I take the Bible seriously. I wouldn’t be working at Bible college if I didn’t. And as one who stands in the Anabaptist-evangelical tradition - “people of the book” - this is hardly surprising. To me, when it comes to faith and life, the Bible matters.
A common phrase related to our understanding of the Bible is “the authority of Scripture.” It’s an important concept that describes the understanding of the Bible’s role in Christian faith and practice. It’s also easily ignored.
Yet when debate occurs regarding topics such as heaven and hell or sexuality, people can talk about these particular issues until they are blue in the face (or the cyber equivalent) without ever getting to the root of the disagreement - what’s the role of the Bible in such matters?
And so we should look to the authority of the Bible to settle disputes. If we can agree on the authority of the Bible, then we will be united as Christians, right? Or so the thinking goes.
If it only it were that easy.
I do think we need to acknowledge the authority of Scripture. But then let’s be honest and recognize that such acknowledgement doesn’t guarantee agreement. I personally know people equally passionate about the authority of the Bible who disagree almost just as passionately about the role of women in the church. In such cases, instead of labeling others as too “conservative” or too “liberal,” we need to delve into the complexity of how we understand the authority of the Bible. New Testament scholar, Tim Geddert, reflects on the topic of diversity in biblical interpretation, describing well the nature of our disagreements:
“We have no right to consider every other view to be clearly and self-evidently unbiblical and wrong. I have no right to assume that people who believe differently...than I do are taking the Bible less seriously than I or that they are not being honest and sincere, or that they are not thinking as carefully. We read the Bible with different lenses and we often disagree. Moreover, we often approach biblical texts with somewhat different hermeneutical approaches and assumptions. That is to say, we build differently the bridge that connects the message of the Scriptures with the situations to which we want to apply it.” (All Right Now: Finding Ethical Consensus).
Different interpretive lenses and assumptions, but equal concern for the authority of the Bible.
What are we to do?
Here’s where I point back to my Anabaptist-evangelical roots. I think the best way to interpret God’s Word (in the Bible, yes, but also in following the way of Jesus and the voice of the Spirit in this age) is in the faithful community of Jesus followers, expressed both locally and beyond. My tradition call this a “community hermeneutic” - people discerning together for their time and place how the authority of the Bible relates to their lives. In gathering to interpret the gospel together, like in the first church of the New Testament, the “Spirit guides the community of faith in the interpretation of Scripture” (MB Confession of Faith).
To those who fear an acceptance of cultural relativism or subjective interpretation, a practiced community hermeneutic is neither - it’s the active and dynamic process in which the authority of the Bible is enacted throughout history, carrying forward the timeless gospel of Jesus (Heb. 13:8).
To those who fear an archaic legalism rife with narrowmindedness or power and control, a practiced community hermeneutic is neither - it’s a practice of interpretation rooted in mutual submission of all people in the community faith. Jesus is the model leader in this regard.
All this to say, the authority of the Bible is both a complex and important part of Christian faith and practice. And the more we acknowledge together how the authority of the Bible is understood and practiced, perhaps the less we confused and conflicted we will be when we face disagreements from time to time (or a lot of the time!). Maybe such a view of the Bible’s authority, to quote the Bible (!!!), could even help us “love one another” just a little bit better (1 Jn. 4:7-12).
Maybe. May it be.
**For an engaging read on just how “easy” biblical interpretation is, read this gem from John Stackhouse - “I Tim. 2:15ff., Gender, and "Just Obeying What Scripture Clearly Says"