Biblical Authority — A Sticky Problem (Part 1)

"Creative Commons Albert V Bryan Federal District Courthouse - Alexandria Va - 0011 - 2012-03-10" by Tim Evanson is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Creative Commons Albert V Bryan Federal District Courthouse – Alexandria Va – 0011 – 2012-03-10” by Tim Evanson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

2 Timothy 3:16-17       16 Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, 17 so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.
[Scripture taken from the Common English Bible®, CEB® Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible.Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.]

Creative Commons Francisco” by tvol is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Unraveling the Sticky Problem of Biblical Authority and Interpretation

Scripture is to the church what the Constitution is to the United States

• both are authoritative
• both have a system for review and interpretation

Constitution – court system
Bible – institutional church

• both have been interpreted and misinterpreted by its adherents
• each has two primary schools of interpretation:


The Federalist Society (strict construction/originalism – “ founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.“) 

The American Constitution Society (principles and core values – “law should be a force to improve the lives of all people … [through] a compelling vision of core constitutional values such as genuine equality, liberty, justice and the rule of law”) 

– Bible

Conservative/Fundamental (scripture’s authority is external; it comes from God – therefore “the Bible means what it says”)

Liberal/Progressive (scripture’s authority is transmuted to the church, therefore“the Bible means what it means”)

The difficulty in interpreting the implications of the Bible and the Constitution in todays world lies in the reality that the sum total of human knowledge has changed dramatically since the original documents were written and today’s societies face circumstances that could not have been conceived by the writers who drafted the original documents. As a consequence, both the authority accorded to the original documents (including the intentions of the authors) and the methods of interpreting their meaning in today’s society continue to be hotly debated. One significant difference between Constitutional interpretation and the interpretation of Scripture is that the Constitution can be amended; scripture can only be reinterpreted.

The church chose what was to be considered authoritative (the ‘canon’ of scripture], and what was not. There was healthy debate in the early church about which writings were to be considered canonical (that is authoritative). By the middle of the third century there seemed to be a growing consensus about the shape of the canon. The Presbyterian Church, in the 1st chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, lists its canon by naming the approved books, as well as identifying “the books commonly called the Apocrypha” as not being authoritative.

Scripture is what we say it is and has whatever authority we choose to give it. While none of us on either side of the authority and interpretation divide are willing to admit it, our understanding of Biblical authority and our capacity to interpret scripture rests in a delicate balance of political, philosophical, theological, and practical considerations. At different times and given different circumstances, any one (or combination) of such considerations may be leading our interpretation. And, that is the way it should be!

Since scripture has no amendment plan, we have to interpret the hell out of it – that is, find creative ways to interpret scripture so as to eliminate any use of scripture to promote racism, xenophobia, sexism, violent solutions to relational and political problems, demonizing neighbors, marginalizing individuals or groups, hatred and fear.

Richard Rohr in his daily reflection for 6/16/16 (”The Purpose of the Law”) writes, “Often it takes an initial reliance on some outer authority to send us on the path toward our own inner authority.” Unfortunately, the church historically has been wont to side with scripture’s outer authority (“God says…” or “the church says”) without effectively teaching its members how to traverse the path toward an inner authority. Yeshua had no difficulty in saying “You know what scripture says…; here is what I say…!” I believe that is what he was teaching us to do (individually and collectively – the “and” is important).

Many authors over time wrote down the stories and ideas that seemed to help them understanding how God was at work in their lives and the lives of their people. Over time, the church sifted through those stories and ideas, culling out the best one for inclusion in the canon of scripture. In our time, we become responsible interpreters when we listen to those stories and ideas, sift through them asking how they can inform our journeys as we grapple with the question, “What am I, a believer in Jesus Christ and a member of his church, to do?” (Paul Lehmann) or “How am I experiencing an insistence that comes in the name of God?” (John Caputo) “Who is my neighbor?” (Yeshua)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email