Today I read an article titled “Less Than Half of Christian Americans Read the Bible.” In fact, only 37% of self-proclaimed Christians pick it up on a regular basis. This is a real problem for Christian culture – a culture that is dependent upon sacred Scripture. More and more, our contemporary culture is turning away from the text as THE authority for a Christian’s life and thought.
In his article, “Inerrantism as Narcissism: Biblical Authority as a Cultural Problem,” James Moseley points out that authority is a term of relationship and not of some special property. That is to say, whenever one claims authority, the people under that claim must agree, even if silently, that the claimant does indeed have authority! In a football game, if the players refuse to do what the referee says, does the referee have any actual authority? No – the players and coaches agree to the idea that the referees are in charge of enforcing the rules.
Authority, then, is the ability to influence the thought and actions of others when those particular others have agreed to submit to the influencing agent. This is especially true regarding matters of faith. The term Christian carries with it (or should carry with it?) the notion of one who lives under Scriptural authority.
The conservative and liberal camps often argue how Christian Scripture is authoritative, but I would venture to say that the average Christian acknowledges some manner of Scriptural authority. Scripture does not contain any authority in and of itself. It is authoritative because of the authority which backs it up. That is to say, the authority of God is exercised through Scripture. Technically, then, God is ultimately authoritative and Scripture possesses a secondary or delegated authority. Scripture, though, pushes that authority upon the believer. There is a relationship between text and disciple and authority is given and received when the believer confesses that Scripture is the Word of God. This is the crux of the matter for the Christian and Scriptural authority. Scripture is only authoritative through faith. One cannot prove Scripture’s authority to a non-believer using rational arguments.
Any confession of faith that results in authority yields both a sense of identity and a set of norms for faith and practice. It is the sense of identity that allows one to claim the title Christian, Muslim, or Jew. But with that confession (and thus the title) comes a set of norms for thought and action, i.e. any claim must be accompanied by life characterized by the claim. The confessing Christian acknowledges that the one true authority is God, yet the confession also acknowledges that God has revealed himself through human words. These human words form the norms and standards for that confession.
But when people claim the title “Christian,” and accept the sense of identity without accepting the set of norms, we speak of them derogatorily as “nominal Christians.” This nominalism has led many biblical scholars, theologians, and pastors to proclaim a modern crisis of biblical authority. The expression “crisis of authority” assumes that Scripture should be normative for Christian thought and behavior. Indeed, “Christian praxis” without the “Christian” is merely social action or moral behavior. “Christian praxis” without the “praxis” is merely mental assent to the possibility of the Christian God without allowing God to possess any practical power or authority to influence believers.
We know more about the Bible than ever before yet there is a disconcerting lack of use of the Bible in everyday life. Scripture holds a special place in the Christian heart but sees little real function in terms of influence. Lutheran theology in particular seems to emphasize the influential and functional use of Scripture—a mainstay of their theology, thus combating this lack of regular use. Scripture is not simply a repository of past revelation but is a current Word of God for the church with immediate authority.
The application of this theology could be one of the most difficult aspects of Scriptural authority. While most Christians acknowledge the theoretical functionality of Scripture, allowing Scripture to be the major influencing force in life and thought is difficult. When we flat out refuse to allow our lives to be molded by the text, we have rejected the authority of the text.
Yes, Christianity exists beyond the text. People followed God before it was written. Cultures without a written language still follow Yahweh. But the Christian faith was born into a textual relationship, understanding that God revealed himself through the Old Testament and continued to reveal himself through the inspiration recorded in the New Testament. A Christianity devoid of sacred Scripture is not an authentic Christianity at all, but a cheap replica that desires to hold to the “nice” elements of faith without being accountable to the Word of God.
Chris Linzey is husband to Tené, father to the three most beautiful children in the world, movie addict (seriously, if it’s on a screen he'll watch it—doesn’t matter how crummy or low-budget), and a Navy Chaplain, currently assigned to Naval Air Station, Meridian. Chris has a deep desire to help people live lives of faith where the Bible is more than mere words on a page, but the way we live everyday. His undergrad and Master’s studies were in Biblical Studies and he focused on the New Testament (his mentor was a Gospel of Mark scholar). He went on to get a Master of Divinity (MDiv) in Pastoral Preaching. Follow him at @chrislinzey.