On Biblical Authority: A Dialogue

July 15th, 2021

Deep Calls to Deep is a book about reading the Bible, and particularly the Psalms, dialogically in a time fraught with disruption and division. The writing of this book was driven by the conviction that one vital response to disruption is to reach out in dialogue across the landscape of division, if for no other reason than the Bible models the importance of doing so. The Bible is itself the canonical product of self-critical dialogue, of “deep calling to deep” (see Ps 42:7[8]).

This book invites two kinds of readers: (1) those interested in practicing transformative dialogue to overcome polarizing division and foster moral growth, and (2) those who are intrigued with reading Scripture dialogically.

I will deliberate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.

I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.

—Psalm 119:15-16

How does the Bible’s dialogical diversity inform its “authority”? From the two differing accounts of creation in Genesis to the divergent Psalms to the four distinct Gospels, the Bible demonstrates its unique authority by calling forth eyes wide open in critical discernment, not by imposing blind obedience. If biblical authority is not authoritarian, then what kind of authority is it? We will explore this topic dialogically, of course! The following statements draw from a broad spectrum of divided theological positions, but the primary focus is on what the Bible says and how it says it, authoritatively.[1]

“Authority” as a Point of Contention

The topic of biblical authority continues to be a divisive issue for Christians. For some, the term authority smacks of legalism and tyranny, as reflected in the painful history of the church’s abuse of the Bible to enslave and oppress, including the history of white supremacy in America. Others, however, regard authority as an essential feature of scripture, the very “Word of God,” no less. Biblical authority means different things to different people from different contexts, even among people of faith, for whom the language of authority is inescapable, if not fundamental. For most Christians, but not all, the authority of scripture is a given, but its import and implications in the life of faith are a matter of serious debate.

The roots of such debate run deep. The formation of the Christian canon was met with its detractors from the outset, with the gnostic Marcion of Pontus of the second century CE, who considered the Old Testament and some of the New Testament scriptures to be theologically and morally objectionable. Around the same time, the pagan philosopher Celsus wrote extensively on the Bible’s internal contradictions and dependency on popular myths. Propelled by advancements in scientific and historical inquiry, the Enlightenment of seventeenth-century Europe challenged the veracity of biblical revelation while, at the same time, setting the stage for the “scientific” study of the Bible. A mixed blessing by any measure, the rise of rationalism in Western thought resulted, as coined by Hans Frei, in the “eclipse of biblical narrative.”[2]

More recently, the claim of biblical authority has had to confront both the rise of biblical illiteracy within the church and the emergence of postmodernism with its deconstruction of monolithic “truth.” And, again, there is the undeniable history of oppression and exploitation committed in the name of God, such as the horrors of Western colonialism, including the “Doctrine of Discovery,” manifest destiny, and the displacement of indigenous peoples, all examples of “biblical supremacy” at work.[3] In the face of such realities, some have found the very language of authority to be an impediment for engaging scripture for guidance and transformation.

Authority from the Bottom Up

To explore the nature of biblical authority, we do not begin with a top-down approach to the topic, which is how biblical authority is often cast: the Bible is the “Word of God”; therefore, it is authoritative. Period. I ponder whether there is a way to come to such a claim by way of conclusion rather than premise, which only begs the question. If the claim is made that the Bible is uniquely authoritative as God’s Word, we first need to know what the Bible is and what it does. We also need to know what happens when the Bible is read and interpreted. In other words, exploring biblical authority means entering into the hermeneutical fray of biblical interpretation.

Defining Authority: Constrictive and Creative

First, however, we need to know what “authority” is. Below are two dictionary definitions:

the power and a right to command, act, enforce obedience, or make final decisions; jurisdiction . . . authorization . . . the power derived from opinion, respect or esteem; influence of character or office.[4]

power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior . . . freedom granted . . . convincing force . . . grounds, warrant.[5]

Common to both definitions is the element of power. Authority wields power, from enforcing “obedience” to exercising “influence” and persuading “opinion.” Etymologically, “authority” spans an even wider range. The Latin root bears a distinctly creative nuance: auctoritas, meaning “origination,” from which the word “author” derives. The word is also related to the verb auctorare, “to bind.” There is, thus, a tension within the word itself: on the one hand, authority has to do with creative generativity that leads to “authoring” or “authorizing” something. On the other hand, authority has the power to “bind,” as in “binding the conscience,” a phrase often used to describe the primary function of the Bible’s authority. The semantic tension, however, is depleted in contemporary discourse, which tends to side exclusively with the sense of binding. In the judicial domain, for example, an authoritative precedent or reason is often sought that results in a binding decision.

The Question of Domain

To what domain(s) does the Bible’s authority pertain? Does it apply to scientific and legal matters as much as it does to matters of faith and moral conduct? That may be easy to answer, but what about murkier matters such as sexuality, climate change, abortion, and stem-cell research, where theological reflection needs to engage the natural and social sciences? To complicate matters further, whereas the recourse to authority frequently involves seeking a specific decision or answer for a specific issue, how does one seek such things from court narratives and lament poetry? How does one derive authority from the Song of Solomon? Or is only the instructional material of the Bible (e.g., tôrâ) to be deemed authoritative? Given its diversity, the Bible is an altogether uniquely authoritative source of guidance, quite different from things we usually regard as authoritative, such as legal texts and scientific reports.

One place to begin is to acknowledge first and foremost that scripture is authoritative primarily with respect to its theological subject, God, who lies beyond scientific investigation and historical inquiry yet is active in creation and history.[6] Nevertheless, because God is the creator of all things, scriptural authority of also requires respect for authorities outside its primary purview, such as science and medicine. The Bible, in other words, does not cover everything about the irreducibly complex world that we inhabit, and what it does reveal can be misleading if taken scientifically. Is infertility a sign of divine disfavor or affliction?[7] Must we adopt a geocentric worldview because the sun “stood still” at Gibeon when Joshua defeated the Amorites (Josh 10:12)? The sky-dome model of creation (Gen 1:6-8) finds little correspondence with the structure of the cosmos as we know it. The Bible acknowledges that there are many aspects about our world that can be understood through observation and that there are realities that will always remain inexplicable. Such is the premise of much of the wisdom corpus, whose diversity is itself testimony to the lively dialogues of the sages.

Authority and Interpretation

Authority as it pertains to the Bible takes on a different nuance from its normal usage in everyday discourse. For example, Solomon’s decree to cut the infant in half was not in itself the right legal decision (1 Kgs 3:25). Indeed, it would have been horrifically wrong had it been literally carried out! Rather, it served to provoke a response from the contesting parties to resolve a conflict. The Bible’s authority, thus, is more at home with the generative sense of the term (auctoritas), one that creatively elicits (or “authors”) responses from its readers. For Christians, the ultimate author of the Bible is God, authored by God through human authors with their varying personalities embedded in their ancient cultures. However the mystery of biblical inspiration is to be explained (and it can’t), it did not cancel the personal, cultural, and historical particularities of each author and tradition behind the words of scripture.

Any doctrine of the Bible’s authority must grapple with the nature of what the Bible is and what it does. The Bible is no monolith. It comprises a diverse array of genres conveying a host of various perspectives, all brought together within the overarching claim that God is fundamentally benevolent, this God of hesed (see below). The Bible’s diversity has been described in various ways. Employing the metaphor of the lawcourt, Walter Brueggemann identifies “testimonies” and “counter testimonies” canonically bound together.[8] Others apply the framework of logic to highlight the Bible’s “contradictions.”[9] Doing so treats scripture as either a treatise or a court case. From a dialogical perspective, however, such differences constitute “disagreements” that invite deep listening, critical reflection, and continuing dialogue. Through dialogical engagement, the books and authors of the Bible can “agree to disagree,” offering ample opportunity for ongoing dialogue and resisting the urge to treat the Bible as an “echo chamber.”

Biblical authority rests on biblical interpretation, and biblical interpretation is by nature dialogical. Dialogue unfolds not only between texts in scripture but also between scripture and its readers. Meaning is not something unlocked, as if the biblical text were a heavy safe waiting for the right key to be inserted.[10] Meaning emerges from a reader’s encounter with a text, which is authorized by its author(s). Meaning is evoked within the interactive space between reader and text. Meaning is relational and active. So also is truth, for truth rests on meaning. It is simply a hermeneutical fact that a reader is required for a text to be meaningful, including meaningfully true. The same goes for the Bible. By itself, a text contains merely marks on a page or pixels on a screen. It does not exist as meaningful without its readers, past and present. It comes alive, as it were, when it is read or recited, whenever it is communicated or interpreted. In the encounter, the text becomes a partner in the construction of meaning. On the one hand, the text’s meaning grasps the reader as an experience outside of the reader’s own context. On the other hand, the reader has some leeway in deciding how a text is to be communicated and interpreted, like a musician playing from a score. Not unlike musical notations regarding tempo, phrasing, and volume, setting the parameters and constraints of every performance, there are textual signs and rhetorical conventions that cue the reader in interpreting a biblical text. Nevertheless, readers invest something of themselves in every act of interpretation, situated as they are in a certain time and place. In the process of interpretation, the reader interrogates the text, and the text interrogates the reader. The result is dialogue in search of meaningful truth.

A Dialogue with the Westminster Confession of Faith

As for truth, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646),[11] influential among Reformed churches worldwide, as well as many evangelical churches, finds convergence between the Bible’s “infallible truth” and its “divine authority,” worked out by the “inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (1.5). The Bible’s “truth,” in other words, may not be self-evident, because such truth is mediated by God’s Spirit, which in practice involves interpretation.

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. (1.9)

In other words, scripture interprets scripture, in part because not all passages are equal in clarity.

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1.7)

Precisely. “Searching” scripture means exploring the dialogical dynamics that unfold among the diverse texts of scripture and adjudicating them in terms of clarity and significance. This involves both discerning the dialogue among texts and engaging in dialogue with them.

The interpretive process is dialogically charged through and through, beginning with the text and a reader, leading to a community of readers—the more diverse, the livelier the dialogue! When a biblical text meets differently situated readers, it is hard to predict what will happen. Any notion of biblical authority must acknowledge both the dialogical nature of scripture and the dialogical nature of interpretation. By its diversity, the Bible generates dialogue. By its authority, the Bible enlists its readers to listen deeply as it initiates the kinds of dialogue that form vital communities of discernment. Such is the Bible’s formative, “authorizing” power. As much as biblical truth is the result of the “energetic interplay of the Spirit of God working in and through human authors,”[12] it is also the result of interaction among readers and God’s Spirit. Such interaction “in front of the text” is also “energetic interplay,” or lively dialogue.

Edifying Authority

One of the few places in which the Bible speaks about itself is found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good. (CEB)

On the face of it, this passage makes a rather modest claim. Simply put, scripture is a gift from God that serves to teach and equip the community of faith. Its inspiration is paralleled by what it can do for the body of Christ. For something to be useful, it must prove its usefulness. Timothy’s claim is that the Bible’s authority is demonstrated by its capacity to edify and sustain, to teach and equip people for the life of faith. The Bible’s authority, like psalmic tôrâ, is lodged in its efficacy.

According to this brief epistle, the Bible’s authority is a functional or formative authority. What makes the Bible the “Word of God” does not depend upon any particular theory of inspiration, which remains a mystery. Rather, the Bible’s authority depends on the testimony of what the Bible can do for equipping communities to do “everything that is good.” To talk about the Bible as a normative document is to say a lot about what is formative about the Bible. Scripture’s authority denotes the Bible’s capacity to shape and transform people into mature communities of faith, to command as well as to edify, to charge as well as to bless. Biblical authority is demonstrated in practice as it is lived out by the Bible’s readers. Such authority is not something that adheres to the printed words of the text, such as font size or the color of its letters (even if it is red). Rather, it is lived out in one’s engagement with the text: in making sense of the text, interpreting the text, and embodying the result in “faith, hope, and love” (1 Cor 13:13).

Authority Dialogically Framed

The difference between “authoritative” and “authoritarian” is deep. For one thing, the Bible allows for questions that prompt answers.[13] Such dialogical exchanges are “quite unauthoritarian but utterly authoritative.”[14] Biblical authority does not mean biblical supremacy. The Bible gives reasons and warrants for its claims, indicating that proper authority is to be freely acknowledged; it rests not on coercion but on persuasion and pathos, as conveyed in its compelling stories and cogent wisdom, on the power of its vision for abundant life, on the breadth of its diversity. Featuring both human and divine discourse, the Bible is complex and, as such, so is its authority. The Bible is not a systematic book of definitions and diagnoses, complete with a handy index. It is a corpus filled with polity and piety, epistles and stories, songs of praise and protest, not to mention love poetry. The literature spans over a millennium of history, punctuated by national disruptions and crises. The Bible was not dropped from heaven on gold plates. It was not transmitted to an illiterate prophet. The Bible, rather, reflects centuries upon centuries of communal struggle and theological discernment. It speaks in many voices, some harmonious, some dissonant. The Bible is the product of inspired dialogues that inspires dialogues, and so much more.

Discerning the many voices of scripture, cast in various rhetorical forms and rooted in diverse historical contexts, is part of the challenging task of interpretation. For people of faith, the Bible’s authority is realized in its interpretation, and interpretation gives concrete expression to the Bible’s authority. Because scripture interprets itself as earlier traditions or perspectives are recast and revised for new contexts, scripture counters and corrects itself.[15] In so doing, scripture “reauthorizes” itself. Certain Jewish interpreters have a pointed way of describing this: the Bible debates itself![16] “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself” is an admonition in Proverbs that is followed immediately by opposite counsel: “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes” (Prov 26:4-5). To respond or not to respond, that is the question with regard to fools, and there is no one mind on the issue. Or take the example of John the Baptist’s declaration, recast from Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Matt 3:3). Ecclesiastes, however, observes, “Consider the work of God; who can make straight what [God] has made crooked?” (Eccl 7:13). Qoheleth laments that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9), while the prophet of the exile declares on God’s behalf, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa 43:19a). Truth in these cases emerges from dialogically engaging divergent voices, truth that is specific for one’s context, which is to say that the Bible conveys not only timeless truths but also timely truths, truths that address specific contexts.

The dialogical, self-interpretive nature of scripture complexifies the issue of biblical authority, for the task of interpretation requires the reader to find ways to navigate and mediate the contesting claims about God and God’s ways in the world. Nevertheless, is there a theological center or focal point to the Bible, an overarching coherence or framework to be privileged above everything else? That too is a matter of dialogue. What about the voices and perspectives muted by scripture that cry out for a hearing, such as the voice of the immigrant, the cry of the Canaanite, the cries of Hagar and other women marginalized in the patriarchal household, the groanings of the enslaved within the Israelite household? Every interpreter must engage dialogically with the plethora of voices that make up the great extended family called scripture, both dominant and suppressed. The Bible has them all, if one looks hard enough.

How does one adjudicate such competing voices? To do so dialogically requires care and patience, for true dialogue involves listening attentively and striving toward critical understanding. But often a choice must be made in the end, one that either favors one text or tradition over others or finds a creative way of integrating diverse perspectives without resorting to harmonization. What criteria are available? How does one decide? Here, the Bible itself offers help, but it revolves around a question that every reader/interpreter must decide: What does scripture consider most central about God?

One possibility is to follow the lead of the psalmists, who repeat God’s “self-confession,” in variant ways,[17] given in response to Moses’s request to see God’s “glory” in Exodus 34:6.

YHWH passed before him and proclaimed, “YHWH, YHWH, a God compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in benevolence and faithfulness.”

This creed-like statement of YHWH’s character, positioned at the chiastic center of the entire Hexateuch (Genesis to Joshua),[18] suggests its theological centrality or primacy in the Hebrew scriptures. The divine dispositions identified in this self-confession fundamentally underwrite both YHWH’s “ways” and “deeds,” from the creation of the cosmos and the liberation of the enslaved to the constitution of a community at Sinai and the blessing of all the families of the earth. Any text that falls short of acknowledging God’s abundant “benevolence and faithfulness,” [19] any message that diminishes the God who is “compassionate and merciful,” the same mercy and kindness incarnated in Christ, falls short of full authority:

We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, and slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and jealousy. We were despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any righteous works we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:3-5)

Such is the theological high bar for all of scripture, transforming malice, hatred, and division into kindness, mercy, and renewal.

So what is the Bible’s authority framed dialogically? It is reflected first and foremost in the church’s commitment to read and consult scripture, every time, all the time. In the life of the church, scripture is to be always held front and center as its “founding document.” Such is biblical authority manifested in practice. Dialogically, biblical authority is manifest in reading scripture as a chorus of voices crossing the divide of time and cultures to direct our attention. It is demonstrated in readers being captured and captivated by their voices and listening in on how they engage each other. The Bible does not invite its readers to enter blindly but beckons readers with eyes to see and ears to hear, receptively and critically. While the Bible’s authority, weighty as it is, pulls its readers into its gravitational orbit, beckoning receptive hearts and minds, it is the Bible’s diversity that invites its readers to exercise critical discernment, manifest in dialogue. Such is how the Bible earns its authority.

God’s Creative Word

What does it mean, then, to claim the Bible as God’s Word dialogically? As scripture is “authored” by God, much like creation fashioned by God in complex ways, the Bible is first and foremost God’s creative, generative Word.[20] As God’s words launched creation into being “in the beginning” (Gen 1), resulting in a manifold creation (Ps 104:24), so God’s Word in scripture has a hand in fashioning diverse communities of discernment, communities that seek, question, wonder, and strive to embody scripture, each true to its own setting and context. To claim the Bible as God’s Word is to claim scripture as the fertile field for cultivating the life of faith, for nurturing lives of faith in community. It is to claim the transformative power that comes from wrestling with the Word, like Jacob at the Jabbok, whose change of identity did not come without concerted effort. It is to claim the work and play of God’s Spirit when scripture is read and interpreted, the same Spirit or divine breath (rûáh) that “hovered” over the waters of creation, poised to create (Gen 1:2).

In the end, biblical authority rests on trust. It is the Bible’s trustworthiness that makes the Bible authoritative. As the God who is trustworthy seeks our prayers and praise, as well as our laments and protests, so the Bible earns and elicits our respect and our questions, our hopes and our doubts, all offered in trust that in the end wisdom will be gained, faith strengthened, hope sustained, and renewal made real (Rev 21:5). This, too, is the work of God’s Spirit. In short, the Bible’s authority both “binds the conscience” and expands it. As Christ is God’s Word “made flesh” (John 1:14), so the Bible is God’s written Word made fresh by God’s Spirit with each new question, for each new generation.

[1] This chapter builds on my “Introduction,” in Engaging Biblical Authority: Perspectives on the Bible as scripture, ed. William P. Brown (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), ix–xvi.

[2] Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974).

[3] See the trenchant analysis in Jeannine Hill Fletcher, The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2017), esp. 1–44.

[4] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd ed (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983).

[5] Webster’s Seventh New College Dictionary (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1969).

[6] For the simple reason that neither science nor historical investigation can prove or disprove God’s existence. Yet for people of faith, much of God’s handiwork can be discerned by science and historical inquiry. Moreover, the incarnation is testimony that God has entered into the fray of history in Jesus Christ (John 1:1-14).

[7] Cf. Gen 20:17-18; 29:31; Exod 23:25-26; Deut 7:14.

[8] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), esp. 317–32.

[9] E.g., Peter T. H. Hatton, Contradiction in the Book of Proverbs: The Deep Waters of Counsel (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008).

[10] I explore this more deeply in A Handbook to Old Testament Exegesis (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017), esp. 3–8.

[11] Drawn up for the purpose of reforming the Church of England during the English Civil War (1642–1649) along the lines of Calvinism, the Westminster Confession of Faith remains the “subordinate standard” of doctrine in the Church of Scotland.

[12] Peter Enns, “‘God Is Truth’: The First Summary Statement of CSBI, Part 2,” in The Biologos Forum: Science and Faith in Dialogue (June 21, 2011): 6. Accessed at http://wp.production.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/files/2014/08/Science-Faith-and-the-Chicago-Statement-on-Biblical-Inerrancy-Enns-Edited-no-watermark.pdf.

[13] Such as the catechetical exchanges in Exod 13:14; Deut 6:20-21; Josh 4:6, 21.

[14] Walter Brueggemann, The Creative Word: Canon as Model for Biblical Education, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 22 (italics original).

[15] We have seen this, for example, in Deuteronomy’s revision of the Covenant Code (chapter 6). One can also cite the reversal of the “act-consequence connection” in Job, in contrast to Proverbs. One clear case of corrective canceling is Jesus’s overturning the dietary restrictions in Mark 7:18-19.

[16] See Marc Zvi Brettler, “Biblical Authority: A Jewish Pluralistic View,” in Engaging Biblical Authority: Perspectives on the Bible as scripture, ed. William P. Brown (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 1–9.

[17] Pss 85:15; 103:8; 145:8. See also Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Joel 2:13; Jon 4:2; Nah 1:3.

[18] See Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), xviii.

[19] Indeed, God’s “benevolence” (ḥesed) is so central in the Psalms that many petitions appeal to God’s “benevolence” for a response, even reminding God of God’s own benevolent character. See, e.g., 25:6-7; 33:22; 40:11[12]; 77:8[9]; 86:5; 89:49[50]; 98:3; 143:8.

[20] I draw from Brueggemann, The Creative Word, for such language.

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