*This sermon was delivered at Albany Mennonite Church, September 14, 2014
When I say the word “authority,” what images come to mind? A cop with a night stick? A judge with a gavel? A teacher with a ruler? For many people authority means “authoritarian,” ruling with an iron fist. Authority has gotten a bad rap. In our age and culture we no longer respect someone who simply asserts their authority. We have recently seen in the news the abuse of judicial, educational, police, and male authority from African-American men being killed by the police to abusive husbands violently asserting their will upon their wives.
The same could be said of the term “authority” when used in reference to the Bible. It has gotten a bad name. We have seen the “authority” of the Bible used to justify slavery, submission of women, homophobia, violence, and war. NT scholar William Countryman calls this abuse of scriptural authority “biblical tyranny.” In such a context, is there any sense in which we can still speak of the “authority” of the Bible?Some would say that the Bible is authoritative because it is inspired. The Bible is authoritative because its words are inspired by the Supreme authority of the universe, God. This view comes from a particular, or should I say “peculiar,” reading of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. The biblical text begins: All scripture is inspired by God. There it is in black and white. Every single scripture comes directly from God, as some might say. This text is the centerpiece of the doctrine known as “biblical inerrancy.” This teaching proposes that the Bible is infallible and without error because it is literally the words of God. And since God does not make errors, neither does the Bible. But, to use this text from Timothy to prove the Bible contains the infallible words of God raises numerous questions.
Let’s take a closer look at this brief text. First, focus your mental lens on the words “all scripture.” What is the scripture to which the author of Second Timothy is referring? Does it refer to our modern Protestant Bible with its 66 books divided into Old and New Testaments? Well, then what about the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon of scripture? They include the books of the Apocrypha. Are Sirach and Bel and the Dragon also the very words of God?The fact is, our contemporary Bible didn’t exist at the time of the writing of this pastoral letter in the 1st century. The full canon of the Bible was not officially finalized until the 4th century or some would even say the 16th century. So, what books are included in “all scripture”? We know that the New Testament was not yet complete at the time 2 Timothy was written and at that time it was simply a letter, not scripture. Is 2 Timothy itself therefore excluded from “all scripture is inspired”?
The reference “all scripture” is no clearer even if it only includes the Hebrew Scriptures. Does “all scripture” mean the Torah, the Five Books of Moses? Or is it the Tanakh, which includes the psalms, prophets and wisdom literature? Could Timothy be referring to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used by early Gentile Christians, which is somewhat different from the Tanakh? The Hebrew Bible canon was probably not fixed until the 2nd century or much later. So then, what is “all scripture”? It would seem to be important to know exactly which scriptures were included and which were excluded if inspiration only applies to particular books.Before it gets too complicated, maybe it’s time to turn to the word “inspired.” But, understanding what we mean by “inspiration” becomes just as complicated an issue as figuring out what “all scripture” means! Does inspiration refer to the Spirit’s influence on the writer, the product of that influence, that is, the book itself, or the reader and their reading of the scripture? What inspiration exactly means in 2 Timothy is not clear upon first reading.
What is the breadth of inspiration? Is it only about the final product of the written text? Modern biblical scholarship recognizes that stories and sayings of the Bible first circulated as oral tradition. Did God inspire and safeguard his words in this process of oral transmission? It may be new to many of us, but for over 150 years it has been recognized that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are similar (synoptic=see alike) and quite different from John. Matthew and Luke are dependent upon Mark, the earliest gospel, and also rely upon another source identified as Q (Quelle=source). If this is true, then the question is: Was this process of selecting, editing, and shaping these sources for their own audiences also inspired and safeguarded by God?
And in the end, wouldn’t it also be necessary to speak of the inspiration of the people involved and the long, contested process of collecting and canonizing the books finally considered scripture? Or how about the process of painstakingly hand copying the early manuscripts of the Bible, as well as the process of translating them into modern languages? Then, which interpretation of these texts should be considered inspired, because having inspired words without a particular meaning is pointless? And finally, we don’t approach interpretation with a blank slate. Every interpretation is couched in some church tradition or theology. Is this also an element to consider when searching for the meaning of the Bible as inspired? These are all questions I think one must seriously ponder as they consider what 2 Timothy means by saying that all scripture is inspired.
For many fundamentalists and some evangelicals inspiration means God dictated his very words to the writers, overriding their human inadequacies and cultural limitations. For them God’s error-free words are in the original manuscripts of the Bible. The claim of inerrancy for the original manuscripts is problematic in that we have no original manuscripts of the Bible, only copies. Realizing that there are some errors present in the manuscripts we do have, some other Christians have proposed a modified form of inspiration that claims that there are no errors of substance or no errors of doctrine or no errors related to our salvation.Still other Christians understand inspiration to mean God inspired the ideas or theology of the Bible, while it is historically and culturally conditioned. Others would say that the broad salvation history of the Bible is what is inspired. There are even those who would say the Bible is inspired in the same way all great literature is inspired. Some would go so far as to say that parts of the Bible are inspired by God, while other parts are not. Figuring out just how inspiration operates with the Bible is a difficult issue.
So, rather than trying to figure out how inspiration works, it might be helpful to look at the meaning of the word “inspiration.” In Greek the word is theopneustos, a combination of God and spirit or breath. It literally means “God-breathed.” Where do we find the image of God’s breath? Two prominent places are the creation of Adam and Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones. In Genesis God breathed into Adam and he became a living being. God gives life to humans. In Ezekiel’s vision God breathed life on a valley of bones, representing the gift of new life for the despondent and dying people of Israel. God breathes life on the dead.In light of this meaning, let me suggest that rather than trying to figure out just how inspiration worked between God and the original writers, let us focus more on the impact of scripture as being God-breathed, that is, as God’s life-giving and life-renewing Word to God’s people. In this sense, those texts we recognize as bearing God’s Word to us, are those we consider scripture, as “inspired.” It is through the sacred texts of the church that God breathes life into and renews the people of God. It is the same breath that God breathed upon the original writers. Exactly how God was involved in the original writing is not fully clear.
But, what it means for us is much clearer. Through the words of scripture God breathes life upon those who inhale the Word of God. Scripture gives life to the Christian community. They fire our imaginations and inspire us to boldly follow Jesus in our world. Through scripture God breathes new life upon the dry bones of God’s people.We can better see the inspiration of scripture in its function or its use. As your pastor Meghan has said "Scripture is known, by its own account, not so much by what it is as by what it does. We trust it first not because we've untangled its essense but because we've encountered its accomplishments." That is the point of the conclusion of our text. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. Scripture is a companion for learning how to live a godly life. It shapes the believing community through teaching, correction, training for righteous living, so that the church may be prepared to live ethically, justly, and to do good works of kindness and compassion. Understood as how the Bible functions, inspiration has to do with God breathing resurrection life upon God’s people through these sacred texts.
If you thought the idea of inspiration of scripture was problematic, so is the idea of biblical authority. For some Christians the Bible carries an unquestioned, absolute, final authority. Recently I was approaching Albany in my car when I spotted a billboard that advertised this view of the Bible. It read: The Holy Bible, inspired, absolute, final. Those who produced the billboard further commented on this sign on their website:
This book reveals the mind of God…Its doctrines are holy, its precepts are binding, its histories are true, and its decisions are immutable.
In this view “authority” is similar to “authoritarian.” The Bible has a coercive authority and is to be obeyed without question. It is to be believed and obeyed absolutely in everything it says. We see evidence of this perspective of biblical authority in the daily news: Creation scientist claims the earth is 6,000 years old/ Conservative conference refuses to ordain women as pastors/ Spiritual advisor to this political party believes that everything in our society---the government, the judiciary, the economy, the family---should be governed by the Bible.Daily we see the Bible being used and abused as the infallible, absolute, final authority. And some of the things that the Bible supposedly “authorizes” some Christians to do, like protest at funerals, practice racism, and spout homophobic nonsense, is not an authority I want to obey!
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 60’s. Our generation’s motto was “Question authority!” But today, questioning authority is not just a part of the younger generation. It’s part of our culture. Recognition of the authority of parents, teachers, police, politicians, Supreme Court judges is no longer assumed, even though that authority may be forced upon people. In the same way, people will not recognize the authority of the Bible simply by declaring it to be so, even when it is announced in big, bold letters on a public billboard! To recognize something as authoritative requires a certain kind of respect for the author behind the authority.
The Bible is not an authority in and of itself. Its authority is derivative or secondary. The Bible does not bear the same authority as God. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright puts it this way: “The authority of scripture is shorthand for God’s authority exercised through scripture.” God is the ultimate authority. God transcends the Bible. God is not limited to the story of God. The Bible testifies to the God who is beyond the Bible. Theologian Karl Barth once remarked about this view of the Bible as a witness to God, "A real witness is not identical with that to which it witnesses, but it sets it before us." The scripture is not itself God, that would make it an idol, a golden calf. That’s bibliolatry. Rather, scripture witnesses to God through the limitations of human words and culture. And through scripture we recognize the authority of God.
When Jesus taught in the temple, the chief priests and elders wanted to know by what authority he did these things. Was his authority from God? As was often the case with these religious leaders, they probably were trying to spring a trap for him. Rather than answer directly, Jesus sets his own trap with a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Snap! If they say John’s baptism is from heaven, then Jesus could say, “Then, why didn’t you believe him?” If they say his authority is of human origin, the people might stone them because they recognized God’s voice in John. So, the chief priests played it safe by saying “We do not know.” Jesus said, “Well then, I won’t tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
The chief priests did not recognize the authority of God in the words and acts of Jesus, nor in those of John the Baptist. Their words did not bear authority for the chief priests because their words were not recognized and accepted as being from God. In the same way, for the Bible to be authoritative, it is first required that it be recognized and accepted as God’s Word to us.
For Christians God’s Word and authority are ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The scriptures witness to Jesus the Christ and thus their authority is centered in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. We recognize in Jesus the authority of God. For this reason Christ becomes the standard of biblical authority. All scripture does not bear equal authority for Christians. Christ is the plumb line for the authority of particular biblical texts.
The Bible is authoritative to those who hear the voice of God through these texts and recognize the authority of God in their lives. In other words, Christian scripture is authoritative for the church, those who recognize the authority of Jesus Christ.
The very act of calling the Bible “scripture” is to recognize it as authoritative for the church. In and of itself the Bible is simply religious literature. To call the Bible scripture is to recognize that it is more than classic literature. To call the Bible scripture is to recognize its authority, not simply as individuals, but as the church. The church recognizes the authority of scripture because we recognize the authority of God. This may sound strange, but hear me out: There is no biblical authority outside the believing community.
Within his tribe an African tribal chief is well respected and considered an absolute authority. His word is truth and is to be followed. His word can mean life or death, inclusion or exclusion from the community. Take him out of his tribe and place him smack dab in the middle of New York City and his authority means nothing. What he says will have no weight with passersby on the street. His authority is defined and understood within the context of his community. So, in like manner, the authority of scripture is defined and understood within the context of the believing community. It holds no authority for those who have not heard the voice of God within the church’s book.You can’t mean that, pastor! The authority of the Bible, because it is God’s authority, is over everyone, regardless of whether or not it is acknowledged. But, does that really make any sense in the real world? How can the Bible be an authority to someone who does not acknowledge it and live by it? If that were the case, it would be a coercive authority. As we see in Jesus encounter with those who questioned his authority, he did not force his authority upon them. They had to recognize it on their own.
I believe it is more helpful to understand the authority of scripture in functional terms, by what they do. Scripture is authoritative for the church because it functions to shape the life and identity of the church. The texts that we call “scripture” are authoritative because in them we hear God’s Word and find them useful for teaching and instruction in order to shape our identity into the likeness of Christ.So, recognizing the inspiration of scripture is not simply a matter of knowing exactly how God and the writers collaborated in the writing of our sacred texts. It may be more helpful to consider inspiration in terms of the impact of our sacred texts being God-breathed, life-giving, life-renewing to God’s people. And maybe we should think of the authority of scripture not so much as commanding obedience because it contains the exact words of God. Scripture’s authority is in their being the essential texts that tell us who we are and shape us into God’s people for our day and time. Their authority is in being the essential writings through which we hear the voice of God and the Word made flesh in Jesus.
To recognize the inspiration and authority of scripture is not simply a matter of what we believe, but how we let scripture inspire us and shape our lives as a community of faith. So, read it, study it, memorize it, wrestle with it, question it, argue with it, but make sure to allow its life-giving, life-renewing words to transform you and make you into God’s people. Only then will we write a new chapter in God’s story in our day and time; a continuing story that was first written down long ago by those inspired by God.
There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.