Following from the idea of sola scriptura (scripture alone), many Christians, primarily those coming out of the Protestant traditions, have come to think that if people will just read the Bible they will become followers of Christ. That is, they seem to suggest that acceptance of the Bible as an authoritative text for life precedes acceptance of Christ Jesus as Lord and Savio(u)r.
In convincing the world of this basic though generally erroneous assumption, we Protestants have unfortunately been quite successful. I am reminded of this through my recent interactions with non-Christians of various kinds.
To witness our success, take some time to listen to how non-Christians portray Christianity. For a moment, you might see yourself as in a mirror, it may be a funhouse mirror but it is a mirror, nonetheless.
When you do take time to listen, to ask questions, to create space for your neighbo(u)r to give voice to their ideas, frustrations, fears, dreams, desires, and concerns, I think you will hear what I hear quite consistently. That is, in the distortions of the funhouse mirror, this view of the authority of Scripture is an accurate reflection of what they hear from Christians.
Take Up and Read
Famously, Augustine’s conversion is tied to an experience where he heard a child’s voice telling him to “take up and read.” So, he did. Yet, this voice and this reading of Scripture did not occur in absolute isolation. No, it was rather the culmination of an ongoing conversation with the Creator God and relationships with followers of Christ and pagan philosophers. Of these, Augustine’s relationship with his mother Monica is of utmost importance.
Even with these prior relationships and this moment of conversion which involved reading a passage from Paul, Augustine, a well-educated Roman, struggled to appreciate and understand the value of these rather low-brow texts with their immoral patriarchs and less than stellar grammar. Yet, he persisted with it. Why? Because these writings witness to Christ and come with Christ. That is, they derive their authority from Christ.
In my own life, having been given a Gideon New Testament in fifth grade and being an avid reader, I read the New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs on more than one occassion between fifth grade and my conversion at nineteen. Living in post-Christendom Canada, I knew that this text was supposed to be special. I did like Jesus but I also liked Aslan and Luke Skywalker. And why did they tell the same story four times? I found Revelation provocative and enjoyed looking over timelines with my Grandfather. But besides that nothing special?
In the eighth grade, I recall telling some Christian friends that the Bible seemed like a pretty good early attempt at a novel. I was already making my way through my Dad’s gold embossed Dicken’s collection at that age. So, like Augustine, I had some points of literary comparison. The Bible did not quite measure up to the standard to which I had become accustomed.
The text had no authority for me until after my conversion. My relationship with Christ preceded my acceptance of Scripture but once I began my relationship with the Word of God, I turned to “the words of God’s people.” Why? Because I wanted to find out more about this Jesus who had responded to me and shown himself faithful and good, so far anyway. Yet, even prior to my relationship with Jesus was a relationship with a mutual friend who introduced us. I had seen my friend’s life change in his relationship with Jesus. So, in a very real sense, I placed my trust in Jesus because I already trusted my friend and he gave credit to Jesus for the significant transformation of character that I saw in his life.
What do these stories have to do with the authority of Scripture? Well, let me tell you another story about authority from a year before my conversion.
Does Dunstan Ramsey Have Authority for You?
In my final year of high school, in an elective course on Canadian Literature, Mr. Packowski asked us what I consider the first real question in my formal education. We were reading Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.
The book is written in the first person. Dunstan Ramsey is the main protagonist and the narrator. When we were a few chapters into the text, Mr. Packowski asked us, “Does Dunstan Ramsey have authority for you?”
Now, keep in mind, those of us in this seminar style class were the bright kids (who else signs up to read Susanna Moodie and Margaret Atwood in high school), in that moment none of us knew the answer. Indeed, we did not even know what the question meant. But we were excited about the question. There was something different about this question. We were not being asked to regurgitate a fact or solve a formula. We were being asked to understand, interpret, and evaluate. It was like we had taken our first step out of Plato’s cave.
When he got nowhere with us, Mr. Packowski sent us home with an assignment. What does the word authority mean in this context? Does Dunstan Ramsey have authority for you?
We came back the next period. I do not recall what everyone else thought but I could say, “Yes, I trust Dunstan Ramsey. I think he is attempting to faithfully and accurately tell us what he knows of the events that make up this story.”
Authority is related to trust. Trust is related to character. Why did Mr. Packowski wait until we were a few chapters into the novel before asking this question? Well, we cannot evaluate Dunstan’s character until we have seen him act. Early in the novel, Dunstan shares a story about his involement in and takes responsibility for an event that had tragic consequences for a woman in his town. Given that Dunstan is willing to share his own failings, it seemed to speak to his effort to be honest. The character of Davies’s character is what moves the reader to grant him authority, to trust him.
The Character of God and Christ’s Followers & the Authority of Scripture
Before someone wrote Genesis, YHWH had a relationship with Abraham and kept some promises. Before Exodus was written, the Creator rescued Israel from Egypt. Indeed, before Moses received the Ten Commandments, God demonstrated his character through his actions. The authority of the Ten Commandments was not derived from the fact that some strange and mysterious god dropped them out of heaven. The Israelites granted or recognized the authority of the Ten Commandments (many of which could be found in surrounding cultures the authority of which derived from the human ruler and likely the god he represented) because, in the Exodus, God had demonstrated his character, as trustworthy, just, and good. Even then with something we might begin to call Scripture, Israel struggled to trust God.
The point is that Scripture itself attests to the fact that the authority of Scripture is based upon the people’s prior relationship with the God, YHWH. Remember, in the form we have it now, Genesis through 2 Kings was likely completed in sixth century BC. In other words, what Christians have as their Scriptures are writings from Jews in exile reflectiong on their prior relationship with God. A text which attests to the LORD’s ongoing faithfulness to generally unfaithful Israel.
It is of utmost importance to take the humanity of these texts seriously. Part of what speaks to the authority of this text is precisely that, like Dunstan Ramsey, these author’s attest to their own failings and responsibility while witnessing to God’s trustworthy and faithful character.
As I see it, there are some key problems in almost magical and, perhaps, even gnostic way that many Protestants, and especially Evangelicals, present Scripture.
1. In assuming that authority is an inherent quality of the text itself and available to all through “the plain reading” of the text, we underestimate the often difficult work of interpretation that is involved.
Even a highly educated and skilled intepreter like Augustine made genre errors and struggled to interpret certain texts. We cannot assume that our non-Christian conversation partners will “just get it”, if they “take up and read.” I suspect that many Christians who regularly read their Bible don’t “just get” most of Scripture.
This facile understanding of the text is illustrated in an unintentionally humorous scene from the Left Behind movie from the 90s. After the rapture has occurred, a young woman is thinking about recent events and the disappearance of her Christian mother.
When I watched it for the first time, I nudged my friend and jokingly said, “She is going to her room to go get an NIV Student Bible.”
She went upstairs. She reached up to pull down an NIV Student Bible, dusty but new, from the top shelf of her closet.
Night falls to suggest the passing of time. So, a few hours later, Bible in hand, the young woman comes down the steps. She sees her Dad, and tapping the Bible, she says, “You’re right, Dad. The answers are all in here.”
Wow, she is a fast reader. Even the genealogies and Leviticus didn’t slow her down. Really? Is that how it works?
That’s what many of us implicitly and explicitly tell people, Christian and non-Christians alike
2. Unfortunately, we, or at least some of us, have so successfully marketed this particular view of the text that even educated non-Christians (and many educated Christianss) assume that if they have found even the slightest inconsistency or contradiciton in text, translation, or manuscript history, they have successfully undermined the authority of the text.
That is, we have successfully convinced them that if the various writings are not “factually accurate” down to the smallest detail, then it is not trustworthy at all. (N.B. How many Biblical Scholars are motivated by a desire to undermine the text by undermining a Fundamentalist approach to the text that they grew up in or had modelled to them in other ways? i.e. Barth Erhman, the Jesus Seminar, Robert Funk, etc.) Were there one or two demoniacs? How many times did Jesus visit the Temple and when? Did you notice that Chronicles is different from Kings?
Sometimes Christians seem wary of even the seemingly obvious suggestion that events in the Bible are written about after the events took place. (Ken Ham’s appeal to eye-witness testimony for Genesis 1 seems to promote such a view.)
3. Those who most fear the slippery slope have smoothed out the surface and sometimes pushed people over the edge.
I get it. If I say Jonah is a parable and that we do not have to send Jeremy Wade to the Mediterannean Sea to find a huge grouper, I understand how that creates discomfort. The thought is, “If you deny the fish, then next you’ll deny the resurrection of Jesus.” Yet, as many of us bear witness (i.e. Joel Anderson, Pete Enns, John Walton, Rikk Watts, Bruce Waltke, J.I. Packer, V. Philips Long, Iain Provan, Tremper Longman III, Walter Brueggeman, Pope Francis, etc.) this if/then is not a necessary relationship. Rather, my view comes out of what I think is careful attention to genre and the details of the text, not from a commitment to a view that things which seem impossible cannot be possible.
Many Christians and it seems most non-Christains are convinced that such if/then statements are valid and necessary. Thus, inquisitive Christians either learn to keep their mouths shut or accepting the if/then statement, they say, “If I think the earth is over 7,000 years old, well, then . . . ”
As much as apologists like Ken Ham think they are keeping people from the edge. Their rhetoric effectively pushes people over the edge and they knock down anyone clambering up as they go.
4. We tend to ignore, undervalue or prematurely dismiss the sometimes very insightful and astute observations that many Christians and non-Christians make with regard to these texts.
In light of my previous post, I see this all the time on the internet and in other media including much so-called apologetic books. Self-appointed “defenders of the faith” are so quick to dismiss an interpretation or argument that they cannot see or do not bother to ask about the often valid observation that lies behind it. I wonder if many Christians mistake conceding a point or affirming an insight, as tantamount to conceding the argument.
For instance, in one recent internet exchange, someone who describes himself as a pagan raised questions about the theophanies or visible manifestations of YHWH in the Old Testament. I suspect most Christians do not know what to do with that or they slip into the assumption that these are pre-incarnate appearances of Christ, as David Murray does in his otherwise insightful Jesus on Every Page.
This pagan’s observation is good and his questions are insightful. The tendency of the early church to assume that these theophanies were always the Son created problems with respect to Christ’s divinity. God the Father is invisible but the Son is visible. Uh Oh. Christ’s divine nature is not the same as that of the Father. He is a second tier deity of similar stuff but not of the same stuff. After Nicaea, Augustine addresses this issue in his On the Trinity and, in my mind, resolves the issue by arguing we can not say which person is present or if all three are present. What is seen is the Triune God manipulating matter or creature manipulation. This modern pagan asks a good question which presents a significant challenge to key doctrines, if not not properly understood and interpreted.
For this reason, rather than jump down someone’s throat, dismissing them, or telling them “the plain reading of the text” (see the image of Genesis 1 above to begin your “plain” reading), it seems to me the Christian, the intellectually honest, and congenial thing to do is to affirm a good question, observation, or challenge when we see it. If you don’t know the answer, admit it, & then go find out what other Christians have said. If she points out something that you haven’t notice before, thank them, & again follow up on it for yourself of think through it together.
Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The way in which you handle the truth may make the difference between breathing life (inspiring) into a relationship or quenching whateve life is already there.
The following books (with images linked to Amazon) may help as you reflect on the nature of Scripture and how you understand concepts like inspiration and inerrancy: