On Biblical Authority

Coleridge's views on biblical interpretation and authority aren't perfect, but they are really, really good. He offered a pretty damning critique of 18th century versions of plenary inspiration (and inerrancy generally) at a time before historical-critical challenges had really begun to shake scholarly confidence in traditional models of interpretation. I think this exceptionally helpful for us Christian leaders for whom the challenges of historical critical scholarship make inerrancy a non-starter, but who are often left grasping for a way to see the text of the Bible as authoritatively containing the Word of God and to communicate this authority to those in our care.

So enough by way of introductions. I've been beating my head against the wall for days trying to come up with a clever hook to show the contemporary relevance of Coleridge's arguments. I finally realized that simply putting his views out there works fine as a first response to our present situation. The forms of biblical inerrancy peddled by conservative churches may provide a quick-fix for getting people serious about engaging with Scripture, but this often comes at the cost of a faith that'll crack in the face of the overwhelming consensus of contemporary science and history. That's bad. Unfortunately, I'd say most of us more "enlightened" mainline Christians haven't moved much farther than "not inerrancy" as our approach to Scripture. We're great at employing historical (or sociological, or literary, or canonical, or post-colonial) criticism to deconstruct na├»ve Biblicism, but in theory or in practice we end up engaging with the pieces of scripture left over after this onslaught of criticism in exactly the same way. That's not much better. Maybe its worse.

So instead of mucking up Coleridge's position with my own spin, I'm just going to give you a summary of his most excellent short work on the nature and authority of the Bible: Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit. I could quote generously throughout, but you're better off reading Coleridge's work for free here through Google Books (you can also get the critical edition here; its really a lot better but you also have to pay for that quality if its even available). I'm saying this upfront so you don't think I'm trying to pass off his ideas as my own; aside from this introductory work of contextualizing his arguments, this is all Coleridge. Even if you read this post, you should still go and read Coleridge because he's better at explaining himself than I am.

Here we go.

We start with a question too infrequently asked, although probably one that merits significantly more consideration given that more and more people in our world have grown up with no exposure to the Bible or its symbolic imaginary: Does Scripture function effectively as an apologetic, convincing people of the saving truth of God's redemptive work in Christ, or is its better introduced as a source of support and nourishment for a faith already acquired (or both)? For those who have grown up in the faith and have only ever known the Bible on the other side of belief, it is natural to extend the (quite right) Reformation principle that the Bible should be made accessible to all Christians to the more expansive idea that the Bible should be readily accessible to all people. In other words, because those who have been raised Christian have always found that the Scripture has communicated God's truth to them, they will often assume this an objective feature of the text for any reader/hearer. However, one cannot escape that in our world there are also those who must strain to hear God's voice speaking through the Scripture as well as those who actively scoff at the Bible as a repository of any divine truth despite their familiarity with it.

It would seem, based on bare experience of the reception of Scripture by those in the world, that the Bible may serve as an occasion whereby the Spirit draws people toward Christ, but more properly functions as the collection of writings through which God searches believers and speaks to us more deeply than through any others. Is Scripture then only a collection of writings that God has arbitrarily chosen to be the location for special communion between Godself and the faithful? Certainly not. The Bible contains the recollections under various genres of a multitude of people who have known God not only through philosophical reasoning (as true as this knowledge may be) but as an actor concretely involved in human history, culminating and consummated in God's taking on the fullness of humanity (and creation) in the person of Jesus Christ. What's more, through this experience of God acting definitively in human history, those who have experienced this saving relationship have come to understand Scripture as containing all things necessary for our salvation.

Many in the history of Christianity have made the leap from saying that everything necessary for salvation is contained within Scripture to affirming that everything contained within Scripture is necessary for salvation. Often, particularly after the Reformation, this has taken the dogmatic form of expecting credal adherence to the infallibilty of Scripture as the only way of affirming divine inspiration of the text. But is this move necessary or even warranted? Need we infer that the witnesses and responses to and experiences of God in the Bible must be infallible in order for them to be inspired, exemplary, and normative?

Unlike, say, the Doctrine of the Trinity, which, though it is never named as such, shines forth boldly throughout God's relationship to the world witnessed therein, almost no passage of Scripture gives even the faintest impression that its authors saw themselves as divine stenographers. Even those exceedingly few passages that could be read in such a way do not witness to this idea unambiguously and cannot on any serious interpretation be understood as applying to the whole of what is now considered the Christian canon. It therefore seems thoroughly unjustified to expect adherence to a doctrine as essential to the faith that is so dimly witnessed to in Scripture—if it is witnessed to therein at all.

However, the problem with affirming plenary inspiration goes much deeper than its weak attestation in Scripture itself: this teaching destroys one of the most spiritually salutary aspects of the Bible, namely, the capacity for us to hold up its human authors as exemplars in the faith. When one can experience the prayers and praise of the Psalmist or the wise exhortation of St. Paul as issuing from human beings no doubt unquestionably much further along the path of sanctification but still acting under the normal influence of the Spirit, then our own hope of experiencing similar sanctification is grounded in a concrete, historical reality. Here is the living reality, the real flesh and blood, coursing through Scripture in which so many Christians have found nourishment on their own journeys towards wholeness in Christ. However, if the authors of Scripture were nothing other than God's scribes, then we are left with relics deserving adoration (owing to their divine origin) but not the witnesses to actual human consciousnesses with which we can identify and strive toward.

Adherents to the need for absolute inerrancy at the level of every word or sentence of Scripture will likely retort that this scheme does nothing to prevent the unaided individual reader of Scripture from throwing out as erroneous those truths essential to faith because they do not conform to his or her whims or preferences. The response, or course, is that the idea that Scripture can be read by isolated individuals without communal note, comment, or aid (a idea that often goes hand in hand with the assertion of plenary inspiration) must be rejected. The individual Christian should of course engage in plentiful private reading of Scripture, but this does not mean reading that is unguided by the Creeds, Catechism, or other teachings of the Church. These documents are not themselves some foreign interpretation imposed from outside , but instead distill what the most mature Christians, guided by the activating influence of the Spirit, have throughout history found contained within the Bible. Thus the Creeds and other teachings of the Church provide a guide to finding the essential, infallible spirit contained within Scripture even as certain passages and statements are found to be factually erroneous or even contrary to that spirit.

At the end of the day, the Christian must simply acknowledge that there is nothing that guarantees that he or she will not read in such a way as to distort or ignore at times those essential or saving truths. There are the guides spoken of above and there is the historical precedent that throughout time mature Christians have generally arrived at the same essentials of faith in reading the Bible even though they come from very different times, cultures, and life experiences, but neither of these constitute an absolute safeguard. However, it is not as though plenary inspiration actually safeguards against this threat in any better way. While many may delude themselves otherwise, anyone who has taken considerable time to study Scripture knows that there exists a tremendous amount of difficulty and ambiguity even if one takes every word of the Bible as divinely dictated. There is no guarantee that the right intention will be divined simply because someone believes that the words and sentences of Scripture are, properly understood, without any error. What's more, holding to this kind of inerrantism seems to intensify the possibility of disastrous and destructive reading, especially for the immature Christian. Because this Christian has been told that Scripture contains infallibly the mind of God all in every part, and because he or she has been told that this infallible meaning appears on the surface without need for note or comment, nothing prevents this reader from allowing his or her own prejudices, half-formed notions, or whims from determining interpretation. Because all passages, all images of God, all responses to God (however misguided) contained within the Bible are elevated to the level of God's normative will, it is likely that such readers will develop images of God that not only go contrary to right reason but even make God out to be an ethical monster and which sanction our own monstrous behavior—a phenomenon that has in fact played out far too often in human history. Thus, all Christians must ultimately trust not only in their own faculties when approaching Scripture, but must instead recognize the need for that spirit of discernment imparted to them through a reading actuated by the power of the Holy Spirit working within them.

OK: This is Coleridge's take (more or less). I've purposely refrained from giving note or comment because I think this post more than any needs to be a dialogue and not a monologue. Let me know what you think, call me out on what you find to be a bad reading, tell me how you think I'm just woefully ignorant of the various attempts in the last 200 years to explain biblical authority: I'm not, but I'm up for the challenge ;-). Let's get a conversation started here. That's one of the great things about this medium.