Positions on Scriptural Authority

A few days ago, after the news about women bishops had broken, I had a very interesting discussion on Facebook about the decision. One of the interesting things to come out of that was the positions that people had on Biblical Authority. It seems that this is an area where people have major disagreements: do we treat the Bible as a relic of a previous time, which we can safely ignore now (or at least, we can ignore the bits we disagree with); or is it the literal word of God – was it basically dictated by God from heaven, and do we have to obey every last word of it to the last letter?

There is a huge spectrum of belief within the Church of England – and even within ‘evangelical’ circles. When I say ‘evangelical’, I’m referring to the dictionary definition: ‘belonging to or designating the Christian churches that emphasize the teachings and authority of the Scriptures’.

For example, the Evangelical Alliance – an organisation which would encompass a broad spectrum of evangelical belief – has as point three on its statement of faith:

The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.

(Other organisations hold to a similar view – the Baptist Union has a similar statement, for example, as does the FIEC.)

Notice that phrase ‘the written Word of God’ – essentially evangelicals are saying that the Bible, although written by humans, is the written word of God himself. It’s not just an ‘old book’ which we happen to love because we like the language (which, I do admit, annoyed me with the KJV anniversary celebrations last year: people seemed to love the language, not what it actually meant.) I came across 1 Thessalonians 2:13 yesterday, which I think sums it up quite well: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” The Word of God – not something which is dead and irrelevant, but something which is at work in believers. As Hebrews 4:12 says:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Well, this is all very interesting… but what does this have to do with the debate I was having? The key question we were talking about is: what does the Bible being the word of God actually mean when we come across passages which are seemingly difficult, such as 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 2? Are we free to say “Paul was wrong” or “Paul was writing into a cultural context which is no longer relevant?”

This is without a doubt a contentious question to answer. For a start, it’s obvious that the Bible was written in a particular cultural context. There’s no getting round it: what IS going on in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, for example? It’s also obvious that there are commands in the Bible which are specific to certain people. For example, I challenge any of you to obey 2 Timothy 4:13 without the use of a time machine. It’s impossible, and to suggest anyone be obedient to it is just silly!

Interpreting Scripture is not easy, however you do it. But still, I think there are definitely better and worse ways of interpreting it. For me, the issue was summed up in someone’s semi-joking remark: “I hope those women voting against women bishops did so with their heads covered.” [From memory, may not be verbatim] In other words, they were suggesting that if you interpret 1 Timothy 2 literally, you must interpret 1 Corinthians 11 literally as well. To take one in its cultural context is also to take another in its cultural context: it’s just hypocritical to take one and not the other.

Now, frankly I think this is a remark borne out of ignorance rather than knowledge (I’ve read the commentaries on 1 Timothy 2; there are plenty of reasons why you might want to take 1 Timothy 2 “literally” and not 1 Corinthians 11; I don’t want to get into the discussion now but have a look at the reading list at the bottom of this post for more details.)

All that said, I think there are a few principles which we should hold on to, particularly if we’re serious about Scripture being ‘the Word of God’:

  • All of Scripture is relevant, all the time. Because God is all-knowing, when the Bible was written he had in mind our situation now. And our situation in 50 years, and in 100 years … it’s always relevant. This is not to say that the application will always be the same. Chris Green at Oak Hill likes to use the example of ‘Honour your Father and Mother’ – this will look very different from when you’re 10 to 20 to 60!
  • We are never at liberty to say that the writer of a Bible book was incorrect. We can’t just throw something out because we don’t like it. Again, if Scripture is the Word of God – it would be tantamount to saying God was incorrect.
  • There is a unity to Scripture. This morning I was watching a debate on TV between people who wanted a ‘yes’ vote and people who wanted a ‘no’ vote on the women bishops issue. One person in particular seemed to imply that bad, nasty Paul had a few views which Jesus would never have had. This is actually relatively common, the idea that Jesus and Paul were in conflict. However, if Scripture truly is the Word of God, it cannot ultimately be in contradiction, for God cannot contradict himself. (Incidentally, through everything I’ve studied, I’ve only ever found this to be the case. The amount of unity and consistency in books written thousands of years apart by many authors is truly staggering).
  • I read a book recently (Reading the Gospels Wisely’ by Jonathan Pennington) which talks about our posture towards Scripture. The idea being, we can’t come to Scripture with a judgemental “we-know-better” attitude: our posture must be to let the Word of God judge and correct us, not for us to sit in judgement over it.
  • Finally, if we say that certain bits of Scripture are irrelevant to us – what happens in a few years time when something else we don’t like becomes irrelevant? For example, some people argue that the cross as atonement is a horrific relic of a bygone ages – it’s no longer relevant to our culture (if ever it was relevant). Should we re-imagine it, as some have already done? Obviously the cross is a more central issue to us now, but I think there is a genuine ‘slippery slope’ concern here.

So where does that leave us with regards to passages of Scripture which are seemingly culturally irrelevant, such as 1 Corinthians 11? In a Moore Course unit we studied a few years ago, they talked about the ‘historico-grammatical approach’, i.e. trying to understand a Bible passage both in its historical context as well as exegetically / grammatically. This is possibly an over-simplification, but I think there is value in trying to understand what the first readers would have understood by Scripture, and then applying that to ourselves in a culturally relevant way.

For example, 1 Corinthians 11 talks about women wearing head coverings. Why would Paul have written that? I heard a sermon on this passage a couple of weeks ago – one of the reasons might be that, in those days, only prostitutes would have had their heads uncovered. Would it have been seemly or right for a Christian woman in a church service to be seen without her head covered in those days? Surely not. These days, the culture is different – but I believe the principle of gender roles which Paul was writing about is still applicable. It’s not the case that Scripture is ignored – rather, it requires care and understanding – not to mention prayer and the Holy Spirit – to understand what it means for us. (Likewise for any passage, but I think this is particularly keen in passages which are far from our cultural context).

I’m not going to go into any more detail about specific Bible passages because I don’t have the time to go into them in detail and you can find out much more elsewhere. But I thought it might be worth setting out my view about Scripture, which might at least go some way to explaining why it’s possible for those women in synod who were voting against women bishops with their heads uncovered to be consistent!

NoteI haven’t actually read anything on the Doctrine of Scripture for a while now, so apologies if this is a bit confusing. I sort through my thoughts by writing things down, so this is really just a response to the particular debate I had on Facebook, not a fully-fledged doctrine of Scripture or inerrancy!

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One thought on “Positions on Scriptural Authority

  1. […] I would go along with all these – I think they’re all important for defining evangelicalism. In particular, I would like to emphasise the first point – Biblicism – I believe one of the fundamental tenets of evangelicalism is the belief that the Bible is not just important, it is in fact the Word of God (see my previous post on Scriptural authority). […]

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