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Taking the Bible Seriously by Leander E. Keck


Leander E. Keck is Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School, and former Dean. His books include The New Interpreter's Bible (Abingdon 1994-96), Who is Jesus?, Paul and His Letters, and The Life of Jesus. Published by Association Press, 291 Broadway, New York 7, N.Y. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 6: The Authority That Counts


Can such a Bible still be our Scripture? This is our fundamental problem. By emphasizing the ways the Bible is rooted in a variety of cultural situations we have, in effect, hammered on the theme of its relativity. Thus the issue has been drop-forged: can such a Book have real authority today? But first, we must see what we mean by authority.

What Kind of Authority do We Really Have?

The notion of "authority in religion" often offends people. For many, religious faith is a matter so intimate, so inward and intangible that the idea of authority seems crudely inappropriate. Religion is a matter of the heart and the spirit, they argue, and in such matters one should not speak of authority but of freedom. Does not the whole struggle for religious toleration show that the conscience of man must be free? From this vantage point, authority in religion suggests an ominous return to the kind of medievalism we can do without.

Two things may be said to such reluctance. One is that we are not talking about the authority of a power-center (church or state) to compel compliance or coerce convictions. Rather than rehabilitating institutional authority, we are seeking to rethink the possibility that the Bible might still be Scripture. That is, we are facing the question whether the Bible may still be a norm for personal faith and life.

The second point is that authority is simply inescapable. There are no completely autonomous men. Everyone is thoroughly dependent on others for information, attitudes, expectations. The scholarís device for admitting this is the footnote, but there is no way for a person to footnote his whole life. To a large extent, personality may be described in terms of interaction of various authorities such as community mores, home life, inner standards which emerge by reflection. The question is never: "Shall I have an authority?" but always "What authority shall be supreme?" Thus the matter really turns on whether a person has clarified the relative priority of his authorities. The problem of biblical authority concerns the role the Bible may have in this hierarchy.

For some people the Bible has the authority of God himself. It is THE authority because for them it is the inspired, infallible Word of God. To the fundamentalist, the Bible is the one point where the relativity of human existence is broken since the Bible provides immediate access to God. Frequently, this view will not shrink from saying that all the words in the Bible actually came from God himself. This is the logical conclusion of so-called verbal inspiration.

This kind of biblical absolutism cannot be accepted, for despite the assurance it can generate, such authority is neither possible nor permissible. (a) Two considerations show that absolute authority is not possible. To begin with, no one has an unconditioned access to the Unconditioned One. The finitude of man is not suspended when he reads the Bible, nor was it suspended when it was written. True, the common idea of how the Bible was inspired is perilously close to this notion. This popular notion is the ancient Greek idea that in the moment of inspiration the human personality was put into a kind of cold storage; or, to use the Greeksí own example, the person became as a flute, passively ready to play whatever was breathed into it. Everything we have said about the emergence of the Bible points in another direction. The fundamentalist view of the Bible is almost that of Mormonism which holds the Book of Mormon to be translated from specially revealed gold tablets which have long since vanished.

But even if we were to grant that the Bible is not conditioned by history, nothing significant would be gained because in any case the reader is. An historic reader of an absolutely trans-historical text does not really have absolute truth but only what his own historicity will allow him to have. It is the persistent failure of fundamentalism to reckon with this which frequently makes it so arrogant, for it constantly assumes it has unconditioned knowledge of Godís unconditioned Book. Even if we were to grant this for the Bible, we cannot do so for the readers. In all honesty, we must admit we have no access to God which is not conditioned by finitude and historicity. Fundamentalism, of course, has no monopoly on absolutism. It has often been observed that few people are more bigoted than "liberals" who feel themselves surrounded by closed minds. The liberal needs to see the historicity of his axioms just as much as the fundamentalist.

Second, absolute knowledge of God is impossible because of human perversity. This is what the Bible calls "sin." Before the impact of Freudís rediscovery of the irrational in man, one could talk about man without taking account of his persistent efforts to justify himself by conscious and unconscious means. Such naïveté is now impossible, for Freud taught us what the Bible knew -- that the closer one gets to matters of decisive significance for the self (in this case, God), the less able he is to think disinterestedly. In fact, just the opposite is true. The closer one gets to the "nerve" of the self, the more devious are the efforts at self-protection and self-deception. Because the concept of God has decisive consequences for the self, no knowledge of God is free from this propensity.

Moreover, the tendency to tamper with the truth for the sake of the ego is utterly ubiquitous. It affects everyone, liberal and fundamentalist alike. Even if one were to say that the biblical authors were exempt from this tendency when they wrote, the readers are not. In other words, we have only that understanding of God and man which is affected by moral perversity. If the major sin of fundamentalism has been naïveté about the historicity of the Bible, the major sin of liberalism has been naïveté about the perversity of its readers.

Thus, no concept of biblical authority can ignore these twin modifiers of our knowledge of God: finitude (historicity) and perversity (sin). Together they make any doctrine of an unconditioned, absolute knowledge of God through the Bible (or anything else) a worthless definition hanging in a vacuum --admirable, but inaccessible to persons reading Bibles in history.

(b) Nor is biblical absolutism permissible theologically. The quest for (and insistence upon) the unconditioned nature of the Bible is really an attempt to reduce the leap of faith to a pedestrian hop. Frequently, the person who trumpets his claim that he believes so much about the Bible is actually incapable of believing biblically. Faith is reduced to affirming that certain propositions are true, including the proposition that the Bible is free from historicity. Where this occurs, faith is emasculated into mere confidence in reliable statements. Where historicity and relativity are excluded by definition, the risk of doubt is gone, and with it the possibility of faith. If one says he believes in God because he believes the Bible is a monolith of infallible truth, we may wonder if his real faith is a God or in a statement about the Bible.

Interestingly, the Bible sees the desire for absolute knowledge as the root of all sin. This is what tempted Eve to disobey.

But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it [the tree of knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." . . . The woman saw . . . that the tree was to be desired to make one wise. . . ." (Genesis 3:4-7)

The story says, in effect, that man must accept limited knowledge as an ingredient of his life.

The fact that absolute, unconditioned authority is not available to conditioned and contingent man must not lead us to conclude that no authority exists, for some kinds of authority do function. The real question is this: how can an ultimate authority (a Word from God) function through relative, historical, and contingent means? To put it concretely, the question is whether and how God communicates through a book like the Bible read by people like us.

How Does God Speak Through This Bible?

It is fruitful to follow the grain of the Bible itself. We have seen that the writers report historical events in order to get the readers to share the authorís understanding of it. By summoning the community to survey its history, the writer invited his readers to see God at work in it. He aimed for them to see what he saw.

Characteristically, the writers believed their work (Word) was "given" to them by God (for example, Jeremiah 1:1, Hosea 1:1, Joel 1:1. (This is doubtless true also of those who do not say so explicitly.) For this reason, some of the prophets report how God made himself known and laid his Word upon them (for instance, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, Amos 7). Paul does the same thing in a different form (Galatians 1). In other words, having perceived how the divine Thou apprehended them in their own histories, and having grasped certain implications of this, they interpreted their situation (or the history of Israel) in this light. They placed themselves at the disposal of the Word they received so that their words might help the community to hear what they heard and to obey as they obeyed.

This means that if the reader is open enough to the intent of the writer to take him seriously, he risks making the response the author intends. The closer the reader follows the writer, the greater the danger that his own history will be illuminated by the light the author found, the greater the possibility that his own obedience will be ignited by the flame set going in the authorís encounter with God. This is why sensitive Bible reading is an occasion for basic decisions about life. Reading the Bible can be dangerous because one risks exposing his life to the One the author met. The biblical author achieves one of his aims when the reader can say that God has met him too and has redeemed his history by giving him a mythology -- that God has drawn him into the story of his work in the world. The real authority of the Bible is its ability to bring about this encounter. This role of the Bible in the encounter with God is the fundamental element of its authority.

We must clarify the relation between the Bible and God in such an encounter. When a person affirms that as he read the Bible God addressed him, he frequently speaks of it as Godís Word. He need not do so because of some rigid definition of the Bible but because in reading it he has been accosted by the Other One. As was outlined before, the biblical God is so intensely personal that one never meets him as an impersonal It, as one discovers the principle of gravity. Rather, when the reader is caught up in the perspective of the biblical writer, he encounters God as the divine Thou who addresses him Thou to thou.

We have emphasized the historical-critical method because this enables the reader to see what the writer is really trying to say and where he stands when he says it. One can surely be inspired without such knowledge, but one is never sure whether he has gotten the point that was actually intended. Only when the writerís work is understood can one look with him. The Church promotes critical study of the Bible in order to make this possible. Insofar as the critic helps the reader to find where the writer stands so that he can stand with him, the critic has been faithful to the intent of the Bible.

It can hardly be overemphasized, however, that nothing guarantees that understanding and empathy with the writer will produce an encounter with God. Critical study is not a recipe for religious experience. It can only help to make it possible; it can never make it inevitable, nor can anything else. This is because God is free to make himself known when and where he wills. He is not built into the text so that appropriate methods of study will locate him as a Geiger counter finds uranium.

Because one cannot guarantee that reading the Bible brings an encounter with God, it is not really correct to say simply that the Bible is the Word of God, for the word "is" does not point to a static relationship between God and the Bible as it does in the statement "The ink is black." God is not chained to the text but is free to make himself known through it or not to. It is therefore more accurate to say that the Bible may become the Word of God. In this way, we preserve what is really at stake in saying that the Bible is Scripture and we prevent Bible worship. Bibliolatry is sin because it makes the Bible as absolute as God. But by saying that under certain conditions, not controllable by the reader, God may address him through the Bible,(The conception that God makes himself known through the Bible and that this disclosure is validated by God himself is decisive for Protestant thought. The classical phrase is "the inner witness of the Holy Spirit." We shall return to this point in the next chapter.) the authority of the Bible is affirmed and the freedom of God is unimpaired. We must not barter the freedom of God for the authority of the Bible.

Next, we return to the reader who is addressed by Godís Word and ask what this means for him. When the reader risks looking with the Bible and being apprehended by its God, he also risks treating his own religious and social traditions the way the writer treated his. Suppose one sees that the Israelite prophets understood how the demand for relevant religion distorted Israelís faith into the worship of God as a means of guaranteeing prosperity. Armed with this insight, the reader can detect the same dangers in our modern American interest in Religion-in-general. He will be alert to the ways we use Christianity to throw a cloak of divine approval on the American Way of Life.

There is hardly a limit to the illustrations which one could add. But this is not necessary because the point is clear: the basic purpose of the Bible is not fulfilled when one learns about its outlook and contents, nor is it really fulfilled when one is apprehended by God by reading it. The fundamental purpose is fulfilled only when the reader is drawn into the biblical community and interprets his own situation under its impact.

This inevitably makes him a loyal critic -- one who is deeply committed to that element of the tradition which is creative and constructive while at the same time becoming an unflinching critic of all those forces which threaten the heart of the matter. In no case can he be content with a facile identification of tradition and the will of God, whether the traditions be those of "our churchís way of doing things" (that is, mode of baptism, type of organization, or kind of liturgy) or community mores (that is, Southern customs in race relations or Yankee attitudes toward Italians). The reader who has been apprehended by the Word in the Bible knows that anyone who quotes the Bible to sanctify the status quo is prostituting the Scripture.

Of course, not every apprehended reader will hear the Word identically; nor will all hearers of the Word relate it to their setting in the same way. This is what the historicity of human hearing means. The fact that equally conscientious readers draw differing conclusions is no cause for despair. What is cause for despair is the fact that so often no concrete conclusions are drawn at all. But the Bible does not intend to be merely the medium of religious experience. It aims to get the reader beyond religious experience for its own sake so that it will occur for the sake of the community.

Finally, the question of the relevance of the Bible is now in proper perspective. In the first place, if the real authority of the Bible lies in its being a catalyst for an encounter with God which cannot be guaranteed, then God himself determines which parts of the Bible are relevant. Since God is as free as he is sovereign, he is free to address the reader through any part of the Bible, even those parts with which we have serious troubles. The divine Word may address one reader as he follows Paulís analysis of the gospel in Romans 1-8, and yet another is left cold by the involved argument. In a sense, Godís word is like lightning which cannot be predicted or controlled, precisely because it is Godís Word.

In the second place, what is relevant is not simply what is useful. Much of the cry for relevance in religion is simply a thin veil for demanding that someoneís program receive divine sanction. When this occurs, God is neither sovereign nor free; he has been demoted to a cosmic troubleshooter or a divine Dean of Men. But the relevance of the Bible is not to be measured simply by what we find useful to buttress our ideas or programs. The relevance of the Bible may consist precisely in its way of cutting across our notions, of arresting the flow of our assumptions. Frequently the most relevant passage is one which is least suspected.

Suppose a student couple have difficulties in marriage adjustment. What is relevant to their situation? The passages that deal with marriage and family? Perhaps. But usually, these will bypass a particular coupleís problem. This does not make the Bible irrelevant, for what may be most relevant is not a Bible verse about womanhood or divorce but Paulís powerful analysis of the self in conflict as found in Romans 7. Here he states succinctly the agony of the person caught doing the things he detests. In a given household, this insight, unrelated at first glance, may speak a decisive word to a wife who alienates the man she really wants to love.

The point is that relevance in religion cannot be engineered without making God into a flunky. The Westminster Confession saw this when it began by saying "The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever." Modern manís passion for relevance at all costs turns this around so that it says "the chief end of God is to satisfy man and make himself useful forever. If the Bible can help us get out of this egocentrism, it will be profoundly relevant -- even if the point is made by stories about the bloody wars of Jehovah.

In the third place, when the reader takes up the biblical understanding of God and man and begins to understand his own situation in these terms, then the question of the social relevance of the Bible is solved. Particular kinds of ethical matters will be discussed in Chapter Eight. At this point we say simply that the real question is not whether the Bible is relevant for social problems but whether the reader has sufficient courage to follow the relevance he will see. He may hesitate because he wonders whether the summons he hears through the Bible is really God-sent.

Is the Encounter Authentic?

Since we have nailed the flag of biblical authority to the mast of an encounter with God, we cannot avoid asking how one knows he has encountered God. Is the appropriate symbol for Bible reading the telephone which connects two parties in conversation, or is it the radar which bounces back oneís own signal?

The fundamentalist not only claims that the Bible is the Word of God himself but that he can demonstrate this. Ironically, the demonstration usually consists of quotations from the Bible! This may reassure those who do not really press the question, but it does not provide convincing argument for the issue itself.

Obviously, the problem of verification of religious knowledge cannot be treated here with any real adequacy. We must content ourselves with four suggestions which seem most indispensable:

Verification of the encounter with God is neither possible nor permissible. Just as it is impossible to demonstrate the existence of God by either strictly empirical or logical evidence, so it is impossible to verify that a person has been confronted by God. At no point can the reader prove he has been apprehended by the divine Thou. He can offer data to support his conviction, but proof -- evidence which permits only one conclusion -- is something else. This may be disarming, but it is true.

If the reader can not prove that his encounter was with God, he may not prove it either. This is built into the human situation. The veil of ambiguity may not be lifted by mortals in history. Moreover, since the greater proves the lesser, the ultimate encounter (with God) cannot be proved by lesser encounters (with friends or public officials) offered as analogies.

Nonetheless, the conviction that God has spoken through the Bible can be communicated even if it is unprovable. Communication and proof are not the same thing. In communication, conviction is generated by more than logic, and sometimes by less -- as everyone who has wooed and won a wife knows.

For the person involved, the event authenticates itself. The reader cannot prove to another that his experience was an authentic encounter with God; he cannot prove it to himself either. But this is no flaw, for by definition there is no way of authenticating this event. This means, then, that the conviction that one is addressed by God is actually a confession and not a conclusion from evidence. The person apprehended affirms that One has spoken a Word to him which commands full obedience, that reading the Bible has brought a meeting with One whose presence is not debatable to the one addressed. When the biblical God steps out of the text and speaks to the reader, he "knows" he is in no position to contemplate an It but must answer Him. The Bible shows with remarkable consistency the self-authenticating character of such meetings: Moses, Amos, Isaiah, Paul, Peter. (See Exodus 3, Amos 7, Isaiah 6, Galatians 1, Acts 10. The dynamic of such encounters has been analyzed with fertile suggestiveness by Paul Minear in Eyes of Faith [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946]. See especially Chapter 6.) Each man met by God learned that the encounter precluded argument. In the moment of encounter, no one asks God for his identity card.

Nevertheless, theologians have not refused to ask some questions about the encounter. The traditional term for the immediate experience of the divine is "the work of the Holy Spirit." Ultimately, it must be said that the One who elicits the conviction that God has spoken is the Spirit of God himself. This may look like double talk and obscurantism. It need not be, for every assertion about human knowledge assumes that at some point one has an immediate, almost intuitive apprehension of truth. Without this, there can be no meaningful discussion at all, for everyone assumes that he can make a judgment which corresponds to reality. Hence the Christian insistence that it is Godís Spirit which communicates truth is really a way of bringing this axiom into focus by relating this immediate experience of the Ultimate to the doctrine of God. This is one of the issues in the doctrine of the Trinity. For our problem, we may simply say that the Spirit is the immediate Confirmer of the confession that we have met God. There is no way to get behind this.

The reader who believes God addressed him finds that God spoke to others also. Consequently, the Word of God creates a community of the addressed, a community of those who are drawn together for mutual clarification and interpretation of what they have heard. This is the Church, and it is created by the Word, even though the Church produced the Bible; in fact, the Church produced it because it heard the Word and wanted others to hear it also. This is why the Bible has such an important place in Christian worship.

But the Church is not only the consequence of the Word but a criterion for it. That is, the community functions as a control over what may be considered "Word." The Church knows that not everything claimed for Godís Word can be accepted as such, despite the convictions of its advocates. By its own accrued consensus of understanding, the Church developed a tradition of what is permitted (or even required). Often this consensus was crystallized in creeds and confessions of faith. These statements are largely the outcome of the Churchís struggles to determine the legitimate meaning of the Bible, and they are in part intended to guide the readers from generation to generation. But it is important to see that even those churches which pride themselves on not having so-called "man-made creeds" have a tradition for interpreting the Bible. This is every bit as binding as a formal creed. In either case, the modern Christian reads his Bible in the context of a tradition of interpretation, whether this is defined or not and whether this is admitted or not. Even though we may not always like the Churchís consensus, we must admit that when the Church exercises this function, it continues the communal character of the Bible which emerged as a community product in the first place. There really is no such thing as private interpretation; what we do have, and must preserve, is the right of personal conviction.

For example, if someone were to assert that as he read the Bible the Word of God commanded him to set fire to a "heretical" church, the community of faith (and the political community as well) would insist that this is no Word from God at all, and that the man is not to be honored as a prophet or mystic but to be treated in a mental hospital. These institutions have many patients who claim to have heard the Word of God while reading the Bible. They are hospitalized because the Church has learned what cannot be tolerated in the name of Godís Word.

One function of the historical-critical method is to provide help in setting the limits of permissible interpretation. For instance, the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist group strong in Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Texas, rejects organ and piano music in worship because there is no warrant for it in the New Testament. If this group were to take the historical-critical method seriously, they would see that although this is true, the silence is largely accidental and irrelevant.

The Churchís role in guiding the understanding of the Bible has been emphasized especially in the Roman Catholic Church. Here an infallible Church guarantees what the Bible may mean. Protestantism has rejected the infallible Church, and some have not been afraid to stake their case on an infallible Book, implying that they have an unambiguous interpretation equally infallible. Both forms of authoritarianism must be set aside, even though this means living without the security these positions offer. But security does not determine validity.

Moreover, we must not bind the Spirit of God to the Church, Catholic or Protestant. Whenever the Spirit is incarcerated in a particular Church, it becomes a sect. This is why the Roman Church is as sectarian as it is catholic. Since the Spirit of God is free we must always reckon with the possibility that the Spirit will speak a Word which will undermine the particular position of a church. This was the issue when Martin Luther stood unafraid against the full weight of tradition and dogma, and in the name of Godís Word insisted that the Church was wrong. Protestantism dare not turn its back on such a constant possibility without ceasing to be Protestant. The community that takes seriously the authority of the Spirit speaking through the Bible always exists under the threat of reformation. The traditionalist who believes the Spirit has already had his say (except to perpetuate the tradition) will always view this possibility as the threat of anarchy. This should not surprise us, for the greatest danger to the security of the Church has never come from the hostility of men but from the free Spirit of God.

Finally, we must not overlook the pragmatic test for the validity of the encounter with God. An important standard for judging whether the encounter was valid is the quality of life and action it produces. Paul found this an important criterion, for he had to contend with all sorts of claims made in the name of religious experience (I Corinthians 12-14). His basic principle was "Let all things be done for edification" (I Corinthians 14:26). That is, the overarching goal must always be constructive, the development of a community of faith where genuine concern (or love) is the norm (I Corinthians 13). In the same way, we must insist that genuine encounters with God have constructive consequences. We remember, of course, that what is constructive depends on the situation just as what is health promoting depends on the patient. In both cases, constructive results may call for radical surgery.

Where the community recognizes the constructive character of what is claimed in the name of an encounter with God, it believes a manís confession that God spoke to him and that he heard. When the Church admits this it also says, in effect, that it will listen seriously to what the man now has to say. This is one reason that the Church ordains ministers. The danger is that the Church may think the minister hears the Word simply because he is ordained, when it is really the other way around. The Word of God may speak to anyone who reads the Bible. This is an inescapable risk; it is also an irreducible promise.

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