Sometimes it seems that there’s a convergence of ideas – a conversation with a person, something read in a book, an off-handed comment, a blog article – that all pulling at the same thread. Here’s an idea that has been a thread recently in my interactions…
Someone told me of their conversation with a conservative Bible college professor who remarked that while his generation was asking, “how do we know that the Bible is authoritative,” today’s students don’t seem to be interested in that question anymore. Instead they’re interested in “what does it mean?”
In a conversation with friends, we were talking about today’s youth and their relationship to authority. In the course of our conversation we noted the success of movements like The Tea Party and Anonymous that seem to thrive precisely because they lack an authority structure.
I watched a discussion between two theologians where one was trying to pin the other down on a particular issue and it’s relationship to the Bible. The other was appealing to the “world as it is” as a source of authority.
After my Sunday school class, where I’m facilitating discussions about Mark Noll’s Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of the Church, someone framed the Protestant Reformation as the movement from a Pope as the ultimate authority to a “paper pope” (the Bible”) as the ultimate authority. They then wondered what our authority should be today.
In the same class we noted that prior to the Reformation, issues were simpler – the church told you the “orthodox” position. Since the Reformation, you find a seemingly endless interpretations represented among the various denominations, splits and subgroups, leading some to cynically conclude that post-reformation, the authority is simply what I see in the text.
In my Protestant tradition that I come from, our standard doctrinal formation is that the Bible is the ultimate authority in everything. And that’s intended to end of the discussion. But, I’m not sure that it really answers the question at all, because the Bible is always interpreted by someone granted authority – that could be a local church that see their pastor as authoritative, or a denomination, or maybe even something a little bit less structured. And it seems that when someone says “the Bible is the ultimate authority,” what they really mean is “my interpretation is the ultimate authority.”
To be perfectly clear – I’m not saying “down with the Bible,” or anything close to that. What I’m asking is that in a world where I can find a wide-range of interpretations to any given text, how does one decide what’s authoritative?
So, here’s a series of questions:
- What should be our authority today? (I’m asking this as a Christian, but if you want to answer from another viewpoint, that’s great.)
- If “the Bible” – whose interpretation is authoritative?
- Is having an authority even necessary – can we live in a “Tea Party / Anonymous” kind of way? That might be good for group, but does that work for an individual, or is that, in the end, just relativism – I do what I want to do?