Monday 12 September 2005

The authority of the Bible

For Christian faith, the Bible is authoritative. But what does this authority derive from? What sets this particular book apart from other sources of authority?

In earlier times, theologians often said that the Bible is authoritative because it is “inspired,” or because it has been authored word-for-word by the Holy Spirit. Thus the Bible qua text was believed to be qualitatively different from all other texts. According to this theory, the authority of the Bible is purely formal. What the Bible actually says is authoritative only because it is written in this particular book—and this book would still be authoritative no matter what it actually said.

This theory of biblical authority is fundamentally flawed. On the one hand, it is historically flawed: historical criticism has demonstrated that the Bible qua text is no different from other historical texts—it is just as conditioned and contingent as all other texts. On the other hand, this theory of authority is also theologically flawed. For the important thing about the Bible is precisely what it says. Any theory of inspiration or authority is legitimate only to the extent that it gives primacy to the Bible’s message.

In its text-character, the Bible is no different from other texts. The distinctive thing about the Bible is simply what it says, i.e., its message. And this means that the authority of the Bible derives solely from its message.


Eddie said...

I like this. By message do you simply mean the good news about Jesus and the Kingdom, or do you mean the entire scriptural content, or something in between?

Anonymous said...

I disagree. The biblical texts are inspired as is their collection into a canon (or canons). The Bible derives its authority from this inspiration, that is from God, and from its canonization, that is from the Body of Christ. This double inspiration sets it apart from other inspired works of literature and music. The church affirms of the whole Bible what Paul affirmed of the Old Testament. The Bible is a sufficient and reliable revelation and theological witness; if it is not, then the message is irrelevant. This does not mean, though, that it is not conditioned or that it is inerrant in all respects.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Ken. Thanks for your interesting point of view. I must admit I'm astonished by the idea that even the canonisation of the biblical texts is "inspired". All I can say is that most Protestants (and a good many Roman Catholics too, especially since Vatican II) would feel deeply uncomfortable with such a high view of church tradition. Are you really trying to bring back the Tridentine view of tradition? Or have I misunderstood?

Anonymous said...

I find this post rather weak, as a matter of fact. It's not at all obvious to me that verbal inspiration is incompatible with being culturally conditioned.

And you've only stated that the idea of authority through inspiration is theologically flawed. The fact that the important thing about the Bible is what it says doesn't consititute a reason.

And what precisely is wrong with saying that the Bible is importnat because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit?

Ben Myers said...

Hi John -- thanks for your thoughtful comment. You ask what is wrong with saying "that the Bible is important because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit".

It seems to me that there is nothing wrong with saying this, as long as we rightly understand what "inspired by the Holy Spirit" means, and as long as we're not just starting with a preconceived concept of "formal inspiration". I think that "inspiration" should be understood materially rather than formally -- it's a term that describes the Bible qua Word, not the Bible qua text.

Anonymous said...

Ben: I don't regard the word "inspiration" to have a different meaning in the context of the Christian Faith then it does in the rest of life. Consequently, I doubt that my view would be entirely acceptable to a Tridentine view. But, I do have a high view of tradition, particularly of those decisions made before the formal schism. I believe that inspiration is active and ongoing but what separates the biblical text from say a classical piece by Bach or Mozart is that the former has received the assent of the historical church and become authoritative through deliberation. This process was inspired; God driven. Does that clarify my meaning?

Chris Tilling said...

Hi Ben,
About time I posted on your blog about your scripture musings!
Recently, Tom Wright has argued that the authority of scripture is simply this: the authority of God. Nothing new there perhaps, but how he defines the authority of God in this respect is thought-provoking: The authority of scripture, which is God's authority exercising through scripture, is 'the sovereign rule of God sweeping through creation to judge and heal. It is the powerful love of God in Jesus Christ, putting sin to death and launching new creation. It is the fresh, bracing and energizing wind of the Spirit' (Scripture and the Authority of God, 24).

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Just curious, Ben: does this mean that a sermon (or blog for that matter) is as authoritative as the Bible insofar as it conforms/confirms/communicates the biblical message?

Also interested to hear what you think about eddie's question (does the message = the gospel of Jesus or does it = the entire sweep of biblical salvation history?). Thanks for all your work - always stimulating.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, Byron, your first question comes close to Luther's position. Luther considered preaching to be the fundamental form of the (verbal) Word; he considered the Bible to be a (necessary) stopgap lest preaching misfire. Above all, he insisted that God's Word cannot be confined to a book.

I myself would argue not only that the spoken word must be tested against the written word, but also that the written word must be tested in the "crucible" of the gospel. In any case, the Bible does not come to us "neat", it is always mediated - and therein lies the question not only of hermeneutics but of the whole theological enterprise.

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