The Sacramental Authority of Scripture
And he said to humankind, “Truly, the fear of the Lord,
that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.”
- Job 28:28
All scripture 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.
- 2 Timothy 16-17
I assume that the authority of Scripture in some way rests upon the authority of God. Whatever the means and ends of its human authors, the ultimate author of Scripture for Christians must be God, and we take Scripture as God’s word. Now we may understand this is in a fairly legalistic sense, as when we hear normative statements like the Ten Commandments as moral directives without much need for qualification. If we believe in God, and we believe that God said in Scripture that we ought not kill, then we should not murder anyone. It would be wrong to do so. And, to be sure, there is no necessary error in such understanding.
But there is another sense in which we can talk about the authoritative contents of Scripture, one that suggests that we may in some fashion understand the moral reasoning behind the universe and its creator. So, if we trust God, and God says in Scripture that we ought not kill, then, given what else we know about God, we say that we should not kill because the life God created is sacred, or because murder harms those whom God loves, or because the people and communities who do not commit murder are healthy and well in ways that murderers are not.
So we would refrain from murder not only because it is wrong to do so, but also because it is in some positive sense right not to kill one’s fellows. Life is holy gift, and we are healthier, saner, better, when we do not take it upon ourselves to end it. And God has told us this in Scripture because God knows us better than we know ourselves, and means us to live healthier, saner, better lives. When we hear God speaking this way in Scripture, we might say that God speaks with the authority of one who knows and loves us, and one whom we might love and trust in turn. And so we might be able to hear, in Scripture, God’s loving word to humankind.
It is this second sense of indirect, gentle, and loving authority that I mean for Scripture to hold in these essays. Like Augustine’s holistic sense of understanding as wisdom through love, I mean for this second sense of understanding to be felt and experienced as much as cognitively understood.
But I would also add one complication more. In the first sense of authority, which we might call “the absolute,” power flows only from the source of the Scriptures. But in this second sense, which we might call “the sacramental,” power flows from the source of all things, God, into creation itself. Most of us do not have to hear God insist at every second that life is sacred to know that it is so. Nor do we have to constantly remind ourselves of something we once heard for us to remember that it is true.
Indeed, we can quietly sense the commandment not to kill at nearly any time, as when we interact with those we love and do not wish to harm. Or, we may also feel it very keenly at very specific times, as when we experience our own outrage when murder happens to those who have not warranted death. Neither of these makes God’s commandment not to kill any less powerful; indeed, some would say our long and almost universal experience of the wrongness of wanton killing makes the prohibition more authoritative indeed. Creation itself may have “caught” some of the authority that commands us not to kill it.
I understand the authority of Scripture to function in a similar sacramental manner. The power of the Bible to speak to human experience comes both because God reveals through it and for its own supreme merits. So as I discuss biblical authority, I will not be mentioning much about specific doctrines of God or anything like divine inspiration in any significant detail. If Christians can assume that Scripture is inspired without debating over many speculative specifics, then Scriptural authority can describe the power of Scripture to articulate the world both as it is and as it will be. We can talk about God’s power having flowed into Scripture itself.
So we will not need to hear the inspiration of Scripture proclaimed from heaven every second to know that it is true. And we will not need to constantly repeat such a dictum it to ourselves so we will know that we believe it. Rather, we will see the authority of God resounding through the Bible’s very contents, and elsewhere in its long and complex history of interacting with believing human beings.