What do we mean when we talk about the authority of Scripture? Sometimes progressive Christians are accused of not taking the Bible seriously or not being “biblical”. People tell me that the Bible is the word of God and so must be obeyed. And one cannot be a “good” Christian, or even a “real” Christian if one does not follow the Bible.
There are two issues here. One has to do with how we interpret the Bible. If we both read the same Bible and draw different conclusions we have likely used different interpretive methods. But leaving that aside, the other issue is what we mean when we talk the Bible and Christian faith.
When someone says that Christians must follow the Bible to be faithful, implicit in that statement is the idea that one cannot be truly Christian without the Bible. But if you stop and think about that for a moment, you realize that its not exactly true. Notice, please, I am not saying that the Bible is unimportant. I think the Bible is extremely important.
Lots of people have been faithful Christians without access to the book we call the Bible. For example Paul or any of the early followers of Jesus. The Bible as we know it did not exist. It is not until the third century that some agreement is reached about the New Testament. Remember that texts were expensive and scarce and few people could read. Access to the content of Scripture was very limited. John Wycliffe’s translation of the whole Bible into English occurred in 1380-1382. Not until 1455 is there a printed version of the Bible, and that is in Latin. Here is a little timeline if you are interested.
We also know that many people around the world became Christians without access to the Bible in their own language and therefor little access to the entire text.
All this is to remind us that for much (most?) of Christianity’s history most Christians have had limited to no access to the Bible as we know it.
I don’t think we want to claim that we modern Christians are a better sort of Christian than our mothers and fathers in the faith. I don’t think we want to claim to be better Christians because we can read and have a copy of the Bible than sisters and brothers who are illiterate or too poor to have a copy of the Bible. We might know more of what is in the Bible but knowledge isn’t the same as faith.
Reading the Bible doesn’t give us faith. The Bible tells us about God and about Jesus. The Bible helps us recognize and see God at work in the world. But the Bible doesn’t give us faith. Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah is the one who saves us through faith given by God. Being a Christian isn’t about knowing “things”. Being a Christian is about knowing Jesus. Being a Christian is the result of a relationship, not the result of accumulating information. As Presbyterians sometimes put it; the Bible is the written word which points us to the Living Word, Jesus.
We can and will disagree on some points of interpretation, even some important points. We can vigorously discuss our different interpretations. But let’s not declare someone not Christian. Only God knows someone’s heart and only God truly knows someone’s faith.