Who has authority over scripture?
Last week, I spent several very intense days in spiritual reflection and dialogue with a few dozen emerging leaders from our denomination. Part of the purpose of the retreat is to find some times where everyone experiences at least a little bit of discomfort.
I found my unease bubbling to the surface during a Bible study when someone raised the issue of the authority of scripture. In my experience, this sort of question generally leads to heated, if not intellectual, arguments about personal matters of faith. In most cases, I’ve seen very little good come from debates about the authority of scripture.
This, however, was a rare and wonderful exception. Before offering our various points of view, we began by defining what exactly we meant by the word “authority.” In most instances, such a word evokes images of rules, consequences, intimidation and fear. But this is not the angle our group took.
First, we began by discussing our sense of the origins of scripture. While some felt it was inerrant and perfect, others believed it was divinely inspired, yet filtered through potentially fallible human hands, minds and hearts. Regardless of this disparity, we all agreed that scripture basically was “of God,” with widely varying opinions about what that meant.
It was enough common ground for real dialogue.
From there, we deliberated about the notion of authorship. If we all saw God as the ultimate author of scripture, either through inspiration by way of the Holy Spirit, or by divine dictation of some sort, this meant God had authority over scripture.
So what does it mean to have authority in this sense of the word?
It’s a wonderfully empowering experience engaging in the creative process of writing a book, but letting go of it once you’re done is equally terrifying. You are consumed by an intense feeling of vulnerability as editors pick apart your work, dissecting words and phrases, revising as they desire.
Once you get beyond the editors, there’s the forum of public opinion. Readers of your work post their views of your ideas, style and expertise on blogs, websites, and in letters to the editor. Discussions happen around coffee and dinner tables, of which you can only be a part from the pages of your book. You have no further control over how people interpret what you’ve written, or how they use it once it’s bound and on the shelves.
Have you ever heard it said that one can use the Bible to make any point they want? While this is moderately exaggerated, it’s not far from truth. If we all saw the same things in scripture, there would be no denominations, but only one united church. Even those who claim the inerrancy of scripture are divided over doctrine, interpretation of certain words, cultural and historical context, and so on.
It’s enough to make an author shake their head.
Claiming authority over any written word is a vulnerable place to be. Like raising a child, it’s a practice of learning to let go. After all, if God was interested in having us simply know exactly what was intended in scripture, why not have us come into the world with such data hard-wired?
We’ve use the Bible to advocate for peace, while at the same time, justifying war, and in some cases, even genocide. Some have leaned on scripture to justify slavery, and others are bent on standing upon the Word in an endless fault-finding quest against the rest of humanity.
Some people have found new life in these hallowed pages, and others have died because of them. It’s brought out both the best and the worst in humankind, and we’re far from done fighting over its contents.
Meanwhile, the Great Author waits patiently as we duke it out over who is right and wrong.
God help us.