Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What authority does the Bible have and why do I keep coming back to it?

To clear up a couple of myths to start with: the conservatively minded umbrella body the ‘Evangelical Alliance’ says in its basis of faith “We believe in…The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.” Not 100% geographically or historically accurate, not a definitive guide to physics, chemistry or any other science (what did ‘science’ mean in the first century?), but ‘fully trustworthy for faith and conduct’. Faith being what people believe, conduct how people live their lives. Still a mighty big claim, I’ll grant you, but best to be clear what we’re talking about.

OK: ‘supreme authority’. This is far more problematic – what does it mean in practice? In the seventeenth century Theology used to be known as ‘the Queen of the Sciences’. It used to ‘sit over’ all the other ‘subjects’, which would derive their axioms from assumptions about theology, but be free to explore from there. Now, nobody’s claiming that the Bible says anything specifically about the failure of world trade talks this week, but it might be possible to draw principles about just and fair exchange of goods from the Bible and apply them. The same might be true of all other subjects. If God gives us minds to create, explore and discover within his creation all scientific, social science and arts disciplines become an opportunity to glorify God and know more about Him.

Notice that it was Theology, not the Bible that was Queen of the Sciences and the ‘supreme authority’. The dictionary defines theology as ‘The study of the nature of God and religious truth’. Christians turn to the Bible to find out more about the nature of God, but Christian theology involves interpreting what is in the Bible. Interpretation immediately brings the experiences and knowledge of the interpreter into play and therefore different interpretations. Some Christians in the nineteenth century tried to side step ‘interpretation’ by calling on the fallacious doctrine of ‘inerrancy’. This meant that they believed every single word of the Bible text was literally ‘true’ – whatever that meant. In a 21st century world that is used to textual criticism, genre and relativism this concept is outlandish – we take it for granted that what one word means to one person in one moment of time in one sentence can mean something completely different to the person sitting on the seat opposite. Luckily all the many writers of the Bible, who were used to dealing in myths, stories and parables to explain truth would be similarly mystified.

So the Bible needs to be placed in the context of wider enterprise of figuring out who God is called Theology – otherwise we’d be missing out on other ways God might make himself known and also disastrously ignoring our own ‘cultural spectacles’ and preconceptions. Christians tend to include amongst other things, knowledge of God through Creation; personal experience and relationship with God; and tradition. Tradition in these terms means the cumulative experiences and learning of Christians down the centuries – what Godly men and women have found to be true in their lives and those of the church. Therefore tradition is living and ever-growing – when I am inspired and encouraged to become more like Christ by Godly people around me they are part of and adding to the Christian tradition. Personal experience and relationship with God means seeing answers to prayers, listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and taking the risk to trust and follow God and finding His promise of ‘life in all its fullness’ to be true.

It’s here that the Evangelical Alliance’s belief the Bible is the ‘supreme authority’ comes into play. If I believe that God, by His Holy Spirit has told me to steal my next door neighbour’s X-Box, the Christian tradition says that the authority of the Bible telling me not to takes precedence over my personal ‘authority’ which says I should. Likewise, if there was a church pastor who told his congregation that the best way to be happy was to get rich as fast as possible, the ‘supreme’ authority of the Bible would come before the authority of ‘the church’. God can guide me and work through me, but will not speak outside of His written teachings. This sounds like an excellent idea at first - a kind of check and balance system to prevent abuse and stupidity. The Bible is unambiguous about some things, through both Old and New Testaments. For instance, it’s difficult to argue that the Bible as a whole doesn’t claim that there is One God; we are to follow Him with all our mind, heart, soul and strength and it matters to God whether we choose to do that or not. Therefore in some senses ‘the Bible’ could be treated as a ‘supreme authority’.

However, the Bible is not a ‘how to’ manual (how boring would that be). It is complex and logically paradoxical and is therefore nonsensical to talk of the Bible as a ‘supreme authority’ for all matters of faith of conduct without having some generally agreed interpretations. Supreme authority without recognised interpretation equals inerrancy. Generally accepted interpretations within the church (whether implicit or explicit) are that the Old Testament should be viewed through the ‘grid’ and understanding of the New and that it’s important to take different genres in the Bible into account. Interpretation has generally come from Church Tradition, which is the sum of Christian’s experiences and thinking down the ages, who themselves have been influenced by the Bible – the strands feed into one another and the boundaries blur.

I therefore prefer to think of the Bible not as a supreme authority, isolated from other authority, but the thickest of a number of shoots of a climbing plant, (creation, personal experience, tradition being others) woven around one another for support and strength as they grow. Not one of them could stand alone – they would all collapse and break.

This still all begs the question – ‘why do I believe what the Bible says?’. For me the simple answer is I’ve found it to be true in my life. However much I try to ignore the Bible or think that I’m bored of it I always get pulled back to the wisdom and life within its pages. That doesn’t mean that I understand it all or agree with it all or don’t find it confusing or difficult, but that it’s worth sticking with it like no other book. I frequently find stories or chapters in the Bible that in other books I would immediately dismiss or ignore, but if it’s in the Bible I’ve learned that it’s worth preserving, grappling and contending with.

A few years ago I heard Brian McClaren say that maybe what should unite our view of the Bible as a church was that we ‘take it seriously’. At the time I was horrified and couldn’t imagine a more wishy-washy way formulation. Now, although I’m not sure it’s how I would put it I have a sense of what he was getting at. If we, as a community of Christians take what the Bible seriously, really seriously - seriously enough to engage in thorough, honest studies of it bringing in all the analytical and spiritual skills we have at our disposal, to pray with it and take time with it - we invest it with authority as we communally find that it enriches our faith and lives.
Samuel Coleridge put it even better, as described in ‘The Church in an Age of Revolution’: “Coleridge held that if men would but read [the Bible] without preconceived ideas about its plenary inspiration, and see whether it did not speak to them with convincing power, they would be assured of its authority. It should be read and studied like any other literature, and then it would be found it be unlike any other literature...” (p81)

That’s my experience of the Bible. Somehow, against all the odds, God has fashioned a collection of books by working with deeply flawed human beings over thousands of years which are divinely inspired and therefore hold great authority in all matters of faith and conduct.

1 comment:

  1. I hope you don't mind, but I've linked this post to my blog. A well written piece indeed.