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What then is Biblical Authority?

The nature of biblical authority is a much-debated concept, not only between, but within traditions. Indeed it is a vital and pressing issue for anyone who believes that Christians do not live by proof-texts alone!

So, then what should we make of biblical authority as a doctrine the church must adhere to and live by? What does it mean to claim that the Bible is a primary authority to which our thinking about God, humanity, and the world must answer? All I can do is offer a modest, reductive, and incomplete proposal, which despite its limits, I think moves us in at least some sort of good direction.

First, to claim that the Bible is authoritative is principally to acknowledge that God has a history, and that we are not able to be in communion with God in abstraction for that history. To claim that the Bible is authoritative is to claim that it tells us truly what we need to know about God’s historical being-for-us. The Bible is authoritative because it tells us the story of God’s being and act in and for the world, a story in which we are participants. In short, the Bible bears authority because it provides the primary vista on the mode in which all humanity must be related to God: in the history of Israel and Jesus.

Second, to claim that the Bible is authoritative is to claim that all our speaking and acting must conform to the Bible’s own presentation of God’s desire and destiny for his creation. In other words to claim that the Bible is our authority is to make a profoundly ethical claim, namely that God speaks and we must obey him.  Of course, it is simplistic and wrong to claim that the Bible tells us what to do about all issues moral. The Bible is not such a textbook. Rather, what the Bible does is bear witness to the end for which God has created the world, and thus invites us to participate fittingly in this ongoing drama. The shape of our lives in speaking, acting, and relating to others is ruled, not by a moral code of principles mined from the Bible, but from the grand narrative of Scripture which discloses the end for which God has destined us in Christ.  In short, to practice biblical authority means to live, not moralistically, but eschatologically.

Third, to claim that the Bible is authoritative is to claim that the church is the community in which the Bible is situated and within which it is intelligible as Scripture. For a book of any kind to “have authority” in any real, empirical sense, it must be given authority by those who place themselves under it. We can certainly say that the Bible has inherent authority by virtue of God’s relationship to Scripture, but we must likewise say that it is the church’s Spirit-guided practice of according authority to Scripture that brings about the function of the Bible’s authority in any meaningful sense. Thus, to claim that the Bible is our authority is to claim that the church exists in a relationship with God in history which makes the possibility of biblical authority meaningful. For us to even claim that the Bible is our authority is to confess the fundamental claim of our faith. Namely that God has spoken to us in Israel and Jesus, and precisely from within this history, attested as it is by the witness of Scripture, we discover the truth about God and ourselves.

Finally, to claim that the Bible is our authority is to claim that our lives are to be lived in doxology before Scripture’s God, in continuity with Scripture’s own liturgical and theological trajectories. To claim the Bible as our authority is to claim that the identity of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as disclosed in the narratives, poems, discourses, prophesies, visions, and songs of the Bible is the one true God and that he alone is to be worshipped and glorified. Acknowledging that the Bible is authoritative is to claim that we must be found worshipping Scripture’s God, singing Scripture’s songs, praying Scripture’s prayers, telling Scripture’s stories, and obeying Scripture’s commands. Thus, the practice of biblical authority is at once liturgical and literary.  The life shaped by the Bible is a life surrendered in worship of the Triune God of Scripture in which the songs of Scripture are offered up as a sweet and pleasant aroma to the God of Israel, Jesus, and the World.

4 Comments

  1. David wrote:

    Halden,

    This is an excellent post, and I very much like the sketch of biblical authority that you’ve provided here. I might make one minor change. Instead of saying “in the history of Israel and Jesus,” I would rather say, “in the history of Jesus Christ, as the history of Israel, the Church, and finally of the whole world.” Putting it this way adheres to one of Barth’s greatest insights – viz. his concentric circles that place Christ at the center of history, with ever-greater sections of humanity extending out from that definitive center.

    Great stuff!

    Monday, June 11, 2007 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, that’s a good Barthian caveat, David. I still have some hovering thoughts about whether or not Barth really provides an adequate place for the role of Israel in his theology, but you’re abolustely right that we must be Christocentric to the core.

    Monday, June 11, 2007 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  3. wtm1 wrote:

    Halden,

    Am I wrong to see this as an extended response to my comment on your previous post?

    Anyway, I like this a lot but, as it is only a brief sketch, there are holes.

    What of the relation of the individual to the community? Is the individual’s relation to Scripture and its authority different from the community’s relationship to the same? Does the community in some sense mediate Scripture’s authority?

    What is the relation between God and Scripture? You hint at this, but it isn’t very explicit. You ahve Scripture as witness to God’s history, which is good, but this is a very indirect relationship and I wonder if you would have anything more to say about it. Also along these lines, I would want to hear what you think about the so-called ‘self-authentication’ of Scripture.

    What is the relation between the text of Scripture and the ethical claim that is made upon our lives by God? You case this claim in eschatological light, and we cannot forget about this, but in what sense is the past history of God’s covenant people as witnessed to in Scripture, binding (or not) on us today?

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 8:08 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Travis, actually yes, I didn’t write this as a response to your comments. I’ll do my best to give some brief answers to your questions here. Certainly there are holes here, and I knew that when I was writting it. It seems like incompleteness is inherent to the ‘genre’ of theo-blogging.

    I’m hesitant to specify something about the relation of the individual to community, precisely because I think the binary opposition of individual-community is a modern notion. It’s like asking whether in the New Testament persons become part of the church because they are Christians or whether they become Christians by becoming part of the church. For Paul, that question just doesn’t make sense because being a Christian and being a member of the church are simultaneous and coterminous. So I don’t think I have some different relationship to Scripture than the church does, precisely because I am always and only a member OF the church!

    As to the community mediating the authority of Scripture, I’d say yes with a but. Yes, because apart from the church the Scripture does not exert its authority. But, the church is not the source of this authority, God is. The church is the context in which the authority occurs, and thus in that sense it “mediates” it. But it does not create it, it acknowedges it. But that act of acknowledgement IS a highly significant form of mediation.

    As to God and Scripture, I think the asymmetry and the indirectness is important. Scripture is a witness to the history of Jesus Christ, and in one sense that’s all it is. But, of course we also want to say that Scripture a field of actual divine action and discourse (cf. Vanhoozer). I certainly have no problem with that. I do have some reservations about the alleged ‘self-authentification’ of Scripture. That would take some more space to unpack, but I don’t think it holds up when we really get into the messy history of Scripture in the church and how we came to recognize the Scriptures that we have. Self-authentication, in my opinion turns Scripture into a formalistic principle and gets to close to a form of foundationalism I want to avoid.

    I don’t think I can answer that question about history in the abstract. The best I can really do is say that indeed the past history of God’s people is binding on us today, but only insofar as it is a history leading to a future which gives the past history its dramatic coherence and constitures its ethical character. So I think the end is still determinative, though the whole history is binding. But what ‘binding’ means is determined by the end, because the end in effect constitutes and defines what the past history is.

    Clear as mud? :o)

    Tuesday, June 12, 2007 at 8:27 am | Permalink

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