Authority Crisis

It seems as though a number of my Facebook acquaintances have been reflecting upon various issues related to the authority of the Scriptures lately, and enough new thoughts floated my way to merit a new post here to reflect on them.

Context: an authority crisis within the Church

In the late 1800’s, when science started churning out ideas that seemed to conflict with long-held religious doctrines regarding creation, the age of the universe, and so on, an authority crisis rocked the Church to its core.  By the early 20th century this was known as the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy, and it wasn’t until the 1960’s or so that the dust began to settle and a new wave of Evangelicalism emerged with a moderate position between those two extremes.

The Protestant world dealt with this controversy by upholding the authority of the Bible and giving new definitions as to how it’s authoritative.  Roman Catholicism made a similar move in this authority crisis, but instead of giving new definitions to scriptural authority, they gave new definitions to Papal authority.  Thus the world of authority rhetoric that we know today was born: infallibility of the Bible & infallibility of the Pope.

But if you compare these two statements to the Church’s stance on episcopal authority (Pope or otherwise) and biblical authority before the whole controversy ever came up, you’ll probably notice that the current stances are rather extreme.  The Protestant “paper pope” and the Roman human pope are both lifted up rather higher than either used to be, and to the detriment of a healthy balance within the Church.

Where the Bible came from

Perhaps the best way to cut to the chase regarding biblical authority is to remind ourselves where it came from.  This article gives us some helpful reminders.  Basically, it points out that the way many Protestants have come to view the Bible is inconsistent with its origin.  The Church existed from the day of Pentecost in AD33 (or so), and the content of the New Testament didn’t start to be written until nearly 20 years later, wasn’t finished until another 40 years after that, and wasn’t universally recognized by all Christians for yet another 230 years!  How on earth did the Church survive to 4th century without an officially-defined Bible?

It was the work of the Holy Spirit, guiding the leaders of the Church.  Baptism, the breaking of bread, ordained orders of ministry, preaching, evangelism, and teaching were all taking place from the start.  So when it comes to understanding what the Church is, the Bible is actually a product of it, not what defines it.  By the 4th century, Christians were able to look back on the New Testament as a sure and certain witness, God-breathed and authoritative, to the message of Christ – the gospel – but it was not a manual of how to be/do/form the Church.  For that they just did what they had always been doing: what the Apostles taught and did.

In that light, does text criticism matter?

Text criticism is the discipline of comparing manuscripts against one another to evaluate the differences in the hopes of determining the original.  This is very important work in Protestant circles that hold to an “infallible” view of Scripture, because usually it’s believed that the original manuscripts of the Bible are what’s truly infallible, and all other copies (and especially translations) ever since are only shadows of the original, although still perfectly trustworthy.

But if we emphasize the idea that the Bible is more a product of the Church than a set of defining documents that God’s chosen few wrote down under the influence of the Spirit, then the need to reach back to the original manuscripts isn’t quite so important.  This article goes so far as to argue that such a venture is pointless.

Now, I think that’s going a bit far.  Manuscripts do get a little mixed up over time, despite a copyist’s best efforts, and sometimes a copyists “corrections” along the way are not as Spirit-led as they could be.  We shouldn’t get too caught up in an idolatrous search for “the original Bible” nor should we be so careless as to think that the Bible is either immune to historical corruption or unimportant enough for this sort of work not to matter.

But the article does have some really cool things to say about how Scripture is a sort of icon of Christ.  This has started to bug me lately: lots of people refer to the Bible as the word of God.  Now yes, I agree that it is.  But it’s not the ultimate word of God.  That is Jesus.  John makes that perfectly clear at the beginning of his Gospel book.  Jesus is the perfect Word of God made flesh; the Bible is the word of God in writing.  It’s an icon pointing to Christ, who in turn points us to the Father.  Thus the Bible is a vehicle for the Holy Spirit, whose primary job is to point us to Christ.

What then should be said about the Bible’s proper authority?

An internet colleague shared a great answer to this question.  The full text can be found here (‘cos it’s rather lengthy), but I wanted to share some snippets.

The most fundamental (the earliest and most central) Christian affirmation about Scripture is that Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection were kata tas graphas. That is to say, the Scriptures’ rendition of the activity and identity of the crucified and risen Christ is trustworthy and true. It is precisely in this trustworthiness that their authority consists.

So there’s the starting point: the Bible is the “official” witness to Jesus’ death & resurrection.  But does that exclude the Old Testament?

Correspondingly, the same gospel mysteriously lies hidden, hinted at, promised, and whispered about in Israel’s Scriptures. The different relationships of the two testaments to the gospel demand different hermeneutical approaches to each if their authoritative witnesses to Jesus are to be heard; they demand that they be read differently if they will be read with the grain of their unique authorities.

So there you go – the OT is also authoritative in its prophetic revelation of Jesus the Messiah.  But if the authority of the Bible is only about the person and work of Jesus Christ, what does that mean for all the historical narrative, especially in the OT?

We cannot, however, say in advance what the adequacy of the Scriptures will look like. We cannot say, for instance, that an appropriately inspired text will not contain mythological or legendary elements, or that they will necessarily have been composed by this or that person in this or that manner, or that they will consistently get all of their dates right. If God wishes to confound our expectations concerning His inspired Word, that is His prerogative. Indeed, as Calvin and others have pointed out, in Scripture God accommodates his speech to His audience in such a way as to utilize their various culturally-conditioned conceptualities and literary conventions, and even in places accommodates His moral demands to their “hardness of heart” (Matt 19:8). Thus, the Scriptures are “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16) but they ought not to be treated as surefire guides to the nature of the physical universe or the history of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, nor is their spiritual authority ultimate. Rather all authority ultimately lies with the risen Christ to whom they point (Matt 28:18).

In short, if the Bible doesn’t seem to add up with other historical information like the dates of the Israelite kings, or scientific data regarding the creation of the world, it’s not a big deal.  The Bible wasn’t written to convey that information, but to convey the person of God, and especially the Messiah.

So rather than trying to treat the Bible as an all-knowing stand-alone book, we would do well to seat it in its proper historical context:

It… was never intended by the Fathers or even the NT writers themselves to function in isolation. The Fathers intended canon and creed to function together in a mutually informative way and, indeed, most of the NT itself presupposes a knowledge of the gospel which the Church has seen, heard and experienced prior to their reading of the texts.

In discussion following that post, someone chimed in with a helpful clarification regarding the very concept of historical accuracy:

I affirm the word inerrancy but only in the Biblical sense. In scriptures error is something like theological and moral failure (1 John 4:6). So I agree that the scriptures will not lead to theological and moral error.However, in our scientific culture, error means precision.  Thus inerrancy means that the text is perfectly precise. It seems to me that inerrancy is reading in to scripture our own cultural understand of error-as-precision.

… As technology increased, we’ve become more and more precise in our recording of history.  So who’s precision? 19th century precision? 21st century precision? What if the Lord tarries for another three hundred years? Is it fair to judge scripture’s precision against 24th century technological precision? I don’t think so.

If more Christians had this understanding of the Bible at the forefront of their minds then the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy would have blown over much more easily.  When we stick to the spiritual authority of the Bible and not worry as much about its scientific precision, then that whole classic “science vs. religion” nonsense would never have become a big thing in our culture, dividing Christians into still more denominations and growing even more sociological boundaries between “fundamentalists” and “evangelicals” and the rest of the world.

If we had only remembered the original context of the Bible in the Church, we wouldn’t be having such a terrible authority crisis as we are today.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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2 Responses to Authority Crisis

  1. Stephen says:

    To be fair to the Catholic Church, though, papal infallibility can be strictly understood to apply to just two things, which are both dogmas about Mary, while the infallibility of Scripture is supposed to apply to an endless number of things. They’re both problematic, as you’ve pointed out, but, contrary to what a lot of people think, the Catholic view of authority is a lot less dogmatic than the conservative evangelical view because its scope is so much narrower.

    • Dcn. Brench says:

      Thanks for the reminder. I’m still a bit hazy on the precise nature of that Roman doctrine – just that it’s not as far-reaching as we often stereotype it to be.

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