Friday, July 16, 2010

Scripture and Authority, Pt. 2

In the last post I began looking at the issue of the authority of Scripture by asking the question, “In what ways can a poem be authoritative?” and then showing that, in many ways, applying the concept of authority to the variety of literary types found in the Bible is a category mistake. In other words, each literary type or genre has it own rules or conventions and must be examined and interpreted according to those conventions. For legal documents, authority is a proper category; a municipal code has authority limited to its municipality, while the U.S. Constitution has complete authority that is nonetheless limited to the United States. But unless lawmakers start writing bills in verse, I have a hard time seeing how authority is a proper category for poetry. “Is it beautiful?” is a proper question to ask, as is “How does the poem make me feel?” “Is it true” is also a good question, but the issue of truth applied to poetry is different than when asked of a newspaper column. In the latter, “Is it true” means “Did it actually occur as the article reports?” but that’s an irrelevant question regarding 99.9% of poetry, including biblical poetry. Go ahead, pick any psalm and ask that question and see how it gets you nowhere. For poetry, “Is it true” means something like, “Does this jibe with my own experience or that of people I know well? When things are going well and I want to praise God, does this psalm express what I am feeling? When things are going bad and I want to complain to God, does this psalm express what I want to say but may be afraid to say?” If the answer is yes, then you may want to say that the psalm has some authority in your life—but probably not. You would probably say that it really speaks to you, that it means a lot to you, that you are drawn to it over and over again.

I’m not sure that, prior to the dominance of Enlightenment philosophy beginning in the 18th century, authority was much of an issue with regard to biblical interpretation. Even if so, it certainly wasn’t so at the level that it became, particularly for evangelicals, at the beginning of the 20th century. Before the Reformation, authority rested in the Church, ruled by priests and, ultimately, the Pope. Now, there is no confusion about authority there. We understand how people exercise authority—to control other people. But when the reformers transferred that principle to a book things got muddy. N.T. Wright expresses this well:

When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations. They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation. ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible. Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church? Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?

As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’. Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed. Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed. And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question.

Maybe the word “authority” applied to literature is like “Christian” applied to a t-shirt; just as a t-shirt can’t be a Christian, only a person can be a Christian, maybe a book can’t be authoritative, only a person can be authoritative. And just as the moon only reflects the light of the sun, so also any book that bears authority is just reflecting the authority of the person behind the book.

Ultimately, our authority as Christians is Jesus, and even Scripture falls under his authority, for he and no one or no thing else is the perfect and complete image-bearer of the Father. And it does no good to say, as some have done, that we only know Jesus through the pages of the Bible, for then I can no more have a personal relationship with Jesus than I can with any other historical figure that I can only know through the pages of some history book. No, the Christian witness is that Jesus is alive, that we can each have a personal relationship with him, and that in following him I can know God. God is our authority, but his authority is not that of a king with a sword but of a king washing his servants’ feet, and then hanging on a cross.

And God’s authority isn’t about controlling people but redeeming them so they can live the life he created them to live. And maybe that reveals a lot of our problem when we talk about religious authority, whether that of a book or of an ecclesial body or even that of God—we are still speaking of authority in terms in which the world has always defined and exercised it, whereas Jesus came to provide us a new definition of authority and a new way of exercising it. Instead of controlling people, God’s authority frees them; instead of coercing obedience, God’s authority invites obedience; instead of dictating behavior, God’s authority provides examples of the type of behavior that leads to life; and instead of authority resulting in resentment and/or power-hoarding and power-grabbing, God’s authority results in love, thanksgiving, and mutual submission.

And that’s the point: God’s authority doesn’t feel like authority, it feels like love, and that’s because that’s what it is: the authority of love. We listen to God not because we have to, but because we know he loves us and is looking out for us. And we obey, not because we have to, but because we love him and we trust him with our lives.

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