Over at the House of Bishops/Deputies Listserv a discussion started concerning the so-called “supremacy” or “authority” of Scripture — particularly in relation to which leg of Hooker’s putative three-legged stool constituted the greatest “authority.” It is commonly asserted, for example, that reason cannot trump Scripture. This notion runs contrary to one of Hooker’s basic principles: that reason is a necessary implement without which Scripture cannot fruitfully be used. He also said,
The force of arguments drawn from the authority of Scripture itself, as Scriptures commonly are alleged, shall (being sifted) be found to depend upon the strength of this so much despised and debased authority of man? Surely it doth, and that oftener than we are aware of... Even such as are readiest to cite for one thing five hundred sentences of holy Scripture; what warrant have they, that any one of them doth mean the thing for which it is alleged? Is not their surest ground most commonly, either some probable conjecture of their own, or the judgment of others taking those Scriptures as they do?... That some things which they maintain, as far as some men can probably conjecture, do seem to have been out of Scripture not absurdly gathered. Is this a warrant sufficient for any man’s conscience...? (Lawes, II.VII.8)
So which is of the greater “authority”?
From my perspective, before such a question can be answered, we have to say what we mean by “authority.” I have long used the definition, “the capacity to issue commands with a reasonable expectation they will be followed.”
With that in mind, my view is that Scripture is not a source of “authority.” (Any more that “Reason” is — Reason is how we think, a tool, a method, not a “source of authority” in and of itself. As for Tradition, I’d say it is also not an authority, but a record of previous decisions, all of them subject to re-examination and change by the real authority — the church. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)
So back to Scripture. It is — as it calls itself, or as it has been called for so very long — testimony or covenant. It is evidence presented for our acceptance, or something to which we agree to bind ourselves. The fact that our acceptance or agreement is voluntary rather than coerced indicates that this is not a question of authority, but of relationship.
As testimony, the Scripture functions in the way any good prophet or witness would — pointing not to itself but to God. It is a “ministering (ev)angel” and a servant of God sent to tell us certain truths about God. This is the whole point of “revelation.” But Scripture is not that to which it points. It is not God.
It is obvious that the Scripture does contain a number of commands issued with an expectation that they will be obeyed — and in many cases presented as the commands of God. But the interpretation and implementation of those commands — even those from God — are under the church’s authority. The church believes itself to be competent to amend or even to set aside some of these commands — even divine commands. (One of the things that brings discredit on churches — even some of the most fundamentalist — is their pledge of allegiance to inerrancy of Scripture or “sola Scriptura” combined with their manifest failure always to abide by “plain readings,” or their inconsistent or selective application of Scripture to situations and circumstances. I have no beef with Orthodox Jews who really do attempt to live by the Law as closely as they are able; or the few Christian sects who actually do attempt to live a first-century life of apostolic simplicity — but the demonstrable inconsistency of most evangelicals and fundamentalists is simply scandalous — in the classic sense.)
The fact is, most Christian churches do interpret and apply the Scripture — demonstrating their decisive authority over it. Various criteria have been provided for making such decisions over the years — beginning with the earliest understanding that Jesus himself had set aside the dietary commandments (a setting aside which Peter seems to have been unwilling to adopt until his vision of the sheet let down from heaven — a vision he soon came to understand wasn’t about food at all).
The Apostles later set aside the whole of the Law — for Gentiles — except for provisions either designed to maintain table-fellowship, or as part of the Noachide tradition (these are two prevailing theories — though I have argued in Reasonable and Holy that in setting aside the Jewish Law they understood that Gentiles still had to forgo things already forbidden under Gentile law, such as murder or adultery, but only felt the need to add to the list of forbidden actions permitted to Gentiles under their law, such as idolatry and eating blood).
The early and later church exercised its authority and further finessed these understandings. The Church of Rome has long, and rightly, and bluntly, asserted its authority over Scripture. Anglicans came up with the fudgy notion concerning authority in rites and ceremonies, but also in fact felt free to, and did, alter moral teachings — and to be fully above-board and frank, the “testimony” of Scripture itself does not make such distinctions concerning its laws. (Even amongst the Ten Commandments — the only portion of the Law considered to have been written with God’s own hand — the Law of the Sabbath is plainly “ritual.” And, in fact, the church felt free to alter the observance of the Sabbath by a day, and now scarcely holds a memory of the fact that, biblically speaking, Sabbath-breaking is a capital offense!)
All of this indicates that the real authority is the church — whether it wants to make this a matter of stated doctrine, as Rome does, or fudge it as Anglicans do. The church makes the decisions on the meaning and application of Scripture. And by “church” I mean any church that declares itself to be such. There is no “authority” to gainsay such actions, since the demise of the coercive power of a church in league with the secular arm of its nation or empire to require obedience on threat of punishment or death. Some may bemoan that fact, but that it is a fact is incontestable.
So, in short, I think the word “authority” should be retired when referring to Scripture. I prefer to stick with the classical Anglican understanding of “sufficiency” unto salvation, the end to which it was given by God.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG