Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Scripture and Authority, Pt. 1

In what way can a poem be authoritative?

I ask that because the Bible is full of poetry, and evangelicals like to invoke something called “the authority of Scripture,” which begs the question: “In what way can a poem be authoritative?”

With some written documents the issue of authority is clear. A bill passed into law by a government in our country has authority. It must be obeyed, or there are consequences ranging from monetary fines, community service, or incarceration. These laws are authoritative, yet they all fall under the authority of another written document. The Constitution of the United States has an authority that is clear. All laws must be in keeping with the rights, privileges, values and principles outlined in the Constitution, and any that in any way violate or contradict the Constitution are thrown out, invalidated as being unconstitutional. So, in a legal sense, we understand how documents can be authoritative. But is this helpful in understanding the authority of Scripture? Sure, there are legal sections in the Old Testament, and for orthodox Jews these sections still carry authority for their lives, but not even all Jews recognize the authority of these old legal codes; certainly Christians don’t (except when those laws touch on certain pet social issues and support our position on those pet social issues). Jesus did not feel compelled to obey all the Old Testament laws regarding clean and unclean food, association with sinners, and gleaning on the Sabbath. And Paul’s letters, particularly Romans and Galatians, even more directly undermine the authority of these legal sections over the lives of Christians. Consequently, we are suspicious of anything that smacks of “legalism.” So surely when we speak about the authority of Scripture, we aren’t talking about the kind of authority one finds in a legal document, are we?

Are we?

Sometimes we’ll use “authoritative” with reference to a biography, history, or even science book that is seen to be the best word, the most complete word, or the most definitive word in a particular discipline. For instance, in the first half of the 20th Century the definitive text on Southern Baptist theology was E.Y. Mullins’ “The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression.” If you wanted to know what Southern Baptists believed, that was the book that you went to first and foremost. In most disciplines there are those definitive texts that are considered to be authoritative. The problem is—well, for one thing, how many of you have heard of E.Y. Mullins’ “The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression”? How many of you have heard of E.Y. Mullins? He was a giant among Southern Baptists, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1899 until his death in 1928. But by the time that I arrived at Southern Seminary in 1981, his text was no longer the definitive text. It was good, it was useful, but it had been bypassed by other theology texts. That’s the nature of authoritative texts: they are authoritative in their time, but rarely remain so. Human knowledge grows and develops, and as we learn, texts become less relevant and authoritative.

Surely this isn’t what we mean when we say that Scripture is authoritative, is it?

A history book is authoritative if it accurately records and describes what really happened during the period on which it is reporting. Thus if a book on the Civil War says that the Battle of Gettysburg occurred on July 5-7, 1864 instead of July 1-3, 1863, we aren’t going to give much credence to anything else the book says. I think that we are getting closer to what some people at least mean by the authority of Scripture, but there are (at least) two issues to deal with here: what, for instance, do we do with John placing the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (John 2:12-16) when Matthew, Mark and Luke have it at the end of his ministry in their gospels? There are other similar chronological issues in the historical sections, but even if you are able to reconcile those, you are still left with the original question: In what way can a poem be authoritative? Not all of the Bible is historical in nature. There are parables, poems, apocalypses, epistles, prophetic utterances (almost all of which are poetry), psalms, proverbs, legal codes, love songs, festival songs, and all sorts of narratives to which it is difficult to apply the concept of authority.

This is an important issue, but a difficult one once you really start to examine it. Maybe, just maybe, the issue of authority is the wrong place to start when dealing with Scripture. Like I’ve said many times, if you ask the wrong kind of questions you get the wrong kind of answers.

Maybe there are better questions to ask.

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