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By Whose Authority

Let me first acknowledge those I draw upon. As with most clergy of a certain age and a particular school of training, they would be Dennis Nineham, Leslie Houlden, Christopher Evans and John Barton. And in my own case also Robert Carroll, for his quite brilliant Wolf in the Sheepfold: The Bible as A Problematic for Theology and Graham Shaw for The Cost of Authority: Manipulation and Freedom in the New Testament. There’s a debt also to Isaiah Berlin on many things, but not least for teaching me that a proper pluralism is something very different from what Christians love to call relativism so as to dismiss it.

But let me start somewhere else. Confronted by my own ignorance, I regularly turn to the Oxford English Dictionary. So, I went first to it to look up the two nouns in the title I was given, “Authority and the Bible.” Now if we read the Bible through lenses tinted with our own preconceptions, no doubt we do the dictionary also. But taking first the word, ‘authority,’ that runs right through this conference, I want to pick out from the dictionary what seem to me to be two rather different understandings of what this means and is about. (1)

The first, and undoubtedly the dominant one, is an ‘authority’ very much, indeed, about domination. ‘Authority,’ here, has to do with power, the power to enforce obedience. When authority resides in people, therefore, this model is about the right to command; and linked to that is also about those with authority possessing the clout to make it to work. When it comes to texts or documents, then this model of authority refers to things like enforceable rules, laws and codes of conduct.

Authority in this mode is at heart something imposed upon others. It is the authority of those who are in a position to control others; the authority of rulers and governments, and in many situations – and not just in times past – the authority of religious institutions as well.

But the dictionary also offers another rather different use of the word. ‘Authority,’ in this second form, is not something imposed in some way upon people from above (whatever ‘above’ might mean there), but is instead something people themselves grant and bestow. The nature of authority in this model is an ability to influence or inspire, rather than power to command. So when it comes to the authority of people, what we are talking about here are people whose opinions, knowledge, or judgements we trust and respect.

And when it’s documents or texts, then it is about recognising them as sources of wisdom and guidance. I cast my eye over the table of newly published titles in a bookshop, and see a novel by Carol Shields. I look inside the dust jacket to note the price and, having winced a little, may turn over a few pages just to check it out. But in reality, from the moment I saw it I knew I would buy it, because time and again her stories have inspired and moved me, as well as entertained me. Authority bestowed. Gladly I grant authority to Shields as a writer.

Both models of authority can be traced well back. Indeed, Graham Shaw has observed things very similar to each to be at work in the texts of the New Testament itself. The power model can be observed when appeal is made to Jesus as Lord, or Christ, or Son of God – so giving his words the ultimate imprimatur, and diverting attention away either from his own humanity, or that of the particular New Testament writer. Even more is it done when the writer portrays God as intervening directly, as in scenes like the accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels, or the Pentecost story in Acts, or the prologue of John. Shaw also sees in the New Testament many of the illusions which are used to reinforce power authorities not in reality as confident as they want to appear.

Such overstatements as that ‘Jesus lives’, or that Jesus Christ is ‘the same yesterday and today or forever,’ or that ‘Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words shall not pass away’ Shaw sees as revealing actually that anxiety which lurks beneath most power authority systems. The drawing of lines around the authority-heeding community by baptism, or the damning of opponents of Jesus in the gospels and other New Testament writings, are also indicative of this.

Yet alongside of that there can also been seen evidence in the New Testament of another sort of authority, close at least to what I have identified as that freely granted to what inspires and influences. So besides the power stuff, the gospels also show us the Jesus who cries out in dereliction and knows all the anxiety and torment of Gethsemane. And there are times when people surprise him – like the Syro-Phoenician woman – and he learns from them. Again, the gospels show us a Jesus who regularly questions power authorities both religious and secular, which should at least give cause to wonder whether he would want to set himself up in the same way. And there are the invitations ‘ Who do you say that I am?’ ‘Come and see,’ which suggest a willingness to let others determine if he is useful to them. (2)

That in parenthesis. But we have two quite different models of authority certainly. Hold on to that, and then consider ‘the bible’. Here again, the OED gives several different meanings for the word. So it’s the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments; it’s a copy of those Scriptures; it’s a sacred book more widely; and it is, figuratively, any authoritative book – as in say ‘Wisden’s was my cricket-loving uncle’s bible.’

But what the dictionary also makes clear is that in Greek, Bible, ‘ta biblia’, is plural and not singular. It means the books, rather than the book, and so holds open the possibility that within the single cover there may be diversity and perhaps even difference between the writings in it. In Latin too ‘biblia’ is plural. But when the word came into romantic languages it came is as feminine singular, and so ‘the books’ became ‘the book’. The bible was no longer a library, a collection of books – which is another meaning the dictionary offers for the word – but is seen and treated increasingly as a single book.

The processes by which that shift of naming and understanding came about was not rapid, any more than was the gathering together of just some from a much larger corpus of early christian writings into the new testament rapid. The ascription to some of those writings of a status as scripture, as being sacred and holy books – the process underlying the emergence of what becomes a canon of scripture for the christian church or churches – took a long time. ‘Christian existence, as Robert Carroll reminds us, ‘predates the bible by a number of centuries.’ The church appears to have found no difficulty in existing for quite a long time without its own distinctive scriptures, and without the authority which they then came to acquire.

It’s a historical reminder that, at the very least, any such authority is not been timeless. Christians have not always been people of the book, and a part of their originally becoming that may have owed as much to anxieties about the absence of practical ethical teaching in the stories of Jesus or in early christian writers, than to a desire for a more general scripture type authority. Certainly when the christian bible did finally take shape, its authority slotted in alongside of others already in existence. The authority of christian leaders and institutions, of tradition, including the creeds, and the whole thing of natural law as well.

Only with the reformation did this change, the bible becoming both the book and most definitely also a single book, with the individual writings within it seen now as far less important than its unified function as a coherent guide to the christian life. As such it was most certainly authoritative, in the first of the two senses offered earlier. It supplied rules, beliefs, laws and codes of conduct, which were enforceable, and to which the subjects of a christian kingdom must submit themselves.

For those of us who today belong to churches of the reformation, this understanding is the one which remains firmly rooted in our foundation documents. So, for members of the Church of England, Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion, ‘Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation’: ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.’ (3)

What is read therein, however, is to be believed as an article of the Faith. And the believing is to be seen as something demanded of loyal subjects. The frontispiece of the English Great Bible, ordered by Thomas Cromwell to be set up in all churches in the kingdom in 1538, though not actually published till 1539, shows Henry VIII receiving God’s blessing as he hands on copies of the book not just to Thomas Cranmer, but also to Cromwell. The faithful believer is also the honest subject, accepting the biblical authority upheld by the christian prince, alongside the secular authority given by bible to the prince.

Commenting on this, Robert Carroll describes as ‘the outstanding Protestant heresy of the Reformation that it elevated the Bible to a position of authority that it had never had before the sixteenth century. This biblicism has subsequently distorted the way many Christians read the history of the churches, by reading back into it views about the Bible which belong more to post-Reformation thought than to earlier notions of scripture.’ (4)

At one level, that may seem an extreme and over-dramatic statement. For of course, it would not really be terribly long before that new authority was radically challenged. The history of the Modern Churchpeople’s Union over more than a hundred years – alongside of its concern that the church take seriously the proper insights of science in any contemporary understanding of the world – has been to promote and advance the theological propriety of a much more critical approach to biblical texts. An approach which treats seriously the historical context of each individual writing, and the particular concerns of the authors in the situations and settings in which they wrote. A view of the bible which sees it therefore not as a christian handbook potentially holding answers to whatever question or problem we present it with. But rather an assortment of texts loosely linked only in the sense that all were in some way responding to ‘that which we name as God’; and, in the case of the New Testament, saw the prophet Jesus from Nazareth as having an important part to play in that response.

In theory, then, we are all of us free of those anxieties which in the early twentieth century generated that alarmed response to biblical criticism which we know as fundamentalism (a term first used only around 1910, and only of christians). A response which led to a renewed emphasis on biblical authority based on the notion of its inerrancy. But theory and practice are two different things. And it should trouble us all, I think, that so many of our mainstream churches’ agendas still appear to be governed by a ridiculous deference to fundamentalist or otherwise biblicist understandings.

In our heads we know its nonsense. When I teach ethics and am trying to demonstrate how little in fact the bible helps us in ethical debate in the twenty-first century, I like to quote Simon Blackburn, who in his little book Being Good refers to a letter going the rounds of the Internet, purporting to be written to Doctor Laura, a fundamentalist agony aunt. Let me share it with you:

Dear Dr Laura, Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. l have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18: 22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. l do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.

a. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1: 9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this?

b. l would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus 21: 7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

c. l know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15: 19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking but most women take offense.

d. Leviticus 25: 44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify?

e. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

f. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 10:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?

g. Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging. (5)

It’s delightfully witty and amusing. And it ought in theory to knock on the head any handbook type approach to the bible on anything. And yet when you look at such a masterpiece as the Anglican House of Bishops Issues in Human Sexuality, what do you find but pages chewing over the biblical stuff on this as if it mattered. What surely the biblical writings shows us about sexuality – and I’m thinking of marriage for a moment so as to avoid controversy – is that people can hold civilised and caring views on it, and barbaric, uncaring, non-respectful and oppressive ones on it as well. And behave in manners that fit with each. But quite frankly, we don’t have to go to the bible and trawl the pages of a concordance to discover that. Half an hour listening to conversations in my local pub will tell me exactly the same thing.

And it’s not just sexuality. On Monday 8th July 2002m The Guardian carried a report headed “‘Foot dragging’ on women bishops” on General Synod members’ response to Bishop Nazir Ali’s working party on women in the episcopate at their discussion of it the day before. According to the paper it took the group nearly a year to manage its first meeting, and thus far it had only produced a 10-page progress report that Synod had in front of it. I quote: ‘After the bishop had painstakingly outlined the committee’s consideration of the position of early Christians mentioned in the Bible and St Paul’s contention that women could minister in public worship so long as it did not bring shame or dishonour the Lord, several women synod members could barely conceal their impatience.’ (And there are some quotations from Viv Faull and Patience Purchase.) ‘But the bishop told them: “This is such an important matter that we cannot afford to get it wrong. If you want a chairman who will go with speed, I am not that person.”‘ (6)

‘We cannot afford to get it wrong.’ We have to get it right. And by implication I think, Bishop Nazir Ali is saying that in order to get it right we must always defer to authorities which are commanding, defining, and beyond ourselves; including amongst them the bible. It’s a view enshrined, presumably with some claim itself to be authoritative, in the Statement on the Doctrine of God which the Anglican Primates issued in April 2002, where they said that ‘In Holy Scripture we have a unique, trustworthy record of the acts and promises of God. No other final criteria for Christian teaching can supplant this witness to the self consistency of God through the ages.’ (7)

One should resist the temptation to be drawn by that phrase ‘witness to the self consistency of God’, but I cannot. It is both meaningless and nonsensical – totally untrue in the light of the highly varied and utterly inconsistent character and behaviour of God to be discovered in the pages of both jewish and christian bibles. Christopher Sykes in his biography of Evelyn Waugh referred to Waugh and a friend in the Second World War trying to silence a constantly talking Randolph Churchill by getting him to read the bible from end to end in a certain number of days, or otherwise forfeit £10. Churchill did, but could not remain silent. Not, one might think, the most morally squeamish of men, his repeated exclamation as a first time reader of the bible was clear and to the point. ‘God! Isn’t God a shit!’ (8)

Let me move matters to a head. As liberal or radical christians, it is past time that we all grew up. I suppose it is the feeling that the bible offers reinforcement to the views we have on a particular subject which tempts us all still to try and appeal to it for support, whether we are environmentalists, Marxists, feminists or whatever. But it is not very wise behaviour, because the bible can also be mined for texts which support quite contrary views to those we are wanting to support: that the earth is there for humans to use and plunder; that the poor are there to support the rich and powerful in the lifestyle they have become accustomed to; and that women are there – but never mind.

In one sense, the bible will support whatever you want it to support. But if you have even a modicum of capability for self-observation and self-understanding, you will know that of itself does not mean or demonstrate that you are right in whatever it is you seek to recruit it for. For myself the idea of a timeless, unconditional ‘right’ on any issue carries little meaning. But even if you want still to believe that possible, you will not find in the writings of biblical authors any straightforward ‘right’ answers to our questions. That because most of our questions would be meaningless to them and, even where they are not, our situation is quite different to theirs. Dennis Nineham, in a lecture way back in 1969 entitled ‘The Use of the Bible in Modern Theology’, commented on the 1968 Lambeth Conference’s conclusion that the then pressing issue of women priests could not be conclusively resolved from the bible. He went on, “But suppose the questions were to be widened into the question whether we need priests at all…. Is it not possible that here too… biblical evidence would prove inconclusive? And what about the questions increasingly being raised about the permanent adequacy and validity of traditional statements about the Trinity and their relation to Christology? Or, to go still nearer to the heart of the matter, what about the questions…. about the meaningfulness or propriety of any talk about the supernatural?” And he asks “Whether ‘the biblical revelation’ could possibly be normative in these fields since in each case the question at issue is precisely the possibility or propriety of understanding things in the twentieth century in the way the biblical writers understood them in the second and first and earlier centuries.” (9)

If we persist in reading the bible as even nominally authoritative in the old commanding, normative, directive and law-giving kind of way, we fail to honour or advance the liberal christian inheritance which is ours. We live in a plural world, and we need to learn to accept that rather than pretend that it isn’t so, but make sure that our voice still sounds clear.

I expect my doctor to keep up to date with the Lancet and the other medical journals. When I visit her with some problem with my diabetes, I want her to respond to it on the basis of knowledge derived from those – about which, as it happens, I may well know something myself. If instead she delves into a cupboard and emerges with some sixteenth century apothecary’s writings, I politely take my leave and find another doctor.

Because my evangelical neighbour’s first response to any issue may be to see what the bible has to say on the subject, it does not follow that misplaced courtesy requires me to do the same. Indeed it would be quite wrong, because false to what informs me and makes me who I am, if I were to do that. Let me take that a stage further with regard to some current debates within the Anglican Communion. It does not follow that because the majority of Anglicans no longer live in Europe and North America, that we who do should, pace Lesslie Newbigin, abandon the liberal and experiential faith understanding which matters to many of us here, writing off the Enlightenment as an unhappy hiccup in the church’s story. That would be to be untrue to those who follow us in that faith understanding here; but unfair also to future generations of believers in those other settings, who may also want to escape from biblicism. It is not to discount the validity of another believer’s faith understanding for them if I say, ‘But it cannot be like that for me’.

Liberal christians can no longer go either with that view of the bible as a single volume with a unified message, or that of the authority of the writings which it comprises being one to which we must submit ourselves to. We have to simply let go of both.

If then that is how it must be, is there any sense in which that might then free us to enter into a different sort of dialogue with those writings, and the people and communities lying behind them? Is there a way in which we might then work with that second model of authority I took from the OED? Is there an authority which would not set the bible over us, but which we might grant at least to parts of it, inasmuch as we discover them to be resources, sources of wisdom and guidance?

I would like, however cautiously, to answer ‘yes’ to those questions. It is a quite different sort of authority, of course. And it has nothing to do with the power so many consider to be the heart of authority. I referred earlier on to my pleasure in the novels and stories of Carol Shields. What I like about her writing is that she takes the lives of quite ordinary people and reveals their depths without trying to make them other than the ordinary people they are. It’s something the historian Eric Hobsbawm is doing also when he calls a collection of his essays Uncommon People. Ordinary people are extraordinary. Common people are all of them uncommon.

That said, none of the central characters in the stories by Shields that I have read have lives that in any obvious way overlap with my own. The key experiences of theirs are not duplicated in mine. Yet I find in the reading that I enter into their lives and understand them – whatever quite that means – and in that process find I am helped in my understanding of others, and my self-understanding as well. They don’t solve problems for me, nor do they tell me how I should live my life. And yet, in reading them, the living of life and my being a human person is illuminated. I give them, as it were, an authority of respect. (And this goes not only for books; art, the encounter with history in place and setting, an encounter with other cultures, faiths or communities can all have a similar effect.)

Now it’s that sort of authority that a liberal christian, accustomed to a critical approach to the biblical texts, may find herself wanting to give to some of the biblical writings, or to some sections of them. They will not tell her, or me, how to live life as a christian in the twenty-first century in any obvious, straightforward way. They will not solve the great questions of our day – either the real ones of the actual world of men and women, or the ecclesiastical ones. Yet they still play on us and move us.

John Barton writes about this beautifully in his little book Ethics and the Old Testament with regard to the story of King David and Bathsheba the wife of Uriah, and I draw on him. (10) The story flows on from chapter 11 in 2 Samuel, the opening paragraph of which, with hindsight, can be seen to say it all. ‘In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.’ But David remained in Jerusalem.

And from that all that follows flows- his lusting after Bathsheba; his sleeping with her; her conceiving a son; and David’s desire to divert Uriah from his military duties to get him to sleep with Bathsheba himself and so be deceived into thinking the child is his. But Uriah is more aware of duty than is the king, and so refuses to do that. That leaves David seeing no option but to conspire to get him killed in battle. Uriah is killed. David marries Bathsheba. The child then dies. And then later, in this now cursed house, we get the incest between David’s son Amnon and his sister Tamar.

In the middle of the sequence of events, you will remember, you get Nathan coming to David and telling him the parable of the rich man who robs the poor man of his cherished lamb and serves it up as dinner to an unwanted visiting traveller. David is outraged. ‘Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man…. “because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David “you are the man!”‘ Now at the immediate level the story is pretty unlikely to apply directly to most who read it.

Whatever the Sunday tabloids may suggest about christian frailties, few of us are going to commit either rape, murder, or incest. But as Barton properly says, the story still speaks to us, and speaks to us ethically. Be on one’s guard, it certainly says, for actions can have unforeseen and unintended consequences. One lapse from grace and we can become caught up in a whirlwind. In any obvious sense, the world of David’s royal court is a world away. But even across millennia and cultures there is a humanity which is shared, and so the story provides insights into ourselves. Not least perhaps it reassures us of the fact that, even after great crises, hurt and suffering we remain human persons.

To speak of this capacity for some of its writings being able to interact in this kind of creative way with the life of a reader, to speak of that as being the authority of the bible which the reader may bestow on it – this can seem in one sense too banal to be credible. Come back that word of God delivered in mortal language before which even kings and emperors trembled, and which gave such power over others’ lives to religious functionaries!

But I wonder. I have a theory about the Church of England that it always picks up understandings from the secular world late, and usually just as people there are themselves becoming aware of their deficiencies and rethinking them.

So with authority. We are becoming an ever more authority-conscious church; with new stress on episcopal collegiality; with a greater desire for episcopal and primatial statements; with the Archbishops’ Council our own mini-Curia; with new attempts from the bishops to discipline the behaviour and the beliefs of the ordinary clergy; and with attempts to make lay people more under authority (sometimes under a guise of giving them authority), whether as Local Ordained Ministers or with a host of new authorised ministries for everything – so it sometimes seems – from eucharistic ministers and lesson readers, to purificator folders and church dusters. (And no undervaluing as I say that of the last two, who are generally much harder to find than lesson readers and communion ministers, and frequently more useful.) But why do any of them require to be authorised?

Yet even as we are doing this, the approach to authority in other spheres is going through a sea change. Increasingly we question all the things – be they individuals, institutions, texts – to whom or which in the past our forebears would simply have deferred on account of their alleged authority. I don’t think this anarchic, as some claim, or that it means our society has lost all respect, or that we are trapped in a post-modern. It means simply that we consider authority something that must be earned, justified, and never simply claimed as of right. So we ask its grounds, the benefits it offers, the good it can provide. We’re not interested in whether rulers, bishops, holy books or anything else are validated from on high. Are they valid for us, we ask instead? Can I learn from them? Can they illuminate and assist me in my living, without presuming to tell me how I have to do it? My own guess is that this is democracy finally catching up on authority – and I am glad.

The Bible–with all its strangeness, weirdness, and contradictions; its metaphors, ironies and stupidities, its untidiness, its sprawling nature, its boisterousness (all the words I owe to Robert Carroll)–is well suited to this more democratic granting of authority. As a human work, it affords bizarre but also wonderful insights into the experience of women and men over many centuries as they work at life and, as part of that, wrestle with the mystery we name as God. But we have to release it from the authority constraints of the centuries. Release it from being ‘the church boke called the bybyll’, as the wardens at Morebath in Devon quaintly described the Great Bible they had to purchase in 1539. (11)

And release it as well from that silly, distorting, untruthful and meaningless assertion that it is ‘the Word of God’ – for it is not. But the human writings that it contains remain of great worth; and are writings of far too much interest and use to people for the book to be allowed to be written off – certainly just on account of so stupid a claim as that.


1. I am grateful to the Rev. James R. Adams, President of the Centre for Progressive Christianity, for first drawing my attention to this.

2. Graham Shaw The Cost of Authority (SCM Press 1983, pp 16-23)

3. 39 Articles of Religion

4. Robert Carroll Wolf in the Sheepfold, (SPCK 1991, p 70)

5. Simon Blackburn Being Good (OUP 2001, p 11ff)

6. Guardian, Monday 8th July 2002

7. Anglican Primates Statement on the Doctrine of God (London)

8. Christopher Sykes Evelyn Waugh, a Biography (Penguin revised edition 1977 p 363)

9. Dennis Nineham The Use of the Bible in Modern Theology in ‘Explorations in Theology 1’ (SCM Press 1977 pp 104-105)

10. See John Barton Ethics and the Old Testament (SCM Press 1998, chapter 2)

11. Eamon Duffy The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (Yale University Press 2001, p 100)

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