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Exploring biblical authority

Photo by Adrian van Leen of Perth
Journey looks at Brian McLaren’s second question that is transforming the church: the question of biblical authority.

THEOLOGIAN AND Brisbane based Uniting Church minister Rev Peter Lockhart said the Basis of Union boldly states that the Uniting Church “has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated”.

Mr Lockhart said this seemingly innocuous statement sought to steer a path for the Uniting Church, and so also the catholic (universal) Church, out of the “false dichotomy” produced by the enlightenment.

“The Basis of Union offers an alternative to the post-enlightenment confrontation of liberal and literalist readings, both of which are a reduction of truth to a set of facts,” he said. “Instead, it reminds us that the authority of scripture is not derived from its literal accuracy nor is it undermined by the difficulties of the text in terms of historical and scientific research.

“Why? Put simply, because the Bible was not written to be factual scientific or historical proofs.

“It is precisely as the Basis of Union puts it: ‘unique prophetic and apostolic testimony’. ”

Mr Lockhart said the scriptures are where we listen for God speaking to us.

“The Bible’s authority is revealed to us as we hear the Word of God (Jesus) speaking to us.

“Sadly, what has essentially been an enlightenment debate over the authority of Scripture has been the catalyst for many people to exit the church, either because we are too literalist or not literalist enough in our approach.

“If we are to face the world and share the good news as being what is real and true, rather than simply using ‘my’ approach to the Bible to laud it over others, maybe learning to listen together for the word of God speaking to us through the Scriptures would be a more helpful approach.”

Sandra Jebb is a Minister of the Word Intern in the Moreton Rivers Presbytery. She said understanding how the Bible was put together helps clarify what we mean by biblical authority.

“The Bible as we have it was put together because these accounts were reliable witnesses of the Christian story.

Its authority comes not because it was dictated by God, but because, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, human beings sought to share the saving message of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord.

“John Webster talks of the biblical texts as human communicative texts which have been annexed into the communicative activity of Father, Son and Spirit.

“The Bible’s authority for us today comes through the work of the Spirit illuminating and confirming God’s Word in the lives of Christians.

“The Bible’s authority should not be expressed just in terms of some sort of ethical instruction book.

“The different types of literature that make up the Bible make it necessary for us to understand what genre we are dealing with.

“Is it narrative, poetry, a parable, a letter or a piece of apocalyptic literature?

“When we define that, then we can begin to interpret how biblical authority is expressed.

“The Bible’s authority is most clearly expressed when hearts and lives are transformed and changed.”

Ms Jebb said the Bible’s authority can be misused when it is taken out of context and used as a pretext.

“History is littered with the misuse of texts to endorse oppression and violence of all kinds; for example the acceptance of slavery and The Crusades," she said. “No consideration is given to the historical context, the genre of the text, the context within the book, and the context of the Bible as a whole.

“The poor interpretation that follows, known as eisegesis, results in a person reading into the text some preferred bias that does not reflect the true meaning.”

She said we all bring our own personal and religious history to reading the Bible.

“Remember that most of us read an English translation of the Bible.

“The Bible was written mainly in Hebrew and Greek which can carry more than one meaning.

“Determine biblical authority based on the Bible as a whole."

Ms Jebb said that as well as individual reading, it is important to read the Bible in church communities.

“In this way, as the body of Christ, we can more wisely understand and apply the Bible’s authority.”

Photo : Photo by Adrian van Leen of Perth