Biblical Authority

The more I read of this book the more I love it and the work of Brian McLaren in general.  This one more than the previous I think could easily be the kind of stuff that gets him in a lot of trouble with reactionary conservatives.  Here’s his core idea:the Bible is not meant to be a constitution; it is meant to be an authoritative library.  People from the modern era tend to divide into two extremes: either the Bible is absolutely literal and the words are perfect no matter how you interpret them, or you dismiss the whole thing as just interesting literature.  But why can’t you have authoritative literature that isn’t designed strictly as a rule book?  I’m sure you can see why this would cause a lot of problems for both liberals and conservatives, but I really appreciate his attempt to break down that dichotomy.

McLaren points out a lot of obvious problems with viewing the Bible as a constitution.  As a legal document it is supposed to be internally consistent, saying the exact same thing all the time.  It quite obviously doesn’t, sometimes in seemingly meaningless factual differences like the number of men in an army, but other times in pretty drastic ethical questions like how to treat your enemies.  According to the well-known Jesus version, we are to love our enemies.  Paul says something similar.  Other places encourage genocide and praise God as the one who dashes the heads of the enemy’s infants against rocks.  So which is the authoritative part if we look at it purely as a constitution with every word equal?  Are we to murder the children of our enemies or are we to love them?  Most would say love them, although lots of Christians in practice – usually those heavily tied with conservative nationalist politics – actually opt for the former.  The constitutional viewing of the Bible can not answer that question, although people come up with lots of rules: older stuff trumps later stuff or later stuff trumps older stuff, or law trumps prophets, or prophets trump law, or Gospels trump epistles, or epistles trump Gospels, or go with whichever makes the most logical sense, or go with whichever the Holy Spirit seems to be telling you, or (probably most often the case) go with what your denomination says, and so on and so on.

The constitutional model does not work.  Suppose we actually could all agree on what the rules are that the Bible is saying.  We can’t, of course, hence a few thousand denominations around the world, and maybe that should be a hint in itself that the Bible was not meant to be a constitution: if God wanted to just give us the rules and the systematic theology, did he fail?  But suppose we could all agree and there have been some instances when that has been the case throughout history.  Everybody agreed that the Bible said we live on a flat earth.  Everybody agreed that the universe revolves around the earth.  Everybody agreed that the earth was about 6,000 years old (ok, lots still do on that one).  So the Bible has failed us as a science textbook – one way that it isn’t a constitution.  Everybody agreed that the Bible encouraged slavery.  Everybody agreed that the Bible says women shouldn’t talk in public (ok, some still do).  Everybody agreed the Bible said birth control was evil, and some still do even in cases where it would slow the spread of AIDS.  Everybody agreed that the Bible said that dancing was evil.  Everybody agreed that the Bible taught pacifism, and then everybody agreed that the Bible taught just war theory, and now we’re back to divided on that.  So I don’t think I need to go any further – slavery alone I think proves the point quite poignantly – so the Bible has failed us as a moral textbook, too.  How about theology?  Everybody agreed for 1500 years that church tradition was equal in authority to the Bible.  Everybody for about 1600 years (300ish to 1945) agreed that Jews were despised by God as Christ-killers.

I bet I can guess what a lot of people are thinking right now: “yes, but they interpreted the Bible wrong; we’ve got it right now”.  Take a second and realize how arrogant that statement is.  Which “we” are you even talking about?  Baptists, Pentecostals, Catholics, Mennonites (obviously :P), United Church, Presbyterian, Reformed Church, Lutheran, Hutterite, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox…?  No matter how much you try to escape it, there is no such thing as sola Scriptura, there is only possible Scripture + our interpretive framework.  And there is nothing wrong with admitting that!  Others will jump to the other extreme: “well, obviously we need to ignore the Bible completely.”  There is a middle ground, or to put it better, a non-legal paradigm for reading the Bible.  The Bible is a story, a community story of the followers of Elohim/YHWH (or as we usually say now, God).  That doesn’t necessarily take away any authority – with McLaren I still consider the Bible an authoritative library of varying and even sometimes disagreeing literature, but I consider it a library rather than a rule-book or life-guide which is more the language I was brought up to use of the Bible.  How can it disagree and still be authoritative?  A few different things on that, at least one of which – progressive revelation – comes out in what I’ve started reading of the next section.

The larger point of this section, though, is that perhaps a big part of what God wants is the conversation more than the answers.  I’ve said this before – I don’t think the point of the Bible or God’s will in general is that we get all of our theology airtight.  God could have given us a systematic theology textbook if that’s what she wanted us to have.  Instead, she inspired a vast story of people relating to her in various ways across various circumstances.  If that’s how God inspired it, I’m not sure why we insist on reading it differently except that it is part of the Grec0-Roman legal framework which as established in Question 1 underlies so much of contemporary Christianity.  There is an obvious inconsistency that the same category of Christians who constantly affirm that God wants relationship and not religion is usually also the same group that is determined to read the Bible as a legal instead of a relational document.  Let’s change that, shall we?  Let’s try to see if we can read the Bible as a relational document instead of picking and choosing the verses that are convenient to us at the time.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.