Concept of Biblical Authority

Introduction

Whenever the issue concerning how one explains their view concerning the doctrine of scripture comes up, they tend to become explosive and in some ways divisive. Take for example the controversy surrounding Peter Enns upon his vies in a book entitled “Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.”[1] Professor Enns following the controversy surrounding the fiasco initially resigned from his position as Professor of the Old Testament. This is to see how upbeat it is when people explain their positions concerning the notion of the Scriptures being authoritative and this will soon lead to questions pertaining to the inerrancy of scripture. This particular essay will seek to present my understanding concerning the concept of Biblical Authority, and my explanations and position I gravitate to concerning the doctrine of inerrancy.

Concept of Biblical Authority

Erickson states that the understanding that is derived from talking about scriptural authority is that, “the Bible, as the expression of God’s will to us, possesses the right supremely to define what we are to believe and how we are to conduct ourselves.”[2] But all around there are problems with this in society around and also within the regions sector itself with regards to authority. The notion of being rattled by understanding authority in our human existence, where it is normally abused, is the thing that sometimes limits our understanding of what it actually means. Riddled with this as a base for our context, authority is mostly ascribed to the realm of abuse in terms of power, where, something is withheld from us.[3]

“Who holds authority?” or rather “Where does authority rest?” are the questions that Erickson asks. He presents some notion to explaining this in giving us some points of consideration. Following neoorthodoxy approach, God is the one holding the authority as he deals directly with humans. So for this view, the bible is just an “instrument, an object, through which God speaks or meets people.”[4] For them there is no notion of delegation. They hold to an extreme position, it should be said.

In a moderate category as the one above there are those who “understand authority of God to be exercised in some direct fashion.”[5] This would fall under the category of a spirit or the Holy Spirit bringing guidance where special revelation is revealed to the individual listening to God’s word revealed to him/her.

Another view is that religious authority is delegated to some, in the form of individual or an institution, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church. Another view popular nowadays is the view that understands that authority is placed to “prophets present in the church.”[6] This can be viewed in most ultra charismatic churches.

Erickson follows the view that holds to the understanding that God is the one who holds all authority but that there is a delegation of his authority, in which the bible comes into place. This is because the Bible “conveys his message, the Bible carries the same weight God himself would command if he were speaking to us personally.”[7] This makes perfects sense because a document written by a superior that carries his signature is vitally important to getting this done or for that matter in amending things. So the same weight is placed on the Bible, because it is the divine utterance of God, the one who spoke is the one who is in all authority.

On establishing the meaning and origin of the Bible, Erickson presents three views to this. The first is the church and consequently the pope. “The church and ultimately the pope give us the true meaning of the Bible. The infallibility of the pope is the logical complement to the infaliibility of the Bible.”[8] 271 One would notice that this is the Roman Catholic’s position. The second view to this is the leaning towards human reason to which meaning and origin of the bible is established.[9] For the third view, a view that Erickson ascribes to, the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit where it is through the illuminating work of the Spirit, people can come to an understanding of scripture and thus creating trust and impetus to seeing the bible’s divine origin.[10] Grenz also agrees that the work of the Spirit illuminating Scripture is the foundational basis of trusting scripture.[11]

Thus, a criterion for scriptural stance when scripture is to be understood needs this element of listening to the Spirit to be at the centre. The authority is derive because, as Grenz states, “it is the vehicle in which the Spirit speaks.” This understanding gives impetus to the understanding of 2 Tim 3:16-17 where striking connection can be seen analogous with God breathing in Adam and giving him life and God breathing in scripture “thus making it useful.”[12]Ascribing to the understanding of illumination of the Spirit and the biblical text assumes another framework at hand. Grenz[13] and Erickson[14] agree on humanity’s finite state, our human condition marred by the influence of sin necessitates this need for the Spirit’s illumination to awaken us to understand the scriptures. Both authors seem to run in tangent with each other when presenting their cases and position in explaining the authority of Scripture. But, two things needs to be mentioned concerning their positions.

Grenz’s explanation is great in many ways as he sees the Spirit at the centre of biblical understanding in that the Spirit is the one that informs our understanding facilitating its authority through the community of God. His stance on community and Spirit is well taken. But this view does assume to remove the ontological authority from the bible. If the authority of the bible is only moderated under the working of the Spirit in the context of the church and only then is authority facilitated to the believer, does that not assume that authority is a confined thing or as Clark would call this, ontology based on the church’s recognition of the text as authoritative?[15] It is better to assume that the scriptural authority is only authority to us when the work of the Spirit opens us up to it, in this manner an epistemic sense, although on an ontological sense it does carry authority within itself because it is God’s word.[16] But taking Grenz’s explanation of authority the value of his Spirit illumed, congregational context informed model is a healthy, although given the critique, position taken for understanding authority.

Moving on to Erickson, although being a robust description and understanding concerning scriptural authority, where Erickson presents the nuisance concerning the understanding derived from the word authority and as he unpacks the understanding of illumination in connection with authority in the context of the Spirit, he lacks the communal factor that Grenz models. To me without the communal aspect in modulating our understanding of the scriptures, although we might have the best type of scholarship to inform our understanding, we lose a dimension that is important to the Christian life which is the fellowship and community life built on the grounding faith of pursuing and understanding scripture together. In my view, an integration of both Grenz and Erickson’s position will help us gain a more robust understanding of what it means by scriptural authority. So for now, this discussion will position towards understanding authority of Scripture by way of God’s Spirit illuming us to trust it in that manner to direct our lives.

Understanding the Doctrine of Inerrancy

The definition of inerrancy when ascribed to Scripture holds to a position that attempts to protect the concept of infallibility which simply means that scripture is fully trustworthy. Inerrancy is defined as “not erring, exempt from error; making no mistakes; infallible.”[17] The notion of inerrancy tries to define the understanding that scripture is trustworthy by taking it up a notch in stating that the Scripture does not err in what it states or says. This to me, is a logical progression of thought.

Some general preliminaries can further explain the logic that runs behind the understanding that Scripture does not err. Because Scripture is inspired by God and is considered God-breathed, one can ascribe scripture to be obviously equated with God (2 Tim. 3:16). In Christian understanding, God is understood as trustworthy and that no deceit can come from him (Num. 23:19; Heb 6:18), thus, since scripture is God’s word, carrying with it God’s authority, Scripture must also hold the same amount of trustworthiness and unerring nature of God.  But questions have arisen that question the very essence of the reliability of scripture, where questions concerning the historical reliability of scripture and to its contribution to science.

With the above questions looming, explanation has to be given in how scripture is inerrant. Its meaning cannot just be assumed. Millard Erickson gives seven positions on how people see the Bible. Four deal with various degrees of understanding that pertain to inerrancy and three views that disregard the concept altogether.[18] But generally there are three main ones  (positions that ascribe different degrees of inerrancy) that I will mention here.

The first is absolute inerrancy. This position argues that the biblical writers took into consideration in their writing true and factual bearings of scientific, historical, geographical details. This assumes that everything in the bible can be argued as truth because scripture gives witness to it. Although this has a strong leaning towards explaining Scripture as being without error, it must account for questions where the bible seems erring on several issues like that of Joshua 10:12 -13 for example.[19] Consequently, there have been debates concerning how one interprets Genesis 1. If one take the position of absolute inerrancy and hold to the understanding that Genesis 1, in all it is stating, holds true to scientific and historical understanding. One would ask whether the writer of this narrative was inclined to understand science in the manner that modern scientist understand things. This view for me fails miserably under the weight of modern probing.

The second view of inerrancy is one that is called limited inerrancy or inerrancy of purpose. This view comes as a response to the above view because in the bible there seems to be numerous inconstancies regarding scientific, historical and geographical detail. Because of that this view takes the position that, with regards to the didactic passages, these are the ones that are deemed inerrant. Although this view sees errors in the one above, in some ways it is more of a cop out. To hold God as trustworthy and also be possible of erring is a chasm that can never be brought together. This view, although seems helpful at first, crates problems when one reflects on the nature of God.

The third and final view is known as full inerrancy. This view is sensitive to the difficulties raised by the second view concerning various inconstancies found in the bible. Although not differing in the perspective of absolute inerrancy regarding the biblical witness in as far as it is true but varies in its explanation of science and history. Erickson explains that full inerrancy “regards these references as phenomenal,” where they are written and reported in how people of that time viewed things.[20] But the important underlining this view is that most importantly, scripture was written by its inspired authors giving a theological viewpoint of things. As I mentioned earlier concerning recent debates concerning the interpretation of Genesis 1, John H. Walton has written a book that tackles the issues by setting the interpretive lens by trying to read the cosmological make up from views congruent for people of that time. His proposal is stated as such, “The Isrealites received no revelation to update or modify their “scientific” understanding of the cosmos…And God did not think it important to revise their thinking.”[21] Walton’s perspective might fall under the category of full inerrancy which to me is a better view compared to the two above which are deemed problematic.

Therefore, whenever one want to ascribe to inerrancy, because it pertains to defend the Bible from arguments that question whether what it says is true, there needs to be explanations concerning the various views of inerrancy that one ascribes to. Failure to do so will play in much to the assumption of the questioner and also the value of the Scripture as being God’s word. In this case, ascribing to inerrancy demands that one come up with viable explanations.

Is the Doctrine of Inspiration worth ascribing to?

            Kevin Vanhoozer explains that “inerrancy is a subset to infallibility.” Earlier he explains that before there were probing on the trustworthiness of Scripture, the general impetus that Augustine and the Reformers such as Luther and Calvin had towards scripture was high.[22]  While the full-blown stance towards the doctrine of inerrancy is considered recent, Erickson sees the “general idea” from a historical point of view of this very understanding of scripture was not new.[23] This is a considerable explanation but I would rather state that the idea of Scripture’s trustworthiness was something that was held long before issues concerning inerrancy came about. Jesus himself quoted Scripture (Matt. 4:4,7,10) as does Paul in 2 Tim. 3:16-17 who emphasised the trustworthiness of Scripture, and Peter in 2 Pet. 1:19-21 who stresses the reliability of scripture because it comes from God. These all, to me, hold the Scriptures in high authority as it is God’s word and it is reliable.

But as Vanhoozer traces, doctrinal positions on the authority of scripture only dated in the sixteenth century out of a response to theological error, thus, the doctrine of inerrancy also was brought to the forefront because of doctrinal error. The spawning of the influence of modernity created new probing that questioned the reliability of scripture.[24] Reason governed trust and thus the Scriptures were read not as the Word of God but just a text to be investigated like any other text. In consequence, responses to these criticisms were brought forth, for example by Warfield and Hodge.[25]

There are several questions that arise when trying to affirm and defend the doctrine of inerrancy. The might seem at first, intelligible, but upon probing, they are nothing but shallow pretensions. One question asks how inerrancy is justified because of the human side of scripture. The example of how in a social setting we state that the sun comes up but generally we do not find anything wrong with the way we use the statement, although in science the notion of error by that statement is a fact. Scientis for that matter who live in the vicinity of human society do follow in make the same statement. Vanhoozer states that one “must not confuse a social convention with a scientific affirmation.”[26]

Some questions follow on that mostly include words like “literal” and “truth” combined. I find such question sometimes bordering on illogical steps. They intend to, in my view, compound God in what he has to say, to be framed in a certain way or in a certain perspective. To ask of whether every word in the bible literally true is to treat words a already formed sentences that conjure up intelligible meaning. Words in themselves must be formed into sentences before being able to be judged of their validity.[27] With this one would ask “What amounts for error then?” Vanhoozer informs us that ‘error’ is a “context-depended notion.”[28] He gives the example of him stating to his student of how long it will take for him to give a lecture. In this context precision is not decisive. One could just give an estimated time frame. But in the context of news reports or statistics, precision is an important factor.

Most qualms about scripture seem to be misguided critiques. They are arguments that question authority, or to designate a clear focus, directed to God, where untrustworthiness to scripture is ultimately, I would assume to God. The problem I see is that one has to deal with the understanding of God to appreciate the doctrine of Scripture being as it is, infallible, or trustworthy. Christians on the other hand approach the trustworthiness of the Bible having made some ‘extensive’ progress in their understanding of God.

Another argument questioning the trustworthiness of scripture falls in the category of asking “What kind of truth?” If we understand the truth question pertaining to historical, scientific, geographical, mathematical, in that they must be 100% actual, we have somewhat missed the point about scripture. Those who do want to ascribe to inerrancy must take the time to explain what model of inerrancy one ascribes to.

I think the problem with upholding inerrancy in what it means (what kind of truth is truthful) and in what it is trying to avoid (what is error) is that the bible is not written in as a compiled book of just correct statements, or factual reporting of events. The bible is rather found in many forms of literature that are weaved into the story where authors interpret God in their events. The Bible works more as a communicative means rather that what I mentioned briefly above. So if the bible is in some ways communication, it is somewhat dynamic, like our own communication, where things are exaggerated to emphasize something, generalized or culturally infused. To assume truth by trying to conform God’s dynamic nature as God is to create wall that do not necessarily fit. Even truths in the context of our human context are wide and varied.

So, with all these taken into consideration, is inerrancy a doctrine worth ascribing to? In the matter of context, in many rural setting where the Christian population has no burdening quarries pertaining to science and how the world works or on the questionable nature of assumed errors and inconsistencies in scripture, people basically ascribe to the trustworthiness of Scripture without much difficulty. They basically want to know how it applies or helps with living life rather than in the time consumed to argue about inconsistencies.

But simply take another context where Christians are uprooted from their rural setting and are now opening themselves up to new waves of quarries concerning their faith and on the validity of scripture, the question of inerrancy will be something that needs to be answered. For me, I have no problem with this doctrine. But I would generally not bring up the case of inerrancy if it is not brought up. This doctrine is dependent on context and cultural setting in my view. I would be happy with treating scripture as God’s word, being reliable in the context of how it directs our ways in living to please God. But it the context that warrants explanation, in terms of the subset queries of trustworthiness of scripture, inerrancy needs to be taken up and followed by answers. If I was to take up a position of inerrancy views that I have presented and stated above, the view most probably useful would be the full inerrancy of Scripture.

Bibliography:

Chin, Clive. Theology 1:Revelation (Class Notes)

Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method For Theology.(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2003).

Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker.2005)

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition). (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1998).

Grenz, Stanley J; Franke, John R. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. (Luisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. 2001).

Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. (Downers Grove: IVP. 2009)

Internet Resources:

 

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. The Inerrancy of Scripture. http://www.theologynetwork.org/biblical-studies/getting-stuck-in/the-inerrancy-of-scripture.htm (Accessed: December 2010)


[1] Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker.2005)

[2] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition). (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1998) p.267

[3] Ibid., p.267-268

[4] Ibid., p.270

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.,p.271

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.,p.272

[10] Ibid.,p.273

[11]Grenz, Stanley J; Franke, John R. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. (Luisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. 2001). p.65

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.,p.66

[14] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition).,p.273-277

[15] Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method For Theology.(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2003) p.64

[16] Ibid.,p.65

[17] Chin, Clive. Theology 1:Revelation (Class Notes) p.40

[18] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition).,p.248-250

[19] Chin, Clive. Theology 1:Revelation (Class Notes) p.43

[20] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition). p. 248

[21] Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. (Downers Grove: IVP. 2009) p.16

[22] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. The Inerrancy of Scripture. http://www.theologynetwork.org/biblical-studies/getting-stuck-in/the-inerrancy-of-scripture.htm

[23] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology (2nd Edition). p.252

[24] One modern day example would be Bart Ehrman who has written extensively highlighting scriptural misguidance in the issue of eering. Read for example in Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). (Harper Collins. 2009)

[25] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. The Inerrancy of Scripture. http://www.theologynetwork.org/biblical-studies/getting-stuck-in/the-inerrancy-of-scripture.htm

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

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