I was tapped to speak on behalf of “New B” at several of the gatherings, and the issue of Biblical authority was central to the disagreement between the spokesperson on the other side and me. He insisted that anyone who believed that “Scripture alone” is authoritative for the belief and practice of the church would reject the proposed change, and he distributed a list of Biblical references as proof. I took the position that people could support the change because of the Bible and not in spite of it, and I also made reference to the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” which includes tradition, reason, and experience as sources of authority along with the Bible.
How is that for biting off too much to chew in ten minutes!
Albert Outler, who coined the term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” in 1964, later rued the day that he did so because many concluded that “quadrilateral” meant “equilateral.” John Wesley clearly did not intend that recognizing other sources of authority should compromise the centrality of Biblical authority. In asking that the contributions of tradition, reason, and experience be recognized, I too did not mean to question the uniqueness and indispensability of Biblical authority for Christians. The pivotal role of the Bible in defining our identities as Christians and informing our faith and practice is not an elective but an essential requirement, but that deference does not mean that Biblical authority is exclusive or that it is infallible on every subject in contemporary debates.
At issue for me and many others who share my position is the locus of Biblical authority (whether in a list of rules and regulations, for example, or the workings of the Holy Spirit), the focus of Biblical authority (on the sovereignty God or the Lordship of Christ as opposed to the sentences on the page), and the ways in which it can work in tandem with the other sources of authority. My opponent in the discussions seemed to believe that Biblical truth and human experience are airtight compartments, and that one must choose either one or the other as one’s authority — Scripture alone or experience alone. I beg to differ.
For starters, let us consider the probability that drawing bright lines of separation between the four cited sources of authority is an oversimplification. Beginning with Scripture and experience, I would first acknowledge that making one’s experience a shield against encounter with unwelcome news from Scripture is a danger to be reckoned with. However, it is also true the readers of Scripture cannot avoid bringing their experience to that reading and that a message that does not ultimately make sense in the light of our experience will not be heard and appropriated. Furthermore, the experience of Biblical writers is reflected in their varied, even at times contrasting, understandings of God and in the variety of ways in which they understand “why bad things happen to good people.” In turn, our experience will shape what explanations of suffering we can fathom and embrace. The various liberation theologies show us that the Bible is read differently from the underside than from a position of privilege. I, for one, would not want to argue that the spectacles of that marginalized experience are blinders to Biblical truth. We could say, then, that we bring our experience, and enter into a conversation with Biblical writers speaking out of their experience as well as out of divine inspiration. The faith community that produced and selected canonical Scripture from its experience is a dialogue partner with today’s faith community with its varied experiences.
Mention of reading from the underside moves us nicely to a blurring of lines between Scripture and tradition as authorities.
Martin Luther’s protest against the papacy’s rendition of the Biblical faith (one example of tradition) does not mean that the unfolding tradition of Biblical interpretation after the era of Biblical events and communities does not produce “the breaking forth of more light and truth from God’s holy Word,” as John Robinson put it. The conversation mentioned above continues. And that conversation even starts within the Bible itself as Scripture converses with Scripture and differing interpretations and accounts emerge and are preserved.
The editors of the canon seem willing to include varied and even contrasting accounts of pivotal events in the sacred story. Thus we have two creation stories side by side, the merging of two flood stories, the merging of two differing accounts of the exodus from Egypt, the inclusion of two renditions of the receipt of the Torah by Moses, two differing renditions of the occupation of Canaan (Joshua and Judges), two renditions of David’s reign (the Deuteronomic history and the Chronicler), four gospels, etc. Galatians and James offer different interpretations of the Abraham story, I Timothy derives a very different understanding of the status of women from Genesis than Paul’s view in Galatians would approve, and the views of Paul and James on faith and works are both included despite their seeming differences. What we would call tradition already begins in Scripture as Scripture interprets Scripture, and the continued unfolding of tradition has brought breakthroughs on slavery, the equality of women, and other contentious issues. A conversation that includes variation, contrast, and corroboration is ongoing. The faith community continues to check and balance itself through the authority of the Holy Spirit.
And then there is reason.
Martin Luther had some harsh things to say about reason, terming it a prostitute in at least one instance because people can employ reason in the service of both noble and ignoble ends. Notice, though, what he said when asked to recant his Reformation-launching writings by Pope Leo X: “Unless I shall be convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I must be bound by these Scriptures which have been brought forward by me. … [T}o go against conscience is neither safe nor right.” Reason was evidently consulted.
Faith informs the way we reason, but reason can also contribute to our analysis of the Bible and theology. John Calvin, the humanist as well as the Christian theologian, thought that wisdom was forthcoming even from pagan writers. Is it not possible that science can enlighten us about matters that the writers of Scripture did not fully fathom or, in some instances, even consider? Given the dearth of attention to homosexuality as an orientation in the Bible, might we have something to learn about it from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Anthropological Association, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the American Psychological Association? They have findings to report and a consensus to relate.
In Homosexuality and the Bible, Walter Wink makes a salient point about the problem of authority. He finds the Bible rejecting incest, rape, adultery, and bestiality and thinks virtually all modern readers would agree. However, he finds the Bible condemning seven sexual behaviors that we would generally allow and permitting seven behaviors that we would condemn. These disparities lead him to say that the Bible does not provide us with a sex ethic, but only with a love ethic. We could debate individual items on his lists, but he effectively challenges claims that the Bible is infallible in its assumptions and directives about sexuality.
We can say that Biblical authority is central. After all, what gives us Jesus? But it is also problematic. It presents Jesus as saying that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18) and also saying, “But I say to you … ” (in contrast to ancient authorities). The Gospel of John (16:12) has Jesus saying that he has others things to teach his disciples, but not now. The Spirit of truth will take up that educative function. Only God is an absolute authority, and regarding every word of the Bible as infallible is idolatry. In this regard, James Gustafson writes in the introduction to H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self about how Niebuhr’s radical monotheism relates to Biblical authority in Christian ethics. In relation to authority of the One who is absolute, the authority of Scripture is “mediate derived authority.” And although the Bible occupies a unique role, the church has other mediate authorities, such as nature (as understood by reason in the natural law tradition, for example). Other communities also have a pluralism of mediate authorities, as evidenced in science and politics. This pluralism forces a balancing in which no one authority is absolute.
As Gustafson continues, in a way, the church stands under the Bible because of what it mediates; but in another way the church stands beside the Bible, and rank orders are a mistake. The several sources of authority are dialogue partners in a community held together by a common Center of Value and inspired by the continuing influence of the authority of the Holy Spirit. Thus our experience may interrogate the Bible and tradition and conventional wisdom, and the Bible may interrogate our experience, our traditions, and our conventional wisdom. Both the Bible and our experience may have what Niebuhr calls “corroborative authority” in an ongoing educational dialogue, in a continuing corporate effort at discernment (as recommended, for example, by the Theological Taskforce on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church). It is important to remember that this is community activity and that in a community, authority is jointly acknowledged, jointly debated, and jointly corroborated. And the process should never become frozen in time and place.
Before my friendly opponent and I made our presentations at the regional gatherings, we ate supper together along with our general presbyter (who preached at each session) and the person presiding at the gathering. We got to know each other pretty well and even joined in the leadership of the communion service prior to the final vote by the full presbytery. We could probably have given each other’s presentation with precision if the other had been deterred from showing up.
As we sat together following our final effort, he remarked that he appreciated the tone of our exchanges and that neither of us had apparently budged the other even an inch. I agreed. I don’t know how much we budged anyone else either. Although our presbytery changed its stance on the original Amendment B vote and supported “New B,” I am under no illusions about how many minds I changed. The debate on the floor of presbytery did not even last very long. People arrived knowing where they stood, but the balance of positions on the nature of Biblical authority had shifted. Although the balance also shifted in more than thirty other presbyteries that voted as we did and many more that voted against “New B” by narrower margins than before, the overall outcome supported the retention of Amendment B.
The conversation/argument will no doubt continue. Based on my experience, I remain convinced that some widespread assumptions about Biblical authority still need to be challenged while acknowledging its indispensable and inescapable importance.
Eric Mount is Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College in Danville, Ky.