More on (biblical) Authority

Tony Sig
One of my favorite professors liked to say, just to ruffle up some feathers, that while the Church cannot make it without the testimony about Jesus, it can survive without the New Testament. “We did it for a few hundred years” he would say.

Consider this, for the first centuries it would have been the norm, not the exception, that an individual Church might have only one or two of the Gospels, perhaps the undebated Pauline letters, and perhaps some other book which acted authoritatively but is now not considered “scripture”, say The Shepard of Hermas.

What might “scriptural authority” have looked like in a Church which perhaps only had access to the Johannine Corpus (yeah, that’s latin guys, whatcha gonna do about it?)? Would their theology have been different or incomplete compared to us who have the “whole” New Testament? If to be a Christian one has to “believe” the right things, what of churches which did not have Hebrews, and so missed out on believing Jesus to be the Great High Priest in the Order of Melchizedek? What of a Church which only had the Gospel of Mark? Does it matter that the Revelation of John was hotly contested as a canonical book all the way up to the formation of the Canon? Or that much of the “Deuterocannonical Books” would have been widely used, even by Paul and John.

This is not even to mention other smaller yet significant details such as; what if the text of the book they had differed from the one we have? Mark without the extra endings, John without the Adulterous Woman?

I would tend to agree with Dan, although of course, I would nuance his argument; Scripture and Tradition are intertwined, and to look at the New Testament without taking into account it’s history as individual documents, spread variously throughout the Churches, and its long and complicated history to Canon is to mistreat Scripture. We make it our safe haven. It’s easy when different interpretations happen to just sigh and say “I believe in the Bible,” but I feel that that road is fraught with peril. How can we simply retreat to a bare belief in the Authority of Scripture when we know that the New Testament did not just fall from the sky. It was a bloody and political battle to the leather clad, red Lettered NIV Study Bible we have in front of us. Even the most conservative among us do not adhere to the belief, like that of Muslims, that the writers simply were dictated our Holy Books; yet we treat them as if they were. That this is a shallow understanding of our Scriptures is confirmed by the progress in Redaction, Canonical and Narrative Criticism; the best of which is being done by Evangelicals! I believe that kids like us will have to take on ourselves the huge battle to make our Scriptures honest if we are to continue to preach the Good News, and, even if we affirm orthodox Christianity, to “demote” the Bible will garner much scorn.

But neither do I believe the way forward is like the RC’s or the Orthodox. The Bible is not simply a product of “The Church,” who has the “authority” to declare what is wills, even if that “authority” is from God. This is where I think the Pentecostal’s have got it made, and a robust Pneumatology is the way forward. The Holy Spirit is amongst his people even to this day. The same Spirit that gave Peter a vision gives our own Missionaries visions. The same Spirit which directed the leaders in Jerusalem directs ministers now. I am much too unlearned to attempt to plot a detailed way forward as of yet, but these are the questions that need to be asked, and answers will not be easy in coming or in gaining acceptance.


  1. Tony I find it interesting that for a change I am mostly in agreement with you. I do feel the need to raise one issue, which was raised on Sunday night. To rely on the Holy Spirit, or simply God as Dan suggests, is frought with practical hurdles. When we say that the HS is the source of guidance and authority for our community we appeal to an abstract position. Unlike scripture, which is written, and tradition, which is taught, the Holy Spirit’s will is something that is often frustratingly elusive to those who seek a definitive position. To appeal to the HS as the source of authority ultimately leaves that authority within the hands of each individual. Thus when problems arise individuals on both sides of the issue can claim to be in the will of the HS. Dan suggests that I am undermining God’s role in this situation. However, I believe that I am not so much dismissing the role of God or the HS as much as I am laying out how this authoratative formula will play out in a practical setting. Surely God is only speaking to one individual, but there is no way to tell which one. Ultimately, it will be left to a third party which will use reason, but proclaim that it is the inspiration of the HS. I understand that I am raising issue without offering a solution. I hope to write my own post on the issue sometime in the near future which will put forth an alternative vision. I agree that we are all far to unlearned to put forward a detailed path toward a new authority structure. Hopefully, through this process, however, we can find something new to say that will begin the process.


  2. I intended to keep trinitarian theology out of this by leaving the title of the authority ‘god’. Honestly I feel using the title “Holy Spirit” to proclaim a specific part of this trinity is redundant in describing our current interaction with god.

    That in mind I would like to throw out a scripture used to describe part of that theological dilemma in its interaction with the church.

    “The spirit spirits where it wills, you hear its sound but you do not know from where it arrived or where it goes; as it is for all birthed of the spirit.”

    I believe this is the ultimate description of our interactions. Attempting to understand or describe the direction of the ‘spirit’s leading’ is a vain effort. I would agree in part with the description; this is the strength of Pentecostalism. I would also say Pentecostalism does just about as much speaking for the spirit (incorrectly) as it does listening to it.

    I attempted to make this clear last Sunday night to Jeremy, though I think I lacked the clarity of mind to do so sufficiently. I believe god speaks to men. In this ecclesiastic (communal) setting individuals hear from god through worship, the reading of the scriptures, the direction of the community and one-on-one personal meditation. I believe it is the whole of these things – taking place in community that we hear the sustaining-god’s will.

    Tony, I would like to hear you outline what you think Biblical Authority is. I see what you think are the problems with the perceptions of Biblical Authority, but I want to know your personal view on its function. ie: It has function outside proper historical interpretation (which is all but impossible, if not practiced by few). And If I may throw out another latin phrase to consider during your response: memento mori.


  3. Jeremy,

    I get what you are saying and I do not intend to give the impression that whatever we can’t figure out we just give to the influence of the Holy Spirit to fill in the gaps. I will provide another post on where I am leaning with this so for now I will not address your specific points. But I think they are valid points.


    I would disagree with you on collapsing the work of the Holy Spirit into a vague notion of “God” as singular vague concept. This goes back to my arguments that “Christian Theology” must maintain “Christian Identity.” I believe that Christian theology is inherently Trinitarian and so I believe that the MOST accurate way to talk about God’s interaction with his people is by way of the Holy Spirit. I will also address the interaction between “history and myth” and how Christian thought necessarily needs “myth.” While this might prove a stumbling block for some, I think that we need to recognize the “tentative” nature of our truth claims. I do not think we can get to some purely rational and objective understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, but we have got to locate our understanding of “revelation” within the overall narrative of Scripture and the interpretations and imaginative renderings of our scripture writers.

    To be honest, while the verse you quoted is a good verse, I feel it beneath you to use Scripture as “proof text.” To simply quote a random one liner and then to subsequently use it to enhance a whole theology is the way of fundamentalism, to which I do not adhere.

    I will try to address both a Pneumatological understanding of “authority” and “revelation” as well as a functional approach to “biblical authority.”


  4. Dan
    I believe I understand your point of view on this topic, I just simply believe it provides us with no way to move forward. Presupposing that all methods of Authority are valid, yet all are hopelessly filtered through their vehicle takes God out of the equation. To me, this seems to say;

    “God speaks to us, but we’ll never know what he’s saying because it’s always being filtered untrustworthily.”

    which is one step away from;

    “God is not speaking, we’re making it up.”

    I think in order to believe that God is indeed speaking, you have to trust that he is somehow getting his message through. Christianity believes in a God who speaks, cares, and acts in human history.

    I am with you on a lot of these issues and I think you’ll find that your thoughts have influenced me greatly once I write my “Authority Revisited” post.

    I really want to read your full response to this topic.


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