The Authority of Scripture: A Theological Reflection

Just a theological reflection paper I wrote for Restoration History that I wanted to share. Feel free to share your thoughts too:

The authority of the Bible is a debate that has been long going on for many centuries. It was the center piece of the Protestant Reformation, which declared that the Scripture alone, sola Scriptura, was sufficient enough to dictate Church practice and faith. The Scripture is not the authority, but functions only as a witness to God’s authority and a vehicle of God’s authority. Bishop N.T. Wright states, “When we turn the question [of how does God exercise his authority through the Bible?] around, however, and ask it the other way about, we discover just what a rich concept of authority we are going to need if we are to do justice to this book. The writings written by these people, thus led by the Spirit, are not for the most part, as we saw, the sort of things we would think of as ‘authoritative’. They are mostly narrative; and we have already run up against the problem how can a story, a narrative, be authoritative? Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, this authority is also wielded through his people singing psalms. Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus.”

The Nature, Inspiration, and Authority of Scripture

As stated the authority of Scripture is non-existent for all Scripture is dependent upon God’s authority. Scripture, however, is a witness to that authority of God and a vehicle of His authority. Scripture derives its power from the power and authority of God who worked through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit upon the men and women who wrote it conveying the story of God’s redemptive work in humanity.

N.T. Wright paints the authority of Scripture as a Shakespeare play with five acts, but the fifth act is missing. The other four acts provide the plot and rich characterization of the play enough for those actors to write the fifth act and carry it out. If we are the actors who have been left with the writing of the fifth act then the Scripture is the other four acts, which is 1) Creation, 2) The Fall, 3) Israel, and 4) Jesus. +Wright states, “The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act.” The authority of God playing through the first four scenes of Scriptures is our authority, and we must remain faithful to the story as told so far.

This lends to Scripture its nature, which is narrative, and its inspiration from the Holy Spirit, which is God’s Words in man’s words. We must remember that Scripture is telling the story of God and humanity. “We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it had come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be,” writes +Wright.

The Bible as the “Word of God”

In what sense is the Bible the “Word of God”? Again, we must look back at the story being told. God’s authority is expressed in the story that is told by creation, the fall, Israel, and Jesus.

God exercises His authority via the Scriptures. +Wright states, “How does God exercise that authority? Again and again, in the biblical story itself we see that he does so through human agents anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit. And this is itself an expression of his love, because he does not will, simply to come into the world in a blinding flash of light and obliterate all opposition. He wants to reveal himself meaningfully within the space/time universe not just passing it by tangentially; to reveal himself in judgment and in mercy in a way which will save people.”

God’s Word is God’s Story. It is not about whether or not something is literal or metaphorical, but about gaining a glimpse of the bigger picture. The story of re-creation through incarnation is found in the Scriptures. This story is written by the Most High God. The Scripture is one means of revelation for God.

Bible as the Authority for Faith and Practice

In Prop I of The Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell writes, “That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.” Mr. Campbell states clearly that the Scripture is the authority of the faith and should inform our practice of the faith. The practice of the faith boils down for Mr. Campbell those things that have are expressed terms and approved precedents.

Article VI of the Articles of Religion state, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” Mr. Campbell and Article VI are in agreement about Scripture being the primary source of our faith and our practice. The Scripture witness to God’s authority and also to the apostolic witness.

In Romans 15:4 Saint Paul writes, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Saint Paul is making it clear that the Old Testament Scriptures were written to teach us. At this time the New Testament canon was not present, but the apostolic witness and Holy Tradition were clearly present both from historical and scriptural views.
Dr. William DiPuccio writes, “Let us not forget the Oxford Movement which appealed to the Vincentian canon (from Vincent of Lerins, c. 434) as a criterion for interpreting Scripture in matters of essential faith and practice: Faced with numerous conflicting interpretations, we hold fast to that which has been ‘believed everywhere, always, by all’ (often summed up in the formula, ‘universality, antiquity, consent’).”

Hermeneutic Principles and Restoration Applicable Principles

“History was where Paul looked to see the roots of the story whose climax he believed was Jesus Christ. History is where we have to go if, as we say, we want to listen to Scripture itself rather than either the venerable traditions of later church leaders or the less venerable footnotes of more recent scholars,” writes +Wright, “For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions.” The first key to hermeneutics is to understand the historical context. Too often we neglect to place ourselves in the shoes of the audience of the first century and ask how that applies to us today.

Alexander Campbell writes, “The words and sentences of the Bible are to be translated, interpreted, and understand according to the same code of laws and principles of interpretation by which other ancient writings are translated and understood.” Campbell’s hermeneutical principles are as follows: 1) Historical circumstances (order, title, author, date, place, and occasion), 2) Who wrote it and to whom did he write, 3) Language interpretation used for other books are applied to the Bible, and 4) Common words with one known meaning the interpretation is clear; words with more than one can have no clear interpretation.

Being Anglo-Orthodox I adhere to Scripture, Holy Tradition and Reason when it comes to hermeneutics. Dr. William DiPuccio writes, “Orthodoxy sees Tradition as an organic whole (one source theory) which includes Scripture. Tradition, then, functions as the hermeneutical lens through which we understand the Bible. It is a safeguard against the kind of free-for-all interpretation that permeates many mainline churches today. When approaching Scripture, it is better to trust the collective wisdom of the ages than the myopic vision of contemporary individuals or groups.” I believe this lays a solid foundation for hermeneutics. The problem with Protestantism is that it put a Bible in everyone’s hands and told them to read it and come to their own conclusion hence the 32,000+ Protestant denominations that we see today.
In “Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church”, D.H. Williams writes, “Tradition also functioned as the chief hermeneutical principle for interpreting Scripture. Because tradition was not perceived as possessing a content separate from scriptural teaching, the former could act as an interpretive guide for the proper use of the Bible.” It is a dangerous mistake to downplay Holy Tradition in favor or private, personal interpretation. Williams goes on to write, “The Bible is capable of being understood only in the midst of disciplined community of believers whose practices embody the biblical story.”

If we are to truly understand the Scriptures we must come to reject Sola Scriptura. I see no evidence in Scripture to support the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. With this doctrine, Protestantism has run amuck. Whenever a interpretation issue arises if one group does not agree with another it will split because they have the “right” interpretation. Sola Scriptura makes the faith individual and personal, which is two things it is not. Williams writes, “The fathers would not have appreciated the principle of Scripture alone, since the historical and theological issues that gave rise to it were particular to late medieval Christianity. To treat the Bible in isolation from the tradition of the church, as it was located in the ancient rule of faith, baptismal confessions, and councilor creeds, would have been incomprehensible to the Christian pastors and thinkers of the patristic era. From their perspective, a radically Biblicist view might easily be driven by a desire to avoid the truth of the church’s teaching.”

This does not make Scripture subservient to Holy Tradition. The Fathers would have held that a true interpretation would lead one to the Tradition, which was the flagship of the Faith.

Current Issues for Christians with a High View of Scripture

“In their quest to reach culture, evangelical congregations have come to reflect the cultural preferences of their audience: anti-institutional, informal, nondogmatic, therapeutic, and unaware of the difference between tolerance and moral confusion,” writes D.H. Williams. I think Mr. Williams is on to something with his statement. I have not met anyone who supports homosexuality, abortion, or heretical teachings like that of John Spong who have a high view of the Scriptures.

The problem we face is the post-modern revisionism, which is full of moral relativism and pluralism. To fit into the society many churches have brought their view of the Scriptures low in order to make allowance for things such as homosexual partnerships that are blessed by God.

We have to remember what N.T. Wright wrote about writing the fifth act of the play and how we must remain faithful to the first four acts. This is the place of Scripture, which is a witness to God’s authority and a vehicle of God’s authority.

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