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Having or Giving Authority?


(1) The Bible is the authoritative word of God. (2) The authoritativeness of scripture is a central doctrine in the Christian faith. Have you heard these ideas before? Have you ever wondered what exactly people mean when they say this, in particular, the meaning of the word “authority” in this context? Here’s a handy starting point: authority is influence, weight, or power. Yet, when we go to apply these concepts to (1) and (2) above, there are some extra nuances to tease out. Are we saying the Bible should have authority? Or that it already has authority? You might be tempted to prefer the latter - the Bible just is authoritative in virtue of being the inspired message of God. By a transitive mechanism of sorts, God’s authority shines through the inspired documents. If a King has authority, almost by definition it means that the King’s words have authority in virtue of them being issued from the mouth of the King. Let’s run with this King analogy for a moment. Does a King have much authority if no subjects are there to submit to the authority? And if there are subjects, may the subjects disobey the authoritative orders and what are the consequences for refusal? Consider the rebel who refuses the orders of the King to the point of execution. He is hanged, by order of the king, for disobeying the King’s orders. Not only that, the rebel never admitted or swore fealty to the King and until his death did not recant or subjugate himself. Now, did the King have authority over the hanged man? In a sense, “yes”. The King has a certain amount of influence, weight, and power to carry out his wish that the rebel be hanged. But in another sense, “no”. The rebel never willingly submitted to the influence, weight, and power - only coercively. The heart and mind of the rebel remained firmly outside the scope of the King’s authority. Bringing this back to the Bible, it is not so obvious that it is helpful to think of the Bible as authoritative in the sense of just having authority by virtue of being “the King’s words”. Rather, what I think we should want to discover is whether the Bible should be authoritative - that is, does it contain the kind of message(s) that I should submit to, or that I should allow to have a place (first place?) of weight or influence in my life? In this sense, there is a way in which we give the Bible authority, just like the rebel could have given the King authority over his heart and mind as well. That is, we create space in our life to submit to it in some way. To allow the Bible to have influence over how we think, how we feel, how we love, how we live. I have given my family, friends, and certain other folks authority in my life. Their wisdom matters to me and I will allow their influence a premiere place in my decision-making. So, I can wonder as well, to what extent do I give, or have I given, the Bible authority in my life? Answering this question is complicated by two things. One, giving the Bible authority in my life necessarily plays out through human interpretations of what the Bible is saying, either my own or someone else’s interpretations. So, it turns out I need to do the difficult work of figuring out who to give authority to in understanding the Bible, so that I can even allow the Bible to even be authoritative in my life in the first place! (The problem doesn’t go away if you’re thinking you can just get your understanding from God through the Holy Spirit. You are still relying on your own interpretative apparatus and that you heard from God correctly.) Two, it is worth thinking about how this interacts with sin. Using the “sin as poison” view we mention all the time on OTT, the Bible forbids or encourages behavior based on whether they lead to flourishing life or not, guardedly speaking. So, to the extent I engage in self-destructive behaviors (sin), is that an extent to which I have not given authority to the Bible in my life? After all, I have rejected it’s influence, weight, and power, at least portions of it, in favor of some fleeting self-destructive endeavor. I have found this way of thinking about the Bible’s “authority” and “authoritativeness” really helpful. It gets to the heart of what matters most. We get into all this and more in this week’s episode 3 Ways to Use the Bible. There’s so much to talk about here - write into the show if you have something to add at mailbag@opentotruth.com. Subscribe to future free blogs as well at opentotruth.com/subscribe. Stay Curious!