The Vexed Issue of Biblical Authority

bible-authorityOne of the clear purposes and outcomes of the Reformation was to free the Bible from the captivity of the church. Luther and those who followed him insisted that the Bible could be read and understood by common people and that the Roman hierarchy was not the sole arbiter of the meaning of the sacred text. The Bible, the Reformers insisted, need not be read only through the lenses provided by the pope. Vernacular printed texts made the Bible more readily available. Preachers, scholars, and ordinary believers now had access to what had been a closed text.

But there was a problem. Lutherans read and interpreted the text differently than Calvinists. Anabaptists read it differently than Lutherans and Calvinists. As time went on, readings proliferated. Not even the advent of critical biblical scholarship stemmed the tide of varied and contradictory readings. As Walter Brueggemann has put it, “a claim about the authority of scripture is not the end of our trouble, but only the beginning.” In fact, he argues in “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection,” an address he gave in 2000: “The Bible, our mothers and fathers have always known, is not self-evident and self-interpreting, and the Reformers did not mean that at all when they escaped from the church’s magisterium. Rather, the Bible requires and insists on human interpretation that is inescapably subjective, necessarily provisional, andinevitably disputatious.”

There is no royal road to a perfectly accurate interpretation of Scripture.

This is true within the Bible itself. Paul has to correct misunderstandings of his own letters and 2 Peter acknowledges that some of those letters “contain things that are hard to understand.” Subsequent readers of Paul’s letters would agree! While we all may pursue “the plain meaning of the text,” agreement on that “plain meaning” may elude us. The Torah told the Jews they were not to work on the Sabbath. But what did and did not entail “work” was not entirely clear. Centuries of Jewish interpreters have sought to apply and reapply the Torah to contemporary Jewish life to make clear what “working on the Sabbath” did and did not entail.

In the midst of this confusing challenge there are several potential tyrannies to avoid. First is the tyranny of subjectivism—or the tyranny of the self. Wherever we are on the theological spectrum there is a temptation to imagine that the text means what I think it means. Such an approach ignores the historical readings of the church, the work of scholarship, and even the basic rules of grammar! This becomes particularly perverse when the reader insists it is the “Spirit” that has led him or her to this interpretation.

The second tyranny is the tyranny of the church. In the welter of confusion about the meaning of texts it is tempting to look back with longing to the old days of the Roman magisterium and turn over the problem of reading and interpreting texts to the “leaders.” The Bible is once again shackled to the consensus of the hierarchy and taken from the hands of the people.

A final tyranny is the tyranny of the “academy.” I would suggest this is perhaps the worst of tyrannies. For one thing the academy is not always or even usually sympathetic to the needs and challenges of the life and ministry of the church—to say the least. For another, you can hardly get two biblical scholars to agree on anything.

Subjectivism, clericalism, and academia are poor masters when it comes to biblical interpretation, but good servants. There is no royal road to a perfectly secure and accurate interpretation of the Scripture. We are all frail and failing human beings. But when we read the text together, listening carefully and respectfully to one another, to the church, and to the academy, we have a greater chance of hearing the voice of God together than if we limit ourselves to one or the other. The value of Covenant freedom is that it gives us the opportunity and privilege to do just that.  cc

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