Friday, July 14, 2006

Questions of Authority

Discussions about the authority of the scriptures have crossed my path more than once in the last few weeks. It's an interesting topic that I think is crucial to the health of the Church and currently under the microscope (and up often up for grabs) in the academy. However, my interest is in precisely how the questions relating to the topic are framed. Often the question is posed in terms of "Do you believe the scriptures are authoritative?" While this is an important question, and may be especially timely for broad evangelicalism (in the loosest way the term may be conceived) I would suggest that it may not be the most important question. One of the reasons I love reading Tom Wright is for the questions that he poses. Though I may not always agree with his conclusions, he is definitely asking the right questions. As I've been working my way though NTPG, one of the most significant issues he addresses in the Introduction pertains to this issue. But rather than ask "Are the scriptures authoritative?", he frames the question: "How are the scriptures authoritative?" This is something I believe conservative evangelicals have a hard time dealing with. While most believe they are authoritative, not many have cogently articulated how they are. I would suggest that this is one of the most troubling issues for laymen as well as they wrestle with the OT and the Gospels especially and perhaps a difficult issue for unbelievers to grapple with as well. The problem lies primarily in dealing with Narrative. I'll summarize Wright's excellent soldier analogy: When a soldier reports for duty, he expects to find his orders from his commander posted on the bulletin board. He anticipates finding a list of commands and instructions. How would the soldier respond if instead, he read the "orders" only to find that they began with the words, "Once upon a time..."? Surely he knows they are from his CO, but how does he obey a story? The analogy is very good in many ways. I think this is exactly the dilemma the laymen finds himself in when attempting to "obey" the vast narrative portions of the Bible. Surely he believes it is authoritative...it's the word of God! But how do you obey something that begins with, "In the beginning God..." The imperatives are few at times, and certainly far between. You feel the weight of the word, but are somewhat unsure what to do with it. Likewise, the unbeliever hears the Christian appeal to the authority of the Bible, but how can a document thousands of years old have any relevance or authority over a post-modern society? Sadly, I don't think many of those who trumpet the Bible's authority most loudly have not gone very far in articulating the nature of its authority. So here's the question I'm posing (or perhaps relaying) - How are the scriptures (particularly the vast narrative portions authoritative?

7 comments:

G said...

So... I guess nobody knows. I've been chewing on it a little, but this is a new discussion for me.

NWMihelis said...

Either that or nobody's reading anymore because my posts are becoming as frequent as Barker's
:-0

I agree. It's a new discussion for me too. Though I've considered it in the past, I don't think my assumptions were too good...hence I still struggle with my OT interpretation.

Anonymous said...

I've been chewing on this a little as well, and it's a tricky discussion because I feel like other issues are hinted at in "authority" that aren't even necessarily tied up in the narrative issue. For example, if you asked an average believer this question, I think they would answer that it means that the Bible is the "final word" over anything else and it functions this way in all areas of life. It must be obeyed. It is interesting to ask this question about another book, though. For example, my "authoritative" cook book is "The Best Recipe" because it is incredibly comprehensive and thorough and I have come to respect its method and authors. Or we might say that Grudem's systematic is the "authoritative" systematic in many discussions at our school (although I'm grimacing as I type that, I do find it's true). Why are these books authoritative? Because they are considered the best in their subject area or domain. So then my question comes back to the Bible and really an old hermeneutical question: in what are did the Bible intend to be authoritative? And this focuses us back in the correct area for our "how is it..." question too. If we approach the Bible with our needs and questions, they often will not be answered. That's simply saying that the Bible is not intending to answer our questions in the way we ask them. It has a different agenda and different method for achieving its goals. For example, in the soldier analogy, if the soldier proceeds to try to find commands in the narrative, is he really treating his CO's text as authoritative? Is he reading it the way the CO intended? THe authority of Scripture always goes back to the fact that it is revelation from God and it is only authoritative when understood as He intended it to be understood. So I think part of what we must do is let go of our desire for a quick answer and our reader-friendly (seeker-sensitive) mindset. The Bible does work and part of understanding how it is authoritative is discovering the ways in which it works. Like why do we always have to be so darn practical, like I feel like my SS lesson isn't complete unless I have very specific application. But is this always necessary? Perhaps we are just meant to worship through the text, or to reconstruct our conceptions of God or to re-frame our perspective within the Biblical story... All these things end up being very practical, but they aren't very observable or easy to understand while they're happening. Coming back to the earlier question - in what area/domain did the Bible intend to be authoritative. Surely every area of our life, but sometimes in our rush to see this happen, we jump ahead of the text demanding that our questions and needs be answered rather than let the text set the agenda for our lives. In this way our lives become an authority over the text (and this could even be framed in a modern/postmodern context - why do we even ask scientific/historical, etc. questions of the text...?) You may have heard this illustration before, since it comes from Wright (and correct me if I remember it wrong), but it is my favorite so far. He was asked in an interview if he considered the Bible innerant and he quoted an Anglican rector he knew: "Well, it's the only book I bow before every day and shape my life to." I love that answer because he is refusing to ask the Bible questions from our agenda, but he ends up giving the response which I imagine God and the Holy Spirit would prize more than a lengthy defense of a 7-day creation. And perhaps there's another way to discuss this - how does the Holy Spirit make the text authoritative...
This is very rambling and undeveloped, sorry.
Annalisa

NWMihelis said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
NWMihelis said...

Annalisa,

If that's your idea of "rambling and undeveloped" I can't wait to see articulate and incisive! :-)

You raise some excellent points and your ramblings are riddled with quotable quotes (and I don't just mean Wright's). One of my favorites is:

"Surely every area of our life, but sometimes in our rush to see this happen, we jump ahead of the text demanding that our questions and needs be answered rather than let the text set the agenda for our lives. In this way our lives become an authority over the text."

In all seriousness you ought to develop your thoughts into an essay/article.

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