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Posted by on Sep 19, 2013 | 18 comments

Biblical Authority and the Primacy of Experience

Biblical Authority and the Primacy of Experience

Community Through Time

This is my “first draft” attempt to explain my reasons for believing in the authority of Scripture. It’s quite raw and probably has some gaps that need filling. I would welcome any thoughts on how it could be improved.

Imagine you’ve had a powerful encounter with God, a transforming experience that has changed the core of who you are. Everything else you hear and see is filtered through your memory of it; all other truth-claims and commands are subject to its judgement. You will never be the same again, and the rest of your life will be lived out of the reality of that experience and what it taught you.

But your friend has also had a divine encounter. The trouble is that he/she talks about it differently. Either they had a different encounter, or they have interpreted its meaning differently in the way they live their lives – it’s impossible to tell. You arrive at a disagreement. Now you are faced with a choice.

  1. You could disbelieve your friend’s experience. Because it doesn’t perfectly fit yours, it must be mistaken. You are the only one who truly knows God.
  2. You could enter into dialogue with your friend, talking through your different revelations to see if you can come to agreement. This may mean interpreting your experience differently than you imagined. It may mean coming to the conclusion that you were wrong about some of the things you thought it meant.

If you take the second option, you have submitted your personal knowledge of God to a broader picture, some of which was not directly revealed to you. In other words, you choose to live by the principle that God reveals different things to different people. To live by that principle means to submit your personal view of God to a bigger picture of who God is.

This means that your spiritual quest from now on takes place in community. You are no longer an isolated individual, “spiritual but not religious,” picking and choosing which bits you like to believe based on your own criteria. You are now a member of something larger, seeking to pool its knowledge of God for mutual enrichment.

As time goes by, more people join this community. It is new to begin with but sooner or later the original founders grow old. They need to pass their revelations on to the next generation. So they write them down. This doesn’t preclude the next generation’s members from having their own revelations. On the contrary, you can be almost certain that God will reveal different things to them, since every individual has their own special relationship to the divine. But if it is the same God revealing himself to the new generation, then nothing newly revealed will contradict what was revealed before.

This community of God’s revelation is the beginning of a religion. Becoming a member of the community means submitting to everything that has already been revealed to that community, no matter what private revelation any joining member also may have. It also means that if your private revelation (or your convictions) conflict with the founding revelation of the community as recorded in its original documents, then you must submit your beliefs to that community in order to remain a part of it. If you reject something already established by the community, you are essentially starting a new religion private to yourself.

Christianity is a community whose origins are recorded in Scripture. To be a Christian means to be a member of a community  which began with the revelation recorded in the Bible. Anyone who calls themself a Christian is thereby connecting to this wider set of experiences and revelations of God, and to the collective knowledge of God built up by that community over the centuries. To disagree with the founders of a community is essentially to part company with it and strike out on one’s own.

What I am trying to do here is show how Biblical authority works from first principles. It’s based on two epistemological assertions. First, all knowledge begins with experience. Second, knowledge is shaped, corrected and grown by means of community and dialogue. The Bible is the collection of documents containing the original experience of revelation of the Christian community, and in order to continue to belong to the Christian community we have to submit to its authority.


I am aware that the above may raise some concerns about what is to be done when something the Bible says simply makes no sense to someone – either morally or empirically. What do you do when you just cannot honestly believe what the Bible is saying? This is a really important question which demands more space than I have left, but for now I just want to say that this doesn’t mean you are automatically excluded from the Christian community. However, it does place a level of urgency on the need to wrestle with the issues. I cannot be satisfied with my beliefs if, as a Christian, they are in discord with what the Bible says. I must spend whatever time and effort is necessary to do honest investigation until I conclude, either that the community (i.e. the Bible) is right, or that it is wrong and I have to leave.

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Barney is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University. He hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers which confronts challenges to the Christian faith with hope. He also has a column on Seen and Unseen, a magazine that offers Christian perspectives on life and society for a non-Christian audience.