A recent post, Doing My Best to Undermine the Authority of Scripture, apparently raised an eyebrow or two. I think I hit a nerve. If our denomination is not splitting, it is at least flaking off at the right edge. There are a significant number of congregations leaving. I think a question to ask is,
"Why? Why are these congregations leaving?"
A second question to ask is,
"What can we learn from this?"
The congregations that are leaving are telling us why. This is from the Layman about the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando:
The 2011 approval of Amendment 10A and the passage of the new Form of Government (nFOG) topped the list of factors leading to FPCO’s departure in what many similar churches see as symptoms of a serious underlying problem in the denomination: variant views of the authority of Scripture.
You saw what I saw, right?
...a serious underlying problem in the denomination: variant views of the authority of Scripture.
Yeah, that is what I saw, too. Authority of Scripture.
We all know that we are supposed to affirm, at least by vow and theory, that the Bible is authoritative, the Word of God. But what does that mean? Is it communication from a divine being? Those leaving the church complain that the PC(USA) doesn't believe this anymore. The liberals and moderates complain that that isn't the case. They say they believe in the authority of scripture.
I am nobody's judge, but I would have to side with the conservatives on this one. Now I know I am the 1% (See this chart). In 2008 1% of pastors checked this box, "The Bible is not the word of God." That would be me. I am a proud one-percenter.
I am one of the few PC(USA) clergy (at least that I know about), who admits publicly that the Bible is not a communication from a divine being. I can play with metaphors, like "Word of God" like the rest of my colleagues to get through the vows, but there is nothing in the Bible, nor is the Bible as a whole, special revelation.
Now I cannot prove that a divine being, spirit, or presence didn't hover over, blow upon, or otherwise inspire the various authors, but, is it necessary to think so? Isn't it interesting enough that human beings came up with it?
I know we are not supposed to say that. In fact, we clergy in particular are supposed to work our tails off and tie ourselves in knots to find a way to affirm the authority of scripture. But it is getting tedious, isn't it? It is getting harder and harder to defend the incredible.
I cannot think of one good thing that comes from this notion. I can certainly name a number of harmful things that have come from it. This is not an abstract theological point I am bringing up.
Churches are splitting over this. Gay and lesbian people have been denied ordination because of the authority of scripture. For many, the Bible trumps science regarding how humans arrived. The authority of scripture gives people a pass to do things or say things that they could never do or say if they had to rely on reason and logic to make their case.
There is a reason for the doctrine of biblical authority. That reason is power. It is the power to control access to institutional goods. I think it might be a good time for us to admit to what we don't believe or do believe. There is reason for the institution to seek clarity on this.
I think it is time for the PC(USA) to revisit all of its beliefs, but this is a good place to start. The churches are telling us that they are leaving because of "variant views of the authority of scripture." I think we should believe them when they say that.
I think that people on the left have been leaving the church for a lot longer. These are the folks who in decades past might have been part of a mainline church such as the PC(USA) but no longer find it credible. Bishop Spong calls them the church alumni association. If you want a snapshot of who these folks are, listen to my interview with Sarah Sentilles.
What can we learn from this?
I am going to ask some questions and write some posts about the authority of scripture. I want to know:
- What is meant by the phrase, "the authority of scripture"?
- How is the Bible authoritative?
- Why should the PC(USA) continue to affirm this doctrine?
- What is lost or gained if we let it go?
Please give me your best reasons, colleagues. If you know of articles, books, or blog posts, that you find convincing, please let me know. Make your own case. At the very least, the Presbyterian Church website could include an article in the "What Presbyterians Believe" section that might address the above questions.
I still stand by what I wrote in 2005:
I believe that many clergy are overdue for a heart to heart with their congregations about the metaphor “Word of God” especially as it applies to the Bible. I have found that this metaphor more often stops creative thought than inspires it. The question we might ask our congregations is, “If the Bible is the Word of God, what makes it so?”
Modern scholarship has eroded the foundations for this metaphor. We have come to a time in which it is incredible to assert that our canon of scripture is objectively true or authoritative for all of humanity. Appeals to the Bible’s historical or scientific accuracy are naive. The claim that our canon has been dictated or inspired by supernatural revelation amounts to little more than special pleading. There is no magic power that makes the Bible or any text within it superior, truer, or more divinely inspired that any other human writing, religious or secular. The hands of human beings through their own imaginative power made every jot and tittle of carving and of script. The Bible is a collection of the writings of humans for humans. Once we dismiss the assumption that our book or library of books is more authoritative than any other collection, we can finally take our seat around the table of humanity.
When faith communities begin demythologizing the Bible, some interesting things will happen. The Bible’s authority will shift away from the text and toward the individual interpreter or community of interpreters. No longer will the Bible be considered an authoritative source of truth that contains infallible propositions about God or the human condition. Rather, it will become a resource for wisdom. Since authority is earned by the truth it tells, the Bible will have whatever authority the individual or community gives to it. People may find through its narratives, poetry, and song, an oasis of spiritual refreshment. Or they may not. It will be up to the people (both collectively and individually) to draw out what is meaningful and good and to discard what is not meaningful and good.
The preacher’s task will be to offer permission and encouragement for the congregation to engage in this discipline of freedom. The preacher can no longer assume that within a biblical text is a Word from God that needs to be teased out through exegesis and delivered to the waiting faithful. The preacher can no longer assume that just because a text is in the Bible that it is from God or is even valuable. A preacher can, however, provide information about a text using such tools as literary and historical criticism. The preacher can also provide an opinion regarding the text’s value for the community of faith. The preacher may even use the text as an impetus to speak about a contemporary concern. But I believe it is unethical for a preacher to make the claim that what s/he is saying is true, good or of God because it is based on his or her interpretation of a biblical text. In other words, a preacher cannot use a biblical text to prove a point. Anything a preacher says must stand on its own terms. This ethic will free both the biblical text and the preacher. The text will be freed from the preacher’s misuse of it. The preacher will be freed from the constraints of needing to “preach from the Bible” or to have everything s/he says to be backed by scripture.
Preaching can do a great deal of good in a community of faith. It can inspire, comfort, challenge, and inform for the betterment of humanity. Preaching can also do a great deal of harm. The harm results not so much on the content of the message or its style of delivery as on the implied authority of the preacher because s/he supposedly preaches the Word of God. I believe that Word of God is not only a meaningless metaphor; it is also a harmful metaphor for both the Bible and the preaching act. I recommend that preachers discontinue its use and have this conversation with their congregations.
To be clear, I am not so concerned about keeping the people on the right who are leaving. Those on the right see the issue as the authority of scripture. It is time for the rest of us to admit that, dismiss the doctrine, and move into the future.