When a husband pulls out the “authority” or “submission” word, a marriage is in trouble because a relationship is failing. So also, when Christians use the “authority” word in discussions of Scripture the church is in trouble. Why? Because the Word of God, the Christian Scriptures, is an act of communication between persons—between God and humans, between the church and its practitioners and believers—and when a relationship resorts to claiming authority, one over another, the relationship has taken a wrong turn.
The authority of Scripture is the kind of “authority” we find when one Person—God (Father, Son, and Spirit)—establishes communication with those whom that Person created as divine image-bearers. It is the authority one finds when a relationship is noted by love and responsive love. The authority of the Bible, as T. Work recently restated, is the authority of the triune God expressed in the Bible (Living and Active [Eerdmans, 2003] 316). Rather than seeing the Bible, and therefore its authority, as document and artifact, the Bible more properly needs to be viewed as living relationship between the God who speaks through the Bible and its readers who engage with God as they listen to Scripture.
Scripture and Truth
The standard words Christians use when asserting or claiming authority are inerrancy and infallibility, neither of which is a complete idea nor adequately describes the kind of “authority” Scripture plays in the life of the individual believer or the local church. As terms, “inerrant” means that the Bible is “not errant” and “infallible” means that the Bible is “not fallible.” A more complete idea for our relationship to the Bible is that Bible is “true.” Something could be “not wrong” or “not fallible” and not go far enough to be truth for us in a complete sense. As I do not define my relationship to Kris or to my children as “not bad” or “not lacking,” so I do not think it is wise for us to define our relationship to Scripture—and words deeply matter—with terms that are either incomplete or simple negations. Nor do I say Jesus, as a human being, was “sinless,” though I think that is true. Instead, I say he was “perfect.”
For that reason, I suggest we learn to speak of the truthfulness of Scripture—which in and of itself raises another set of questions pertaining to the nature and extent of its truthfulness. Are Scriptures exhaustively true; do they tell us everything? Are Scriptures true in matters of faith and practice, or in everything that comes up?
Let me push this point a little further. Late modernity brought to fruition the intuitions and the insights of the Enlightenment project to construct indisputable, empirical foundations upon which universal knowledge could be constructed. Walking alongside that project Christians imbibed its heady airs and so propounded a modernist (fundamentalist) theory of Scripture that made Scripture “true” because it could be proven by the scientific standards both outside Scripture and respectable in that late modernity theory of truth. This led to the precarious position of Christians’ being held hostage to late modernity’s understanding of what could be considered “truth.” We would be foolish to ignore the gains of that kind of Christian scholarship, but there are also problems, not the least of which is that for many Christians truthfulness was limited to what was provable. It was H. Frei, in his difficult to read but hugely influential The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (Yale University Press, 1974), who chased some of these late modernity ghosts from the classroom. I do not agree with him completely, but his point is well-taken: the truthfulness of Scripture is not found by reconstructing the event, but by recognizing that God’s Spirit, in God’s church, has guided the writers so that the meaning of an event, told in the form of a narrative, comes to terms with the gospel.
I believe that Jesus really said the things—within reason—the Gospels record he said; I believe Jesus was really crucified, and that he was really raised from the dead by an act of God. And I believe God sent the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, and that these real events constitute the heart of the gospel. But, I do not believe their truthfulness is determined, at least not wholly, by our ability to reconstruct the words of Jesus, the kind of cross he died on, the nature of the body that walked out of the grave, and the number of Christians present at Pentecost. Truth, in other words, is not completely shaped by event and its historical reconstruction, but by the “construal” of that event as guided by the Spirit in the church as found in the early Christian witness: the NT (cf. my Jesus and His Death [Baylor University Press, 2005] 3-46).
Authority and Identity
If the truth of Scripture is the meaning the Spirit guides the church into as it explores the significance of the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then I suggest that another word best describes our relationship to Scripture: identity-formation.
Once again, I use an analogy to the closest intimacy most of us know: marriage. I have come to know myself in the face of my wife, Kris; and Kris has come to know herself in the face of her husband, Scot. Our very identity, shaped as it is by one another after more than thirty years of marriage, has been shaped by facing one another (for my use of “face,” see F.L. Shults and S. Savage, The Faces of Forgiveness [Baker Academic, 2004] 103-24). What matters most is not the objective truthfulness of our marriage license or the objective memory of our vows or the objectivity of a wedding ring, but the personal disclosure and interconnectedness that has made me who I am and Kris who she is as a result of facing one another for more than three decades.
Communication, at least genuine communication so far as we are able to surrender to its mysterious realities in the face of one another, is at the heart of a marriage and it is at the heart of our relationship to Scripture.
My own theory of our relationship to Scripture is that we are face to face with God as God speaks to us through Scripture in the company of other Christians as we journey together in listening to God. This face-to-face communication is all about identity-formation. I assume Scripture is true, and I admit that I assume its facts correspond in some degree to what really happened, but that is not enough to describe our relationship to Scripture. The “magic,” to pluck one of my favorite words from C.S. Lewis’ many writings, of Scripture does not occur because I can reconstruct its truthfulness but because I face God in Scripture, God faces me in Scripture, and we face God and God faces us in the community of faith, and that face-to-face encounter forms who I am as I engage the grand story called the church’s Scriptures.
No text in the Bible expresses this identity-formation relationship to Scripture like the Bible’s acrostic on itself, Ps 119. The glory of the psalmist is that God has communicated with us and given us the Torah for our life—and that by meditating on God’s “wordy” revelation we can learn to be and do what God most wants for those made in God’s image, his Eikons (cf. my Embracing Grace [Paraclete, 2005]). “I run,” the psalmist chants, “in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free” (v. 32). Not only does obedience set one free, it turns one away from sin: “Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain” (v. 36). It would be easy to multiply examples, but I find Ps 119 to be the most exact example of the proper Christian approach to the Scripture’s “authority.” That approach is to read it with, as A. Jacobs brilliantly defines it, a “hermeneutic of love” —leading us to listen as to a lover, to let its words be what they are in themselves and for us, and to let its words fill our minds and hearts so that they form our self-identities (A Theology of Reading [Westview, 2001]).
A genuine identity-formation approach to Scripture, because it defines itself as communication, engages Scripture not only as passive recipient but as active listener—that is, we listen and we converse; we hear and we speak. In other words, Scripture’s authority is that of a relationship rather than that of a mechanical, imposed set of laws from the divine court of justice to which we simply submit in quiescence. This engagement is evident in the history of the unfolding of the Bible. As Job engages Deuteronomy, as the prophets themselves engage Moses and one another, and as Jesus engages the entire Hebrew Scriptures—especially Isaiah. And, have not scholars like R. Hays (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [Yale University Press, 1989]) taught us to see Scripture not simply as solo authors writing out what they have received from God but as tradition-bearers who bring the old to light in the new, as a scribe bringing forth both new and old (Matt 13:52)? And that engagement has gone on in the entire history of the church—most notably at Nicea and then at the Reformation and now (for each of us in our own local churches) as we learn to listen and engage Scripture. Its authority then is the authority of a communication that engages us to become what God calls us to be.
Scripture as Atoning Truth
Proper listening and engagement with Scripture as communication from God to God’s people, because it concerns identity-formation, can be described as atoning. If we broaden our understanding of “atonement” to the “reconciling work of God” (see my A Community called Atonement [Abingdon, 2007]), and latch onto a verse like 2 Cor 5:18 where we join with God in the “ministry of reconciliation,” we are led to see Scripture as part of God’s reconciling, atoning plan for the world. Scriptures, when we engage with God, reconcile cracked Eikons with God, with self, with others, and with the world.
This, after all, is what 2 Tim 3:15-17 states—if we learn to read it from the end to the front: “and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All [or, better yet, Every (text of)] Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
Scripture’s relational, communicative authority, we might say, is missional: its purpose is to teach, reprove, correct, and train so that the community of faith becomes self-identified as a missional people—people designed to lead others to Christ through the Word that is proclaimed and taught—leading others to be reconciled with God, self, others, and the world and on and on as the mission of identity-formation expands.
Scripture’s authority, then, is the communicative relationship God establishes with God’s people as they engage Scripture so that they might be restored to God, and this occurs so those who are being restored can unleash, in our world, a cycle of God’s embracing grace as they reach out to urge others to find this grace of reconciliation.