What is "The Authority of the Bible?"
The Authority of the Bible, Part I: What it is and why.
The other day I was a guest on the podcast Desert Voices, a fantastic resource for meaningful spiritual conversations, and the hosts (Shaleen Kendrick and Holland Fields) asked me the following question: “Does the Bible have authority in your life?”
It’s a great question, albeit one I hadn’t thought much about in years. The inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible? Sure, I’ve revisited those old evangelical doctrines (such as in chapter 6 of The Shift, “Inspired by Old, Dusty Books”).
But the question of the authority of Scripture?
I can’t recall what I said in response during the interview, (I don’t think it was especially great), but I’ve been sitting with the question now for a couple days and I thought I’d write out some of those thoughts in the event any of you find it helpful.
(Which, btw, if you ever do find my work helpful, one way you can “say thanks” is to Share it with your people! Thanks!)
Due to length (I’m conscious that my past few articles have tended to be a bit loooong, sorry), I’m breaking this up in to at least two parts.
Here in part one I’ll explore the idea of the Authority of Scripture. What it is, and why. Then next week I’ll follow up with how the Bible is (and is not) authoritative in my own life.
So as to not bury the lead, here’s the one sentence summary of this two-part article:
While I reject the Evangelical concept of the “authority of the Bible,” I am nonetheless comfortable with (and open to) certain parts of the Bible occupying an authoritative presence in my life.
Cool. Let’s dig in...
What is the Authority of Scripture?
First, let’s start by explaining what we’re talking about.
If you’ve heard the phrase “authority of the Bible” you’re probably in/around a Protestant/Evangelical context. This phrase has been created to articulate that some Christians (ie, those in the Evangelical tradition) claim that the Bible alone is their sole source of authority for things such as how to live, how to act, what to believe, and so on.
The fancy name is sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), and it is Protestants way of putting daylight between them and other Christians (such as Catholics and Orthodox) who hold other sources as being equally authoritative; church tradition, official church teachings, and our own wisdom and experience to name a few.
Your typical Protestant/Evangelical, however, will eschew other forms of knowing (tradition, teaching, inner wisdom) as inferior to the Bible. The Bible, it is believed, is the only reliable and true source of knowledge, and is functionally a compendium of Divine decrees.
It’s as though God literally sat down and decided to convey Truth through the written word, expecting humanity to then fall in line.
Hence the “authority of the Bible.”
Cause seriously, if God said (wrote) it, what other authority could there be?
What “Authority of the Bible” Actually Means, Though
However, I’d wager that when most evangelical Christians use the term “authority of Scripture” what they are actually implying (whether consciously or not) is “authority of Protestant/Evangelical theology.”
If you’re at all familiar with the Evangelical world, then you well know the oft repeated insistence that “we simply open the Bible, read it, and accept it at face value.” The suggestion being that they don’t do what others do and add presuppositions, or tradition, or other factors that might muck up the clear and simple truth of the Bible.
Such a belief, in my opinion, is somehow at once both arrogant and naive.
No one comes to the Bible free of assumptions and preconceived ideas.
No one can open and read the Bible without layers upon layers of how they see the world--influenced by culture and family and when in the timeline of history they’re alive, and so on--coloring what they read, how they understand it, and how they choose to interpret and apply it.
(I suggest re-reading that last sentence…such a thing is worth truly digesting)
But evangelicals somehow convince themselves that they have unfettered access to the Truth of the Creator merely by opening and reading their (English) Bible, which then extends itself naturally into a sort of “and therefore this Truth, direct from God, is authoritative in my life.”
When in fact, what has become authoritative for them is a particular strain of theology, unique to the evangelicalism of the past century.
In other words, you may think the Bible is your authority, but in actuality you’ve come under the authority of 20th century evangelical theology.
The Bible Doesn’t Think It’s Authoritative
Consider this, though: The Bible doesn’t see itself as “authoritative” in the way that many Christians do.
The Bible very rarely makes any reference to itself, and when it does (such as 2 Timothy 3:16), the best one could do is infer that perhaps one possible takeaway is that the Bible should function authoritatively for the Christian in some realms of life.
But this is a best a stretch of an extrapolation out of just a handful of verses.
Ironically, the only reason a person would come to think the Bible is authoritative in a sola scriptura sort of way is because some tradition within the Church came up with the idea. Which flies in the face of the sola scriptura and Evangelicalisms poo-pooing of tradition. My point is not to disparage it outright just because the idea came to us through church leaders and church teaching--I happen to think tradition can be a wonderful thing, and much is owed to the teachers and leaders that came before us--rather, I’m pointing out the obvious flaw in the Evangelical assumption that the Bible is their sole authority because the only reason they even have such an idea is because leaders in the church said as much.
Furthermore, should an adherent to sola scriptura pause long enough to think about it, they’d realize that the very Bible (specifically the New Testament) they claim to be the sole source of authority only came into existence through church leaders and tradition. Meaning, the 27 books of the New Testament were chosen not by the Bible itself (there’s not a Table of Contents for the NT), but they were identified over the course of centuries of discernment, counsel, comparative analyses, and consensus.
To say it again: the Bible doesn’t describe itself as authoritative. Such a notion was given it by Protestant scholars distancing themselves from the Catholic Church.
How Is Something Even “Authoritative?”
Here’s another question: what does it mean for something to be “authoritative?” Like, how does that actually work?
Such language makes sense when we’re talking about a set of rules or a law book of sorts. When I was in college I was an R.A. for two years and we had a Student Handbook that outlined what was and was not acceptable behavior for the students. In this way, the handbook was authoritative for the actions of the guys in my hall. I might not care that they didn’t get in by midnight, but the Handbook clearly established the curfew, not me.
But friends, if you haven’t stopped to think about it in a while, the Bible is not a book of rules or laws. Sure, rules and laws are in there (eg, the Ten Commandments, or, the book of Leviticus), but they exist in the minority for both quantity of verses and quality. Meaning, some of the best stuff in the Bible (aka, life of Jesus), is not the kinds of literature we typically think of as authoritative.
In fact, most of the Bible is stories. Which raises another interesting question: how is a story “authoritative?” Imagine a judge, set to rule on a case, instead of declaring a verdict one way or another, begins with, “Once upon a time...” What the heck are the lawyers supposed to do with that?
Also, think about Jesus. Not only did he not refer to Scripture all that often, but he also drew from multiple “authoritative” sources, including his own tradition, inner wisdom, and yes, occasionally portions of Scripture.
The Bible Doesn't Need to Be Our Sole Source of Authority
One of the big problems as I see it is that many Christians have mistakenly turned the Bible into something it was never intended to be. It is not, and never was, designed to be a one-stop shop for all life’s answers, providing “authority” for all matters of human existence.
This is especially and painfully most true in the history and science fields. Good gravy, the Bible is not a science book, nor was it written/compiled to be a reliable and accurate historical record--other than the occasional moments where that is the stated purpose, such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Acts. Expecting Genesis, though, to be authoritative with regards to biology or geology or geography or cosmology?? That’s like opening up a Mary Oliver book of poems in order to bake a perfect chocolate cake.
So no, dear reader, I do not adhere to the evangelical doctrine of sola scriptura.
I do not believe the Bible is the sole source of authority. I don’t think it wants to be that, nor do I think it needs to be. (Which is why, for most of church history, it hasn’t been. Remember, this obsession with “the authority of the Bible” is a relatively new phenomenon within Christianity).
When it comes down to it, I think we get to (and should) disagree with the Bible,
prove it wrong when necessary,
stop asking it to be something it isn’t, and, yes,
sometimes maybe even let it have authority in our lives. 😱
But I’ll get in to that next week.
”The Authority of the Bible” Series
Part 1: What is the “Authority of the Bible?”
Part 2: What it Means to Be Under the “Authority” of Something
Part 3: Four Ways We Engage with and Experience Authority
Part 4: The Authoritative Source Must be Good
Part 5: Does the Bible Interpret Itself?
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What’s Your Take on the Authority of the Bible?
I’d love to hear from you!
Share with me in the comment section how this term lands with you. Or how you have thought about it in the past.