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Monday, April 19, 2010

The Bible's authority

I want to pause in the middle of Genesis 3 and talk about the Bible's authority. I spent the last day and a half, along with a few others from Central, at the WordAlone Network convention in the Twin Cities. I've had a relationship with WordAlone (a renewal organization within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) since the late 1990's when they began, but the relationship has had its ups and downs. At times I've left well enough alone because WA has seemed just too rigid and wooden and narrowly focused. At other times I've been supported and enriched by reading their newsletters and some of the online conversations going back and forth. But I've always appreciated how strongly WA has trumpeted the importance of having a high view of the Bible's authority.

Usually conversations about biblical authority fall into a couple of categories. On the one side you have lots of Christians who jump to a high view of the Bible's authority and in their post-Enlightenment zeal they apply labels like "inerrant" or "infallible" to the Bible, and then they have to have footnotes and essays to explain exactly what they mean by those words. What it comes down to is some version of the idea that the Bible is literally, historically, factually true in every detail, that it is (as the word "inerrant" says) without error. At least in the original manuscripts, which we don't have, so the whole "inerrancy" argument at some level becomes about having faith in the Bible. Hmm.

The other ditch people fall into when we start talking about the Bible's authority is that there's a mindset out there that makes fun of the "literalists" -- calling them fundamentalists, inerrantists, or other such equally unhelpful labels. The absurd example these people trot out to make fun of the fundamentalists is, "When the Bible talks about the trees clapping their hands, are we supposed to take that literally?" So people in this ditch believe some version of the Bible as story, the Bible as culturally bound, the Bible as ancient document that helps us understand what faith was back then so we can begin to gain some insight into our own lives.

I think both of these ditches are mistaken because they don't give the Bible enough authority.

Biblical authority is not so much about how you talk about the Bible as it is about what you do with it. When your life gets complicated or difficult, where do you turn? Is the Bible even on that list? Or when things are smooth sailing and you have time to work on self-improvement, does a discipline of reading the Bible even enter into your thoughts or better yet your actions? When you see disturbing things going on in the world, how do you interpret those difficult things? What stories, what concepts, what sources of information help you figure that situation out? Is the Bible stored up in your heart more and more so that as you confront things in your day to day life, you make sense of these things through what the Bible says?

All the preceding questions point toward your attitude toward the Bible's authority. If you read it and try to use it to make sense of your life, you probably have a pretty high respect for it.

Next question. What do you expect when you start reading the Bible? Do you expect to read a document that tells about ancient times, and you're going to have to do a lot of work to make sense of it? Do you expect a document that teaches moral lessons that have been tested over time? Or do you expect to encounter God in a real, personal way when you start reading the Bible? At some level biblical authority has a great deal to do with whether you believe God is active and present in the text.

Now push comes to shove. When you think or believe or act in a certain way, and then you learn that the Bible seems to teach a different way of living, what do you do? Do you dismiss the Bible? Do you assume that the Bible is outmoded and ancient, that things have changed? Do you argue with the Bible and try to talk it out of its position? Do you start digging into the Bible to find out if this teaching is consistent throughout or if the Bible says many different -- and maybe even contradictory -- things on this topic? Do you recognize that you might need to change to adapt yourself to what the Bible teaches?

This previous paragraph is probably the highest level of living with the Bible as authority over us. If the Bible has authority over me, then I must change if I find that my life is out of alignment with the Bible. I fully recognize how hard this is, and how challenging it can be, especially in our culture, to accept this. And admittedly, there are some bizarre things in the Bible that sound so strange to our ears. (HINT: If you're new to spending much time with the Bible, don't evaluate your life according to books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy to start with. Instead, begin with New Testament books like John and 1 Corinthians that will be a little easier to relate to. Eventually Leviticus has some amazing lessons to teach, but do yourself a favor and don't start there.) But if I believe this is in some sense God's word, God's book, and that when I read it, his Spirit speaks through the written words to me -- if I believe this (which I totally do) then I'd better pay attention when the Bible contradicts me, and I'd better be willing to dig into it and maybe even change my behavior.

At some level, the deepest contradiction to my own life that I find in the Bible is this: Over and over, the Bible calls me to change things I cannot change, to do things I seem unable to do, to love people I cannot love, to give myself away unselfishly and I find myself stingy. So at some level the Bible contradicts me in ways that frustrate me and bring me to a place where I cannot do enough, be enough, perform enough. I come to the end of myself and I recognize that I cannot meet the Bible's standard.

At this point, the Bible -- if I believe it -- has an amazing thing to teach me: God knew I couldn't do it. And he has already done all that needs to be done. All the expectations, all the performance, all the behavior modification -- he's already taken care of all those things. He came to earth in Jesus of Nazareth, taught about love and God and the Bible and compassion and behavior and pride and lots more, and we couldn't stand it so we killed him in the most gruesome way possible. But somehow, in the mysterious ways of God, Jesus dying on the cross took my imperfection, my falling short, and Jesus died for what the Bible calls my sin. In return, Jesus gives to me his godly perfection, his perfect performance, his exactly right behavior -- not so that I can do these things myself, but now when God looks at me he sees the perfection of Jesus. He treats me as if I had done all these things perfectly in myself. He knows I fall short, but he pours out his love and his acceptance and his grace and his blessing on me as a freely given gift.

Perhaps the ultimate sense of the Bible's authority is when I am willing to accept all that the Bible says about me and about my world -- all the details of sin and falling short and imperfection and my behavior that turns God's stomach -- and I am willing to look in that difficult mirror and accept God's word about me and those around me. Then I can also accept God's other word about us -- not a word of judgment, but a word of grace, a word of mercy, a word of love freely given at the cross of Jesus. Thanks be to God!

1 comment:

  1. Amen. From one who leans toward the literal ditch, I thank you.