I was recently invited to participate in a dialogue on the authority of Scripture at United Theological Seminary with friend, Rev. Dr. Mike Slaughter. We were each given fifteen minutes to talk about how we conceive of Scripture’s authority. The following is the basic text of my presentation. I’ve edited it a bit to make it more appropriate for reading, rather than hearing. The ideas here, however, are entirely the same as those I presented. A segment of this talk is taken (with some modification) from my book, Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed, 2017).
The Christian faith stands or falls upon claims of divine revelation.
The central revelation of our faith is the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. And that central revelation is disclosed to us through two additional sources of revelation: first Scripture and second tradition.
Apart from Scripture and tradition, we cannot know who Jesus is. We cannot comprehend how we should properly relate to God, including how we should live, and the kinds of behaviors that separate us from God. We cannot understand what salvation is, nor can we respond to God in gratitude for our Lord’s boundless grace, offered first to the Jew and also to the gentile. We cannot appreciate that we are, in fact, saved people, nor can we understand the imperative to offer salvation to other people.
Without divine revelation mediated to us through Scripture and tradition, we don’t know who we are. And if we don’t know who we are, we won’t know how we should live.
My Methodist underwear is showing here because I am assigning a revelatory function to tradition as well as Scripture. God does disclose important truths through the traditions of the church. In fact, Scripture is one such tradition, and among our traditions, we give Scripture primacy.
Wesleyans in fact have adopted a doctrine of prima Scriptura. Anglicanism, our parent tradition, recognized that while Scripture is primary, we also come to know God through the teachings of the church, in particular those conciliar decisions of the first five centuries. As an Anglican, Wesley himself emphasized both the primacy of Scripture and the illuminating power of tradition. Where he may have differed from some of his Anglican contemporaries was in his emphasis on the first three centuries, rather than five. He was suspicious of the church in the era following Constantine.
Wesleyans are prima Scriptura people. We acknowledge the primacy of Scripture and the revealed interpretive framework of tradition in the early centuries of the church.
Is God’s communication with us limited only to Scripture? Of course not. We are told by our UCC brothers and sisters, “God is still speaking.” No argument here. I believe God does speak in a variety of ways. And yet God’s speaking needs to be tested against what God has spoken in the past–and spoken through an authoritative revelation.
So let’s say I have a dream I think is prophetic. And I say to you, “I had a prophetic dream!” And you say, “What was it?” And I say, “God told me there are four persons in the Trinity!” You’d be entirely within your rights–and in fact it would be your responsibility–to tell me, “David, Scripture and tradition don’t support your conclusions.” You would be right, and I would be wise to repent and reconsider my positions.
It is part of the tradition of the church that we understand Scripture as a canon, a rule or measuring rod. This notion of Scripture as a rule or canon began to emerge very early. God may speak to me today, but the personal revelation that God has given to you or me is not a canon for the whole church. That is why we have Scripture and the interpretive framework of tradition. Just as different spiritual gifts serve the church in different ways, so different revelations also serve the church in different ways.
Of course, we don’t have to interpret Scripture in dialogue with tradition, but when we neglect to do so, we will often err.
Scripture, interpreted in the community of the church, is a canon, a rule or measuring rod, as the church has long proclaimed. And to say that Scripture is our primary canon means that it is authoritative in a way that other sources are not.
Two Meanings of “Authority”
When we talk about authority, we usually mean a couple of different things. If someone has authority, he or she has been invested with a certain level of decision-making power and responsibility. To say that a professor has authority over her students is to speak of her prerogative to assign readings, evaluate papers, assign grades, shape course content, and direct classroom discussion. She has been invested with this authority by a larger institution with its own authority, such as a seminary.
Ideally, a person with authority has the qualifications to make the decisions for which he or she has responsibility. This leads to a second way in which we think about authority. If we say that this same professor speaks with authority on a particular topic, we mean that she is knowledgeable and competent regarding that topic. She has authority over the students, and she speaks with authority on the topics of her lectures.
By extension, when we talk about the authority of Scripture, we mean the extent to which Scripture makes binding claims on our lives. The Bible can make these binding claims because the power that stands behind it (like the seminary behind the professor) is the power of God. Scripture’s authority flows out of God’s authority. Further, we believe that Scripture can speak with authority on a variety of topics. It is a valid source of teaching about God, human beings, and the world in which we live. The professor may speak with authority because of her natural intelligence and many years of study. The Bible speaks with authority because it is God-breathed. It can teach us about God because it is from God. It can teach us about life because it is from the source of life. It can teach us about human relationships because it is from the one who lives eternally in a relationship of perfect love, the Holy Trinity. Scripture is binding upon our lives, and it can speak powerfully into the circumstances of our lives.
Now, it’s curious that when I blog about the Bible, I often get called either a fundamentalist or a liberal. Neither of these labels is accurate.
I’m not arguing for biblical inerrancy here. Nothing I’ve stated suggests that we should adopt a doctrine of inerrancy. In fact, I don’t think inerrancy is a very helpful term. I prefer a more precise term: plenary verbal inspiration. This means that the the very words of the Bible, in every sentence of the Bible, are determined by God. This is a form of divine speaking transposed onto the page.
One of the difficulties with plenary verbal inspiration is that there are so many textual variants in the Bible. In other words, we have different manuscripts of the same biblical writings, and those manuscripts sometimes disagree with one another. The common solution to this is to affirm “inerrancy in the autographs,” or the original documents. But we don’t’ have the original documents. Affirming the inerrancy of documents we don’t have doesn’t seem like a very helpful exercise. It just seems unnecessary to me. I would rather simply say that Scripture, interpreted carefully and prayerfully within the church in dialogue with Christian tradition, is a reliable guide to Christian faith and life.
“Well, then,” one might object, “how do you decide which parts of Scripture are true and which aren’t?” I don’t like that question. I think it sets up the conversation in the wrong way. I would say that all of Scripture is true in the sense that Scripture discloses to us a grand narrative of salvation. It just might not be be the case that every sentence of Scripture is an independent proposition which we must judge to be valid or invalid. That’s how a lot of people approach the Bible, and it just seems like a painful exercise to me.
“Well, then,” one might continue, “how do you decide which moral stipulations in Scripture are binding and which are not?”
And, I would reply, I don’t, at least not by myself. The church decides, and I offer my interpretation as a member of the church. Additionally, the church today rightly interprets Scripture in dialogue with the church through the ages, otherwise known as the Christian tradition. Scripture is not a book meant simply for my individual consumption and application. Rather, it is a rule, guide, and means of grace for the church. It is not just my book. It is the church’s book, and my claim on Scripture, and its claim on me, comes as a result of my membership in the church.
Rather than affirming plenary verbal inspiration, I would simply say that the Bible as interpreted in the church both today and through the ages is a reliable guide to faith and practice.
The Story of Scripture as Our Story
Here’s my final point: to say Scripture is authoritative is to say that this great story of salvation, and the commentary upon that story such as Psalms and Proverbs, is my story. This is the story that makes sense of my life. There are lots of other stories out there, but this is the one that tells me who I am. The church’s story–given to us in Scripture–is my story.
It begins with creation, it takes us through the fall. Then we begin to see how human beings struggle with God, alternating between faithfulness and sinfulness. But then there is redemption when God takes on flesh, shows us how to live, dies on the cross, and rises from the dead. And finally there is New Creation, when everything will be restored to the way God meant it to be.
Struggle with God
That’s the biblical story. It’s the story of salvation. And when Jesus is the Lord of our lives, we come to understand that the biblical story is our story, too.
18 thoughts on “On the Authority of Scripture”
Progressives have told me they will argue at St. Louis for “moving decision-making closer to locales where people meet in rooms to discern what is important to them.” I grasp the simple logic (the charming symmetry) of distributing authority (as in the One Church Plan), but the argument for it begs the question of what is important to God. How is space made for the revealed will of God in such a plan? What happens when jurisdictions go beyond what was “once for all entrusted to the saints”? How do you call them back?
It Is my understanding that current textual considerations are that we have a 95 – 99% assurance of the original autograph. This is based upon the extraordinarily large numbers of texts that we have to use as checks upon one another.
Thank you. That is helpful to add to the article.
That was meaningful for me, David. However in the reading of the Old Testament, particularly Deuteronomy, Numbers and the Samuels I struggle mightily with believing that their were all those indiscriminate killings of men, women and children. I struggle believing that David killed 200 men I believe and cut off their foreskins for a wedding gift to Michal. I struggle with what all that has to do with Salvation. In some verses the Philistines are bad guys and in some they are good guys and ultimately they get annihilated. I struggle with relating to a God that allows such killing. I struggle knowing that the author was allegedly a male in a patriarchal society and wonder how much that influences the way stories are presented. It is almost as if the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are different “entities.” I would value your input as well as that of anyone else who reads my words. I like the adage of utilizing scripture, tradition, experience and reason (common sense some would say) in our Christian journey. I am struggling applying my experience and my reason to all those “goings on.”
Well, George, I will suggest that you have efficiently exposed how our human experience, reason, common sense, and tradition can often be worthless in the face of God. It is exactly the same situation as is approached by any of us who, in our human limitation, try to build a framework of thought to reconcile many specific words of the Lord Jesus Christ spoken in His flesh — not even trying right now to go larger — with the European and U.S. church-situation between just the very few years 1936 and 1945, let alone a vast complement of other times and places. This is why, I will suggest, that if we try to apply our experience and our reason as our primary tool, we will fail, we will drown in the very intracontradictory teaching morass that is destroying churches all over this world right now. I will suggest, rather, that we must first seek and pray to be led by the Lord Personally, to read and understand Scripture in communion with others being led similarly. If we do this first, He will see — not we, by our personal power — that everything He decides we need, shall be given us. Not our will, but His, be done.
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Thanks, David. I’d note that we came very close to affirming a sense in which “tradition” has primacy in the earlier (1972-1988) revision of the statement of “Our Theological Task.” That version of the statement on “Our Theological Task” said that “In a third sense, however, ‘the Christian tradition’ may be spoken of transcendentally: as the history of that environment of grace in and by which all Christians live, which is the continuance through time and space of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ.” That statement closely followed the 1964 Montreal Faith and Order statement on “Scripture, Tradition, and traditions” that affirmed that one sense, “Tradition” (they use the capital letter “T” to designate this) is “the Gospel itself.” Passages Like I Corinthians 15:1-4 give the kerygma (specifically recited in 15:3-4, and maybe 5) as having existed before Christian scripture. I have argued that the kerygma structured the canon of Christian scriptures as well as the central content of early Christian creeds. The 1988 revision of the statement on “Our Theological Task” removed this reference to the “transcendent” sense of tradition and reverted to the standard Protestant way of envisioning “tradition” as whatever comes after scripture. That was unfortunate, in my view.
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