The Authority of Scripture is a Function of Its Divine Origin, not Its Cultural Expression, Although the Bible that the Spirit Has Given the Church is a Thoroughly Encultured Product

One area in which some have expressed concern is what they perceive my view of biblical authority to be in light of I&I. This concern has been expressed in various ways. (1) I&I, because of its focus on the humanity of Scripture, effectively denies biblical authority. (2) Despite some statements in the book affirming Scripture’s divine origin, such an affirmation is functionally denied by my focus on the humanity of Scripture. (3) Statements affirming the divine origin if Scripture in I&I are far too few and in between, and so give readers the impression that Scripture’s humanity overrides its divinity.

These concerns are interrelated, and so, at least for our purposes here, there is no need to engage them individually. In general, however, these criticisms seem to me to miss the larger point I am making in I&I. That an emphasis, etc., on the humanity of Scripture somehow compromises biblical authority is not only wrong, it also fails to capture the intention or content of I&I. To put it directly, neither I nor I&I deny, implicitly, functionally, or any other way, biblical authority. To put it even more directly, biblical authority is not the topic of I&I. Some may think that it is, and others may think that the views continued in I&I will erode biblical authority, but I not only disagree but feel the exact opposite is the case

Early on in I&I I refer to the divine origin of Scripture as a non-negotiable starting point, although even here some have expressed a wish that I had been clearer and more persistent in bringing this to the fore. [For example, “I am very eager to affirm that many evangelical instincts are correct and should be maintained, for example, the conviction that the Bible is ultimately from God and that it is God’s gift to the church. Any theories concerning Scripture that do not arise from these fundamental instincts are unacceptable” (13-14).] Whether or not this would have laid to rest every criticism is a matter of speculation. Nevertheless, the divine origin and therefore authority of Scripture is not called into question in I&I. In fact, it is that very conviction that informs the book through and through. Those who think otherwise have the burden of demonstrating explicitly how this is the case, something that, to my mind, has not yet happened.

Where some have stumbled, I feel, is in thinking that an emphasis on Scripture’s humanity seems to represent an irrevocable “methodological” failure to give due weight to Scripture’s divinity, indeed to the supremacy of the divine element of Scripture. As some have asserted, the book is to be faulted for failing to recognize that Scripture, like Jesus himself, is “essentially” divine while only “contingently” human (see the “HTFC Response” on the WTS website).

Frankly, I am bit perplexed, even concerned (theologically), about this criticism. If we understand the word “essential” to mean “a property without which something ceases being what it is,” Christ ceases being who he is if either element is subordinated. It is essential that Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior, be both divine and human. So, too, Scripture is not simply “contingently human”(precisely what that means is not clear to me at any rate) but essentially so, i.e., there is no Scripture apart from the human—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—words that the Spirit inspired biblical writers to write. To put it another way, we are not required to consider how to place one over the other, but to accept that they co-exist (if I may speak this way for sake of discussion) by God’s wise and gracious decree.

Now, back to authority. Christ’s authority comes from the fact that he is sent by the Father to do his will. His words have power, not because he was a clever 1st century Jew, but because he and he alone is God’s Son. His authority, in other words, is a function of his divinity (Luke 4:36-37).

What I argue in I&I is that Scripture works in an analogous (not identical) way. Scripture is God’s word because it is of divine origin. That is the locus of authority, and no discussion of its humanity in any way compromises that authority. What a study of Scripture’s humanity does do is help us see the manner in which the divine author speaks authoritatively into particular ancient cultures. How this authoritative Scripture translates to different times and places, in both its timeless affirmations and contextualized particularity is (I trust this is not too reductionistic) the task of theological study. It is my firm experience, however, that evangelical lay readers, those to whom the book is addressed, are not accustomed to understanding the nature of Scripture this way.

Further—and as important—when we compare Jesus and Scripture, we see that their human dimensions are not just human in any sort of way. Rather, their humanity is of a particularly humble kind. Christ in his humanity was in a state of humiliation, from his birth to his death. He was humble and meek, and attracted attention only because of the power of his words and actions, not because of his status. And it is precisely in this way that the Father chose to exalt his Son: he took the path of humiliation.

In a manner of speaking, I&I focuses on the “humiliation” of Scripture, how very much at home it is in the worlds in which it was produced. And we see the glory of Scripture precisely not by relegating Scripture’s humanity to the sidelines, but by learning more and more how the Wise God spoke and meant to be understood. A relentless and energetic study of the “humanity” of Scripture will not speak to the question of the Bible’s authority (a common mistake among “liberalism” and of which I seem to be accused), but how that authority is to be properly understood. It is not to relativize biblical authority by making the Bible out to be purely a product of human culture or giving humanity some sort of “priority,” but to declare that God, by his will, love, and wisdom, has broken into human cultures (which are his own creation), to act and speak in such a way as to rescue his people. (Explicating this further is the heart of my recently published article available on this website, “Preliminary Observations on an Incarnational Model of Scripture: Its Viability and Usefulness.”)

Ironically, perhaps, when we focus on the humanity of Scripture, we are not somehow showing disrespect for Scripture’s divine origin, nor are we in danger of running our faith aground. The truth, I feel, is precisely the opposite. By focusing on Scripture’s humanity, which is unfortunately often misunderstood as the purview of critical scholarship alone, we begin to see more clearly who this God is who has walked and talked with his people, and still does. Scripture’s humiliation is not an affront or an obstacle to be overcome in order to highlight its authority. Like Christ, it is the very means by which we behold God’s glory.

I can think of no better way of expressing this idea than by using (as I have used on numerous occasions in the recent past) the words of Herman Bavinck, the Dutch Reformed theologian. In volume one of his Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck writes that a doctrine of Scripture,

….is the working out and application of the central fact of revelation: the incarnation of the Word. The Word (Logos) has become flesh (sarx), and the word has become Scripture; these two facts do not only run parallel but are most intimately connected. Christ became flesh, a servant, without form or comeliness, the most despised of human beings; he descended to the nethermost parts of the earth and became obedient even to death on the cross. So also the word, the revelation of God, entered the world of creatureliness, the life and history of humanity, in all the human forms of dream and vision, of investigation and reflection, right down into that which is humanly weak and despised and ignoble…. All this took place in order that the excellency of the power…of Scripture, may be God’s and not ours. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 1: Prolegomena [trans. J. Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003], 434–35; my emphasis.)

To anticipate a point, although I am by no means an academic expert in the area, I am fairly well aware of the Dutch Reformed tradition, enough to know that Bavinck says a lot more that just what I have cited above. The quote is, nevertheless, powerful and to the point and represents much of my own understanding of the nature of Scripture.

In a later post I will elaborate a bit on the important role that the context of Scripture plays in our understanding of the nature of Scripture. The next post, however, will look at a related matter concerning authority: chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.