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The authority of the Bible

The authority of the Bible

by Patricia Millard

In Education for Ministry Online (EfM) one of the exercises is about the nature and experience of the Bible for each participant using the following questions:

What are your beliefs about the Bible?

How do you interpret Scripture?

What is the authority of the Bible for you?

On Friday, January 3, 2014 there was a discussion in the news about the use of an Bible app on an iPad for a swearing in ceremony and whether that was a “real Bible”?

This is turning out to be a most interesting question for me. I surprised myself this evening, driving home from a hike on the beach, when I found myself mulling it over in more depth and coming to some rather new thoughts about the whole question:

The short version is that it suddenly occurred to me that the “Bible”, per se, doesn’t even exist. “Scripture” is NOT a book, or even a collection of books. What exists, in actuality, is a series of narratives that is preserved in all sorts of different formats via oral and written word games. By word games I mean just that, words arranged in various ways to which we can ascribe meaning. These arrangements of words might actually look very different from each other, and yet we still call them “The Bible”. Consider, for example, the differences and similarities between different versions and paraphrases in English, a “Children’s Bible”, the various texts from which modern versions are being translated, and the fact that the Bible is continually translated and retranslated into various languages.

What is authentic, what may be “revelatory,” is not the text itself, but rather the process of engagement between a human psyche and the narrative contained within the text. It is only as it is read, wrestled with, “inwardly digested,” that the narrative takes on reality, life and meaning.

The “authority” of scripture is profoundly more complex than we would like it to be. And the need to hold SOMETHING authoritative in this changing world is huge. There is a tendency to be rather reductionist or perhaps simplistic in speaking about “the authority of the Bible” even in the face of obvious difficulties. But, rather than simply say that the text is authoritative, what I would say today is that a variety of factors may contribute towards how “authentically” the process of engagement with the inherited narrative actually connects us with the Divine Mind, and the various ways in which these factors interact may determine the level at which the narrative is both authoritative and revelatory. A few factors I am mulling over:

1) The narrative is probably read more accurately when it is read within a community. This is not only the local liturgical assembly, but also includes the broader ecumenical community (to various degrees), popular culture (since sometimes the most prophetic interpretations of the activity of God actually happen OUTSIDE of the “community of the faithful”), and various forms representing the “academic” community.

2) Since I continue to assert that the source of revelation is God, meaning that God’s capacity and willingness to self-disclose is what makes authentic revelation even possible, I continue to assert that it is the activity of the Spirit that gives life and meaning to the narrative. This said, it could be that the activity of the Spirit manifests precisely at the moment the narrative is being engaged.

3) An additional factor, and one seldom talked about, is adding an ontological level to the process of interpreting the text. By this I mean that the narrative will speak differently to people, not only depending on their “context”, but along a continuum that reflects a person’s being. There are huge implications to this, and for the most part I think this is a topic best left alone. But there it is. My thoughts for now.

The Rev. Patricia Millard is the Vicar at St. Catherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church and the Associate for Spanish Language Ministry at Kaleidoscope Institute.


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Jenifer Gamber

I failed to add this: The unidirectional authority was largely established with the printing press when books became widely available for personal and private use, rather than the scarce handwritten texts read in community. (excuse the fast-finger on keyboard typos)

Jenifer Gamber

How about the authority of the people of God gathered around a common narrative? The authority, then is the work of continued dialogue and maintaing relationship. Without that dialogue and community then there is no sense in the word authority. The same is true about the narrative–there has to be a narrative. And imho, the narrative continues to evolve. The progression toward a book having authority changed from authority around a circle of people telling stories–multidirectional and exponentially relational–to a unidirectional book to person/people.

Here’s a nice antidote to the bibliolatry of taking the form of the Bible to make an idol instead of recognizing the nature of the content (stories) contained within.

Maria L. Evans

I likewise, think “the Bible” is this constantly revelatory relationship I have with Scripture, both individually and in community. Some of the words in it, not so much–for instance, the “texts of terror.” It is in that relationship that I truly believe it “contains all things necessary for salvation.”

The physical book itself (or for that matter, an iPad app), in things like swearing-in ceremonies, to me, is merely a visible and outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. There was a time when a book would have been unacceptable–the preferred physical item would have been a scroll. Time marches on. Some people will have discomfort with an app being a “real Bible” if it’s the book they worship, rather than being in communion with the relationship it creates.

John Barton

I enjoyed reading and agree with much in this post. I, however, would go further. We should stop using the terms “authority” and “authoritative” in connection with the Bible. These terms have no commonly agreed upon meaning and do not help discussions when used. Also, the terms have been used to justify prejudice, discrimination and even war. The books of the Bible are the record of how human beings experience God through their all too human understanding. It is our foundational text and it instructs and guides our faith. That is sufficient for me; it is not necessary to call them authoritative.

John Barton

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