The categories of Torah, Prophets, and Writings of the Hebrew scriptures (àla Richard Rohr & Walter Brueggemann) represent an approach to understanding faith formation. Torah is the presentation of structure and predictability for developing faith – laws that are eternally valid and simply to be obeyed. The Prophets represent the agonizing critique of blind obedience and disobedience – calling a growing people back to their living roots. The Writings engage the people with mystery and paradox as they face the realities of everyday life with the necessity of transforming faith into action.
The Hebrew understanding of scripture was dynamic, not static. The rabbis argued among themselves and propounded alternative interpretations which were collected together (Mishnah and Midrash). Conversation, even dispute, is the “stuff” of which scriptural interpretation is formed. In the Christian Scripture, the four gospels reflect four different pictures of Yeshua’s life and mission. Is one of the more right than the others? Yes and No!
The interpretation of scripture is a conversational process, a dialogue within the church and with the world. How does the context of the original authors affect how we understand the meaning of the text? How does our context? What are the questions that the text poses regarding our lives? What are the questions that we bring to the text? What authority do we give the text? (This last question is the difficult one that currently divides the church.)
According to one view, scripture’s authority is external and ontological – that is, scripture is authoritative because it is. Its authority is simply a given, a matter of faith. Scripture is authoritative in so far as it functions to define and delimit beliefs. When one’s belief system is in accord with scripture, that person is right with God (because God is the ultimate author of Scripture).
An alternative narrative would suggest that scripture’s authority is defined (or, more explicitly, illustrated) by its function to bring about transformation in the church, its members, and even the world. Scripture is authoritative only when we interact with it and with one another, allowing ourselves to be transformed by the interactions. We can fulfill scripture’s ‘mandate’ to care for the widows, orphans, and strangers in our midst, only when we walk with them, allowing ourselves to be transformed in our walk together. We can only hear Yeshua’s invitation to care for the poor when we engage the poor in such a way that we might be transformed by their presence with us (just as they may be transformed by their presence with us). It may be more proper and more important to talk about scripture’s function rather than its authority?
Unfortunately, much rhetoric about scriptural authority in today’s church is not about dialogue when facing contemporary issues. Instead, it is a conversation stopper, a dialogue blocker. “You really don’t believe in the Bible” promotes self-righteousness posturing from one side and self-righteous resentment from the other. Scripture has no authority when conversation ceases and party lines are drawn.