By Fadi Abu-Deeb
It’s very common in the Evangelical circles to hear many thoughts about Bible authority. And sayings like “The Bible is my personal constitution” or “The only authority I confess is my Bible” are uttered without hesitation, although they seem to be valid only when they’re not examined from a realistic existential point of view.
First of all, Faith is an existential phenomenon. It’s an issue that belongs to the innermost part of the human being, so it’s not a matter of very strict statements of faith that is valid just in terms of helping someone to trace the beginning of the spiritual road, and not as compulsive constraints on human conscience, reason and his whole complicated inner world.
The struggle on authority is one of the phenomena that have shaped the history of Christianity; theologically, socially and conceptually. The question of canonization, i.e, declaring a book as Scripture, is one of the events that are always taken for granted in the conservative Christianity, though it’s a declaration that was motivated by certain ecclesiastical and theological situations such as the rise of Montanism and Gnosticiam.
The ultimate authority of The Bible which was affirmed strictly by reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, and later by various conservative and fundamental Christian groups is therefore a reaction rather than an authentic reality of faith, considering, at the same time, the experienced fact that no man can be totally led by an authority when it comes to his complicated deep inner world.
Any authority or constitution is perhaps able to lead an administrative or other minor list of rules, but certainly not a living and freely thinking soul; not because every man is sinner as someone might say, but because of freedom, strangeness and unpredictability of human thought and imagination.
Practically speaking, when someone is astonished or influenced by an idea or a thought that really touches his heart and his very existence, he is under its authority. In other words, this idea would be authoritative for him. This is very common and unavoidable, and it is also a factual expression of the very nature of the human being. Hence, an authority for an individual is an existential issue, not an objective constant one, so The Bible is an ultimate and sole authority only for The Church and not for the individual. It has of course an authority as it contains the truth about the way of salvation, but it couldn’t be the only authority, because The Bible itself doesn’t claim it as it is meant in some Christian circles in modern times. The Church needs this kind of authority, because it is a collective entity, with no conscience, imagination or spirituality of its own. It only has its members’ various thoughts, imaginations and experiences, so an authoritative constitution might be appropriate for identifying its entity and organization. But as for individuals, although they can be controlled socially, they absolutely can’t be ruled intellectually or experientially as though their consciences could be limited!
Certainly The Bible, in light of the spirituality of The New Testament, is full of calls for obeying what’s written, but these calls are mentioned in terms of its benefit for the human’s practical and spiritual life, not as a compulsive authoritative list of commandments (See for example 2Tim 3: 16 which is a crucial verse used as an evidence for Bible inspiration).
The Protestant reformation has not brought up the motto “Sola Scriptura”, which means “By Scripture alone”, in a vacuum or for pure theological reasons, but rather for protecting the Christian individual and Church from being abused and deceived by the authority of unjust and self-proclaimed “representatives” of God. Herein we should differentiate between two categories, which are The Truth and a rightful action (or reaction) that contains valid truths or directs toward The Truth in some way. “Sola Scriptura” never represented, in that time, intent for limiting thought or extermination the validity of reason, intuition, imagination or discoveries from daily life experiential realm. It must also be said that this motto mustn’t give the sense that The Bible contains all knowledge or the most peculiar experiences a human may attain. The Bible is the door, not the final line; the enlightening torch, not the beautiful views on the road to Heaven. It is breathes of God that gives life to every honest human vision and journey. The Bible is a call for liberation from fear, not a new chain to enslave the already-enslaved!
Finally, the authority of The Bible depends on its authenticity. And this authenticity depends on scientific approaches that need many disputed scholarly researching works, which are obviously not related directly to the existential cause of every human soul who is at last committed to its own authoritative realm. Anyway, it’s understood that some people in general want The Truth to be something already defined and imaginable so that they can cling to it easily and safely, whilst it’s clear logically and experientially that only some aspects of The Truth are revealed gradually.
Jesus said that we shall know the truth and this will set us free. That means no fear from new ideas and discoveries or how might we make greater deeds than His (John 14: 12).
Briefly and practically speaking, the final authority on the Christian is his intuition and reasoning faculties which are illuminated by the trust in a living, working and loving God.