What does it mean for Christians to talk about the Bible as authoritative? How is our authoritative Scripture — and the God whom it reveals — different from authoritarian leaders or governing principles?
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “authoritarian” as “expecting or requiring people to obey rules or laws: not allowing personal freedom.” As one journalist recently explained it, “[Authoritarian leaders] lay down the law; you follow it. Easy peasy.” (Kathleen Parker, Washington Post)
The InterVarsity doctrinal basis statement says that “[w]e believe in the unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible.” These are familiar words ensuring clarity, certainty, and a kind of safety for us as Christians. We can depend on the words of the Bible. But what does this mean for us in everyday terms? When we look at the Bible, what kind of authority do we see?
I’ve seen many uses of Scripture that could be said to be “authoritarian.” At the same time, I’ve had many conversations with students troubled by Scripture or its content. More often, they are troubled by the expectations that our doctrinal descriptions, like “inspired” and “authoritative,” have built up in them and how these expectations seem to have been dashed.
Over the last few years, I’ve looked more deeply into the question of “What is Scripture?” and found some helpful answers in unexpected places. Here is my first of three blog posts on Scripture existing as multiple genres, Scripture as witness, and Scripture as text. First, let’s explore the multiple genres of Scripture.
Multiple Genres of Scripture
In the movie Bruce Almighty, Morgan Freeman (as God) speaks words of direction to Jim Carey’s Bruce in soothing, sage-like tones. Perhaps our most common way of describing the Bible in church life is “the Word of God,” God’s “speech” to us. It’s an image of “inspiration by dictation,” the voice of God speaking through his mouthpiece, the prophet (Jer. 1:9; Ez. 2:7-8, 3:1-2). This paradigm of God speaking clearly to and through his prophets was deeply disturbing, up-ending, and costly to those very prophets.
But for us, the idea that God could speak so clearly can be comforting in its clarity and simplicity. I remember a woman in my church whose sole reply to every discussion question was, “It’s in the Bible; it’s so clear if you just knew the Scriptures.” She effectively shut down every exchange in our small group. Perhaps the idea that God speaks clearly and directly appeals to the authoritarian in each of us? It’s easy to latch on to this understanding of one genre of Scripture and totalize it, and we can end up using Scripture accordingly.
But prophecy is only one type of text in the Bible. At a recent conference, theologian Amy Plantinga-Pauw asked the question, “When thinking about Scripture, what if we started with the wisdom literature?” What indeed? How would we explain Scripture if we started with texts in which God doesn’t “say” anything at all? Instead, in these texts the authors declare that we learn the ways of God by paying attention to how we live everyday life, by listening to the accumulated wisdom of the people around us, by crying out to him in our suffering, and by seeing the beauty of nature. What vision of God do we see in these texts? And what can we learn from them about how God communicates with us?
Similar questions could be applied to the historical accounts in the Old Testament, or to the pre-history of Genesis 1-11. And what do we do with Esther? And how should we read the letters of the Apostles?
Diversity of Witnesses
When we see the many forms of writing in the Bible, we’re given the privilege of seeing the thousands and thousands of people who have gone before us, who have seen and experienced the living God in their midst, all trying to give expression to what they have seen and heard. They are witnesses, and in these myriad forms of writing, we see God giving them the freedom to both comprehend him and to bear witness to him in ways native to their cultures, gifts, and personalities. The poet can use poetry, the sage can write in proverbs, the lawyer can draft legislation, and the historian can write history. This is how they receive from God, and this is how they declare their experiences of him.
I think this tells us something about how God “inspires” us. This is a part of the doctrine of providence — how God accomplishes his purposes even through our choices and actions. Thomas Aquinas says that God “moves us through understanding,” and I think we see this in the breadth of human expression we find in Scripture. When we look at the Bible, we see that God respects people and cultures. Not everyone can hear God the way a prophet can. Some of us discern him through acts of service, others through communal worship, still others through observing nature.
In the many genres of texts in Scripture, we see that God can and will connect with us and enable us to bear witness to him in ways that are true to who we are. In the many genres of Scripture we see authority that is surely not authoritarian.
Read the next articles in this series: Scripture Bearing Witness: The Nature of Scripture (Part 2) and The Challenge of Scripture as Text: The Nature of Scripture (Part 3).