From time to time, I am asked a probing, thoughtful question by email.

Recently a question appeared in my inbox about the authority of Scripture. With permission, here and over the next two days, is a slightly expanded version of the exchange I had with the person who raised the question:

Sent: Thursday, October 20, 2016 9:30 AM
To: Page Christopher
Subject: Silly question

Why is the Bible the ultimate authority?

m

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From: christopher@stphilipvictoria.ca
Sent: Thursday, October 20, 2016 09:50
To: m
Subject: Re: Silly question

Dear m,

not a silly question at all, on the contrary an important and challenging question.

In fact in Anglican understanding the Bible alone is not the ultimate authority.

Anglican tradition appeals to Scripture, reason, and tradition as the touchstones of authority; no one of these three in isolation is the “ultimate authority” for life and faith. They are interdependent and each pay a vital role for the spiritual pilgrim seeking light and truth.

The issue of “authority” is a tough one in our egalitarian individualistic culture.It really has to do with identity.

If a group of people is going to form any kind of even remotely cohesive shared identity, they must have some agreed upon source, document, experience, or institutional commitment to which they can appeal in an attempt to shape their collective identity. Anglicans appeal for their communal identity to what we read in the Bible, as well as what the traditions of the church have said in the past, all filtered through our own communal and personal thought process, conscience, instinct, and reason. We have a diverse locus to which we appeal in seeking to shape our community’s identifying qualities.

This diverse appeal to diverse authority is not always tidy. But it has the potential to respond to the reality that life situations shift, cultures change, and understanding develops. This seems to me to be a healthy thing.

Hope that helps,

Christopher

*************

Subject: Re: Silly question

What, pray tell, is the authority in Scripture?

*************

From: christopher@stphilipvictoria.ca [mailto:christopher@stphilipvictoria.ca]
Sent: Thursday, October 20, 2016 12:19 PM
Subject: Re: Silly question

The history of the development of the “canon” of Scripture (ie. those books in the Bible that the church over time selected to invest authority in) is complex, confusing, and far from clear. It was not really settled until the fourth century. And, even today, there remains some disagreement on which books should be included in the “authoritative” canon of Scripture. Protestants include 66 books in the Bible, whereas Roman Catholics include an additional seven books.

After Jesus was no longer physically present on earth, his followers began circulating oral stories about him and his teachings and eventually began to write these down . They also continued to read various Hebrew texts from their Jewish background, and to circulate letters written by the leaders of their community. Over time, from among the available texts, the church chose certain texts and generally agreed that these were the documents they were going to look to as the authorized source documents for the formulation of Christian faith. This goes back to the identity question. If you are going to have a definable identifiable group of people who stand for something, they must have some minimal agreed upon parameters that give shape to their shared belief.

So, ultimately “the authority in Scripture” is the authority accorded to it by the community deciding that these are the authorized documents that we believe faithfully and consistently convey what we understand to be Christian faith. It is a bit of a circular argument. The church gives authority to the Bible and then treats the Bible as one of its sources of authority for the decisions and doctrines it develops. This is why the Anglican church does not let the authority question rest on just one leg of the stool but includes reason and tradition to make a three-legged stool of authority.

Personally, I would include a fourth leg, perhaps the most important of all, which is the leg of personal experience. This may make me a heretic but, in the end, if any external authority contradicts what I know deeply to be true within my own heart, I will go with my heart. In the end, I am pretty sure we all go with the heart anyway.

But, I have never found that, in the end, I have felt forced to choose the Bible over the heart. When I have encountered a conflict in my reading of the Bible between what I believe I am reading and what I sense in my heart, I have always been able to find a way around the tension that allows me to find congruence between the Scriptures and my experience. Thus I have been able to maintain the Bible as an authority in my life and believe, while also respecting my personal experience. I believe wrestling with this challenge is in fact one of the ways that I have grown and deepened in my personal spiritual life.

Hope this makes sense,

Christopher

 

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