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Posted by on Sep 26, 2013 | 5 comments

Biblical Authority and the Primacy of Love

Biblical Authority and the Primacy of Love

Last week Barney succinctly presented his case that biblical authority is grounded in the early Church’s experience of God; these experiences were recorded in the Bible and we, as Christians, must submit to its authority. Unfortunately, I find this presentation of scriptural authority overly intellectualized. It is dependent on what we interpret, what we think, and what we believe. I reckon scriptural authority is based not on what we believe to be the case but on Whom we love.

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To be honest, Barney never says that we must think our way to the truth, but he does say that we must submit our beliefs and experiences to the revelation of scripture. Where his argument becomes dependent on the intellect is in the process of submission: this submission requires two levels of interpretation: 1) we must interpret the scriptures accurately so that we can submit our ideas to it and 2) we must interpret our experiences so that they are in line with what we believe to be true, given our interpretation of the Bible.

Authority, in our day-to-day lives, is something we give to things — not something they inherently possess because of truth. For instance, we have all watched cable news. Why do some people consider CNN authoritative rather than Fox or the BBC? All three could report the same story and all three could be “true.” Why do we choose to submit our ideas to one over another? The reason is because our beliefs, our commitments, our faiths, our loves, our imaginations, and our actions are grounded on something that exists before we can intellectualize, analyze, and interpret. (For a good introduction to this idea see: James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works). 

Imagine you own a business and you have the opportunity to fudge your tax numbers. No one gets hurt but you may be able to save a great deal of money. The most logical way to decide whether you ought to fudge the numbers or not, is to perform a cost/benefit analysis of each possible action. If you do lie, you save a great deal of profit, but you sacrifice your honesty etc. That, unfortunately, is the limit of the intellect’s usefulness. The intellect cannot tell you whether or not you ought to value profit over honesty. You cannot perform the cost benefit analysis to decide what is a cost and what is a benefit.

It is at this level of values, commitments, loves, imagination, and faith that scripture affects us. This is where it gains its authority. It is not because it teaches us something that makes the bible authoritative- that relies too heavily on our interpretation, which we are so capable of doing poorly. Rather, it is authoritative because it changes us. Rachel wrote an excellent article a few weeks ago on the merging of our story with biblical stories. This is an excellent example of scripture changing us in a pre-reflective, pre-intellectual place. Or as Douglas Burton-Christie writes on the role of scripture among the desert fathers:

The Scriptures were experienced as authoritative words which pierced the hearts of the monks, illuminated them concerning the central issues of their lives, protected and comforted them during dark times of struggle and anxiety, and provided practical help in their ongoing quest for holiness. [1]

The scriptures, to the desert fathers, were far more than a mere record of the apostolic encounter. They were far more than the truth we must submit our ideas to. The scriptures changed the monks’ way of relating to everything. They were a profoundly pre-intellectual power in their lives.

But scripture is not the only thing that affects us in the realm of pre-reflective commitments. Everything from advertising, to civic religion, to movies, music, politics, and our local geography can and does have similar effects on us. So what makes scripture different than any of these other things that shape our values?

Reading scripture is something that we do. Interpreting it is something that we do. Understanding it is something that we do. If we take seriously the impact of original human bent-ness, then none of us would ever start reading the bible in the first place. So before we ever pick up the book, God Himself has already been working on us, kneading us, softening us, to a place where we are vulnerable to the scriptures. The Bible does not have any special power to change humanity; God does. But the movements of the Spirit are continually moving us to relate to things differently. Our relationship to God, ourselves, others, creation are continually on the workshop table in the process of sanctification. And, scripture is always there- a significant tool God uses to help us.

Don’t think that I am trying to undermine the significance of the Bible. My own conversion occurred while reading the bible. But, I was not converted because I had learned something new. I was not converted because I had submitted myself to the authority of the scriptures. I was not converted because I had accurately interpreted my previous religious experiences in light of the scriptures. I was converted because reading is an act of receptivity and God took advantage of that simple act of reception and moved in such a way that He changed my entire life.

We must be very cautious when discussing issues of order and authority. It is easy for us, in defending something good and important to overshadow that which is excellent. To use a moment in our communal Christian history as an example:

[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers] is filled with stories which reveal the recurring problem of the tendency to make the written text an end in itself. The desert fathers were acutely aware of a problem that plagues any community which places so much emphasis on a sacred text: ‘the fixing of the holy word in writing always carries with it potential threats to the original spontaneity and living quality of the scriptural text, for it places it ever in danger of becoming only a ‘dead letter’ rather than the living word.[2]

We cannot allow our relationship to scripture to overshadow our relationship to God, Himself. The Bible is authoritative because God has attributed it authority, not because we have by studying it and submitting to it. Submission will come, but only through our pre-reflective love of God, Himself.



[1] Douglas Burton-Christie, Word of the Desert Fathers: Scriptures and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism, 115.

[2] Ibid, 4.

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J.W. Pritchett

I am a PhD candidate in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen working on a radical phenomenology of wilderness spirituality towards an evangelical environmental ethic. My wife and I live with our labrador, cat, and hens in the Scottish Highlands.

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