nobody has ever seen the “face” of God or something like that. But for Jesus to be a uniquely faithful revelation of the Father’s heart, the other verses in the Bible cannot be equally reliable means of making God known. So John 1:18 is really the verse that torpedoes Biblical inerrancy.

Too many evangelicals think that we learn about the Father from the Old Testament and the Son from the New Testament. No! Jesus is the One who makes the Father known, though the Old Testament has plenty to teach us or the Holy Spirit wouldn’t have kept it. But the gospel accounts of Jesus should govern our assessment of God’s character in the Old Testament. If the claim of John 1:18 is legitimate, then seeing what makes Jesus smile and what makes Jesus angry clarifies and even corrects what God is presumed to care about in the Old Testament. It should be no surprise that to me, the most important clarification and correction Jesus makes is when He says, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”

Browse Our Archives