Moving along today onto our next question, we hit the thorny issue regarding what kind of authority the Bible was meant to have. Here’s our list of questions that we’re working through:
What kind of documents do we find in the Bible and how are we to understand them?
>>What kind of authority was the Bible meant to have?<<
Who determines what the Bible has to say?
What is the Bible’s role in the church today?
>>What kind of authority was the Bible meant to have?
Time restricts me from hitting this one full head on as it deserves. It would require a look at church history, Judaism leading up to the time of Christ, and a thorough study of the use of the OT in the NT. But I’ll throw a few thoughts out there to see where they take us.
When approaching the question of authority, a few items are worth considering: how did the writers of the NT view the OT and what did Jesus have to say about the Bible, how did he use it, and what did he say about the Holy Spirit’s role?
Though I could be in danger of seeing what I want to see (as we all are), it often strikes me that the writers of the NT typically refer to the characters of the OT as part of the same people of God learning to have a relationship with him. They illustrate how things work with God, not necessarily how we are to act. That’s perhaps a fine line, but it’s an important one.
The OT shows us a segment of the history of salvation and how a relationship with God works. What’s important though is not to get caught up in the details. Paul seems to really hammer hard on Abraham and his faith, but his point isn’t that we imitate Abraham necessarily. His point is that faith is how we are joined with God. Paul is connecting a part of the OT story with today. He is revealing a continuity.
At other parts of the NT, we see a rather startling amount of reinterpretation. The accepted exegesis of the day about the Messiah, Son of Man, Day of the Lord, and Restoration of Israel had to radically reinterpreted around Jesus as the true Israel that is restored (I’m leaning on NT Wright here). This explains Peter’s speech in Acts where he alludes to the prophecy of Joel about prophesy and visions in the last days. While filled with the Spirit, the people of God are enabled to find God’s meaning in a passage for their current situation.
We can see something of the Spirit’s work when Jesus speaks of the Spirit in the Gospel of John. The Spirit will give the disciples boldness and remind them of the words of Jesus. And so we can be confident that the accounts left to us by the early church are reliable and appear as God intended them.
And so we hit the issue of authority. How is scripture to be authoritative? In one sense, it is essential for the church. It is how we find out about God’s connection with his people. It is also one of the major ways he communicates with his people, though not the only way. God can just as well speak through prayer or through a fellow believer who hears from God. The Bible establishes patterns and trajectories for the church. It does not give us a blue print, but rather a portrait of God and his people. We should notice a family resemblance, but it will not be a snap shot.
The church most certainly needs to cling to the Bible, but it should not do so at the neglect of God himself, especially his Spirit. I am convinced that the Bible is useless without God speaking through it. What does that mean? I can’t say it means one thing in particular, but here are a few thoughts. It isn’t enough to read the Bible for information. It isn’t enough to read the Bible for instructions or rules. If you’re thinking about whether to make women wear hats in church, look it up, read the verse, and deem that women must wear hats based on what Paul says, then shame on you. That’s not hearing God, that’s just reading.
The Bible carries its authority when the church is seeking out God and engages the scriptures. The church is looking for guidance, relationship, and holiness. There is a difference between the two scenarios. One just wants the rules, the facts, the course to follow, the other is looking for God himself, to participate in the words found in the scriptures.
When the church approaches in that way, then I am sure that we will see things jump out at us. Certain words will speak to our situation, God will make something so clear that we could never have imagined. What’s essential in all of this is to run our readings past one another. This does not mean we have become THE authority. We submit to God (of course), but also to one another. If you think God is taking you on a course that opposes every Christian you know, it may be worth reconsidering. Just maybe, eh?
Wrapping things up, perhaps the authority of scripture can be found in its role as revealing God to us and giving us a common source for our relationship with him. His Spirit makes the words of scripture apply to our lives, bringing in God’s authority through his scripture. The church hears God together through the Spirit and through the Bible, and therefore are able to live obediently.
It’s not a perfect system, but nothing is fool proof in my estimation. Will it bring chaos? Possibly. ButI sure hope a reimaging of the Bible’s authority will point the church in the right direction.