The Authority of the Bible

by David Taylor

from Signs of the Times, No. 27 - Oct 2007

There is huge variation these days on how the claim, 'The Bible is authoritative', is interpreted. At one extreme we have those who insist that every word in the Bible comes directly from the mouth of God and demands our absolute and unquestioning obedience; at the other, those who doubt whether it is sensible or wise to treat the Bible as authoritative in any sense at all that resembles the traditional claims for it. Both sides typically insist they are Christian; not rarely the traditional-minded accuse their opponents of betraying the faith and denying the truth of the word, while the liberal-minded accuse their opposites of a peevish and irrational dogmatism. I'd better say at the start that I belong pretty firmly to the liberal camp.

Let us deal first with the defects of the traditional approach. We can quickly dispose of what will seem to many, even of the literalists themselves, to be a side issue: most, though by no means all, confine their absolutist claims to the New Testament, and are untroubled by the absurdities that arise from extending them to the Old Testament as well. We no longer insist, for instance, on the execution of witches (Exodus 22:18), or of those who gather firewood on the sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36) or of unruly children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). It is the New Testament - and (somewhat oddly) the writings of Paul rather than the sayings of Jesus in the synoptic gospels - that provide them with what they would like to see as the true and certain teaching of the Christian religion.

But even this claim, if rigidly adhered to, causes embarrassment. The most glaring instance is outside the epistles of Paul: twice in Acts, at the Council of Jerusalem recorded in chapter 15, and again in a conversation between Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem church recorded in chapter 22, we are reminded that among the first generation of Christians, who were over-whelmingly Jews (and at the time probably didn't think of themselves as having converted away from Judaism at all), one of the worst sins a Christian could possibly commit was to eat blood. It is centuries since the Church has seen any moral significance at all in the practice. But even in the writings of Paul, the claim - which Paul himself sometimes appears to be putting forward, particularly in I Corinthians 7 (verses 10, 12, 25, 40) - that his are authoritative instructions which require the Church's total obedience causes many difficulties. The recent Windsor Report points up a distinction in the New Testament, which Paul himself makes in Romans 14, between points of difference which do not matter, and other points of difference which certainly do; what the report omits to point out, though, is that many of the points which Paul thought mattered dreadfully - notably the requirement that women should cover their heads during worship, which he argues for vehemently and at length in I Corinthians 11:2-16 - are as indifferent to us as the questions of vegetarianism or sabbatarianism discussed in Romans 14.

It is this realization which necessarily calls in question the traditional claims for the authority of Scripture. When we examine the matter closely, we find that all of us - liberals and conservatives alike - are highly selective in our vaunted obedience to Scripture. It is not just matters of eating blood or of women going to church bare-headed that are relevant here. Jesus throughout the synoptic gospels gives specific and repeated instructions about what is involved in discipleship: 'So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple' (Luke 14:33). Clearly, there are not many disciples around, nor have there ever been; yet we do not reproach ourselves with rejecting the authority of Scripture.

But a bigger objection to the insistence on Scripture's authority is that in practice it is only ever made when those making it wish to make life difficult for other people - as it seems to most of us, without good reason. The current debate on homosexuality is a perfect example of this: homosexuality has to be condemned, and therefore homosexuals have to be persecuted, solely on the grounds that Paul gives his authoritative support to this outlook in his epistles. (Unlike most liberals, by the way, I do not question that he really does.) Traditionalists will concede that they do in fact condemn homosexuality, but deny that they in any way persecute homosexuals. They point instead to their eagerness to bring sinners to repentance and to the joy of righteousness in life; how can that be construed as persecution? For a reply one need only ask of homosexuals themselves whether they are persecuted; and their reply, which will certainly be 'Yes', must outweigh the sincere but misguided professions of their persecutors.

So the attribution of authority to Scripture is radically uncertain; but do we need it anyway? Where there is such a need, it is almost certainly psychological; nor do I accept that those of us who feel no such need should be inhibited from saying so. What traditionalists hope to arrive at by making their claims is the feeling that they know without question what God requires of them both in belief and in behaviour. It is probably in vain (and, even more, perhaps unkind) to try to convince them that the certainty they are striving for can only ever be illusory: that there is no such thing as certainty available to us, nor any honest and examinable way of arriving at it. The crux of the disagreement seems to be the contrast between two very different ways of understanding just what faith is.

The following description of traditional faith is admittedly something of a caricature, but the aim of that is clarity rather than ridicule. To some of us the faith that conservatives profess seems wholly directed at propositions whose truth cannot be known, which necessarily means that someone at sometime must simply have invented them; and 'faith' here is quite simply the insistence that such propositions are true. Thus the authority of Scripture seems to many to be a wholly invented idea - and we have given plenty of reasons above for thinking so - but faith enables the traditional believer to insist on its truth. Yet faith does not have to be understood in this way at all, nor is it in the New Testament. Faith there, so far from leading to certainty, is the ability to go forward in confidence in the face of radical uncertainty : 'By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go' (Hebrews 11:8). Faith in this sense does not require the notion of the authority of Scripture, and almost certainly wants to reject it.

Finally let us look at something that Jesus says in Mark's gospel which has immediate bearing on the theme, and has the additional interest of displaying the yearning for authority and the deep distrust of any undermining of it from the very earliest days of Christianity: 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath' (Mark 2.27). The saying is attached to the incident of the disciples plucking, rubbing out and eating ears of grain on the sabbath. The incident is recorded in all three synoptics, but Matthew and Luke, who certainly had Mark before them as their source, have both of them suppressed the first part of the saying, and give us only the second (Matthew 12:8, Luke 6:5). It is not hard to see why. From earliest times it was clearly felt that Jesus' remark that 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath' was far too destructive of order and authority. It looks as though this was already felt even before Mark wrote his gospel. If you look at the full saying, we can be quite sure that Jesus actually did say the first part of it; but one deeply suspects that the second part of the saying is not by Jesus at all. That is an attempt by the clergy of the early church to repair the damage which must otherwise follow from Jesus' rejection of authority. Jesus almost certainly meant, not just that he himself could dispense with sabbath day regulations whenever they inflicted inconvenience and misery, but that anybody could - and should. The second half of the saying looks as though it has been added precisely to counteract this dangerous lawlessness: Jesus could act in this unrestrained fashion, but only because of who he was; Christians must now be subject to the authority of Jesus in exactly the same way as Jews had always been to the authority of the law.

Even Paul in his better moments seems to have doubts about such a total inversion of what looks like Jesus' original view: 'For freedom Christ has set us free', he reminds us at the opening of Galatians 5; 'Stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery'.

David Taylor worked in publishing and is now retired and living in North Wales.