“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It was simple when we were children. As a youngster I heard our preacher say, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." But, as the Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
Emerging from childhood requires engaging in critical thinking. Thinking like a child gives way to thinking theologically if we’re serious about answering the question, “What authority does the Bible have?”
The word “authority” requires a definition in this context. Defined by the common dictionary, authority is “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” The Bible doesn’t have that kind of authority. It has only the authority its readers choose to give it.
If the Bible exercised independent authority, there would be no poor among us, as God suggested would be the case if we “obeyed the voice of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 15: 4-5). If the Bible were self-executing, there would be no killing, stealing, or coveting. But there is.
The Creator’s decision to grant humans free will was, at its core, God’s act of sharing authority with us. As a result “authority” is the freedom to decide and to act or refuse to act without hindrance.
As a liberal Christian, I don’t find it helpful to simply quote scripture as the means of conveying scriptural authority. Suggesting the Bible is authoritative because “the Bible tells me so,” diminishes the Bible and God as well as the Spirit of God.
Determining what authority we will give the Bible demands an acknowledgment that neither God nor scripture is timeless. Our relationship with God is dynamic enough to recognize that it changes over the course of time. Serious consideration of scriptural authority begins with the admission that the Bible discloses God’s unique relationship to a particular time and culture far different from ours. Scriptural laws needed thousands of years ago to maintain cohesive communities aren’t necessarily relevant today.
N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop, believes, “There is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible.” Where then is scriptural authority to be found? Wright says it is found in God’s authority and, “God’s authority is designed to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human.”
The primary source of authority for liberal Christians is the scriptural revelation of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and God’s continuing revelations through the Spirit of the God who promised, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)
Some evangelical Christians claim liberals employ an “anything goes” attitude toward scriptural authority. Far from it, we see the long arc of God’s authority bent, as Bishop Wright said, toward becoming fully human as we apply both the ancient and the revealed truths to contemporary problems. The authority of scripture, applied over centuries of faith tradition, coupled with our God-given ability to reason, opens our understanding of historic as well as contemporary experiences, which is how the God’s Spirit acts in our lives to achieve justice.
That doesn’t fit so easily on a bumper sticker as "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." God didn’t mean it to be that simple. Determining the authority God has in our lives is a wrestling match. Just as Jacob wrestled with God, so it is that we wrestle with the authority we’ll choose to give scripture in light of our experiences and the knowledge that God calls us to create a just world.
Rodger McDaniel is the Pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church. He has a law degree from the University of Wyoming and a master of divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. firstname.lastname@example.org.