Monday, November 07, 2005

RP Part 1- Authority and Hermeneutics

Authority as assumption
The claim that the Bible is authoritative is one of the central affirmations of contemporary Evangelical Christianity.[1] Thus Carson can state, “It should go without saying that the authority of the Bible must be recognized by Christians. The church cannot exist and flourish without unreservedly embracing the Bible.”[2] This assumption impacts on all levels of engagement with the Bible. In a recently published book on ethics, an Evangelical author dismisses the important work of another scholar due to their conclusion that presupposing the authority of the Old Testament clouds the interpretive process, and does not do justice to the distance between our world and theirs.[3] According to many, the authority of the Bible is a necessary presupposition for the proper study of the Bible.

That the Bible is ‘authoritative’ then is a controlling assumption among many Evangelical scholars. It is certainly the prevailing assumption among the Evangelical laity. It is this authority, it is said, that gives it the unquestionable role of shaping our lives, intellectually, spiritually, and practically. But what exactly does it mean to ascribe authority to the Bible, to say that it is authoritative?

The concept is often linked to ‘truth’ and ‘inspiration’. The Bible as ‘inspired’ by God, is a revelation of truth.[4] Its authority then, may be compared to that of a professional who is said to be ‘the authority’ in his field because of his or her recognized experience, talent, work produced, etc., or a book that is said to be the authority on a topic because it is accepted that it has grasped the truth of the matter. Further, ‘truth’ has a claim upon my life, I am obliged to believe it and act accordingly. The Bible as revealed truth is the final rule against which all other claims must be tested.[5] At its simplest level, then, it is the affirmation that the Bible is true and from God and should therefore be given the role of shaping our lives.

At this level there are few problems. As Christians, the Bible must certainly possess this central role in our lives, without it we would be lost to the postmodern morass, we would loose all grounding, and the Church would fragment and slowly evaporate. But the concept of ‘authority’ goes beyond this basic affirmation. Tied to it are certain implications for what we should use the Bible to do and at the same time how we should do so. It is thus also a hermeneutical strategy, but in discussions of biblical authority this is habitually missed. Indeed if the strategy is challenged, it is often seen to be an assault upon the Bible itself and one is accused of rejecting the central place the Bible should have in our lives. A lot of the time this accusation is not far off the mark, there are interpretive communities that wish to revise the Bible’s function in this way. However, legitimate critique can be made of ‘biblical authority’ when the focus of this is the hermeneutical strategy and not the basic affirmation of the Bible’s general role. This critique, I believe, is well over due. But first it must be demonstrated that the notion of biblical authority is indeed a hermeneutical strategy.

Authority as a Hermeneutical strategy
Authority as a concept, is not descriptive of a quality, but refers to a status or a role that something or someone has. The president of the United States of America is in a position of authority over the citizens of those states. This implies that he is in the position to make decisions and set in motion actions that others are not. Authority then, implies status and role. It concerns the giving of commands, the ordering of states of affairs. It thus most naturally concerns orders or instructions.

Accordingly, when applied to the Bible, it is most naturally at home among instructive material. Biblical laws and commands must be obeyed because of the authority behind them. Some other material can also come under this umbrella. Doctrinal statements must be affirmed, historical testimony must be accepted. Viewing the Bible as ‘authoritative’ draws attention to the instructive material within it, and signals that we should comply. It thus constitutes a hermeneutical strategy as it tells us what the Bible should be used for and how we should do so (i.e. the following of its instructions). This is however where problems lie with the concept.

Problems with Authority as a Hermeneutical Strategy
Because the emphasis is on obedience to instruction, those parts of scripture that do not take the form of instruction are often neglected. Where this does not occur, they are often made to yield some sort of instruction. A prime example is where commentators seek to find moral principles or lessons from isolated episodes within biblical narratives. Given that this task may be legitimate on some level,[6] it does however lead to the neglect of the big picture, the greater significance these narratives possess as part of the one story that stretches from creation to the re-creation. The great majority of biblical material does not consist in laws or commands, but in narratives. Consequently, when ‘authority’ is emphasized prescriptively as the Bible’s function, large portions of the Bible are neglected and others distorted to fit the hermeneutical strategy.

But further than this, problems arise when the strategy is applied to the instructional material in the Bible. As God’s authoritative word, we are to agree with what the text tells us to believe, and obey what it commands us to do. It is held that all biblical material is authoritative; it is all equally truthful and applicable for us today. One of the supposed results of modern “critical” scholarship has been to demonstrate the presence of many contradictions and competing forms of belief and action within the scriptures. Although the methods employed to establish much of this have now come under serious question,[7] the movement has successfully highlighted the great diversity within biblical literature across matters of ethics, theology, and praxis. Although the number of contradictions between the various biblical writings (and even within them) has been exaggerated, real contradictions are present, especially between the Old and New Testaments.[8]

A clear example of this is circumcision, where a command given in one part of the Bible is annulled in another. In Genesis 17.9-14 the ritual of circumcision is instituted as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendents. It was thus to be an important aspect of the life of God’s people.[9] However, in Galatians it is stated that if anyone receives circumcision they will be “severed from Christ” and would have “fallen from grace” (Gal 5.2-4 nrsv). In both passages what is said is of vital importance for what it means to be faithful to God, but they flatly contradict each other. Although Christians have not found it hard choosing between the two, the fact they have to do so demonstrates that the notion of ‘authority’ as flatly applied to all biblical material cannot be sustained. Selection must take place on some grounds, whether it is internal to the Bible or drawn from outside of it,[10] and this effectively negates the original principle.[11]

Further, there are many commands that Christians feel under no obligation to obey, such as the prohibition against eating pork (Lev 11.7-8), the stoning of sexual offenders (Deut 22.13-24), or the requirement that women wear veils when they pray (1 Cor 11.5, 13). As Grenz notes, this “bear[s] silent witness to the apparent inadequacy of a simple rule-book ethic. This phenomenon suggests that some deeper principle must be at work providing the criterion by means of which to differentiate between the universally applicable and the situationally conditioned laws of Scripture.”[12]

Asking the Question Afresh
We may ask as to why we should assume biblical instructions to be authoritative at all?[13] Nothing in scripture is directed to us, but to others (whether Christian or not) in a context that is not ours. Some teaching must be normative for Christians however, those whishing to follow Jesus by definition are not doing so unless they are in some way doing what he said. Following his resurrection, he declared that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to him and therefore told the eleven to go out into the world and make disciples of all people by baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that he had commanded (Matt 28.18-21). Thus, as Christians, our relationship to Jesus is as a servant to a king. Yet concerning the Bible as a whole, our relationship must be different.

Given the problems with the notion of biblical authority and its various formulations, it seems helpful to abandon it as a conceptual framework from within which to work.[14] What is needed is a reappraisal of the Bible itself. Before asking how we should use it, we need to ask ‘what should we be using it for?’ And before this, ‘what is it?’

[1] Even those wings of the Church that would not make this affirmation (e.g. extreme liberal, feminist) participate in the same activity of asking and answering the question of what to use the Bible for and how to do so. They also, therefore, would benefit from attending to the argument presented below.
[2] The Gagging of God, 151
[3] [reference to be added] Speaking of Cyril S. Rodd’s Glimpses of a Strange Land. His comments on 325, 27.
[4] So Grudem, ‘Scriptures Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture’ in Carson and Woodbridge (eds.), Scripture and Truth, 19-59
[5] These two explanations represent two different notions of authority. The first sees authority as something external, it is a status and role given to someone or something by a person or community. The second sees authority as internal, it is a quality inherent in something or someone. In the final analysis however, authority is always external. In both notions it must be recognized and accepted because the use of force equals power and not authority. See Rodd, Glimpses of A Strange Land, 325, and Bauckham, ‘Scripture and Authority’
[6] For a methodologically grounded proposal for discerning moral judgments within Old Testament narratives, see Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Ethically (Edinburgh: T&T, 2001). For cautions concerning this approach in general, see Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, 56-70
[7] See for example, Carson, ‘Unity and Diversity in the New Testament’
[8] John Goldingay discusses the degrees of diversity and forms of contradiction within the Old Testament, and establishes four categories: (1) formal contradictions, (2) contextual contradictions, (3) substantial contradictions, and (4) fundamental contradictions. On these see Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, 15-25
[9] Gen 17.14 “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
[10] Internal principles are those where the decision and argument is made within a biblical document. An external principle is one which is based upon larger theological systems or other considerations such as tradition, goal, etc. In this example both are present. The text of Galatians makes the argument, but the choice of Galatians over Genesis witnesses to a consideration of the historical movement within the Bible. Galatians belongs to a point in history further along the line than Genesis where certain developments have taken place, most notably the Christ event. The Christian, for whom Christ is at the center, thus privileges the writings of the New Testament over the Old. This, of course, may be grounded within biblical teaching as well.
[11] A slight alteration is to affirm that the entire Bible is authoritative, but that no one part has this quality on its own. Authority is the collective value of the canon of scriptures. The Bible is authoritative, but not all the biblical material is. This too requires selection. Certain scriptures or theological teachings/commands take the authoritative function and others do not. The grounds for which should take this place is not immediately clear, and so external considerations inevitably play a role in making the decision.
[12] Grenz, The Moral Quest, 244. Concerning people’s ‘selective weighing’ of Scripture in terms of importance and obedience to different instructions, William Loader rightly remarks, “This is not arbitrary or disrespectful, but is seen to be consistent with the approaches within scripture, itself.” (‘Approaches to Scripture’)
[13] There are no doubt other reasons for obeying biblical commands that do not rest upon the assumption of biblical authority as a hermeneutical strategy. If we understand there to be a connection between the Ten Commandments and the created order for instance, this will give us impetus to obey them.
[14] Unfortunately ‘authority’ appears to have become the “indispensable theological category” within which to understand the Bible and its function (Goldingay, Models for Scripture, 8). The recent reawakening to the diversity of literary forms in the Bible is welcomed, and has led to the aspiration to define their function accordingly. But the desire to retain the concept of authority and to build a system of functions within this framework can only distorts things. In doing so we find ourselves effectively working backwards, no longer moving from text to description and function, but from presumed function to text. In this process we end up treating the text as something it is not, distorting its actual purpose and loosing some of the Bibles richness.

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