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The Bible’s Authority: An English Teacher’s First Draft

I’ve said some inflammatory things about philosophies of Biblical inerrancy lately, and I figure it’s time that I make some sort of attempt to articulate the ways in which the Bible acts as authority for the Church. I do so only partly to maintain my good standing as a bad evangelical; I also write to find out what I actually think on the question.

Writing as Thinking in Text

I tell my college students every semester that revision is the most important part of writing, largely because in a rough draft, one thinks through how one’s data really relate to one another for the first time. In other words, one does not think, then write so much as one thinks by means of one’s first draft. Rather than thinking of that first attempt as the reflection of a prior thought, I teach them to think of thought as happening in text.

Yes, I did state the same thing three different ways there. If you got one of them, I’ve done my job right.

The point of this analogy is not a text-critical one, if you seminarians were anticipating that, but an ecclesiological one. The problem with the formulations of inerrancy I’ve seen is that they all phrase themselves (actually, people have likely phrased them, now that I think of it) as looking-down-from-above. In other words, the mind’s eye (I’ll try to resist decontructive puns here) looks down upon the Bible, and it does not err from the mind of God, which presumably is underneath it. Then the seeing eye can lay church polities, ethical theories, and sacramental oddities on top of the mind of God and the inerrant Scriptures to see whether or to what extent they err.

The main problems with this model are historical. For one, the Church did not start out thinking of itself as the judge of Scripture but judged by Scripture; the immediate access to the mind of God is always an eschatological hope, not reality by which contingent human beings can judge contingent historical reality. The word “immediate” is an important one: since the mind of God is always mediated for Christians through Scripture and through the traditioned generations of the Church and through the reasoning faculties and mystical experiences of fallen/redeemed human beings (did I get all my Wesley points in there?), the use of Scripture to judge practice is always a complex one, a process involving the fallen/redeemed minds of the Church’s teachers, movements across intellectual-historical and translational and text-editorial lines, and always above all having to do with other people. Now that is not to say that speech about God is always wrong or, to use one of the most misused words of the last hundred or so years, “subjective,” but it is to say that anyone who talks about God by means of the Scriptures (except perhaps Christ, but it goes for anyone who talks about or quotes Christ as well) is going to be undertaking something more complex than a simple overlay.

Beyond that, an ecclesia semper reformandi will not tell our story in terms of people who obediently followed or willfully hated inerrant overlays, at least not if we have any sense of charity in our storytelling. Rather, we ought to acknowledge that the very forms (formae, cognate with reformation) of worship and common life were not willing distortions of some overlay but rather initial attempts to live faithfully inside the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) that appears when one is in Christ. We who believe that the Church is always reforming should at least have the decency to note that those who came before had at least mixed motives for what they did. (In other words, they ain’t all bad.)

Thus when Protestants do Church history, we could do worse than to look at those who have erred in terms of a writer’s drafts. (You didn’t think I’d leave that metaphor hanging, did you?) Since Church is always a cooperative effort between Christ and His fallen/redeemed disciples, Christian practices of forgiveness should, I think, extend backwards as well as laterally, and we should grant the goodness that inheres within every generation of Christians before us. Such is not to say that we should slavishly imitate every move that Christians in our history books make (since there was so much mutual anathematizing, that would require some acrobatics), but it does mean that we should be slow to condemn them as flowing from ulterior motives.

But Where Did the Bible Go?

I’m glad you asked, section header. Viewed historically, the Bible never was simply a layover for practice. Instead, the Hebrew Bible came before us and created a textual world in which we could understand the Jesus event. The epistles are moves already inside the Church and stand as opportunities to practice analogical imagination as we revise (from the Latin visere, to see) what God’s people looks like on Earth. The gospels are proclamations of victory (Greek euangelion), namely Christ’s over Sin and Death, and they tell of God’s victory over Satan just as Exodus tells of God’s victory over Pharaoh, setting up a paradigmatic narrative within which we can make sense of God’s creation and redemption of the world. And the Apocalypse (sometimes I dig those 1611 names) offers a vision of hope that opened in one historical moment and invites an epoch of celebration along with its angels.

In other words, the Bible’s authority has always been inside the Church and with the Church, and even as it critiques the Church, it’s the Church who ought to critique the Church using the Bible as an instrument for instruction, correction, and doctrine. Inerrancy, or at least the versions I’ve read about, seem to abstract the Bible from the Church, defying both history and the fine tradition of mutual correction, with Bible as instrument, that lies in our history. Instead, these versions of inerrancy seem to hold, the Bible is a text from nowhere, not given as a gift but passing human tests of veracity, not singing in and among and to God’s people but standing outside, not erring but neither living.

I’ll go ahead and offer the out that you’re likely anticipating: this piece itself is only a draft, an exploration of what the Bible’s authority, considered alongside a robust sense of history and a charitable reading of our forebears, might look different from the versions of inerrancy with which I’m familiar. I’d appreciate some commentary on my picture of the doctrine as well as my thoughts on the alternative.

I set out to make this piece shorter than Philemon, but alas, I’ve failed. But Paul was at two advantages: he was doing pastoral exhortation, which ought to take a few words, and I’m doing philosophy, which always seems to require many. So it goes.

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About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

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