From Revd Anna Bishop
For many of us, our perspective on all matters to do with relationships and sexual behaviour draws on our reading of the Bible. For this reason, as we meet to discuss these matters, it is important to pause, and reflect that “our reading of the Bible” is really not such a simple matter!
In 1998 the Methodist Conference adopted a Faith and Order report, which identified seven different attitudes to biblical authority, and indicated a range of ways in which Methodists use what is written in the Bible as a source for what they believe and do. The report states that all of these ways are acceptable within “our doctrines”: none is more useful or more correct than any other. Indeed the report highlights the richness brought to the faith community and to the discipleship of the individual believer, by engagement with a range of different approaches to Scripture:
“…we cannot expect only one specific view of the Bible’s authority to win the day and convince everyone else. Though we agree on the central issues, there are many open questions which lead different Christians to view the Bible in somewhat different ways. It is necessary to remember that salvation is by faith in Christ and not through attitudes to Scripture, or doctrines held, or the living of a perfect life.
If we can understand how and why Christians come to a range of views on the Bible, some of which might seem strange or questionable to us, perhaps we can come to respect each other’s perspectives, and together make biblically-informed decisions about Christian living in the world today.”
Therefore, as you prepare to discuss with others the issues raised in the God in Love Unites Us report, you might find it helpful to read through the seven models set out below and reflect on which one, or combination, of these tends to be your own default for understanding the Bible. Which do you find most difficult and why? Which most informs your current beliefs about the matters raised in God in Love Unites Us? Spend some time meditating on the light each of these perspectives might shed on the issues to be discussed.
Models of Biblical Authority
7.9 The seven following examples represent different perspectives on biblical authority which are held within the Church. They are not precise definitions, and any one of us might feel that our own position is a mixture of two or three of these examples. But they are intended to illustrate briefly the range of views which are held, and the reasons for holding them.
7.9.1 The Bible is the Word of God and is, therefore inerrant (free of all error and entirely trustworthy in everything which it records) and has complete authority in all matters of theology and behaviour. It is ‘God-breathed’ and its human authors were channels of the divine Word. The Christian’s task is to discern accurately what the Bible teaches and then to believe and obey it. Reason, experience and tradition should be judged in the light of the Bible, not the other way round.
This view is concerned to safeguard the conviction that the Bible has its origin in God. It works from the premise that God cannot be the author of error, and therefore the Bible cannot contain error. To give undue status to any other source of authority is to exalt fallible human insight over the infallible Word of God.
7.9.2 The Bible’s teaching about God, salvation and Christian living is entirely trustworthy. It cannot be expected, however, to provide entirely accurate scientific or historical information since this is not its purpose. Nevertheless, it provides the supreme rule for faith and conduct, to which other ways of ‘knowing’, while important, should be subordinate.
This view also stresses the divine origin of Scripture, its supreme authority for Christian belief and practice, and its priority over other sources of authority. But it holds that reliable information on, for example, historical or scientific matters may not fall within God’s purpose in giving the Bible.
7.9.3 The Bible is the essential foundation on which Christian faith and life are built. However, its teachings were formed in particular historical and cultural contexts, and must therefore be read in that light. The way to apply biblical teaching in today’s very different context is not always obvious or straightforward. Reason is an important (God-given) gift which must be used to the full in this process of interpretation.
This view emphasizes that the Word of God contained in a collection of books written in times and places very different from our own cannot simply be read as a message for our own situation. We must work out by the use of reason how far and in what way the ancient text can appropriately be applied to the modern situation.
7.9.4 The Bible’s teaching, while foundational and authoritative for Christians, needs to be interpreted by the Church. In practice it is the interpretation and guidance offered by Church leaders and preachers which provides authoritative teaching. Church tradition is therefore of high importance as a practical source of authority.
This view is concerned to stress that the people of God, the Church, existed before the Bible and that the Bible therefore does not exist independently of the Church. Interpretation of the Bible is essentially a matter for the Church community, and especially its appointed leaders, rather than for private individuals.
7.9.5 The Bible is one of the main ways in which God speaks to the believer. However, the movement of God’s Spirit is free and unpredictable, and it is what the Spirit is doing today that is of the greatest importance. The Bible helps to interpret experience, but much stress is placed on spiritual experience itself, which conveys its own compelling authority.
On this view, to give too high a status to the Bible may prevent us from hearing what God is saying to us today. We should be guided principally by the convictions which emerge from our own Christian experience as individuals and as a church community, which on occasion will go against the main thrust of the Bible’s teaching.
7.9.6 The Bible witnesses to God’s revelation of himself through history and supremely through Jesus Christ. However, the Bible is not itself that revelation, but only the witness to it. Christians must therefore discern where and to what extent they perceive the true gospel witness in the various voices of the Bible. Reason, tradition and experience are as important as the biblical witnesses.
This view emphasizes that the Bible mediates the Word of God but is not identical with the Word of God. We can discover which parts of the Bible are God’s Word for us only if we make use of all the resources of reason, church tradition and experience.
7.9.7 The Bible comprises a diverse and often contradictory collection of documents which represent the experiences of various people in various times and places. The Christian’s task is to follow, in some way, the example of Christ. And to the extent that the Bible records evidence of his character and teaching it offers a useful resource. However, in the late 20th century it is simply not possible to obey all its teachings since these stem from very human authors and often represent the ideology of particular groups or classes in an ancient and foreign culture. Reason and experience provide much more important tools for faith and practice.
This view also stresses that the Bible was written by people addressing particular times and situations. But, guided by the insights of, for example, feminist and liberation theologies, it further argues that before we can discover in it God’s Word for us we must strip away from it those elements which betray the vested interests of particular groups, for instance, the interests of male dominance or of political and economic power-blocks.
7.10 If we go back to the Deed of Union and its summary statement that, ‘the Methodist Church acknowledges the divine revelation recorded in the Holy Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith and practice’ we can see that most, if not all, of these positions are compatible with possible interpretations of this ambiguous phrase!
Taken from A Lamp to my feet and a Light to my Path: The Nature of Authority and the Place of the Bible in the Methodist Church,
Published for the Methodist Conference 1998
By Methodist Publishing House