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A Comment On The Authority And Interpretation Of Scripture


This article first appeared in Theological Digest (Burlington) in July 1992.

“Jesus as mentor and friend” is as much as he is ever acknowledged to be in the document prepared for the 34th General Council, 1992. Nowhere is Jesus confessed in accord with what the apostles knew him to be: Lord, Saviour, Judge, Son of God, Incarnate Word, Messiah of Israel. In view of the fact that “Jesus is Lord” is the most elemental Christian confession, its omission is startling. Admittedly, on the second last page of the section which discusses the nature of authority (page 10) there is reference to “God’s historic self-revelation in Jesus Christ”. Yet since it is stated elsewhere that God is revealed “…through the lives of God’s people”(42) , and since there is no indication at all of how revelation in Jesus Christ might differ, the reader is left ignorant of the nature, uniqueness and significance of Jesus Christ.

A clue as to how the report is skewed is given in the first passage of the section dealing with the context in which scripture is interpreted: “We have always sought to be deeply engaged with the realities of God’s world and the people and institutions in it”.(3) World, people and institutions (from a biblical perspective) are never “realities”, but rather actualities. As actualities they are concrete, not mythological or imaginary. Yet they are not reality, since reality, for prophet and apostle (i.e., in biblical understanding itself) is the living, personal presence of God himself (or as the sixteenth century Reformers put it, the effectual presence of Jesus Christ). So far from being real in the sense that God is real, institutions (biblically speaking) are “principalities and powers” which contradict God’s work and subserve the power of death. To speak of world, people and institutions as possessing reality (rather than actuality) is to acknowledge them as revelatory. Perhaps this is what the document invites us to do, even as prophet and apostle do not.

In the same vein, the report speaks of the questions we put to scripture.(3) And of course there are many questions that we do. Nevertheless, the ultimate context for understanding scripture is not the questions we put to it, but rather the questions it puts to us as through it God interrogates us. It can scarcely be overlooked that as often as Jesus is asked a question he never answers it, but instead puts his question to the questioner. In other words, the questions which we put to scripture betray our distorted perspective. This is not surprising, since in places other than the written gospels (reflecting the teaching of Jesus) scripture indicates that women and men whose understanding with respect to God has been darkened (even rendered “futile”, according to Paul) by the fall remain ignorant of what constitutes a proper question. In sum, then, our questions about scripture and about the one of whom it speaks must be understood ultimately by the questions God puts to us. (The first question in scripture is posed by the tempter, in the creation/fall sagas, “Did God say…?”, as doubt is cast on the goodness of God’s command and thus on the goodness of God himself. The first question God puts to humankind, on the other hand, is, “Where are you?”, when humankind is attempting to hide from God following its disobedience. The second is, “Where is your brother?”, when Cain has slain Abel. In a word, the context which readers bring to scripture, while important, is not the normative context; the normative context is God’s contention with all that opposes him, that spiritual conflict which seethes already and which has victimized even the (self-)understanding which we bring to scripture.)

In bringing forward its interpretive methodology the document refers to slavery. “In the biblical text, slavery is condoned; yet slavery is opposed by Christians on the basis of the ‘sense of scripture’ or ‘the call of Jesus’. But is slavery condoned in the bible? The preface to the Ten Commandments is, “You were slaves in Egypt, and I, God, delivered you.” Whereas it is the right of oriental potentates to enslave, it is the nature of God to free from slavery. (This is bedrock and never disappears from Israel’s self-consciousness.) To be sure, there were Israelite slaves among the Israelite people. However, the Covenant Code (Exodus 21-24) provided for their protection. For its time, the treatment accorded Hebrew slaves was exceedingly humane. For instance, if a master injured a slave so slightly as to knock out a tooth, the slave went free. The Deuteronomic Code provided for the slave’s wellbeing upon release from service: money, food and clothing had to be provided to facilitate a start-up in the person’s new life. The Holiness Code (Leviticus 25) forbade slavery. Paul is often faulted because he sent Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to Philemon. But it must always be kept in mind (i) that escaping or counselling to escape was a capital offense in Rome (is Paul to be faulted for sparing Onesimus certain death?), (ii) that Paul put Philemon in an impossible situation with respect to his slave. Philemon is to take him back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.”(Philemon 16-17) “Receive him as you would receive me” — when Paul is a free citizen! If Onesimus is to be received as brother in the flesh (and not merely “in the Lord”), then no Christian can ever regard anyone as a slave. In view of the above considerations the text can scarcely be said to condone slavery.

The major section dealing with authority appears to confuse authority with authoritarianism. The latter, of course, is akin to coercion or arbitrary claim or tyranny. In the “world-view” which the document prefers, “authority” is understood as “power with”.(5) The reader is surprised here, since scripture points to the authority of Jesus Christ as primary, unique, and never delegated; his authority is never “power with” us. If the authority of scripture arises from its peculiar service to Jesus Christ, then it is difficult to see how the authority of scripture is “power with” us. The world-view of authority which the document rejects — “power over” — is surely closer to what is meant by the church catholic’s acknowledgement of the lordship of Christ. At the same time it must always be understood that Jesus exercises his lordship by humbling himself and giving himself up for us all. His authority, while never delegated or shared, is also never authoritarian, never arbitrary, never tyrannical. His authority is the legitimate claim upon us of the one who has gone to hell and back for us in order to salvage us. Furthermore, power is a marginal concept in scripture. Still, the document uses it extensively in its discussion of authority and assumes that power is synonymous with the capacity to wrench. In everyday usage, however, “power” simply means the capacity to fulfil purpose. The fact that Jesus Christ is not ultimately stymied with respect to his purpose — namely, a people that lives for the praise of God’s glory — does not imply authoritarianism, does not mean that “power over” has to be rejected in favour of “power with”.

Repeatedly the document speaks of the activity of God as empowering God’s people. But nowhere is it stated what these people are empowered to be or to do. More to the point, from the perspective of a biblical understanding of humankind, “empowered” as such would mean the fortification of those sunk in sinnership. Instead of empowerment the bible regularly uses the category of freedom, since sinnership is that from which humankind needs to be freed. Paul’s urging the Christians in Galatia, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), has the force of, “Christ has freed us from our bondage to sin so as to remove all impediments to our obedience to him.” This breathes a different air from the category of empowerment. Freedom, everywhere in scripture, is the God-restored capacity to act in accord with one’s true nature (namely, the obedient praise and service of God). Freedom, biblically, never means the God-assisted capacity to achieve one’s own agenda.

The document’s utilization of traffic-officers as the illustration of the nature of that authority we recognize and assent to is not merely unhelpful but even misleading.(7) To be sure, the document is correct in seeing that it is the community which confers authority on traffic-officers. This is but to say that the community itself is the ultimate authority with respect to the regulating of traffic. But when the church catholic acknowledges scripture as authoritative it is not saying that the Christian community has conferred authority on scripture; it is not saying that the church is the ultimate authority for regulating the community’s faith and conduct. To say this would mean that the church is self-authoritative with respect to its knowledge of God; i.e., God is but an extension of the church.

Confusion is apparent regarding the place of the community of faith in the economy of God’s revelation and the place of scripture within that economy. For instance, when scripture is said to be the foundational story for us (does this mean the paradigmatic story? the normative story?), which story is “hallowed by the continual use of the ongoing community”(9), it is therein asserted that it is the community which renders scripture holy (hallowed). Surely scripture is holy inasmuch as it uniquely attests the incursion and ongoing activity of the Holy One of Israel in the person of his Son. Similar confusion is apparent in the highlighted affirmation, “God’s historic self-revelation in Jesus Christ is crucial in establishing what has legitimate authority in Christian community”.(10) But the church throughout history has confessed not that Jesus Christ is crucial for establishing this or that as having legitimate authority for the church, but rather that Jesus Christ himself is the authority for faith since he is the church’s sole sovereign. He does not determine what has authority; he has authority, for he is the Word Incarnate. He constrains our glad acknowledgement of his authority by the Spirit-vivified illumination of his self-giving on our behalf. In addition, what is granted with “God’s historic self-revelation in Jesus Christ” is taken back on the same page with “interactive sense of authority — scripture as power with us.” “Scripture as power with us” does not reflect the nature of Christ’s authority, for the Incarnate One is never “lord with us”.

The ghost of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (an expression which Wesley himself never used) is brought forward from the previous document on scripture in the listing of “at least four sources of Christian faith — heritage, understanding, experience and the Bible”.(8) (For Wesley scripture was always the primary source and norm of Christian faith and the obedience born of faith.) When understanding is discussed it is said that “the work of biblical scholars and reflections of members of the community” are “methods of understanding” which are “seen as more consistent with the Methodist and Reformed traditions…”.(10) But in fact the view of scripture advanced by the document does not reflect that of the Reformers (and of Wesley, who was thoroughly Protestant in his view of scripture). The Reformers acknowledge scripture as authoritative precisely because it does uniquely attest Jesus of Nazareth as Son of God, Lord, Saviour, the one in whom the “fulness of deity dwells bodily”.(Col. 2:9)

When the category, “experience”, is expounded we are told that “part of the authority of scripture is found in its ‘givenness’ — the fact that the story has been passed down from generation to generation”.(11) Surely the “givenness” of scripture resides not in the fact that “the story” has been passed down from generation to generation but rather because the apostolic testimony is unique and unrepeatable. Other stories, such as fairy tales and Norse myths, have been passed down too, but are not regarded as authoritative in any sense. Then how can mere transmission constitute even part of the authority of scripture? When it is stated that “another part of the authority of scripture is its relevance to our experience”(11) the reader longs to seen greater theological subtlety and sophistication. Is it our experience which renders scripture authoritative (or induces us to ascribe authority to scripture)? If, as was mentioned earlier in this comment on the document, fallen humankind does not know which questions are genuine and which are but pseudo-questions, then human experience cannot be the measure of the relevance of scripture; scripture (animated by the Spirit so as to confront us with Jesus Christ himself) is instead the measure of the relevance of our “experience”! (Our experience, so far from being the measure of the relevance of God’s nature, purpose and truth, is chiefly a contradiction of this — or why should we have to be redeemed?) Again the reader is puzzled by the juxtaposition of “God’s historic self-revelation in Jesus Christ is crucial for establishing what has legitimate authority in Christian community”(10) and “part of the authority of scripture is found in its relevance to our experience”.(11) How is Jesus Christ related to that human experience which is said to confer (part-)authority upon scripture?

There appears to be theological confusion in the section, “CONVICTIONS”. (39-42) Six affirmations are emphasized in bold-faced type; e.g., “God calls us to engage the Bible as a foundational authority as we seek to live the Christian life”. Each of the six begins, “God calls us to engage the Bible…”. But how do we know that God calls us to do this, since nowhere does the document relate scripture to a doctrine of the knowledge of God? (Here its departure from the Reformers is evident.) While it is affirmed that God calls us “through the infinity of grace”, how do we know that God is gracious, even “infinitely” so?(39) Why are we now told that God calls us to engage the Bible as a foundational authority? (Earlier, it was as “the” foundational authority.) What other foundational authorities are to be considered? On the same page we are told that “the Bible continues to be the predominant witness to belief in God’s liberating and transforming activity”. But the church catholic acknowledges scripture to be normative, not merely predominant. Furthermore, the apostolic testimony testifies in the first instance not to human belief in God’s activity but to the activity of God himself. Again, logical order is inverted when we are told that “God calls us to engage the Bible as a church seeking God’s community with all people…” before “God calls us to engage the Bible to experience the liberating and transforming Word of God.”(40) After all, it is those whom the Word of God has freed for the praise and service of God who constitute the church! To elevate the church above the Word is to deny the Reformation. It is also to deny that where this Word acts, division occurs — as the fourth gospel makes plain several times over (e.g., John 9:16). It cannot be denied that the ministry of Jesus is divisive. When the document states that “legitimate authority in every case enhances community”(40) one can only cite the dominical precedent. The community of Christ’s people, on the other hand, is the result of God-wrought reconciliation. This community knows that while sinners are reconciled to God through the faith-quickening intercession of the Son, sin is never reconciled to righteousness, disobedience to obedience, the evil one to the Holy One. For this reason John insists repeatedly that when Jesus Christ acts and speaks, his community is formed and division is precipitated.

The ideological slant of the document becomes apparent when we are told that The United Church must recommit itself to the struggle for justice. Needless to say, that church which aspires to faithfulness will pursue justice. Yet nowhere in the document are Christians urged to pursue holiness, even though they are characteristically urged to do so throughout scripture. (And Christians, we must not forget, are typically called “saints” or “holy ones” in the New Testament, rather than “just ones”.) To pursue “love and justice”(40) without pursuing truth and holiness can only issue in the corruption of love and justice. Apart from truth, love becomes indulgence or sentimentality; apart from holiness, justice becomes at best, merciless, and at worst, vengeful.

The reader cannot help wondering about the agenda behind “the Word of God, in every case, is larger than the text of the Bible”.(41) Of course it is, since the Word is the eternal self-utterance of the fathomless Triune God. Nevertheless, does “larger than” mean that the Word of God can or does contradict scripture? If so, then scripture is deceptive and impedes our knowledge of God. And what is meant by, “We also experience the sacred mystery in the connections between our personal and collective lives…. This confirms our understanding that truth is relational…”?(41-42) In the New Testament “truth” has two meanings: (i) reality, substance, (ii) the quality of a statement which accurately reflects what is real. “Truth is relational” fits neither of these. Then what does it mean? What purpose does utilizing it serve?

It appears that naturalism is the presupposition of The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture; that is, that human reason, assessing scripture, can discriminate between wheat and chaff, between what must be heard and heeded and what not. There appears to be no recognition that human reason, with respect to our knowledge of God, has been impaired by the fall and now cannot, of itself, give us knowledge of God; no recognition that in the wake of the fall women and men “became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened”(Rom. 1:21); no recognition that revelation — which is never merely ideational but is rather the redemptive/restorative action of God upon us as God includes us in his own self-knowing — is necessary if reason is to regain reason’s own integrity. So much of the content of scripture is stood on its head despite the deployment of seeming truth of scripture; e.g., “Transformation is the activity of divine grace with us that changes individuals and communities. For Christians these activities are uniquely personified in Jesus of Nazareth”.(40) Yet since the categories of sin, estrangement, unrighteousness, blindness, condemnation appear nowhere in the document, the reader is not encouraged to think that “transformation” has very much to do with what scripture holds up: the salvation of those who cling in faith to the one who is God’s provision for us. The reader is left too with the frustration of seeing Jesus Christ undervalued yet again. For if transformation is God’s changing of individuals and communities, and if Jesus of Nazareth “uniquely personifies” such change, then what did he change from? change into? Furthermore, Christians confess Jesus not to personify anything but rather to be the Word Incarnate. Surely we are better to repeat with the unknown author of the book of Hebrews whose rescue at the hands of the world’s only Saviour and Lord wrung from him the confession that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever”.(Heb. 13:8)

The document rightly insists that we should approach scripture with all the scholarly tools available to us. Since the Bible is a book of antiquity, it is only fitting that it be investigated with the assistance of those aids which probe any writing from antiquity. At the same time, however, the document is one-sided in its endorsement, for biblical scholars are not free from agendas and ideologies. One need only review the work of twentieth century New Testament scholars where it is obvious that assorted philosophical assumptions are not generated by the text but rather are superimposed on the text, thereby controlling the interpretation of the text. One need only think of C.H. Dodd and his borrowing of British historiography, of Rudolf Bultmann and Heideggerian existentialism, or several American New Testament scholars and different theories of literary criticism. (In this regard it is worth noting that in Bultmann’s massive, two-volume New Testament theology no mention is made of prayer. In view of the attention which prayer receives throughout the New Testament — not to mention the life of Jesus — the philosophical determination of the “meaning” of the biblical text is undeniable.) The philosophical presuppositions of The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture are never identified. Still, they remain no less determinative. They should be rendered explicit, for then readers will be able to see what philosophy has shaped the writers.

Victor A. Shepherd