Thursday, June 21, 2012

How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?

Hello my dear reader.

It is Thursday and I hope that you are having a decent week so far and that your weekend will be at least decent if not excellent. :) Since I have been quite busy I apologized for not posting something this week. However, I would still like to share something with you by N.T. Wright: How Can The Bible Be Authoritative? N.T. Wright is one of the conservative bible scholars and theologians that I read because: 1) His work is solid. 2) Even when I disagree with him he pushes me to think about my own ideas regarding theology, scripture, etc. 3) He has great working relationships (and friendships) with liberal bible scholars and theologians and he respects their work instead of simply disregarding their ideas as "heretical" and/or "unbiblical". 

Evangelical Views

Most heirs of the Reformation, not least evangelicals, take if for granted that we are to give scripture the primary place and that everything else has to be lined up in relation to scripture.  There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition.  We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’.  This is rather like the frequent Anglican assumption (being an Anglican myself I rather cherish this) that Anglicans have no doctrine peculiar to themselves: it is merely that if something is true the Church of England believes it.  This, though not itself a refutation of the claim not to have any ‘tradition’, is for the moment sufficient indication of the inherent unlikeliness of the claim’s truth, and I am confident that most people, facing the question explicitly, will not wish that the claim be pressed.  But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give me some cause for concern.  First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort.  This is simply na├»ve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous.  It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying.  And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology.  If we are not careful, the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.’
Biblical Authority: the Problem

When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations.  They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation.  ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these.  This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible.  Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church?  Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?

As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’.  Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed.  Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed.  And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question.  One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible.  For the most part the Bible itself is much more concerned with doing a whole range of other things rather than talking about itself.  There are, of course, key passages, especially at transition moments like 2 Timothy or 2 Peter, where the writers are concerned that the church of the next generation should be properly founded and based.  At precisely such points we find statements emerging about the place of scripture within the life of the church.  But such a doctrine usually has to be inferred.  It may well be possible to infer it, but it is not (for instance) what Isaiah or Paul are talking about.  Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels.  He isn’t constantly saying, ‘What about scripture? What about scripture?’  It is there sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it.  And the attempt by many evangelicals to argue a general doctrine of scripture out of the use made of the Old Testament in the New is doomed to failure, despite its many strong points, precisely because the relation between the Old and New Testaments is not the same as the relation between the New Testament and ourselves. If we look in scripture to find out where in practice authority is held to lie, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antitheses at all.  As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.

The question of biblical authority, of how there can be such a thing as an authoritative Bible, is not, then, as simple as it might look.  In order to raise it at all, we have to appreciate that it is a sub-question of some much more general questions.  (1) How can any text function as authoritative?  Once one gets away from the idea of a rule book such as might function as authoritative in, say, a golf club, this question gets progressively harder.  (2) How can any ancient text function as authoritative?  If you were a Jew, wanting to obey the Torah (or, perhaps, obey the Talmud) you would find that there were all sorts of difficult questions about how a text, written so many years ago, can function as authoritative today.  Actually, it is easier with the Talmud than with the Bible because the Talmud is designed very specifically to be a rule book for human beings engaged in life in a particular sort of community.  But much of what we call the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—is not a rule book; it is narrative.  That raises a further question:  (3) How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative?  How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative?  It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you.  But what would you do if, instead, he began ‘Once upon a time . . .’?

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