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.