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Posted by on Sep 19, 2013 | 18 comments

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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Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Nathaniel Aspray

    This is great stuff, Barn!

  • laura j

    you have c.s. lewis’ gift of speaking complex realities in layman terms. i hereby endorse your many future book-writing projects!

    question: so where do the non-experienced biblical passages fit in? God Himself was the only one who experienced the creation of the world, for example. we can (and do) have communal dialogue about this experience, but it will never be ours to hold onto. are we then moving towards the experience of how that non-experienced experience made it to paper?

    • Thanks for the question, Laura! In answer: yes, kind of. I would say rather that everything recorded in Scripture is mediated through human minds. I’m not a proponent of the “dictation theory” that God just told some writers what to write, who had no idea what it meant. I believe that every author meant something specific by what they wrote, even if we can find greater meanings in it later on. Because of that, they have to have understood what they were writing in the context of their own life experience. The example you give, of the creation of the world, is presented in Ancient-Near-Eastern creation-myth form, which experienced the moon as a light (scientifically speaking, the moon is not a light but only a reflector) and evening/morning as cosmological realities (scientifically speaking, the rest of the Universe does not measure time in earth-rotations). It tells the story of creation from the point of view of human experience. Does that make sense?

      • John B

        Hi Barney and Laura,

        Barney, this is a slightly different point, but when you say “even if we can find greater meanings in it later on” in your answer here, would you want to concede that these “greater meanings” should be less binding than their exegetically “lesser meanings”, by which I mean the more developed interpretations could and should be seen as less authoritative interpretations than those provided through more rigorous exegesis? (This concession, were you to give it, would presumably not include New Testament re-interpretations of the OT).

        This could look something like this:
        Authority Level 1: The text means at least A
        Authority Level 2: The text according to church interpretive tradition might mean B as well as A
        Authority Level 3: The text just means B

        What do you guys think?

        Barney one day would you consider doing a post to explain about prosopological exegesis and its ups, downs, and NT roots?

      • Hi John, thanks for this comment!
        I think there are a couple of threads to your question here. On the one hand, the Christian tradition has always insisted that the “literal sense” of Scripture is the authoritative basis for any other sense (moral, allegorical, etc.) and the others stand or fall with the accuracy of the literal. They build on it as a foundation. So in that sense you’re absolutely right – any expansion of meaning to the text must be rooted in the author’s original intention.

        On the other hand, I am hesitant about bracketing out New Testament re-interpretations of the OT as somehow different, or subject to different rules. In Longenecker’s book “Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period” he argues that the NT authors misquoted the OT, but they were allowed to because they were apostles. My NT professor said that you might as well say they could also commit adultery, although we can’t, because they were apostles! I think we should expect the NT to play by its own rules, and that means taking the NT interpretation of the OT as an example of how we’re meant to do it, not an exception. Does that make sense?

        The way I would tie these two discordant ideas together is through a reformulated understanding of the meaning of texts in the abstract. I gesture towards this in my second response to Iain Provan in this debate: . In short, we must think of the text as having a meaning that points in a particular direction. Wrong meanings try to take the text in a different direction. But right meanings extend the text along the same direction. I hope that’s not too abstract for you! It may be hard to picture, but I can offer some examples if they would help.

        I’ll think about how to explain prosopological exegesis at some point!

  • Darren Paffey

    Barney, you have a brilliant way of expressing things clearly in this post, and taking the reader with you through what are essential questions. Always love a bit of epistemology!

    • Thanks Darren, and thanks for stopping by!

  • Paul W

    Barney, these are some helpful thoughts! I think you do a good job of describing the importance of a community and a scripture. Most of my questions have to do with the fact that you’ve put this in generic terms, about experiences and scriptures in general, though. I guess my basic question is, “Why this community? Why this Scripture?” It seems the answer is that you choose the one most consonant with your personal experience, the community that you are able to dialogue most fruitfully with? Yes, the Bible contains the original sets of revelation to this community, but why stop with these revelations? Isn’t it possible that, since we’re different people, we’re able to see things that those people in the Bible weren’t able to see? Shouldn’t we endlessly dialogue and tweak our beliefs as new and different people experience things? How does it not end up being a power move to say, “Conform your experiences to this communal standard or get out!”

    -How do you respond to there being different communities/Scriptures? Shouldn’t it be possible, on your account, that all these experiences are from the same source and we just haven’t listened carefully enough to others?

    -If Scripture is a human communities dialogue about their experiences/revelations, how does that give you any confidence that they’ve actually accurately interpreted them and thereby have actual grasp on the divine? Or are we not reduced to finite communities grasping for its small slice of the infinite that it has been able to experience and claiming it as all that there is?

    -It seem that either you end up in a view of all scriptures are accessing different faces of the same divinity (or there are multiple competing divinities), or you end up in a tribalism that is sure their scriptures are right but given the starting point in experience can’t justify why their experiences are right and someone else’s are wrong (especially since you’re emphasizing that different people experience the same thing differently).

    Those are my rambling thoughts…

    • Paul, thanks for the questions! They are very worthwhile and the hardest thing now will be replying to them succinctly! The briefest answer possible would be to refer you to John Henry Newman’s Development of Doctrine, but I’ll add a few thoughts here.

      1. The past and the future are always in dialogue. We sit in a tension between what has already been revealed and what will be revealed. Because none of us knows everything, what we don’t yet know could always change our understanding of what we already know. So there is no substitute for listening and learning from others, no matter how confident we are of our own beliefs. Hanging in this tension prevents us from sliding to the two extremes – either what you term the “power play” where new knowledge/individuals are shoehorned into the existing interpretation, or the endless tweaking of beliefs so that nothing is ever sure.

      2. Yes, there are different religions. But if I, as an individual, stand apart from all of them and attempt to sew them together into one, I have in reality started a new religion. Dialogue between religions is essential, but it has to be done from the grounding of belonging to one in particular. Mohammad and Jesus are both more likely to be right than my patchwork quilt of bits of each of them, chosen based on my own preference. Each religious tradition also mandates an attitude towards others which comes as part of its set of core beliefs. There are some beliefs that are irreconcilable: If one is right then the other is wrong.

      3. The way to avoid tribalism is to keep subjecting the community’s beliefs to the test of how well they interpret the full suite of human experience, even as that grows with both the addition of new individuals to the community and dialogue with other communities. There is a reality out there, mediated through new experiences, to which any interpretation is subject.

      I can’t answer the question about other communities in the abstract. You don’t know how to understand a different tradition until you have encountered it and listened carefully to it. But I am suggesting that it is wiser to do this listening as a community, rather than as an individual trying to choose between communities.

      • Paul W

        I think part of the problem is that you frame your discussion as if someone just had a generic experience of God and from there started to talk to people and dialogue. That’s why it seems to me that any community’s particular interpretation is a power move demanding conformity. Like you said, all discussion takes place within a community, but I think the way you’re starting suggests the sort of community that views all religions and scriptures as accidental expressions of a purer divine oneness, none of which should have ultimate say. That’s how I read your post at least. It seems that the only movement is horizontal. It starts from an experience of the divine, a revelation, but this is interpreted on a purely human level. So, no, someone isn’t starting a new religion by doing what I said above: they are already part of a community of interpretation that has grown dominate in the West over the last few centuries. Yes, different religions have irreconcilable beliefs, but doesn’t that just mean they haven’t talked enough? Or that they’re just too pig-headed to allow their beliefs to be nuanced by others?

        As you say here, people don’t stand apart from religions when they experience God (most of the time at least). They’re experience tends to happen when they’re already in relationship to a certain community and they tend to interpret their experience through the lens of that particular community (of course, that still doesn’t give an answer as to why that community’s interpretation that mediated your experience has validity beyond the historical chance of you having encountered that community and not another). The reason why the Quran or Bible are authoritative is because these communities believe that something definitive has been recorded in its pages. Mohammad received a direct copy of what is in heaven. Moses received the Law from the hand of God. Jesus is the Word made flesh and Scripture bears witness to this event. That’s why these texts are Scripture and why communities have formed around those who initially transmitted/recorded these encounters. Apart from these groundings, these no reason to suppose why Mohammad or Jesus would be more likely right than my own patchwork. They’re just dudes like me. Except they’re older and don’t know as much about the world as we do. They only matter if God has actually entered history in a unique and definitive way in them, or they’re venerated because they’re just exceptionally smart: Kierkegaard’s “The difference between a genius and an apostle.”

        I guess I just struggle with attempts to start from first principles because they always seem to fail to do justice to the reality of any particular religious tradition (except those that demand you start with first principles).

      • That’s a very good pushback and I’ll have to think more about its implications for my argument.

        To begin with, I accept that all experiences are not equal. The horizontality of my approach lies in its democracy: the majority interpretation of God overrides the individual claiming to have seen something more. But if that were true then Christianity could never have separated from Judaism – it would’ve had to dialogue endlessly with the Pharisees, probably to its demise. So my model lacks a prophetic edge: the moments when a lone voice speaks truth against the crowd. Even within religious structures there are those with greater and lesser authority – and rightly so. The apostle Paul did indeed dialogue with the Judaizers, but he also claimed an authority based on what he had experienced that trumped their logical arguments and ignored their majority consensus.

        As for the dangers of attempting to start from first principles, I’m not quite sure what you mean? How can you not start from first principles? What’s the alternative? What consistent and fair methodology can I offer both a Christian and a Muslim who are doubting their own religious traditions and seeking a pathway towards truth? Or is this just not something I can, or should, offer?

        I guess the exclusive claims of most religions is a “particularity” which one bumps up against pretty quickly and which gives the lie to the more generic attempt to sew them together.

        No (thinking further) . … the reason first principles are important is because, now matter how definitive and final the revelation of God, there remains the question of how to interpret and apply it to any given (particular) situation, and of what it means in a new context. The revelation is final, but our understanding of it is never final. So when we encounter a new datum – a new experience, historical development, or religious tradition – we need a methodology by which to engage with it. The two extremes are (1) to totally revise our understanding and bend to the pressure of the local situation, or (2) to resist any change, development or nuancing of our understanding, holding dogmatically to what we already understand to be true. I’m trying to develop an approach that navigates effectively between those two extremes, and I think the best way of doing that is to contextualise the initial revelation within a broader epistemology. Can that be wrong?

  • LA Green

    You communicate theological problems without the loaded terminology far better than many trained academics. I’ve nothing but an appreciation for your concerns of bringing some of crucial conversations and ideas of the academy to where they matters the most- the church.
    I also would reaffirm the importance of communal orthodoxy. New-Protestants especially must remember that the foundations of theological orthodoxy are not found anew every time someone opens their Bible. There is a tradition that’s dialectically arrived to the centers of the faith and made its home there.

    My question is very much touched on by Paul. Why does one’s radical experience of God point to them to the Bible? If someone has an experience that they interpret to be ‘divine’ in the US, they’ll most likely attribute it to the Christian God. What if this experience happens in London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which I believe has the highest concentration of Muslims in England? What if they attribute it to be Allah, and the scriptures the individual is pointed take them far away from the cross and Christian grace?

    Is your hermeneutical method foundationalist, or is it a web?

    • Thanks for the questions, Lance.

      Last question first: I am web, not foundationalist. I believe that our minds make meaning by connecting data in patterns of cause-and-effect, but those patterns are never anchored in anything undeniable or absolute. A ‘truer’ pattern is a more consistent one, that makes better sense of the available data and creates more connections.

      Preamble: my model is intended to push people to a thicker communal element in their truth-seeking, with a resultant thinning of the private-judgment element. But of course you cannot do away entirely with private judgment. Everything ultimately starts from private judgment. It’s just a question of how quickly you give authority to things/people outside your own mind.

      My model also ties religious books inextricably to their communities of interpretation. To be a Christian means not primarily to believe the Bible (which is incoherent as outlined in my former post) but to belong to the Church and to believe the doctrines of the Church. The Bible just happens to be one of those doctrines.

      As for *which* religious community to belong to, that has to be decided by attention to the particular teachings of that religion and how well those teachings explain and integrate one’s religious experience. If a resident of Tower Hamlets has an experience which leads them to the conviction that God is good, for example, then they will have to decide whether they think the Christian or Muslim God best accommodates that conviction. But of course, they may not know much about the Christian God in which case, from their current standpoint, Allah is really the only option.

      • LA Green

        So our faith formation depends upon our context.
        What leads someone to the bible, or to the church, outside of their particular context of being within a christianized culture? What allows Christianity to assert its interpretation of data, meaning, and history over other interpretations?

        I get the ‘relativity of experience’ and the importance of faith formation within a community, but I think you’ve touched on issues that are indicative to natural theology without exploring them your post. (not your fault, lack of space and what not does that).

        Is there room for any apologetic of a given faith?

      • Yes, I think there is room. There probably isn’t any *generic* defence of a religion – it’s always compared with its alternatives in a given context. I guess one would have to argue that it explained all the phenomena of experience better than the available alternatives – including phenomena which point to more ontological claims, such as history, the existence of God, etc.

        But I think offering a defence of Christianity vs. (for example) Islam or secularism would be an entirely different topic and not directly related to anything I’ve said above. In a sense, the above is its own apologetic of “religious traditions/communities” against “individualism/anti-traditionalism” and the fragmentation of belief. My purpose in offering it was that I think this is the only way to defend Biblical authority coherently, and this has implications (as you pointed out) for extreme Protestant positions. There is no ontological difference between Scripture and Tradition.

        I have drawn a line between communities of belief and individualist innovations. To provide reasons for choosing between communities would be to draw another, quite separate line.

        That’s my immediate reaction to what you’ve said. Does it work?

      • LA Green

        I guess I feel one can’t defend biblical authority without trying to navigate WHY someone should relate their experience to the Christian paradigm. I affirm that Christians need to understand faith communally, and I understand now that you’re focusing on the individualism/community divide… but I think my apprehension is how some of your conclusions could speak to your assumptions.

      • I’m very grateful for this sustained engagement with my thought. I would appreciate if you gave a couple of examples of where my conclusions might speak to my assumptions – if you mean anything more than what you said right before that.

        I think my point in this post is just that the Bible and Christianity stand or fall together: reasons for one are reasons for the other. Any attempt to defend the Bible apart from Christianity, or to be a Christian without submitting to Scripture, is fallacious.

        If you’re saying that I can’t holistically defend the Bible without also defending Christianity, or if you’re saying that I can’t abstractly defend the Bible without being affected by its contents, then I think you’re right. Christianity makes falsifiable claims, some of which are derived from its relationship to the Bible. It makes claims about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in an individual’s life apart from human effort, and about the public historical event of the Resurrection, which are vulnerable to contrary evidence (phenomenological evidence in the first, historical in the second). This evidence is not the property of the Christian faith. Christianity, as N.T. Wright says, is a public claim about the nature of reality, not a private claim about personal spiritual experience. If it really is true then it should make an observable difference to people who don’t belong to its community.

        Is that the sort of thing you mean?

      • LA Green

        I think in your original post there was room for some worrisome interpretations of how one comes to the Christian faith. You’ve filled in the gap and clarified, however, with your responses.
        I was concerned with the how that individual experience of the ‘something’ is eventually named as the Christian God. Considering the particular context of your post, the individual vs. communal approach to scripture, I could see why covering that base was outside the scope of your blog post.

        I was afraid of the relativity of one’s experience. That what determined the direction one goes is ONLY their context. Christians, I think, have spiritual trump cards: IE, the holy spirit, prophecy, ect.

        But yeah, I think you covered your bases. You may find it helpful to check out how phenomenologist like Husserl and Heidegger DO history. I don’t think phenomenology and history have to be two different things… but really, that’s an irrelevant conversation for another time.