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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Bible as Authority

I have found myself in several conversations lately about the authority of scripture.  Usually these discussions involve bemoaning or celebrating the decline in authority ascribed to the Bible within the church.  The bemoaners are saddened to see the loss of an important touchstone in the life of faith, the celebrators are happy to see that people are no longer relying on such superstitious and unscientific collection of writing.  Not surprisingly, I am among the bemoaners, and for several reasons, one of which I share here.

The odd thing about many people who explicitly reject the authority of scripture, is that they implicitly embrace it.  They embrace uniquely biblical values such as love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and a peculiar kind of justice that respects the voiceless and disenfranchised.  These values are central to the biblical story and its witness, they also mark an astonishing departure from the imperial values dominant in the world in which the Bible emerged.  If these values entered our lives from sources other than the Bible and those giving testimony to its moral worldview, what was that source?  Ancient imperial powers?  Rome?  Greece? Pre-Christian European paganism?  Western philosophy?  This is not to say the Bible is the only source for such values in the world, but for us as Christians it certainly is the primary one.

In the individualism of the age, we are reluctant to acknowledge our indebtedness to traditions for shaping who we are and how we think.  We somehow believe that we can create our own tradition of moral thought and practice ex nihilo (out of nothing).  To be authentic, we must reject external authority and forge our own way.  Yet the notion that we can forge our own way is an illusion.  Most of us are indebted to the Bible and those who witness to its world view for the values we hold dear.

Norman K. Gottwald, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, takes a historical critical approach to the emergence of Israel among the city states of Canaan, and identifies a revolutionary movement valuing justice for the poor, forgiveness of debts, and a radical new way of thinking of the divine.  The values of this movement, Gottwald argues, come from the circumstances of their emergence, as they defy the oppression of Caananite urban dominance of the surrounding countryside.  The remarkable and new values of this movement survive because of a vital religious practice, the unique prophetic vocation, and unique circumstances of regional politics and geography.  One could be an atheist and embrace Gottwald's analysis of the biblical values which have shaped us.  In other words, an honest atheist could have some respect for biblical authority.

In the church, we do not take such a secular approach to the Bible, but see the movement of God in the emergence of these values in Israel, and later as they are embodied in Jesus and the church.  Walter Wink sees God at work in the reversal of the "domination system" as the biblical community emerges in the ancient near east.  Daniel Erlanger has written a playful comic book called Manna and Mercy, which develops the same theme.  This is just a tiny taste of those who have considered the emergence of the biblical values of love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and a peculiar kind of justice that respects the voiceless and disenfranchised, in a context where they were foreign.

The failure of biblical communities to fully live out these values is lamentable.  It is also not surprising.  The values of the "domination system" are compelling and powerful.  Counter revolutionary forces are always at work in human cultures.  For me this is what is at stake in conversations regarding biblical authority.  The biblical values I named above have always been threatened.  Unless we recognize God's role in giving them to us, I am concerned they will become an endangered species.