Why Do We Say The Bible Has Authority And What Does That Mean?

My notes from today’s excellent session of teaching and discussion with the Ivy staff team from WTC’s Jasper Knect. I’d invited him to speak on The Bible and its authority and tonight he’s teaching on Angels and Demons in books, film and scripture.

What is the Bible and why do you trust it? 

  • Responses from the room: 
  • 66 books, a library. 
  • A book that helps shape our own stories. 
  • It stands the test of time. 
  • A living book that speaks to us not a static tome. 

History and historicity 

Is the Bible the result of human endeavour or a divine/ divinely superintended book?

How do we unite the history of it actually being written by real people in time, then edited etc., with the claim that God inspired the canonical texts?

Canon

The OT canon was what Jesus referred to as the scriptures.

Between 45 and 95, the NT was written. 

At that point in time we have various oral traditions circulating and letters to disciples spreading and forming communities all over. We do not have a unified church, but scattered groups, influenced to greater and lesser extents by various of the apostles. The texts of John and Paul for instance had different influences across the empire. 

It takes decades for the 27 books to penetrate across the whole church, while at the same time hundreds of other texts (Gospel of Thomas, Barnabas etc) were circulating, it’s a melting point including gnostic and platonic ideas – as we go into the second century, muddying the waters. 

So some will say therefore the canon is humanly invented, because out of all those texts the church needed to decide which they could trust and not.

This took until 367, when Athanasius of Alexandria writes down the 27 books for the first time. But it’s important to note that he did not prescribe what was authoritative, he described it. It’s descriptive of what the churches were using and relying on in their discipleship and formation to determine canonicity. And they threw a lot out of other documents and traditions as perhaps interesting or historically relevant but not theologically necessary or even helpful! 

How did they decide? 

4 main tests:

Apostolically authoritative. 

Universal acceptance (across the churches of the empire)

Liturgical use (the texts function in the worship)

Consistent message (does it cohere with the other gospels for instance) 

Oral tradition:

 In the early centuries, it was the tradition, the liturgy that was very important, to connect back to Christ. Eg Irenaeus goes to Polycarp to John for what he heard from Jesus. They said, “What we have been doing and teaching for 300 years is written down here!”

Authority: 

Protestants will say the church recognised inherently the texts had the authority of God, to stand above the church. 

Catholics will say more that the authority of scripture comes from the church. 

The downside of the ‘dangerous idea’ of Protestantism (McGrath) is because we all as protestants may and will have our own interpretations of scripture we believe is the right one! That leads to disunity and factions.

The catholic idea makes it easier to maintain unity! 

Revelation and Inspiration 

The Bible is not just a book that is loosely connected to our Christian faith. The centre of our faith is that God has revealed himself and called us to know him. 

Revelation is not just a set of propositions about God we can take or leave, like I can know some things about a tree or some object in the world we can know about or a history book for facts. It’s drawing us to a relationship. The content of the knowledge is God. The way we get to know it is by God. There is an engagement. A presence. 

Scripture is chosen by God to be one of the prime ways the relationship of God with his people is facilitated. It’s not there to function apart from him. There is nothing mystical about it, in itself. I can’t put a page of it on someone’s head and they know God. It’s not a magical book. 

We have to keep together both the creatureliness and spirituality – these things are not in opposition, but since the enlightenment we find that hard. 

That leads to (in the US right now) there is huge debate about infallibility verses inspiration

It comes out of an understanding that eg Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch and that’s why we know it’s the word of God, or that there is only one Isaiah. That gives it authority. It’s either/or.

However, we want to affirm that YES it was written by people (and the authors are not always named anyway, and it had editors). 

AND God has sanctified it as his word, making it the word of God. 

We accept that is a faith statement, you cannot ‘prove’ it’s the Word of God. But at the same time we do want to take the text seriously rather than just assign the hard questions to the thoughts of liberal scholars or those who are not even believers just interested in the history of the texts.

So if we say it is inspired, where does the inspiration come from? 

In God superintending not dictating. 

Holy Scripture, John Webster (recommended for further study) argues that we think scripture is inspired and authoritative because God really does speaks to us and communicate himself as present through these texts, therefore we conclude that God is engaging with us. 

What about Translations? 

The guiding principle of our belief in scripture is the Holy Spirit superintending the work, rather than just the particular word. But the danger then is we can lose the focus on the importance of the text. 

There are Concordance translations –  e.g. the same Hebrew words will be translated the same way every time. No interpretation. Very wooden. Good for study if you don’t know the original languages. KJV. 

Dynamic translations translate sentences not thoughts. Take a word and make a decision based on what they think makes most sense. NIV 

Paraphrase quite a lot of the voice of the translators will come through! Don’t let them take the place of translations, they can be useful to compare a thought. This can take away from the idea that this is the text the Lord is speaking through not just the thoughts. 

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