Thursday, 18 May 2006

About the authority of scripture

Over and above the historical information that can be gleaned from its texts, scripture provides the Christian community’s agreed sources of the life and teaching of Jesus. The authority of scripture lies in

  • The universal relevance of its myth, poetry and storytelling to different human experiences
  • The power of its images and symbols to stimulate imagination and argument creatively again and again in different contexts.
  • The freedom and responsibility of its challenge to live consciously in relation to God and others.

If believers declare scripture to be the revealed Word of God, they must reckon with the hidden mystery of its author, as they seek to detect within scripture the ultimate divine plan for humankind Scripture itself remains us of the need for caution and respect – ‘Who can know the mind of God?’ – Isaiah – it is necessary always to beware of reading into texts meanings that are inconsistent with its overall thrust and direction.

What we receive from scripture is indications of what is of ultimate value. Scripture also describes humankind’s diverse responses to what is revealed in the encounter with the divine. The response of the reader and interpreter is also vital in realising its meaning.

We read scripture, scripture reads us. Its divine truth is the fruit of a dialogue which can be acted upon faithfully, consistently. Merely to comply to the injunctions injunctions of scripture without due consideration to their meaning and purpose undermines the nature of its authority, and the ability of scripture to educate and nurture its readers in greater maturity.

Scriptural laws and prescriptions served either to guarantee social cohesion and security in a given context, or to provide a basis for individuals and community to engage in the rituals of prayer and worship. Their purpose was to protect people and enable them to live and grow healthily in their setting by full participation in myth, ritual and story, as a means to derive deeper meaning and purpose in life.

Within the body of scripture a wide variety of social and religious contexts is described . The unifying factor is that all concern human relationship to God thoughout the course of history.

The higher purpose and value of the laws and prescriptions of scripture is more important than their application in context. Both Jesus and the prophets exposed the hypocrisy of people’s (creative) attempts at minimal compliance with laws without reference to higher values – justice, truth, mercy, compassion – giving the appearance of doing the right thing, whilst actually doing little or nothing.

Laws relate to the circumstances of their enactment. They point to governing higher truths. Laws have had to evolve, adapt, or disappear (because they become irrelevant to changing circumstances) in every culture. They are no more than practical applications of transcending values.

Declarations of the immutability of laws and precepts in scripture are not universal injunctions, but applicable to the circumstances the particular code deals with. We have the responsibility to decide whether or not to extend that applicability, but cannot do so without reference to intention.

Treating the scriptures as a universal homogenous body of truth and legislation, as fundamentalists seem keen to do, is a choice taken. The church catholic has not gone so far as to prescribe in detail which of many possible ways of regarding scripture is definitive, even though it has in many instances derived definitive teachings from scripture, thus restricting dialogue and enquiry and to enforce compliance, in the name of certainty and security of faith. This goes against mystery, myth, poetry and story - handmaids of the freedom of Spirit.