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What is the Bible’s Authority?

August 22, 2016

Fights over biblical authority have been raging for well over a century. The fight has been fueled by fear–fear that science, religious pluralism, and relativism are eroding the authority of the Bible. In my opinion, most of the fighting has produced more heat than light. I begin with the premise that fear is blinding and counter-productive. The authority of the Bible is not something we can prove or even defend; the Bible simply is what it is, and it does what it does. In my experience (and the experience of millions of others), the Bible gives guidance and healing and connects us to God. That’s its authority.

To better understand the authority of the Bible, let’s look at two brief statements in the New Testament that reflect on the nature of sacred scripture:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

For the early Christians, scripture (the Old Testament, and later the New Testament) was not simply the result of human thinking and imagination. The books that the community of faith set aside as being holy scripture were more than human-centered; they were also fundamentally God-centered. They transcended human self-interest and self-centeredness; they were spiritual–the result of God’s Spirit “carrying along” the authors.

Prophets are people who speak for God; they grasp a deeper reality than the ordinary world, seeing things from God’s perspective instead of our desire-based and fear-based perspective. Of course, prophets can be wrong–they often contradict each other and predict things that turn out not to happen. The faith community has to discern who the truest prophets are through the test of time and experience. The prophets whose words turn out to be the most helpful and insightful, and the most reflective of God’s gracious character, are the ones whose words become scripture.

But even the truest prophets are still bound by the limitations of their own knowledge and culture and personality. Being carried along by God’s Spirit does not mean ceasing to be human! As the apostle Paul says, our knowledge is imperfect and even our prophecy is imperfect. We see God through a dim mirror. Only beyond this life will we see God face to face and actually know God perfectly (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). So even sacred scripture is still a “dim mirror” of the perfect.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 TNIV)

Notice what this does not say. It does not say that scripture has perfect knowledge of science and history. The inspiration of the Bible is not about perfect information; it is about guiding us in discipleship. It’s purpose is moral and spiritual.

With these two scriptures in mind, let us now examine five very different understandings of the Bible’s authority that are commonly expressed today:

1. The Bible is perfectly true in every sense and contains no mistakes or errors of any kind. In my opinion, this is a naive understanding of the Bible and is not reflective of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 or what is said in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Science and archeology have called into question many statements in the Bible. This does not undermine the authority of the Bible because the purpose of the Bible is not to provide us with scientific or even perfect historical information. The Bible often speaks poetically and symbolically–and always with a spiritual purpose. Yes, scientific theories can be wrong, and archeology can misread the evidence, but don’t misuse the Bible by assuming it’s meant to be a school textbook.

2. The Bible is perfectly true in what we should believe about God and how we should live. This position is much closer to the position we see in the above scripture quotations. But the Bible is still more complicated than this position assumes. The Bible does not have just one way of looking at God and God’s will. A careful reading of the Bible reveals many ways of looking at God’s will that are in tension with each other. For instance, the Bible says contradictory things about marriage, divorce, the use of violence, the role of women, how to keep the Sabbath, etc. Paul and John insist on being made right with God through faith or believing in Jesus, whereas Matthew and Luke and James insist on being made right with God through doing good. There are all kinds of theological and ethical tensions in the Bible. It is not one “perfect” voice but a collection of voices in holy dialogue (even argument!) with each other. Each voice reflects its own situation and culture and perspective. So the truth is found in the midst of the discussion.

3. The Bible is the limited human container for God speaking to us and reaching out to us. I think this view is closer to what we actually find in the Bible. It is the human (yet inspired) word about God’s Word. Jesus is the Word enfleshed. The Bible is the human testimony to that Word. So the Bible is the container for the Word. It is not a perfect, beyond human influence, mistake-free, one-view container. It is a container written by human beings with all the usual limitations, but who are also centered on God and led by God’s Spirit. One has only to read one of Paul’s letters (for instance, 1 or 2 Corinthians, or Galatians) to quickly see the mix of the truly human with the truly inspired!

4. The Bible is human wisdom. This is a popular view for non-Christians, but it is based on the assumption that the spiritual does not really exist, and so it fails to recognize the deeper dimension of the Bible.

5. The Bible is oppressive and out-of-date. This is becoming a more popular view–and it has some truth to it. One can find all kinds of objectionable laws in the Old Testament, as well as disturbing statements in the New Testament. But that just shows that the Bible is written by humans within certain cultures, and that it is engaged in an ongoing dialogue that is moving toward greater truth. The task of interpretation is to find the core of the Bible–its central truth–which then guides the rest of its interpretation.

So what is the central core of the Bible? What are the principles we should use to interpret its message? That is next week’s topic.

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