Hermeneutics and the Myth of Biblical Authority

At the 2019 Mennonite Brethren denominational conference on hermeneutics (the study of how to interpret Scripture, in case you wondered), a significant theme in the event was the authority of Scripture. The basic premise of biblical authority is that because the bible is inspired by God, the things we read in it about life and Christian discipleship take precedence over what we think about such matters. Christians are to submit to the authority of the bible because what the bible says is believed to be more reliable than what we think when it comes to living as disciples of Jesus. But there is a problem with this idea. Biblical authority, understood in the context of this way of thinking about what Scripture “tells” us, is a myth. Here’s why.

The bible does not “talk” to us in a way that is like talking to a wise person or other authority figure. It does not dispense timeless kernels of truth for us to grasp and deploy at our discretion. Finding the “right answer” for one of our theological or existential questions is not a matter of finding the appropriate biblical text, reading it, and doing what it says. This version of biblical authority is not only a fallacy, it is a recipe for disaster. A common manifestation of this problem is proof-texting, in which a verse or passage is lifted from its context and used to buttress a theological argument. It is easy to understand how this can lead to problems.

The problem is more pervasive than it appears, however. We may agree that proof-texting is a practice to be avoided, especially by others, but insist that we are not engaging in proof-texting when we appeal to Scripture. We critique appeals to the “wrong” passages, insisting that different passages are the important texts to consult in reference to a particular matter. The problem is this: Which passages are the “right” ones and which are not? The answer is difficult to discern. Nevertheless, we are quick to respond in visceral opposition to an appeal we do not like. For example, when a presenter at the 2015 MB Study Conference suggested that same-sex marriage could possibly be understood as a lesser – but nevertheless valid – option that follows 1 Samuel 8 in indicating God’s accommodation to the inclinations of his people, many reacted strongly against this proposal. Why? Because – they insisted – such an appeal was clearly wrong.

But how do we know it was wrong? The fact is that we don’t know. But the opponents of the proposal believed it was flatly and self-evidently inappropriate. (SPOILER ALERT: I agree that the appeal was out of bounds, but not for the reasons of self-evident clarity that some asserted.)

The 2019 denominational hermeneutics conference devoted the majority of its time to clarifying elements of the how of biblical interpretation, believing that developing skills in interpreting Scripture is the key to resolving issues of agreement and the authority of Scripture. I respectfully disagree. Not everyone who quotes Scripture is demonstrating a commitment to biblical authority. Not everyone who interprets a passage carefully – even thoughtfully – is a faithful biblical interpreter. And, if biblical interpreters, however skillful, are not appealing to the same texts in reference to important questions, for example, they will have difficulty finding agreement.

I would submit that asking how we read Scripture misses a key point, and will never get to the heart of issues of theological agreement. The question is not one of how we read Scripture, but why. Remember? Always start with why. Answering this question will force us not simply to assert biblical authority as a shibboleth, but rather to stop and ask what biblical authority actually means, and how it works. Otherwise, we are just running in circles.

Why, indeed, do we read the bible? A common answer is that the bible is the repository of inspired revelation containing substantive propositional content that is the basis of our Christian faith. I will agree that there is content from which we infer theological content that we often express in terms of propositions. That may not be the best way to present our theological convictions, but it has a long history, so I will leave that for now. But I think that regarding Scripture as a doctrinal gold mine from which we mine nuggets of doctrine is a poor – and at best only partially faithful – way of regarding Scripture. What, then, is the alternative?

Tune in next week…

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