This terminology is characteristic of Christian theology, and so the following entry appropriately discusses the issue from a Christian perspective. For consideration of the topic in Jewish tradition, see Interpretation, History of, article on Jewish Interpretation; Torah. For related discussion, see Inspiration and Inerrancy and Revelation.
“Here is Wisdom; this is the royal Law; these are the lively oracles of God”: these are the words used when the Bible, described as “the most valuable thing that this world affords,” is presented to the British monarch in the course of the coronation ceremony. They illustrate the value ascribed to the Bible and indicate that its authority is ultimately the authority attributed to God. It is therefore not an authority intrinsic to the book but one linked to the conviction that the book somehow or other emanates from God. Because God was held to be holy, the Bible too is described as holy, and terms like “holy scriptures” and “sacred writings” become commonplace.
The Israelites believed that it was possible to receive a divine communication, and so the book of the Law (See Torah) was invested with divine authority. Later rabbinic piety came to think of the Torah as eternal in the heavens but communicated through angels to Moses, the divinely appointed lawgiver. The sanctity of the communication was associated with the manuscripts as well so that infinite care was demanded in copying the text. The prophets, too, saw themselves as called into the divine council, and their utterance was consequently regarded as the very utterance of God. They were held to be God's own mouthpieces, inspired by him, and the fulfillment of their message validated its truth.
Because they conveyed God's revelation for Israel, the writings, as collected, were revered as authoritative. As the authors had been “inspired,” their writings, in turn, were held to share in the inspiration, and it became customary to speak of them as the word of God.
The Hebrew Bible was accepted as “holy scripture” by the early Christian communities, for Jesus had set the seal of his authority on these writings. The early church saw them as the preparation for the coming of Jesus. It was not a matter of affirming every detail (although some would argue this) but rather the tenor and ethos of the writings that were seen as authentically indicating God's will and purpose. The early Christians saw in Jesus the climax of all that the Jewish scriptures taught. It was felt that everything had been written down in the light of the critical events associated with Jesus; hence a new interpretation came into being. While Philo could read his own philosophical understanding and mystical experience into the scriptures, the Pharisaic rabbis (See Pharisees) see their own rules for life emanating from them, and the Essenes reinterpret them in the light of the fortunes of the founder of their sect and the continuing destinies of their community, the Christians likewise read the scriptures in terms of their own faith and experience. Christ came to be seen as the center of scripture; he was the key to its understanding and its continuing validity. As Martin Luther (1483–1546) was to put it, “Christ is the Lord and King of the scriptures.” The writer of 2 Timothy can accordingly speak of “the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (3.1) and can thus affirm that “all scripture is inspired by God” (3.16).
Gradually the same authority was granted to the New Testament writings, for they were the factual sources for his life and teaching and encapsulated the early apostolic preaching and instruction. Over against views regarded as illegitimate and later condemned as heretical, the New Testament documents were seen as pointing to an authentic faith. Fixing the canon of the New Testament thus involved discrimination between those books seen as authoritative and so part of the sacred tradition and those that were not. It was felt to be a case not of the church's conveying authority but recognizing an intrinsic authority already present. As Origen (ca. 185–254) put it, “The sacred books were not the works of human beings; they were written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at the will of the Father of all through Jesus Christ” (De principiis 4.9). Just as the writings bear witness to the acts of God in history, so the church points to the Bible, preaching and teaching from its pages and subjecting itself to its guidance. But it also interprets it, providing the mainstream of tradition. The church recognizes in the scriptures the classical, normative account of Christian origins. So a sense of identity between the present and the church's roots is guaranteed and a measure of stability secured.
The Bible speaks of inspiration or the divine breath as the source of vitality and power. Genesis 2.7 asserts that the Lord God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Ezekiel 37.10 says of lifeless bones that “the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet.” So Paul can say, “Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1.5). The implication is that, just as divine inspiration had made the prophetic message a living one, so the words of scripture are mere signposts to something that goes beyond words.
Some have linked the notion of verbal inspiration with inerrancy and infallibility (See Inspiration and Inerrancy), but it is significant that, while Luther can speak of the Bible as “the Holy Spirit's very own book,” with “God… in every syllable,” he can also affirm that mistakes and inconsistencies do not affect the heart of the gospel. “The Holy Spirit,” he affirms, “has an eye only to the substance and is not bound by words.” We may agree that inspiration is no guarantee against human fallibility, nor does it affirm uniformity in quality and authority. There are levels in the scriptures: the kernel is encased in a shell; the baby lies in a manger.
Approaches to Biblical Authority.
In early Christianity, the scriptures were used “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3.16). In the West, during the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, the documents were viewed as the raw materials of revelation, a veritable mine of doctrinal statements. Isolated verses could be picked at random and used for the authoritative establishment of dogma. The Bible was often used as a sourcebook for the support of ecclesiastical doctrine, but scriptural authority was largely subordinated to the authority of the church. Contradictions in the text were smoothed out by an elaborate and even overly subtle system of allegorical interpretations. (See also Interpretation, History of, article on Christian Interpretation from the Middle Ages to the Reformation.)
The Reformation saw the overthrow of ecclesiastical power structures, and scripture seemed to be substituted for the church. The revival of learning was instrumental in initiating intensive biblical study. Luther saw the Bible as “the crib in which Christ lay,” a sacrament by which the living God addressed the individual soul. “All sound books agree in this, that they witness to Christ,” he said. “That which does not preach Christ is not apostolic though it came from St. Peter or St. Paul. Contrariwise that which preaches Christ would be apostolic even though it came from Judas or Annas or Pilate or Herod.” Luther also declared that the truth of God's selfrevelation through scripture was written “inwardly in our hearts” by the Holy Spirit. This point was subsequently taken up by John Calvin (1509–64), who wrote of the “inner witness of the Holy Spirit,” leading to the conviction that not only was the Bible an authentic, dependable record of God's encounter with humanity in the past but also the means of his contemporary encounter with us. At the same time, his position suggested that it is not possible to prove that God speaks through the scriptures.
It was the post‐Reformation period that saw the rise of a kind of fundamentalism, in which emphasis was laid on the very words of scripture and concerns about infallibility and inerrancy arose. Bibles were now more readily available, and “scripture alone” (sola scriptura) became a clarion call. What was often forgotten was that the principles of interpretation followed created a tradition of their own.
Liberal criticism of the Bible in the nineteenth century seemed to many to undermine the authority that had been attached to scripture. It appeared to turn the Bible into an ordinary collection of Near Eastern documents that had to be placed within their own historical contexts.
A different approach is undertaken by Karl Barth (1886–1968) and “biblical theology,” in which stress is laid on the act of proclamation, within which the Bible becomes the word of God. The Bible is not identified with past revelation but bears witness to a revelation in the past, as it becomes the means of hearing the voice of God today.
Contemporary thought also emphasizes the empirical test and accepts that God does speak through the scriptures and that faith is nourished by it. Charismatic movements hold that the Bible comes alive through the action of the Holy Spirit. The words become a vehicle through which a vivid awareness of the presence and activity of God is developed.
An unwarranted authority would be attributed to the Bible if the words were stressed and the human origins of the documents neglected. Just as in Christology the church rejected a docetic viewpoint that tried to support the assertion of Christ's divinity by denying the full reality of his humanity, so, with the Bible, it is important to reject an equation with the divine word, which neglects the very human character of the words of its authors. If the Bible were precisely the word of God, questions of authority would not arise and one would expect an immediately recognizable meaning within the words of scriptures. The biblical language that speaks of the dynamic character of the word suggests that it is preferable to speak of the Bible as conveying or mediating the word of God. This then points to the experience of the community of faith through the centuries. To treat the Bible simply as a compendium of ancient literature and to limit oneself to a critical, historical analysis of its contents would be a denial of believers' experience that in the Bible they have found the word of God addressing them with “transforming and liberating power,” as Thomas Merton put it. The words of scripture take on the character of the preacher who bears witness to the reality of what has been experienced. There is a need, then, for a mediating position between a fundamentalism that almost invites a worship of the Bible instead of the God of the Bible and a purely rationalistic exegesis. A claim to discover God's word and so God's own authority within the Bible must not obscure the truth of the humanity and so the limitations of its authors. Different authors have different styles, interests, and emphases and express their convictions in different ways; their language and mode of expression are not ageless. And what is true of the writers is also true of the reader. If Christianity is a religion of the spirit rather than of the letter (see 2 Cor. 3.6), we should expect a degree of variety in interpretation. There must be a subjective element in interpretation just as there was in the writing. The more one brings of human experience, spiritual sensitivity, and common sense to the Bible, the more one will get from it. And, since life is lived in community, so the experiences and insights of others illuminate the understanding of the individual reader. Finally, the biblical message is addressed to the whole person and not simply to the intellect. Hence, to recognize the authority of the Bible is to respond to the imperatives made by the God of the Bible. For ultimately what is looked for is an encounter not with language but with a person.