It's Not the Words-on-the-Page of the Bible that are Authoritative

The Authority of the Bible, Part VIII: When we talk about the "authority" of the Bible, where do we think that authority resides?

When we talk about the “authority” of the Bible (as I’ve been doing now for a couple months), there’s one question in particular we haven’t yet explored.

So far we’ve established:

  • What it means to be under the authority of something (it gets the final word; it shapes, guides, and corrects),

  • What kind of authority the Bible possesses (what I call Agreeable Authority where a person accepts the goodness of the source and willingly submits to it),

  • That the Source of Authority has to be good (and if it’s not, then we should resist granting it authority),

In the last couple posts, my buddy Brad has helped us see just how nuanced this topic can get because:

  • We all pick and choose when it comes to the Bible and what we view as authoritative, and

  • When people (like me) reject certain parts of the Bible it is not because we are just thumbing our noses at God and choosing our own feelings instead.

Yet all of this still remains subject to one aspect of this conversation that we haven’t covered yet, and it’s this: Where is the authority actually rooted?

In other words, is it really the Bible--the words on the page themselves--that houses Authority?

Or is it something else?

I suggest it’s something else.

The Authority Rests with God

A speed limit sign doesn’t have any authority. It’s just vinyl numbers on a sheet of metal.

Federal laws preserved by the National Archive don’t have any authority. They are just ink printed on paper.

My text to my teenage son to take the garbage can to the curb doesn’t have any authority. It’s just bits of data on a screen.

The actual authority of these three examples resides in the people who represent the power to implement the authoritative directive of the various laws and commands. The authority, for example, is in the police officer who can pull you over and cite you a ticket. Although, even that ticket (ink on paper) doesn’t actually posses the authority, does it? The authority for that is in the courts who can seize your assets and enact other consequences if you fail to pay. And my son isn’t responding to the authority of my text message, he’s responding to me as his father. It is I who posses the authority and who chose to distribute said authority via a text message, trusting that my son respects such authority as good and agreeable, and therefore will submit to my request.

When it comes to the Bible, the authority of the Bible is not in the ink or the papyrus or the wafer thin paper or bits on a screen.

If the Bible can be said to be “authoritative” it is because God has imbued a type of authoritative presence through human authors and on to the page.

In short, the authority lays with God, not the Bible.

How God Grants Authority

To unpack that a bit, consider that in the Bible, when God exercises authority, it is done through people.

It was Moses who told Pharaoh to let their people go, channeling the authority of God in the process. It was Isaiah who called the people of Israel to repent, while his voice and words were empowered by God’s authority. Yes, Paul did all sorts of correcting and teaching and guiding and rebuking, throwing his authority around like beads at Mardi Gras, but all within the context that he was speaking as an agent of Divine authority (in fact, he even makes a special point in 1 Corinthians 7 to be like, “okay and now I’ve got a few words to say, but these are just from me, not from the Lord”).

To say it again, when God exercises authority, it is done through human beings.

A significant exception (that proves the rule?) might be the Ten Commandments, which the book of Exodus suggest were written by God and given to Moses. Of course, I don’t think we’re meant to take this as a literal event whereupon God dusted off his favorite Sharpie (obviously, if God did write them, s/he’d have used a Sharpie) and jotted down ten commands. But even if you wanted to hold this story as literal, you still must concede that the tablets were then given to Moses to lead and guide his people with. In other words, the authority of God was transmuted into tablets, and then granted to Moses as an animating force.

I suggest this might be one way we think of most/all the Scriptures. Men (and possibly some women), empowered by the Spirit, to write down, edit, collect, compile, and create the works of art we now call the Bible. Not perfect, obviously. Not clean and clear and easy to understand. But somehow, in some fashion, inspired by God.

Therefore, if we make the choice to submit our lives to the authority of the Bible, we are, more accurately speaking, submitting ourselves to the authority of God as has been revealed through the letters and stories and poems within the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments.

What’s the Point?

You might think I’m needlessly splitting hairs and getting bogged down in semantics by wanting to stipulate that the authority is actually in God and not in the words on the page. But I think this distinction is vital.

Words on a page are easily manipulatable. Words on a page are, by definition, lifeless. They have no meaning. They are just symbols, shapes, and scribbles. Humans with ill intent can take things like words-on-a-page and bend them to their will, and use them to exert control over others. If we think words-on-a-page are the end-all, be-all, the Authority of authorities, then we become subject to whatever an authority figure tells us those words mean.

Which means (and, which sadly happens a lot), even if the meaning of the lifeless words rub us the wrong way, or, even if the interpretation given to us seems counter to our instincts, the fact of the matter is if we’ve decided the words-on-the-page are Authoritative, then we’ve no recourse but to acquiesce.

But if, instead, we understand that anything resembling “authority” in and through the Bible is actually authority rooted in God, then now we’ve at least got some separation between words-on-a-page and our automatic submission to those words (or rather, to any given interpretation of those words).

In this post, where I claimed that the Source of authority has to be good in order for it to be an Agreeable Authority we ought submit to, I showed how there are parts of the Bible that, put frankly, are not good, and should not be seen as authoritative. Should not be acquiesced to. Should not be used to guide or correct.

Another way of saying that, then, is that there are parts of the Bible that bear no resemblance to God.

There are parts of the Bible that do not accurately represent or convey the heart or will of God.

It’s kinda like how sometimes one of my younger sons might say to his brother that “Mom and Dad said I can do screen-time but not you.” He is appealing to the authority resting in the parental units, and yet it’s not actually representing Kate or me.

I realize that some people might bristle at this notion--that there are things in the Bible that aren’t true, or that don’t accurately represent God. If that’s you, I suggest to you that maybe that’s just because you’re a product of a very specific way of thinking about the Bible. Meaning, you probably were given a view of the Bible that includes the belief that every word on the page is divinely inspired and without error. And perhaps that idea is buried so deep in you that it feels weird/off/wrong to be like,  “hmmm, maybe that story, or those words, actually aren’t of or from God.”

But friends, all that’s happening there is a New Idea knocking on the door of an Old one, and that Old Idea was put there by someone else long ago. Further, that Old Idea is only really “old” to you, it’s actually pretty new in terms of Christianity. The belief that the Bible is perfect and without error, and every word is true and representative of God, is a perspective unique to the evangelical movement of the past couple centuries.

Hopefully that insight alone can help you unlock the door and let some of these New Ideas pop in and look around.

Look, the Bible is great. I love the Bible. I’m not writing these articles because I’m anti-Scripture.

However, the Bible is not a magical collection of ideas possessing some eternal authority over humans. The Bible is (among other things) a collection of moments in history when humans, empowered and inspired by God, engage with the complex reality of existing as conscious beings together on a rock hurtling through space. And sometimes that engagement, I believe, was animated by Divine Spirit... or, you might say, sometimes people were embodying the authority of God for the sake of manifesting things like love, mercy, justice and peace on earth (as it is in heaven).

So when we talk about the Authority of the Bible, let’s just remember that it’s a shorthand way of naming, “the Authority of God uniquely (but not exclusively) revealed through the medium of Scripture.”

In the coming weeks I look forward to sharing with you some of the ways in which I willingly submit to the Authority of God (as revealed in the Bible).

Until then, let me know how this landed with you. Do you see the difference between “Authority of words on a page” versus “Authority of God,” and do you think that difference matters?

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Need to Catch up on The Authority of the Bible Series?

Part 1: What is the “Authority of the Bible?”

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Part 2: What it Means to Be Under the “Authority” of Something

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Part 3: Four Ways We Engage with and Experience Authority

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Part 4: The Authoritative Source Must be Good

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Part 5: Does the Bible Interpret Itself?

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Part 6: Pick and Choose? Everybody Does it

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Part 7: God’s Laws vs My Opinions

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