In the last post, I pointed out that we should be careful when we throw around the word “authoritative” to describe the Christian scriptures because, even the scriptures themselves make it very clear that we are to consider Jesus as authoritative. I think that any approach that tries to treat scriptures themselves as “authoritative” ironically puts one at risk of idolatry, one of the very things that the scriptures tell us to avoid.
I want to take things a step farther now, and ask this question: Does it even make any sense to talk about the Bible as “authoritative”?
The presumption behind the concept of authority is one of command and obedience. In other words, if someone or something is authoritative, it must be expecting me to submit to its commands, instructions, guidance, etc.
One of my problems with the word “authoritative” is that not all of scripture seems to be providing commands, instructions, guidance, etc. Take Psalm 74, for an example. Here, the Psalmist cries out, mourning that God has rejected him. Adversaries have crushed God’s people, yet God has taken no action. God, the Psalmist recognizes, is a powerful creator-God. He asks God to rise up and defend his cause for the sake of his covenant. Still, there is no answer.
Where is the guidance in Psalm 74? Where, for all that matters, is God himself? The text is a lament over the absence of God. No divine instructions are to be found here. This Psalm is best understood as a question, as puzzled grief, even as a veiled accusation of betrayal. But it is not a command.
To select another random example, lets take I Samuel 25 and 27, a particularly unflattering series of stories in which David, anointed as King of God’s people (but on the run from Saul, who is also in some sense the current King), decides to become a common marauder, robbing the weak of their cattle and other assets. Where is the “instruction” here?
As a final example, lets take a statement that does – on the surface – appear to be instructional. In the book of Romans, the instruction is given to “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Simple enough. Yet, I know of very few religious communities who actually do this. This hardly seems respectful of scripture’s authority.
In attempting to deal with this problem, I have – over time – been exposed to a slightly more complex approach to the scriptures, which looks like this:
The presumption is that, in each biblical text, some “eternal truth” is hidden. However, to understand it, we have to first extract from the text its meaning to its original audience (a process called “exegesis”). Then, we can discern a more generalized truth from the text that can be applied to our own culture and times, and we can thus learn how to be obedient to the “authority” that comes out of the scripture.
This process “works” fairly well in many situations. Take Holy kissing, for example. It made sense to freely exchange kisses in the culture of the early Church, but today kissing is more closely associated with sexuality. As such, under this model, we might refrain from kissing in our culture, while recognizing that there is an “eternal truth” that requires us to greet each other warmly. Thus, we search for other ways that “work” within our culture to recognize/greet each other – such as shaking hands or even hugging.
The story of David the marauder can, similarly, be seen as a cautionary tale regarding the ease by which one can be drawn into conduct that is harmful to others. We can then reflect on the ways we are tempted in our own time and place.
Still, this model is quite imperfect and subjective. Scholars can debate endlessly over the correct meaning of a term, an entire book, or even the overall theology of a well-known writer such as Paul. And the process of trying to distill the text so that you remove all of the cultural baggage and come to its pure meaning is even more maddening and subject to radical disagreement.
The process is good at yielding useful, subjective results, but such results will always be sketchy at best, and there will always be all sorts of room for discussion in the process. (This, I will argue later, is not a bad thing at all).
More to the point, however, this model doesn’t always work. The Psalm where we began – and indeed a good part of the book of Job, which raises similar themes – is a great example. There are no lessons to be learned in some texts of the Bible. Thus, while the process described above can sometimes be useful, it doesn’t complete the picture for me.
Scripture can only begin to speak in meaningful ways when we begin to see it as much more than a divine instructional manual.
Furthermore, if we limit our understanding of God’s purposes to scripture, we can actually diminish our capacity for good. And for the next two posts, we will look at two particular examples (first, slavery, and then the subjugation of women) of why that is the case.