Biblical Interpretation: Odd Authority

Last week I asked the question, “What do we think we are doing when we read the Bible?” My answer has two parts.  I read the Bible to find my little place in the big story of the creating, redeeming God. And I read to get the story “into” me, so that I can begin to live a life focused on the Kingdom of God.

But how does the Bible do this?  Many Christians would say we think the Bible is the Word of God, and it therefore has as a text, a particular authority.  But what does this mean?   What do you think? Try coming up with a couple of sentences, or even a whole blog post- I guess you should get as much space as I do.

When Christians claim the “authority of scripture” we are really saying, “the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture” (1)

What does “authority” mean?  Often we mean someone or something with power or the ability to control. Someone with authority is the ultimate decider, the final judge.  Less commonly we use authority to mean extensive knowledge about a topic.  If you check the dictionary our common usage is pretty accurate. 

But how does this fit with last week’s discussion of the Bible as story? How can a story have authority? 

To begin, we might consider how stories work and how they affect us. Stories, whether we read them, hear them or watch them, have the power to move us. Stories make us laugh, they make us cry, they make us angry, they inspire us and so on and so on.  Stories cause us to ponder them, to linger over them, to wonder at them. They make us think about the world and our lives. Stories are common to all cultures. We all tell stories.Our family stories help us know who we are. Stories are how we pass on important ideas and concepts. Stories help us make sense of things.  Well then, no wonder God uses stories. But still, how are stories authoritative? How is God’s authority revealed in scripture?

The key, it seems to me, is that we must remember God’s authority doesn’t look like the ways we exercise authority. God’s authority is oddly non authoritarian. God’s authority collaborates, beckons, calls. God’s authority walks among us, in the Garden of Eden, through the desert and in Galilee. God’s authority confronts human authority with God’s oddly non authoritarian power.

If your or I were exercising our authority through a written text, I suspect few of us would tell stories. But once again, God’s way of doing things is not our way. And that way, God’s way is hard for us to learn. It’s difficult to make it part of who we are. So we need to hear these stories over and over. Not to memorize the rules but to discover how it feels, and what it looks like. We need to hear these stories to recognize and become more aware of God’s odd authority. We need to hear, “the kingdom of God is like…” and then wonder, “what can this mean?”  We need to develop the imagination to see, as best we can, God’s hopes and desires for the world.

Because God’s authority as it is expressed through the Bible is “odd”, it requires some effort on our part. We need the Bible study aids we talked about in the first two posts. We need to be thoughtful and careful about how we read. That’s why we need to read it together. It’s why our reading skills that serve just fine for a mystery novel or the newspaper won’t work well for scripture.

I’d like to know, what do you think?

(1) from N. T. Wright’s book, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. page 23.  This is another fine book on reading the Bible and is a helpful discussion of Biblical authority.

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