A couple of months ago, I shared Christian Smith's thoughts about Scripture's ambiguity from The Bible Made Impossible. This spurred a Twitter exchange with Ben (check it out on Storify here), who disagreed with my characterization of the Bible as a polyvocal book which, spanning centuries, is not meant to be unified into one consistent narrative. He didn't think this view allowed us to understand God's revelation, and wondered, "In what do you place your faith?"
This question revealed a telling aspect of biblicism, which seems to result in a faith placed more in the Bible rather than in Christ. If inerrancy and infallibility are in peril, consequently one's faith is on shaky ground. So once we deconstruct biblicism, where do we look to for authority?
Smith addresses this issue in Chapter 7 of The Bible Made Impossible. Biblicists view authority as one-dimensional: the Bible's words are actually God's words, without error, which provide an infallible doctrinal system that is applied to our lives as a divine handbook.
However, only a handful of books actually provide moral and theological instruction, as most of Scripture is narrative. (Notice my "Twitter debate-partner" stated, "narratives are for people who don't believe in truth.") The rest of Scripture is poetic, legal, or some other non-explicitly-didactic form.
The most common type of authority is "legitimate power," or the ability to get people to do things they might not want to do. It's a collective belief that something is valid, even if undesired. Taxes are a great example. Most people don't enjoy paying them, but we all do, because of government's authority to tax.
This definition of authority doesn't work out well when applied to the Bible. Rather than "power over," the Bible's authority can be cast in terms of "power to," a transformative capacity. A person with this kind of authority can "intervene in the world that in some way alters it." The Bible
has the justified, valid, and legitimate power to “get things done” in our lives, to intervene with us to make a difference in outcomes. [T]his “power to” involved in the Bible’s authority is a “transformative capacity,” not merely to force the unwanted, but to change things in the world and our lives with a real justification and validity.
Smith finds this approach similar to N.T. Wright's, as detailed here: How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?. Last May, I wrote a little about this great article, and thought it fitting to re-post a snippet because it works so well with Smith's critiques. Authority isn't correctness or validity, but rather is rooted in the church living out and re-creating God's redemptive story. This is why Scripture has narratives. Wright explains:
Story authority, as Jesus knew only too well, is the authority that really works. Throw a rule book at people’s head, or offer them a list of doctrines, and they can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away. Tell them a story, though, and you invite them to come into a different world; you invite them to share a world-view or better still a ‘God-view’. That, actually, is what the parables are all about. They offer, as all genuine Christian story-telling the does, a world-view which, as someone comes into it and finds how compelling it is, quietly shatters the world-view that they were in already.
Scripture contains many things that I don’t know, and that you don’t know; many things we are waiting to discover; passages which are lying dormant waiting for us to dig them out. Awaken them. We must then make sure that the church, armed in this way, is challenging the world’s view of authority.
Smith and Wright's reframing of authority reminded me of the old hymn, Tell Me the Story of Jesus:
Tell me the story of Jesus,
Write on my heart every word.
Tell me the story most precious,
Sweetest that ever was heard.
I found it interesting that one line of the hymn is "Love in that story so tender, clearer than ever I see." Clarity? Doesn't allowing ambiguity and narrative-driven authority result in the opposite?
I don't think so. Narrative is powerful. Rather than preaching at others or warning they're on dangerous ground for not accepting Western notions of correctness and legitimacy, let's tell and live out redemptive stories. Write them on hearts. Quietly shatter world-views with them. Perhaps then we'll understand the Bible's words more clearly than ever, and won't worry so much about placing our faith in the Bible when it's deconstructed by modern definitions of authority.