"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.
How do I obey Thee? Let me Count the Authorities
I don’t think the concept of “biblical authority” is a helpful one, if for no other reason than that it is not how the Bible describes itself. As N.T. Wright has helpfully pointed out, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given…” to who? The Bible? No, “…to me”, to Jesus Christ, God’s appointed and anointed Messiah, Lord and King. Of course one can make all kinds of complex arguments about how God “delegates” his authority to the Bible or his Word or whatever, but as Wright argues, this is not an obvious claim, it involves a bit of inference and argumentation.
Let us backtrack a bit and begin with some “self-evident” premises. Let us say that, through the use of our natural reason or common sense, we know that there is a God who formed the world. It does not matter whether you want to call him (or it) Fate, the Heavens or whatever. We all realise that the world is subject to such an infinite power over this world.
Thus, all authority has its source in God. In this world there exist many other authorities, such as domestic authority, civil authority, imperial authority, scholarly authority, etc. We can say that God “appointed” these many other authorities in this world.
In the light of these, it is not really obvious what does it mean to say that the Bible is the “sole authority” or even an authority. The Bible isn’t an authority in the way in which a parent or a king is.
The Bible as Witness
Again, we can understand the Bible better by turning to what it says about itself. When we do, we realise that the Bible describes itself as primary a “witness”. Thus, the Bible isn’t a King or ruler or emperor, it isn’t an authority issuing commands. What the Bible is, according to its own self-understanding, is that it is a witness. It points or refers to external realities. More specifically, we can say that the Scriptures witness or speak of Christ, or the realisation of God’s will, throughout salvation history, in Jesus Christ. It is *this* external reality, God’s will in Jesus Christ, who is the authority.
The direct object of faith and obedience is therefore Jesus Christ, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given, not the Bible itself. What the Bible does is to witness to this Messiah and King, and tell us about his deeds and commands. It is to him, and not the Bible itself, to whom we submit. The bible is an inspired and even an infallible witness to God’s will realised in Christ, but it is simply not in itself authoritative. Therefore we must not confuse a divinely ordained means to witness to divine realities, with the divine realities themselves which is the authority. Authority tracks onto reality, not epistemology. This is why we can have many many other authorities based on their natures, civil and parental to name a few. If there is a single Authority (capital A) to unify all of them, that can only be God who is the source of all authorities. No other entity can pretend to be a substitute God to be the focus of unity of all other authorities.
In this, I am fully onboard the Protestant Neo-Orthodox tradition on the Scriptures. The Bible is a witness to God’s will and to what God spoke, especially in his Son, but it isn’t itself the Word of God. It is a witness to it, it contains the Word of God, but it isn’t the Word of God itself.
Perverting the Bible to Meet Existential Needs
Of course at this point there will be many horrified gasps about how I am a liberal heretic or whatever. But I think these accusations are many irrationally reactionary and here’s why. Many Christians are anxious about many other Christians going against Christ’s authority and in many cases defying it openly and revising it with their own falsehoods. To address these anxieties, they resort to “the Bible” as a solution to these problems. The “Bible” becomes “authoritative”; it becomes infallible, inerrant, etc. They hope to turn the Bible into a solution to sin by turning it into a de jure authority which can somehow compel people to behave properly.
I firmly maintain however that this reactionary move is mistaken. As already argued, they are turning the Bible into what it is not, namely into a tool for behavioural medication or compulsion. In this, it is pretty obvious that all the Chicago Declaration of Inerrancy in the world could not induce one bit of sanctification. Do you know of anyone who says that he is going to submit to the will of God because of some minute definition of biblical inerrancy?
This leads to the other point that this essentially misdiagnoses the problem. The point is about submission and defiance of God’s authority, not the epistemic means whereby that will is communicated. People disobey the will of God, not because they have a faulty understanding of biblical inerrancy, or a lack of respect for “biblical authority”, but simply because of sin and the resistance to God’s authority. If we reflect a little, it is obvious that there is an absurdity in attempting to solve the problem of a lack of respect for God’s authority by postulating lesser authorities to whom one is to submit, i.e. the Bible, the Magisterium, etc.
The Bible works just fine, it does successfully witness and proclaims the will of God for us. Our natural reason, for the most part, is also doing just fine, leading our consciences to the correct civic morals and virtues. To be sure, sometimes people can be mistaken about what the Bible says because of confusions in exegesis or have faulty consciences because of bad logic or fallible empirical observations or irrational passions, etc. The solution to such epistemic problems is essentially good exegesis and good logic, not lesser authorities. The solution to passions and weak natures is Christ’s healing grace, not lesser authorities.
But all these do not get to the root of disobedience and that is simply because of sin. In this, we can observe the strange paradox whereby that horrible neo-orthodox “liberal” Karl Barth, despite believing that biblical stories are “myths” and ahistorical, accepts many Christians norms like traditional gender roles, while a contemporary “conservative” Christian, no matter how much he mouths his belief in biblical authority or inerrancy, basically advocates for egalitarianism. The reason is that Karl Barth is a good and faithful Christian, willing to submit to the will of God, whereas those who ever so loudly proclaim their faith in biblical authority and inerrancy, are not willing to do the same and let their prejudices guide their understanding of God’s will instead of submitting to it.
Accept no Substitute Authorities
The language of “authority”, especially in relation to the Bible, arises out of a certain cultural malaise. It was formulated to satiate a need for epistemic infallibility and to soothe anxieties about civic and cultural disorder. By turning the Bible into an “authority” figure, they hope to have a substitute authority which can bring order and solve epistemic anxieties. This is the same sort of anxieties is what drives many Protestant converts to high church denominations whose Magisterium or Patristic Tradition or whatever is able to fulfil this need for substitute authority or epistemic infallibility in a much more admirable way, but ironically still playing essentially the same game.
In this, we resist both the Protestant and High Church fundamentalist and their attempts to distort the Faith to make it solve their own cultural or epistemic anxieties. All authority has its source in God, he has entrusted the whole of it to Jesus Christ, alone the King of kings and the Lord of lords, and the ruler of all creation. According to our natural reason, we know that those who wield positivistic civil power in this world have authority over civil affairs which they receive from God. According to divine revelation in the events in salvation history, we know that these authorities are ultimately subject to the Authority, Jesus Christ. The Bible is the inspired witness to this divine Authority and is infallible, meaning: it does not fail in its task and purpose to witness to divine revelation and divine authority.
The bible can perform its task of witnessing to Christ’s authority and yet fail to induce obedience. Our natural reason and our conscience can both malfunction epistemically, leading us to make false judgements, as well as morally, in its failure to bring about good behaviour even when we have judged rightly. Epistemic errors in natural reason can be corrected by good reasons, pedagogically communicated by the more perfect corrections of natural reason given in the Bible. But vices and defiance to Christ’s authority is not a case of “lack of authority” but merely sin. The solution to sin, to defiance to Christ’s authority, is Christ’s grace, not lesser authorities, biblical or magisterial.