SCRIPTURE – Matthew 22:34-40 – 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment.39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
Does the Bible Have Authority?
October 25, 2015
When I was a kid, I remember showing off to a neighbor friend by telling him that when my mom wasn’t looking, I would sometimes sneak a cookie before dinner. For a six-year-old, this was very rebellious behavior. Rather than being impressed, he was horrified. “Uh-oh! You know what that means? You’re going to Hell!” I don’t know if he really believed this or just wanted to take that opportunity to say the word “Hell.” I said, “What? How do you know?” He said, “The Bible says you can’t eat cookies before dinner!” I later learned in seminary there’s no such passage about that in the Bible…or at least that’s what I tell myself to justify my behavior. But what do you do when what the Bible DOES say and what you know through experience of reason conflict? Which should have the most authority?
We’re continuing our sermon series on the Bible to try and get a better understanding of what it is, what it says, and how we’re supposed to use it. So far we’ve taken a closer look at what’s in both sections, the Old and New Testaments, as well as who wrote it and how it got into our hands today. Last week we asked the loaded question, “Is the Bible true?” We learned that while it’s not always scientific or historically true, it is absolutely true in much deeper, spiritual ways. Knowing that the Bible holds certain truths for us, what sort of authority should it have in our lives?
To answer that question, we first have to answer for ourselves the purpose of the Bible. I say “for ourselves” because each of us may define the purpose of the Bible differently. For example, if you think the Bible is a book of rules for how to live or not live your life, then you’ll grant it a certain kind of authority. That being said, I don’t the Bible was written to be a rule book. To be fair, there are plenty of rules in there. God gave the Israelites over 600 laws to help them know how to live Godly lives. But as culture changed and developed, so did the role of those laws, especially for Christians. If we were going to read the Bible as a rule book, then we shouldn’t eat lobster or pork, shouldn’t wear clothes of mixed fabric, and we should stone to death rebellious children…ok, so maybe some of the rules have merit.
I also don’t think the Bible is meant to be an instruction manual on how to live life so you can guarantee a seat on the Heavenly Express. I once heard a pithy quote that says the word “Bible” stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Isn’t that cute? Too bad the Bible is anything but basic and doesn’t provide clear instructions.
Here’s just one example. In the book of Proverbs, a collection of wise sayings, there are two proverbs side by side. The first one says, “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” That’s sound advice, right? The very next verse says, “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” WHA? But you just said to not answer fools! If the Bible is meant to be an instruction book on how to live, we’re going to end up pretty confused.
The Bible isn’t a spiritual Magic 8 Ball that you can open up to find answers to questions like, “Should I quit my job?” It’s not a systematic doctrine of everything you should and shouldn’t believe. And it’s definitely not a comprehensive collection of everything God has ever wanted to say to us. We have to be careful about putting expectations upon the Bible that it was never intended to bear. Remember, a few weeks ago we said the Bible was a God-inspired, humanly written document that bears the holy handprints of the God who inspired it and the flawed fingerprints of the people who wrote it. When the authors wrote the Bible, they never thought what they were writing a book that would become the all-time bestseller in the history of the world, not to mention the centerpiece of grandmothers’ coffee tables and the rationale for horrible genocides. They weren’t writing to tell people in the 21st century how to live their lives. They were simply writing their version of God’s story, a love story between God and God’s people, a love story that we continue writing today. So, if we believe that, what kind of authority should ti have for us? How should we use this story to help us know who we are and how we are to live and treat others?
To answer that, we have to recognize that the Bible is God’s word for us, but it’s not ALL of God’s word for us. Some folks treat the Bible like it contains the totality of everything God ever wanted to say to us, as if, when the ink dried on the last word of the last book of the Bible, God dropped the pen and said, “Well, that’s done! I’ve got nothing left to say.” Do we really believe God has nothing left to say to us? I love the United Church of Christ’s recent slogan, which read, “God is still speaking,”. If you believe God is still speaking to us, then it’s important to discern what God is saying and how God is saying it to us, and then to place that alongside the Bible as a source of authority.
It may be helpful here to turn to our Methodists brethren and sistren. Their founder, John Wesley, came up with a way of theological discernment that involved four sources: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. All four were conversation partners in determining what God had to say and how we were to incorporate that authority into our lives. Notice that scripture is one of those sources of authority, but not the only one.
How does this work? Well, you take an issue and you see what each of these four have to say about it, and then you do your best to be faithful to what God is saying to you through each of them. And sometimes, the Bible isn’t the definitive word. For example, we Disciples take communion every week during worship. There’s nothing in the Bible that says you should take communion weekly. Not a word. But our tradition as a denomination is to practice communion this way, so our tradition best informs our practice.
Here’s another example: Paul clearly says in scripture that women should be silent in church and hold no authority over a man. It’s right there in the Bible! But our reason tells us that women have been given gifts by the Holy Spirit to lead and to teach. Our experience tells us that women have held prominent leadership positions across culture. And our common sense tells us that if women didn’t speak and lead in the church nothing would get done! So on this issue, we have chosen to give priority to our reason and experience over what the Bible says.
I believe Jesus models that for us in the passage we read. Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment. He says to love God and to love our neighbors, and then says, “on all this hangs the law and the prophets.” “The law and the prophets” to which Jesus is referring is the Hebrew scriptures, which were the Bible Jesus would have known. So in other words, he’s saying that authority of the words of the Bible is predicated on our experience of loving God.
I think this is a crucial point in order for the Bible to be a living, dynamic presence in our lives. I know a lot of people who’ve left the church and faith altogether because what they read in the Bible and what they’ve experienced in the world don’t match up. The Bible tells us that anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is going to Hell, and yet they’ve met non-Christians who are better Christians than some of the Christians they know! The Bible tells us to honor our father and mother, and yet an abusive parent makes that impossible. The Bible defines marriage or sin one way, but our experience or reason may conflict those definitions. So when we factor in our experience, reason, and tradition, how do we determine what scriptures are authoritative?
Here’s the truth when it comes to how we use the Bible in our lives. You can pick out a passage of scripture to support just about anything you want to believe, from handling snakes to stoning rebellious children. But all of us…ALL of us…pick and choose. We have to. There’s just too much in there, and like our Proverbs passages, some of it contradicts itself. We pick and choose what to believe on hundreds of issues presented in scripture, from tithing to divorce to keeping the Sabbath. We all pick and choose, and what we choose determines the type of authority we give the Bible.
With tens of thousands of passages to choose from, the task of determining what the Bible has to say for us can be paralyzing. So how do we decide what should be authoritative for us? I think what we do is we take the Bible, our tradition, our experience, and our reason, and we formulate a picture of who God is for us. Then we pick and choose passages that most closely match that image, and we make those passages authoritative. For example, if I experience God as a disciplinarian or judge, I’ll pick passages that reinforce that picture. If I experience God as a friend of the outcast and poor, I’ll pick passages that support that over and against ones that don’t.
And then – and this is key – we will read all the other passages through that lens. For example, my tradition and reason and experience tell me that God loves and welcomes everyone, so I choose not to give authority to passages that portray God as excluding those who don’t believe in Jesus. While I believe that those passages contain some form of truth, they have no authority for me in how I understand God and live my life. Other people may choose to interpret those passages differently, which is completely legitimate. It’s not a matter of right and wrong; it’s a matter of what we choose to give authority, and we all pick and choose.
The Bible has authority because we give it authority, and we choose which parts of it we give authority, in conversation with the other parts of the quadrilateral. We give authority to the parts that support our understanding of God. The important thing for us to do, as we continue to grow in our faith, is to keep listening for the ways God is speaking to us through all four parts of the quadrilateral. The words of the Bible aren’t going to change, but the words God speaks to us may very well go beyond the words of scripture. So we have to let those words inform the words of the Bible, and we have to be OK with the fact that sometimes what God says to us through our reason or experience or tradition supercedes what God has said to us through the Bible. That may sound blasephemous, but to believe otherwise is to turn a deaf ear to the other ways God speaks to us.
Using the authority of the Bible to end a debate, settle a question, or get the “right” answer is never how it was meant to be used. The Bible is our companion, telling us the story of who God is and how God loves us, inviting us to ask our questions, voice our doubts, wrestle it, disagree with it. The Bible is meant to be an authority in our lives, but not the sole one, and not the ultimate one. The ultimate authority for us is God revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and I think it’s safe to say that he ain’t dead yet. He is still speaking to us every single day, through our experiences, through our reasoning, through tradition, and through the Bible, helping us to understand who we are called to be. Thank God we have the Bible to be a partner in that conversation with us.