Authority of Scripture

I wanted to write about this because it is a topic that keeps coming up in my reading and conversations recently. The book The Becoming of G-d emphasized the mystery of God and knowing Him through encounter. It talked about the bible as the stories of peoples’ experiences of God. However, it didn’t cross the line of saying that the bible is just a storybook.

The next book that I reviewed, Salvation Boulevard, was basically an apologetic for atheism. It approached the bible the way an accountant would approach an audit. From that calculating perspective, the author determined that the facts were out of balance and declared that therefore the bible isn’t true.

In some congregations, the assumed christian position on the facts of scripture is guarded with pitbulls and there is no acknowledgment of mystery, ongoing revelation, and the possibility that there are factual inconsistencies within the details of scripture.

Can one admit those inconsistencies and still believe that the truth of scripture is solid and foundational and that the word of God is alive and active, revealing Truth to our hearts?

Thinking on these things, one night I had to get up in the middle of the night and write down my position on the authority of scripture. This is what I wrote…

I believe in the narrative view of Scripture – that in its entirety, it is the grand narrative of God’s story. The individual books, as Scot McKnight describes, are like wiki entries within the bigger story. Overall, I see the Bible as the redemptive story of God’s people and their experiences with Him.

To interpret the Bible as a legal document or textbook tends toward distortion of details and a twisting of the big picture. When I hear, for example, of ministers attempting to apply prophetic scriptures to current events, I envision the kind of contortionist you might see in a circus, a freakish twisting into something completely unnatural.

The application of Old Testament stories and practices to current events often produces strange doctrine. The random cut and paste of New Testament verses to create proofs and arguments also produces strange doctrine and practices.

There are factual inconsistencies throughout the Bible. These inconsistencies often are due to an incomplete understanding of what the Spirit was saying to and through the writer at the time of writing. Frequently, the inconsistency is due to an inability to understand the setting and context of the writing of particular Scriptures.

Personally I believe completely in the truth of the written Word of God. I also believe that because of the lack of certainty in the interpretation and understanding of specific details, it is pointless to argue obscure details.

My approach to things that seem contradictory or inconsistent is simply to acknowledge that I don’t understand that particular passage or concept, yet. And I’m okay with not having everything nailed down to the letter. It gives me room to grow into the truth as God reveals it to me through His word and through the community of believers.

There are unarguable foundational truths that can and should be agreed upon. I am equally uncomfortable when the boundaries of orthodox creedal truths are dismissed. However, too often adjectives like scriptural, biblical, and truth are used as weapons to defend non-essential positions and add the weight of God’s approval to opinions.

The truth that is continually revealed and that must be sought within the Scriptures is the truth of who God is. While we should have a solid understanding of who He is according to what is already revealed in Scripture, it is also true that we do not yet fully know Him.

This puts me to the left of the nitpicking inerrant, sola scripturists and to the right of the wishy-washy, the-Bible-is-just-a-nice-story liberals.

My middle ground…
(or “why I am a conservative, postmodern, emerging/missional believer”)

  • I hold a narrative view of scripture, allowing for factual inconsistencies and misinterpretations.
  • I believe in the mystery of ongoing revelation of the nature and person of God and know Him as the Way and the Truth through relationship and encounter rather than through a forensic grid of doctrine and prooftexts.
  • I realize that postmodernism is the predominant worldview and culture of the people outside of the church today, and I understand that this is the culture in which I live.
  • I attempt to live a life poured out for others as an outflow of the life of Christ within me because I believe that is what it means to be a follower of Christ.

So what’s the bottom line?

Is it possible to believe in the scriptures as true, alive, and active without embracing an inerrant position?

Is it possible to believe in a narrative view of scripture without relegating the truth of God’s word to the realm of non-authoritative fables?

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20 thoughts on “Authority of Scripture

  1. If you can live with the acceptable limitations you have articulated without having to defend them to self-appointed orthodoxy sheriffs or feel you need to hit the wishy-washy types over the head with them, then be at peace…

    Slippery-slopeism or its fiendish opposite, anything- goesism will be with us no matter where we stand on the theological conclusion line with other believers. Rubbing elbows with those brothers & sisters on both our right & left part of the unique journey we all must engage in. No need to be intimidated or get defensive or militant as to our own perspectives. Can be we will find ourselves sharing our honest doubts as well as convictions, but it must be done in love or else we end up being that obnoxious clanging cymbal Paul spoke of.

    I have found it both therapeutic & challenging to share what I thought were sacrosanct theological conclusions with others. Allowing myself to be exposed to alternate (not necessarily heretical) theological opinions catalyzed my spiritual growth. I have had to be more flexible in my perspectives on many issues & less rigid in how I measure others with alternate viewpoints. Had to really admit my opinions were not the standard God uses to measure everybody else with. I do not hold my biblical viewpoints too tightly any longer. I found doing so can be like a spiritual tourniquet cutting off the flow of Life instead of preserving what little I claimed I had. Such is the curious upside-down aspect of kingdom experience I have discovered…

  2. I mis-read “position on the facts of scripture is guarded with pitbulls” as graded with pitbulls. LOL. I rather like that “this was a four-pitbull sermon”…

    I’m inclined to think that what you describe is historical, mainstream Christianity. And that seems a good place to stand.

    I was struck by this point: I realize that postmodernism is the predominant worldview and culture of the people outside of the church today, and I understand that this is the culture in which I live.

    I think I have to realise that not only is this the culture surrounding me, this view (with a bit of modernism mixed in) necessarily affects my own judgement, too. Inherently, I cannot be otherwise.

  3. I used to think I knew a lot more about God than I do now :)

    Scot McKnight put together a facinating little hermeneutics quiz awhile back to see where one might fall in the scriptural authroity spectrum. It consists of 20 questions with 5 multiple-choice answers each. If you score a 20, you are a Bible-only, literalist, fundamentalist. If you score 100 … well, I guess you don’t have any positions of Biblical conviction. Scott put the median point at 65. I scored a 66 – for what it’s worth.

    You can take the quiz at: http://buildingchurchleaders.com/quiz/?id=TCTOC

  4. Grace, I’d say the answer is yes to both your questions. Actually, I like the analogy of incarnation (as in the old credal fully God/fully human) — the Scripture is fully God’s word and fully the words of human beings. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Genesis doesn’t talk about big bangs (or whatever the latest theory will be a century or two from now). And if Luke decides the story reads better if they lift the tiles from the roof instead of digging through it, well so be it. Jesus kind of made people scratch their heads about who he was, too — though people consistently recognized the authority of what he said.

  5. A narrative view of scripture is helpful in that we can pick and choose what we think applies to us today and ignore the other parts as just background scenery. In practice, we all have an approach to scripture that dismisses the parts we don’t agree with or don’t understand. What sets fundamentalists apart is not that they claim to take a literal approach, but that they have selected and championed one part of the narrative over the other. So I think we’re all on the same slippery slope. I don’t think God sees us as fundy or liberal or moderate. He probably sees us as one homogenous group in the way we approach Scripture. We’re selective and narrow and self serving sometimes. So while I don’t think the narrative view is the right approach, its the one I and everyone else uses. We grow in our knowledge of Jesus, however, when we allow others to share their part of the narrative with us—community and all that stuff. BTW I scored 70 on Scot’s hermeneutics quiz.

  6. I think that generally – we worship our own interpretation of what scripture says. When we get real twisted – we refer to our opinion of what scripture says as “the Word of God” . Most churches would be way better off to just read the written word in the service – rather than what they are doing to it.

    Jesus had a blistering rebuke for the teachers of his day:

    John 5:39-40 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

    I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the scriptures – but my prayer and my hope is that they will always lead me to Christ – and loving people – and not to religious arrogance – and looking down my nose at people.

    God’s big enough that he can have Ishmael to multiply to the tune of a few billion people and still not have to come up with a contingency plan.

    If there are a few inconsistencies in scripture – what is that to Him? He has always worked thru weakness and fraility and inconsistencies. That’s what humans are all about.

  7. Over here in Ireland the bible is almost worshipped as much as God – verses taken out of context both theologically and historically are used to bash one another over the head.Sometimes I’m sure wishes the bible hadn’t been written!Anthony De Mello tells a story of a master who points out the moon to one of his disciples with his hand.The disciple looks at the master’s forefinger and goes ‘woh!’. Such is our focus on Scriptures – they are a clear way of pointing to the Divine.Instead we set up theologies and bible schools to study the ‘finger’.
    The scriptures or ‘writings’ show the unfolding drama of salvation and the enfolding revelation of what God is really like – there is a high point in the drama in the death/resurrection of Yeshua.Girard says that modern higher criticism dismisses the scriptures especially the Gospels as just another myth among many.Girard says there are lots of similarities between myth (Greek etc) and the format of the Gospels and the similarity is there for a reason.All myths take the side of the crowd against the victim – the guilty one who deserves death.The Passion narrative is so close to this but turns everything on it’s head with God showing up to be on the side of the victim and endorsing him by the resurrection.The Gospels and particularly the Passion show the falsehood of all human myth with its justified violence and righteous indignation!Religion is expodsed for what it is – one big misrepresentation of the Divine.Girard says that the Gospel writers could not possibly have turned around the mythic structure of society without outside intervention from a higher intelligence- this to me is the inspiration of the Scriptures – the final exposure of the games we humans play with our scapegoats and the revelation of a loving forgiving God.

  8. A quote from a respected teacher of mine:
    “I will begin to talk to someone about Biblical literalism if, and only if, they have sold everything they own and given the money to the poor.”

    Too many people confuse truth with facticity. To use the Bible as a science text or history book in the modern sense of history is to distort it. The Bible is a book about God and God’s relationship to God’s creation. Therein lies the truth of the Bible.

    The Bible is authortitative insomuch as it reveals the love of God.

    This has been the majority opinion of Christians since Jesus said, “It is written, but I say to you…”

  9. The defense of right doctrine & an orthodox understanding of Jesus necessary for the Early Church Fathers to codify since heretical factions were infringing on the copyrighted elements of Christianity & Who it was they recognized as the real Lord & Savior.

    Many false Christs as well as wack religious notions rode the coattails of the Church’s earliest growth & expression. Religion was quite the thriving intellectual pastime then & very lucrative to those that gained a following willing to support travelling teachers peddling their brand of snake oil.

    I think the defensive approach (apologetics) an effort to remain ‘set-apart’ in teaching & tradition but not exclusive or insular or secretive. It was not an effort to pull away from society or avoid being salt & light. It was a genuine effort to be specific with regards to the accepted canon of scripture as well as the unwritten traditions that were passed down by the original Apostles.

    I think the role both tradition & scripture plays in the Roman Catholic/Orthodox expressions along with the Protestant reformist ones mutually exclusive. Claiming the greater or more accurate authority based on the historical arguments may seem like majoring in the minors, but you cannot dismiss the depth of conviction many saints convey when they speak of preserving the faith handed down to them by faithful men & women before them. And they sincerely feel a deep sense of duty to preserve the doctrinal perspectives they believe to be the best representation of the church catholic in both faith & practice.

    The ol’ argument that resembles this one: “If the KJV were good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me” might be a laughable parody, but for many saints the doctrinal conclusions they hold onto firmly can be used as a club against those with non-conforming perspectives. I, for one, am not going to claim to be a teacher or an apologist or even a theologian. I certainly have my own conclusions, but even I can admit some are not so rigid while others I know I will not budge on. And I can also appreciate other perspectives without having to point out my disagreements or even feel defensive. I think there are plenty sayings in the gospel narratives attributed to Jesus that are crystal clear. No ambiguity in either the oldest documents or our English translations. No need to argue source or author’s intent or hidden meaning. It seems these are not even put into practice as much as they could. Theoretical debate can indeed be heady & even passionate. But I think Jesus much more interested in our behavior than the theological underpinnings we claim to believe. In this case maybe “preach only what you practice” the better approach & a more accurate indicator of true discipleship…

  10. “In this case maybe “preach only what you practice” the better approach & a more accurate indicator of true discipleship…”

    … or “The day the pulpits went silent!”

  11. fred,
    Plenty of room in the middle. I want to read more of Wright. (don’t tell, but Santa might be bringing me books for Christmas, if I’m good)

    joseph,
    I can (and do) relate to people on both poles. What I have a problem with is that if you aren’t at one particular pole then you are assumed to be at the other pole. There seems to not be allowance by the polar people for a middleground.

    I appreciate the creeds as a point of unity, not as weapons of exclusion. In that they are used for the purpose of saying, while we may not agree on everything, here are the things that we know to be true, and in that we are brothers.

    ia,
    I’ve seen parts of it. Heard it was controversial also.

    andrew,
    I know! What happened to normal?
    I likely tend to think more modern than postmodern. However, I find it extremely frustrating to see postmodernism viewed as a threatening ideology rather than a real cultural context. BTW, I believe that I’ve sat through a few 4-pitbull sermons. Sounds like a good grading system. :)

    ken,
    Interesting that the wisdom of at least a measured amount of humble doubt is enough to be accused of heresy and liberalism.

    maria,
    I love that approach and attitude. It looks like trust and faith to me without a stifling exactitude.

    traveller and cindy,
    Simply, hello. ;)

    metler,
    Great article. Thanks for sharing. I agree that without the proper perspective of Jesus as the living Word and true authority, that other perspectives of the scripture become distorted.

    david,
    Good point. We do all pick and choose to a degree. I’ve been around many churches that don’t look at the grand narrative. Scripture is taught in bits and pieces, stories and principles. I believe it is really hard to put those things in context without understanding the bigger picture. Also a great point that we need the perspective of others to help us find our place in that story.

    jerry,
    Yep, it’s all too common to claim that God is in our corner, seeing everything the way that we do. I wonder if we will start seeing more services where reading and discussing Scripture replaces the sermon.

    charlie,
    Loved how you described the revelation of God in scripture and the exposure and overthrow of the natural order and structures.

    phat pastor,
    Great quote and this statement could replace the entire post.
    The Bible is authoritative insomuch as it reveals the love of God.

    ken,
    And the day the blogs went silent. :)

    bob,
    Great post and discussion. I enjoyed the Tomlinson excerpt and the perspective that the scriptures can be considered trustworthy without requiring that they be literally exact.

    nadine,
    Thanks for the suggestion. More books!

  12. I am going to nonchalantly skirt around the questions you asked (as they’ve been responded to at length!) and ask a quesiton out of my own curiousity…

    What kinds of things do you see in scripture as examples of facutal inconsistancies? Are they things like the accounts found in the gospels, or the account of creation in Genesis, or the various references to different cities/peoples/civilizations in the OT?

    Just wondering, as so many things that were long held as being “factually inconsistent” have over time been discovered to actually be consistent, as new discoveries in archeology have surfaced, new historical facts have come to light, or if we are brave enough to not bow our knee to the predominant views of the secular scientific community…

    Unless we are able to admit that God has the power to do what is impossible to us, then the whole bible quickly becomes “factually inconsistent”. (resurrection from the dead? creating the world from nothing? a spiritual realm that we cannot see or touch?…)

    Just wondering what kinds of things fall into that category for you…..

  13. Daniel,
    I wasn’t necessarily referring to specific instances, but rather to the mentality that the literal details must be completely accurate in order for Scripture to be trustworthy. This argument is used by both atheist and fundamentalist apologists.

    The things that you mentioned would be included in that list, the details of creation, the meaning of OT events, the understanding of poetry, the discrepancies of the gospels, dissecting the epistles, and the interpretation of Revelation. People get all twisted up in a microscopic examination of these things and miss the bigger picture.

    I certainly agree that many of the inconsistencies are due in part to incomplete discovery and knowledge, and that in many cases inconsistencies will be resolved. However, I also believe that those who require literal, factual exactness are on shaky ground.

    I am more comfortable with a humble certainty that the scriptures are trustworthy and life-giving regardless of the interpretation of specific details. For me, this is a position that can adapt to revelation and understanding of details within the framework of a solid faith in the big-picture story of God.

    One last important point, as you said, the supernatural aspects of God will always be known in the realm of spirit and faith, not intellect and proof.

    Thanks for the discussion.

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