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Whence the Bible’s Authority?

Heart in the Bible

Yesterday’s Gospel reading, read right throughout the world, had Jesus say: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

I think this is a text that describes a healthy approach to the scriptures. The scriptures are a means – one of the means, a powerful means, to growth into union with God through Jesus.

I have argued against the view that tradition is solely the history of reflection on the scriptures. The scriptures were written within the tradition, expressing the tradition, and recognised within the tradition.

There needs to be some further reflection on this. Certainly, the scriptures have authority and are inspired – it is not the church, or tradition, giving authority to documents that only got that authority because of this “giving”. The church/tradition recognises and acknowledges the authority/inspiration that these documents have.

Within the tradition, within the life of the church, the scriptures, then, play a particular role in the building up of the household of the church. I have stressed previously, we need a hammer to build a house – a hammer is necessary. But a hammer alone is not sufficient. Somehow those of us who say a hammer alone cannot build the house are seen by hammer-aloners as denigrating the hammer!

Outside the life of the church, outside the tradition, we cannot even determine what is in the scriptures and what is not. Note, for example, Martin Luther’s denigration of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. Luther had famously added “alone” into Rom 3:28 (“allein durch den Glauben”). This, now, stood in conflict with James 2:24 “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (“nicht durch den Glauben allein”). Hence, these four books became part of Luther’s Antilegomena – texts of disputed value. 2 Peter, 2 John, and 3 John increased Luther’s Antilegomena to seven of the 27 New Testament books.

I conclude this post positively by quoting from Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (in fact I recommend reading that whole document):

Like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her [members], the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: “For the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12) and “it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13).

This site provides a number of encouragements to hearing God speaking to us through the scriptures – as individuals and as communities. There are resources for Lectio Divina, introductions to readings in services, disciplines of daily reading, and reflections on particular passages. The search box in the top right of the site is always a great place to start.

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15 thoughts on “Whence the Bible’s Authority?”

  1. <blockquoteCertainly, the scriptures have authority and are inspired – it is not the church, or tradition, giving authority to documents that only got that authority because of this “giving”. The church/tradition recognises and acknowledges the authority/inspiration that these documents have.
    That makes my head spin just to attempt to read it. It feels like the circular logic used by those holding a very conservative approach to scripture.

    You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life

    How could one stretch this statement to include anything from NT writers? The same conservatives logic is that the all-knowing Jesus knew that the NT would come into being in the future after the conclusion of his ministry.

    There is a group of conservatives whose approach to the evidence of the evolution of the universe is to ask the inane question, ‘Couldn’t God have created the universe to appear to be billions of years old if he wanted to?”

    I’m very wary of circular logic. Lord help my unbelief.

    1. Thanks, David, for your encouragement to elucidate, reflect, and uncircularise.

      Firstly, what I was attempting to do was to not do what it now seems I appear to be doing: to have a circular approach to the Bible’s authority. The circular approach I often encounter is the approach of quoting 2 Tim 3:16-17 that “All scripture is inspired by God”, and arguing from this that the Protestant collection of 66 books is what is being referred to – and therefore it is all inspired.

      I was attempting to approach this from a quite different direction: that the church, the Christian tradition, recognised certain documents as expressing its life and faith. Some of those documents were so recognised consistently, others are less central and solid within that tradition. But I was also trying to stress this is recognition. This isn’t something like coming to an agreement about, say, the date of the year when we will celebrate the Incarnation – there being nothing intrinsic about the agreement.

      Now to the John 5 quote with which I began. Does it help if I say that whether the historic Jesus ever said these words or not did not enter my head in quoting it? I simply think it expresses an approach to the scriptures that does not stop at the words on the page. Sure, it is an approach to the Hebrew Bible, but I think it is not a stretching to have that approach the the New Testament as well.


  2. I ‘dig’ all you are saying here, Bosco, about the importance of the Scriptures as the basis of our Faith. The two definitive presentation of God’s impact upon Judeo-Christian human beings – the @old’ and the ‘New’ Testimony – are integral to our understanding of Creation and Redemption in Christ.

    However, the world needed the change of human understanding that came with the Incarnation of Jesus – in order to perfectly fulfil the Promise of Yahweh, when ‘The Word became flesh’. What needs to remembered in that the New Testament only came into being after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who said: “When the Holy Spirit comes, S/He will lead you into ALL the Truth – about me; about sin….”.

    Some people want to limit progressive revelation to the canonical Books of the Bible. However, what seems to be missing from this understanding is that God is bringing new revelation through the Church’s Tradition – which is not static but ongoing.

    The (Anglican) application of ‘Reason’ to the S.T.R. triune stool of the spiritual dynamic in the Body of Christ is not solely at the disposal of us human being – clever though we may think ourselves to be.

    The true Teacher, in all of our knowledge about and of God in none other than the Holy Spirit – acting on behalf of the Divine Trinity.

    When The Apostle Peter acclaimed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God; Jesus said it was not ‘flesh and blood’ that had given him this knowledge but “My Father in Heaven” – before the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples at Pentecost.

    We are still in the age of revelation by the Holy Spirit; Who (post Pentecost and the Scriptural Canon) had to reveal the extend of God’s provision on issues like the emancipation of slaves and women.

    The response to the Readings at Mass: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church” ought to open our minds to – not only the Gospel narrative, but also the ‘way ahead’ for the mission of the Church in today’s world.

    God did not cease speaking to God’s people with the canonisation of the Scriptures!

    1. Yes, Fr Ron. The same God who speaks to us through the scriptures speaks to us through Science and so forth. Blessings.

  3. Hi Bosco
    I may or may not put up my own post on the matter.
    In the meantime, I have been thinking about (what could be called) levels of authority of the Bible.
    Thus: (e.g. not exhaustive list)
    Level 1: the Bible is supreme authority as a document which informs us about (e.g.) salvation (no other document does this).
    Level 2: the Bible is authoritative on a variety of matters so that, e.g., we continue to accept the Bible telling us not to murder, not to steal, to use spiritual gifts responsible, to be generous givers, to remember Jesus’ death with thanksgiving in the eucharist.
    Level 3: the Bible is more supportive than authoritative (though we may feel “support” = “authority”!) so that, e.g., we find the Bible supports a variety of church governments/orders of ministry, a variety of understandings of the eucharist, and differences in ethical matters.

    1. Thanks, Peter. Are these levels from higher to lower (stronger/more significant – to less so)? I guess I see these all sitting within a wider framework – if the Bible didn’t tell us not to murder, murder would still be wrong. It is not the Bible telling us that murder is wrong that makes it so. I’m simply using this as an example for ethical issues that face us now which those in the Bible never envisaged. Blessings.

  4. I know I repeat myself Bosco, but the scriptures can only be meaningful for Christians if by Christian we mean follower of Christ by radiating from the NT words of Jesus.

  5. Sorry folks, I don’t buy most of this, especially what Tracy wrote.

    Aside from the Hebrew Canon, the Christians of the first 200 or so years of the Church’s life had a pre-scripture faith. The most authoritative things those Christians had in common was the oral traditions of Jesus and the Apostles taught and passed down by their Apostolic successors. Some individual congregations had letters written to them by the Apostle Paul. Some congregations perhaps had letters from James and the other recognized leaders in Jerusalem. However, that’s an assumption drawn from Acts because we don’t have much in the way of evidence outside of Acts that they did. All surviving manuscripts of what is labeled the New Testament, date from the 3rd Century, copies of writings from 100 years or so prior and no two the same. The Bible of 2018 has been assembled through the centuries by scholars making decisions on a text drawn from these divergent manuscripts.

    As to the NT canon, that was as loaded as just about anything in the Church’s history can be. The Church stumbled its way for about 300 years into the 4th Century canon. What we have today in certain aspects wasn’t settled until the 16th Century. The Bible was shaped and formed by competing religious factions, personal ideologies, economics, the influence of larger congregations & eventually dioceses, petty rivalries and politics. After all of that, there were still plenty of texts that many Christians had “recognized” as authoritative that were excluded.

    What we have today has 4 competing Gospels, none of which tell the same story. Each of which was written with the purpose in mind of the original author, subject to the redactions and edits of unknown others as they were handed down. Then there are the undisputed writings of Paul vs later texts touching faith and practice. And everyday Christians didn’t have access to it until after, sometimes long after, the 15th Century invention of the printing press.

    I think most Christians today think as Tracy and they measure the validity of modern Christian experience by the New Testament, creeds & confessions. But there are texts in the canon that 2nd Century Christians distrusted because they didn’t match up with their pre-scriptural faith. There are texts in the canon that have been used to devalue, exclude, punish and even murder LGBTQ Christians still today.

    I don’t trust what is called scripture. I have an educated and healthy skepticism about it. And so I also have very mixed feelings about embracing it as authoritative. Our oldest Christian forebearers survived with a pre-scripture religious experience that wasn’t dependent on text or creed, that wasn’t dictated by huge institutions citing the constraints of ancient documents and contrived ecclesiastical confessions.

    1. Thanks, David.

      I think you may be somehow misreading Tracy – she is a regular contributor here and, although of course I cannot speak for her, I think she is as irritated by the way the scriptures are used as you express here. That, in any case, is how I read her comment.

      I am not sure what you mean by “a pre-scripture faith” and “a pre-scripture religious experience”. Jesus and his early followers used the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint. Agreed there were some texts used that are not included in 2018 Bibles. And agreed that the process to get to our 2018 Bibles was messy, and that our Bibles still vary. And we haven’t even begun on the stele and sutras found in China… In my experience, individuals (and Christian communities) create their own “canon” – parts of the Bible they read a lot; parts of the Bible they read seldom or never; and other extra-biblical texts they refer to and that are significant in their lives.


      1. Yes, Father B, I know that Tracy is a regular contributor, however I don’t believe that I misread her intent, that someone isn’t a true Christian unless they measure up to her understanding of a Christian as a “follower of Christ by radiating from the NT words of Jesus.” To me, that is very much a test, a judgement of someone’s authentic Christianity based on how well it measures up to her understanding, drawn from the authority that she has given to the “scriptures/New Testament.”

        Pre-scripture faith, pre-scripture religious experience = the first 200 years of the Church without a New Testament.

        Perhaps you missed this qualifier;
        “Aside from the Hebrew Canon, the Christians of the first 200 or so years of the Church’s life had a pre-scripture faith.”

        I don’t think that bog standard messy begins to describe the process, but messy enough that 21st Century humans would be remiss to extend “authority” were it any other compilation of documents.

        PS – I’m not familiar with the stele and sutras found in China. Are these from a sect of Christians discovered there? If not, what would be the significance?

        1. Thanks, David. Tracy has also replied – I took Tracy’s point simply to be that a lot of people call themselves followers of Jesus but seem to lack his basic compassion, etc. Yes – that can be seen as a judgment, but I read it not as pointing to particular individuals, simply how hurtful many Christians can be – even in quoting the scriptures. I see you both as actually saying similar things in different ways.

          I am fascinated by the way Christianity is understood as a European religion when it was far more Asian in its earlier days. I have seen the Xi’an stele – there is a version of Christianity far more recognisable in that Asian context.


          1. I got the Wikipedia read on the stele and the sutras. Nestorian Christians associated with the Eastern Syriac Church. Fascinating, I never realized that there were ancient Christians in China who predated the Roman Church’s missionaries by almost a millennia.

          2. Thanks, David. I am very interested in all this and, when I find/make the more time required, I might blog about how this changes much of the ideas of Christianity that a lot of people hold. Blessings.

          3. One thing that I really liked in some of the translation were the colorful names for the Trinity, God, Jesus, etc.

  6. Sorry David, I was trying to be succinct, I have a tendency to go on a bit which I have been trying to work on!

    ‘In my experience, individuals (and Christian communities) create their own “canon” – parts of the Bible they read a lot; parts of the Bible they read seldom or never; and other extra-biblical texts they refer to and that are significant in their lives.’

    Very accurate Bosco!

    And there is some lovely verse in places in the Bible which whilst inspirational I am not sure it reflects the teachings of Jesus, but I read it anyway, for the familiarity and comfort.

    Yes, I am aware of the history of the Bible, as one of my former mentors described it ‘the Bible didn’t just fall from the sky via an angel!’

    For me if Jesus didn’t say it I’m not convinced it matters, and he never mentioned homosexuality, let alone teach that it is a sin.

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