Sunday, October 23, 2011

In what way is the Bible authoritative? Part 3

This post continues where the two previous posts (one and two) on the Bible’s authority ended, exploring the fourth and fifth approaches to reading the Bible (the first three are regarding the Bible as the literal word of God, the Bible as human words God inspired the authors to use, and the Bible as a human book).

Fourth, one can read the Bible devotionally. This is how most Christians read the Scriptures and the basis, sadly, for much of the preaching and teaching that happens in the Episcopal Church. Questions of personal interpretation – what does the text mean to you? or, what is God saying to you through this passage? – take center stage. Insights from the historical-critical study of the Bible play at best minor roles.

The failure of this approach to reading the Bible should be obvious: empty pews and spirits as people vote with their feet, finding a faith that is intellectually unsatisfying and incredible (i.e., literally, unbelievable). At its best, this approach leads to conclusions congruent with healthy theology and religious psychology, but those insights are more a function of the perspective and biases brought to the task of reading Scripture than the result of actual intercourse with God through the reading of Scripture. At its worst, this method produces just the opposite: reinforcing bigotry and other values at odds with Jesus’ witness. One priest friend of mine describes much of the Church’s ministry over the last several decades as a campaign for human rights, ideals compatible with the gospel but framed in language and with a justification lacking a substantive Scriptural basis.

Fifth, one can read the Bible relying upon the authority of another person. This is the basic Roman Catholic approach to the Bible: the Church’s teaching magisterium provides the authoritative theological scaffolding for interpreting Scripture. Contrary to what they claim, many Protestants adopt the same approach but employ different interpretive scaffolding. For example, many evangelicals turn to the Schofield Reference Bible to understand how different verses relate to one another and for discerning the correct theological themes that each verse highlights (the former comes from the cross references and the latter from the explanatory notes). Other Protestants rely on other reference Bibles or notes, but all of these approaches look to someone or some institution to provide the text’s definitive interpretation. Yet other Protestants trust their pastor to provide the authoritative interpretation.

The obvious problem with this approach is that the interpretation is no better than the authority. And no matter how well the authority may walk the Jesus path (or have done so at a particular time), the authority is human and not God. The Roman Catholic Church attempts to finesse this problem by declaring the Pope Christ's vicar on earth. Yet as an Anglican, I remain convinced of the Pope’s fallibility, e.g., I’m convinced that God's gifts and call for ministry are not given based on gender.

In the final analysis, this approach is about humans changing humans; God is relegated to the margins, reduced to window dressing (the use of God talk, for example) or bookends (beginning and ending the conversation with a prayer).

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