Sunday, November 17, 2013

These Essays: The Purpose of Scriptural Authority

But why should we worry about the authority of Scripture at all? What good does it do us, or what good does it let us do for others? Here, if we remember our analogy of the therapist and client, we have reached the point where we trust the Scriptures much as we would trust the therapist to whom we have come. 

We have not, we hope, chosen either authority without good reason. Therapists possess pedigree, credentials, and recommendations. We could have gone to our friends, perhaps, with our concerns, but we did not. We came here instead. We hope that this person or these people will know, in some fashion, what they are about. We trust that they will understand, both in the sense of hearing us and in the sense of knowing what to say and do in response to our concerns.

But Scripture is a book, or more precisely of course, an anthology of books. Scripture cannot itself know anything, and there is a great difference, one might say, between speaking to an acclaimed therapist and reading some books he or she has not only not written, but only inspired in ways no one can exactly agree upon. 

But this is precisely what has not happened here. God has not abandoned humankind, leaving us only with our reason and a collection of very excellent books. God has not abdicated the rule of the universe, leaving it in the hands of anthologists. Rather, Christians believe that through these Scriptures God is speaking still. The books are, so to speak, with us and open in the therapist’s own office. And whereas much of Christian doctrine is concerned with what God says about God, as wounded readers of Scripture we might well be interested in “the other side” of Scripture, which is humankind.

For, in terms of sheer volume, God has much more to say in Scripture about humanity than about divinity. We are always reading in Biblical narratives and parables and poetry what it is like to be human. Seldom do we read anything about what it is like to be divine. Nor should we expect to, perhaps, for it is not really our concern, though we may spend quite a bit of time and energy thinking about things that are too high for us. Yet meanwhile, what the nature of the Bible tells us is that even when we sit down to write about God, we end up writing mostly about ourselves. What the selection of these books as inspired by God means is that with these, God essentially agrees.

Through Scripture, God interprets humankind. Through Scripture, God reveals us both as we are and as we might become. If we are Christians, we cannot overlook these interpretations, these revelations. For we believe that God is love, and that God loves us and wants us to be well, wrapped up in that love. What Scripture contains, or, to be more precise, implies through its contents, is a diagnosis of humanity from the perspective of the creator and redeemer of humankind. And of course this latter perspective—a vision of our redemption—is supremely important to those of us Christians who have hope. Paradoxically, for God, we already are who we are becoming, as the logic of both the kingdom of God and the atonement of Christ in the Pauline letters implies.

Because of Christ, for God, who we are—and this will include the utmost depths of our illnesses moral, physical, and otherwise—always already includes who we will become. Scripture, in both its content and its form, includes both of these visions, both as true appraisal of what it means to be human right now, wherever we stand, and what it means to be human fully wrapped up in and wholly participating in the love of Jesus Christ through eternity. 

Now it just so happens that the visions which give us the logic of “not yet, therefore already”—the kingdom of God imagined by Christ and the atonement of Christ imagined by Paul—present us with the two main visions of human thriving present in the Christian New Testament. If we are going to glimpse beyond our pathologies, it will be when we imagine these. If we are going to know what not only healing, but what full and actual human health looks like, it is going to be when we imagine these things as Scripture does.

My criterion of salutary force ought to help us distinguish those interpretations which do accomplish or make possible the healing that Scripture imagines. The thesis of these essays has been that those interpretations of Scripture which have salutary force are, for Christian readers, superior to those interpretations of Scripture which do not. Interpretations which possess salutary force make the most sense of Scripture’s content, form, and transformative purpose because they also further it.

So the next few essays will focus on the authoritative contents of Scripture, those which emphasize the wisdom of Scripture itself as a valid dialogical partner. Later, I will proceed to the empathic form of how that loving wisdom arrives, and then toward Scripture’s content and form working together in a process of human transformation.

But here I hope to establish that the contents of Scripture, the texts themselves, have interpretive authority over humankind. If this is so, then Scriptures will themselves have salutary force. And if that is so, it will go some way toward explaining that salutary force may be a viable, additional criterion for determining the validity of Christian interpretations of Scripture. For, if nothing else, they will have demonstrated more fidelity to the texts of Scripture in the first place.

No comments: