The Bible and authority


Blogger Wade G writes in his blog "Evolution of the Mystery":

The fact is, it is okay to just say that in certain respects the Bible can be wrong. Dead wrong, about facts and morals, and even world views. People can read into the Bible pretty much anything they want, but think of this: if someone could prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the Bible truly taught that women should be subordinate would that make it true? Of course not. It would mean that the Bible was WRONG. WRONG WRONG WRONG. Why is that so hard for folk to understand? The Bible is here for us - we are not here to serve the Bible.
I think he is right, of course, and I do think that even among liberal Christians there is sometimes a tendency to approach the Bible with a kind of reverence or to assign it a kind of authority that I don't think it necessarily deserves. I believe that the word "authority" is problematic in this case; if the Bible is clearly wrong about some things, and if we are honest with ourselves in accepting this, then it is hard to see whence comes this authority.

Some Christians try to balance out the Bible as an authority with other sources; for example, there is the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. But I think this view still assigns a kind of authority to the Bible, and I look at this issue from a different angle. The value of the Bible as I see it lies not in its absolute "rightness" but rather in that it gives us a record of the kinds of issues that people struggled with in certain formative periods of Judaism and Christianity--and, despite its flaws, it also contains some inspirational literature to boot. An analogy I would make is with philosophers who study Plato; they do this, not because Plato was right about everything, but because he was a foundational figure in Western philosopher who touched on nearly all the issues that philosophy has struggled with ever since. Similarly, the Bible touched on virtually all the important issues that monotheistic Western faith has grappled with ever since.

The Bible is a starting point, not an end point. It is instructive for not just the things it got right, but for the things it got wrong as well. Part of the process of discovery is learning from past mistakes, and if religion is a journey towards the mystery, then part of understanding the journey is knowing where we made some wrong turns.


Wade G. said...

Very well said!

Jeff S said...

I just love it. I just added your blog to my rss feeds so I can read it daily or whenever you write.

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks, Jeff!

Frank said...

The historical baggage here is that Luther needed something to latch onto as a beacon of Authority instead of the Church. He went with Scipture.

Even though sola scriptura has been pretty well debunked in academic and mainline Christian circles, I think there is still a fundamental problem in the sense that the practice continues even if the theology behind it has eroded.

If you take away Scipture as sole Authority--since let's face it, it came from the Church--then what does that leave you with? What do you stand on or base your claims on?

The Weslyan quadralateral basically matches my understanding of Catholic thought on the matter and it pretty much says it all to me. We may frame it a bit differently, talking about Tradition & Scripture and Faith & Reason, but to my eye it boils down to the same thing.

You could argue that Scripture is still too important in those ways of looking at it. It could be seen as a mere by-product of the people of God who passed down some early writings--not always the earliest, but some of the earliest. I think the centuries of people who recognized in the Scriptures something of Authority is to be appreciated, though... which is why Catholics see Tradition and Scripture as two forces that influence and re-interpret each other. Out of the Church comes Scripture, which then, in turn, influences the Church, and the Tradition influences the way we read Scripture, etc.

I think it is noteworthy that even a very Tradition-oriented church like the Catholics still hold Scripture and Tradition up as a "single deposit of faith" and not with one greater than the other.

PrickliestPear said...

Most of us are raised in one tradition or another and when we're young, we don't really choose what tradition that happens to be -- it's chosen for us. Later, many of us begin to take responsibility for what we believe in, and our faith is chosen.

For people in the first category, authority is located externally to themselves -- in this or that scripture, leader, tradition, etc.

Many of us, however, realise that even if we listen to external authorities, in the end we cannot help but avoid using our judgment. I can choose to follow the dictates of an external authority, but that authority can't make that choice for me. So when I realise this, I cannot help but recognise that my own judgment is ultimately the final arbiter of what I believe, and therefore I am, for myself, a higher authority than anything external to myself, like the Bible.

No one who has this realisation can continue to follow the external authority uncritically. The Bible becomes what David Tracy (borrowing from Gadamer) calls a "classic." It has the power to grab us, to recognise it's timeless truth and be moved by it. It can have authority, but only because we've granted it that status after having been moved by it. It's authority is not imposed from outside.

Obviously we will all have our own ideas about what grabs us and what doesn't. It's not possible to actually accept everything the Bible says, so we are all inevitably selective, critically or uncritically. The difference between the fundamentalist and the progressive is that the progressive is aware of this and readily admits to it.

Frank said...

I don't think anyone (here) would suggest that we should follow any external authority uncritically. But religion isn't all subjective, though. In fact, that's one of the pillars of the study of Theolgy--the idea that yes, there is a God, and yes, we can know something about this God. In other words, it's not just a matter of personal opinion.

When it comes to the natural sciences, for example, each person needs to consider the evidence and see if it makes a convincing case. But we all recognize that there is such a thing as objective right/wrong in the natural sciences.

Mercury has a closer orbit to the sun than Venus, no matter what opinion you have. It is simply a fact. However, the authority of your own mind will have to recognize this in order for it to be true to you, but it is true, nonetheless.

It should go without saying that how we come to know and understand religious belief is a whole different mechanism than how we come to move from hypthesis to theory to fact in the natural sciences, but I use that as an example to show that while your mind IS the final authority as far as you are concerned, it is worth mentioning that we should not confuse personal opinion with fact.

CT said...

True - but we have to be careful about what we regard as fact. Did Jesus physically rise from the dead ? Did he actually walk across the water ? We have a book written 2000 years ago that claims certain things happened that are totally unheard of in our world. If you are talking about facts when it comes to historical events its a matter of weighing up historical evidence ( as opposed to 2+2 = 4 ) I'd say we can say as fact that Jesus lived, was raised in Nazareth, died in Jerusalem - but most events after that are debated.

And the mindset of 1st century Jews is something we can only hope to enter. We have few facts - we have many experiences and opinions. That's the nature of religious belief and why there are so many religions.

PrickliestPear said...


I assume you were responding to my comment.

When I said that we must all ultimately rely on our own judgment I was not suggesting that there is no objective truth. Whenever I come to "know" something, it is because I have judged that it is so. There is no getting around that. But that doesn't exclude objective knowing.

I'm not sure what that has to do with the question of scripture as authority, however. Are you suggesting that it is something we can "know" objectively? I'd be highly interested in hearing your arguments for that.

Frank said...

Prickliest Pear,

My comments were basically stating that there is a case to be made for external things like tradition and scription to be considered as authoritative. I agree with CT that how we come to understand objective truth in religion is way totally different than how we come to know objective truth in the natural sciences, but to say that the human mind is the only final authority (like you suggest) is problematic.

Through a complex and murkey systems of tradition, people as a Church have consistently affirmed the authority of various pieces of that tradition, such as scripture. Individuals have to come to that themselves, but there is something to be said about how people have collectively come to that belief as well that takes it out of the level of pure individual decision making.

Mystical Seeker said...

I'm all in favor of a collective process as opposed to everyone being a lone wolf and going their own way. I think there are problems with the supposedly collective dynamic of the Christianity has decided things like this in the past, though. A truly collective dynamic isn't about a subset of the body as a whole making decisions on everyone's behalf, and it doesn't mean winners getting to decide over the losers and then claiming that once victory is declared the matter is settled for all future time. A bona fide collective process would involve a continual dialogue within all elements of the community and a willingness to admit that a previous theological conclusion was wrong. Just because something was always done that way is not an argument in and of itself. And an unwillingness to revisit prior questions that are allegedly settled once and for all is in my view contrary to the spirit of true collective dialogue and discussion.

If some sort of body within the greater community claims the right to make decisions on behalf of everyone, I'm not sure how that constitutes a collective decision. If a body of people makes a decision for everyone else, I suppose you could call it "collective" because more than one person is involved, but it isn't collective in the broader sense of the entire community.