Divine authority?

I have noticed that my view of the Bible is changing over the last couple of years. Actually, what I think is happening is that I am actually forming a view of the Bible. I guess that sounds odd coming from a person who has been a Christian for over twenty years. I think what is happening is that I’ve stopped just accepting what others say about it, and as a result I’m developing a deeper respect for it. I am noticing, though, that I have a strong reaction against what I hear others say the Bible is and how we should look at it.

Let me start off by saying that I teach the Bible, and I really, really like reading it. I think it’s inspired. I’m not knocking the Bible, but just the way some people look at it. Here’s the latest example. I was looking over a website of a parachurch organization that a friend pointed out. They have a place where you can order some of their materials, and at the bottom of the order form is a link to their statement of faith. I clicked on the link and read the statement, and here’s the line about the Bible which bothered me: “Christians must submit to its divine authority.” I stopped reading and thought, “The Bible has authority over me? I have to submit to a book? When did this happen?”

Now, I guess the authors of this statement are thinking this: “God has authority over me. God wrote the Bible. Therefore, the Bible has authority over me.” However, the choice of words here is telling; the book itself has some sort of power. I told this to my wife, and she responded, “Ah, it’s a magic book.”

And that’s just it. The Bible isn’t a magic book. It has no authority in itself. (I’m sure this makes the fundies fume.) The Bible is a communication from the one who does have authority. Here’s an example: I recently won a court judgment against a tenant that I had to evict. My proof of this judgment is a piece of paper. I can take this paper and go to the tenant’s employer and begin to garnish wages. Now, the piece of paper has no authority in itself. It only represents the authority of its author, in this case the county government. The employer knows that the paper shows the wishes of the author, and he has bound himself to obey the author — not the paper.

I think the distinction is subtle, yet vitally important. Yes, the paper tells us what the author wants us to know. Yes, the reading the paper is just like hearing the author speak those written words into our ears. However, we have not bound ourselves to the paper. We owe our allegiance to the person who wrote the paper.

I heard a radio preacher the other day say much the same thing as was in this statement of faith. Several times he said we are to submit ourselves to the authority of the Bible. Nowhere did he mention that we are to submit to God, or to each other, or to our spouses. Sigh.

So we are substituting the Bible for God. We submit to the Bible. The Bible has authority. It’s “the Bible says….” and “the Bible teaches….” I disagree. God never gave authority to a book. He has authority, and he gives it to people. If those people write things down, then it’s still the authority of that person (and God behind him) that we recognize. There’s a big difference, as now I feel a connection to those people and the legacy they’ve left us, rather than just reading a textbook and feeling like there’s a test coming.

7 thoughts on “Divine authority?”

  1. I think “submitting to the authority of the Bible” is not unlike what the Pharisees did. I think it would also be the role in your example of the employer submitting to the authority of your document for garnishing wages. Yet there is no relationship.

    I agree with you skipper, by submitting to the Author of the book and life itself, we are entering into a relationship, not accepting a book of rules. We choose to know about this Author, His history, His character, His future, and how he speaks to me personally; and all this comes through one book.

  2. I have also noticed how we say “the Bible says” all the time. Isn’t that odd? Perhaps, just possibly, we should start saying “God says” instead.

  3. I’ll go one step further, planner90. I’ve started saying, “Paul says” or whoever wrote the passage I’m reading. For me, it makes it that much more real, and brings the text closer to me. The folks that say “the Bible teaches” or “the Bible says” have forgotten (or perhaps never knew) how the Bible was assembled in the first place.

  4. It seems like a lot of the “Bible says…” are either misquoted or taken out of context to a degree that they can be easily manipulated to say just about anything.

    Using the document example, you see this in Constitutional law where endless interpretations can make things legal one day and illegal the next.

  5. I like skipper’s “Paul says” or “John says”, as I too think this gets us closer to what we’re actually dealing with in the Bible, which is a collection of God-breathed (inspired) but “situated” writings. In other words, I believe Paul was inspired by God in writing his letters, but that his writings were inspired first and foremost for a specific time and place and people. Further, I don’t believe that, generally speaking, Paul was writing to the universal and future church. Rather, he was writing to specific faith communities at specific times addressing specific situations and contexts.

    How “authoritative” these writings can or should be for us 2000 years later is open for debate. Are there things in Paul’s letters that can be universalized and be applied throughout time? Sure. But I increasingly believe that they were largely not intended for that purpose, but were intended to encourage, instruct, praise, rebuke, etc., a specific group of believers facing specific issues and problems. Thus, we must read/hear Scripture with awareness of this, and ultimately must call on the Spirit to help us hear what He is saying to us NOW through these ancient, situated, inspired words. In that way, God can exercise His authority in the church through Scripture, and Scripture can become the “Word of God” to us. Of course, this is all easier said than done, as evidenced by the many wildly different interpretations of Scripture not only throughout history, but throughout the church right now in 2006.

  6. That’s quite a lot to digest in one comment, bwhite. I’ve been pondering it for the last few days, which is why I haven’t responded.

    I’ve read over N.T. Wright’s lecture on the authority of scripture, and I must say that I was only partially enlightened. I concede that it may be because I’m too dense, as he is an intellectual and an academician. What I saw in the lecture, though, was that he disputed the common evangelical view of the authority of scripture, then appealed to scripture in a common evangelical manner in order to justify his position.

    I’m still pondering whether Paul et al. felt that they were writing for the generations, or for specific times and situations only. Of course, the letters were addressing certain events, but there are occasions when Paul seemed to think there was a good reason to extend his words beyond the primary audience (such as when he suggested the Colossians and Laodiceans share letters). Also, the early church thought it would be a good idea to share their own letters, thus giving us the Bible as we know it.

    So, I have not reached a conclusion I’m comfortable with yet.

  7. I’m still processing my view of Scripture myself, and certainly haven’t totally “landed” anywhere. Clearly, regardless of whether the original writers always or ever felt they were writing for an audience beyond the original one, the recipients held the writings in enough value to preserve them and pass them amongst themselves and to future generations of Christ followers. And that value has been proven down through the centuries as Christians encounter the words of these texts and God uses them to affect life change (ie., transforms them further into the likeness of Jesus). At least that’s how it’s supposed to work, I think, if approached with an open mind and open heart to God’s speaking through them.

    I really like NT Wright’s 5 act play metaphor for Scripture. His whole article on biblical authority, while really good, but very lengthy and hard to fully digest. The 5 act play metaphor starts on the bottom of page 9 and continues to page 10:


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