Biblical Authority as Subjective Encounter

For my family and sexuality in the Bible class, I was asked to reflect on how I viewed biblical authority.  In the spirit of laying my cards on the table and to cap the How to Read the Bible series, I thought I might post it.  Sorry it’s so long.  — Scott

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Certainly, my current understanding of the authority of Scripture is shaped in reaction to my upbringing in a fundamentalist church.  Scripture was thought to be inerrant and God-breathed.  Further, the Bible was thought be a monolithic text with a clear narrative arc and consistent theological view.  Most importantly, the Bible was the center of our faith.  In spite of the problems I saw, I was assured and comforted that it all really made sense if I could just see how, if I could just read it with the Holy Spirit.  College ended that.  Not only did the factual problems I had noticed gain credibility from real scholars, but I started to see how my worldview centered on Scripture actually excluded and harmed a lot of people.  In trying to find a church to attend during college, I discovered that my questions were unwelcome.  I gave up on the whole thing – not just church, but Christianity as a whole.  The journey back lasted twenty years and travelled through the writing of Elaine Pagels and Marcus Borg.  I discovered that I still loved the Bible after all that time and those authors gave me a glimpse of other possibilities, other ways to read that revealed the God that I never stopped seeking.  They set me on the path back to church and on to seminary where my views on the Bible have coalesced.  Today, I view the Bible as a valuable dialog partner with whom I engage in mutual self-revelation to be transformed toward the presence of God.

In order to get to an understanding of the Bible as a dialog partner, we must first understand the Bible as symbolic.  I do not mean “merely” symbolic, but a very specific and rich definition of symbol drawn from Ricoeur and masterfully articulated by Sandra M. Schneiders.  She defines a symbol as “a sensible reality which renders present to and involves a person subjectively in a transforming experience of transcendent mystery.”[1]  According to this view, a symbol mediates between sensible, embodied reality and the transcendent.  It does so by rendering that mystery present, but only as an instantiation of a relationship between subjects.  Thus, the Bible, when engaged subjectively, can be the very presence of God as a subject.

The Bible as subject opens itself, reveals itself, bares itself.  It is the precise opposite of the Bible as an object of study.  Objects are necessarily bounded.  They can be examined, measured, explained, and quantified, but they never speak.  They provide information, but not revelation.  This information can be useful, but it does not matter in an ultimate sense.  One’s being is not at risk when experiencing an object.  But a subject opens onto the vast mystery of the Other.  One risks destruction in the presence of the Divine, but finds truth.  The possible points of connection between two subjects are almost limitless.  As Schneiders points out, a symbol does not merely point to a single reality in a one-to-one correspondence, but to a multiplicity of interpretive possibilities.[2]  She goes further, saying that this plethora of possibilities necessarily keeps the encounter open-ended.[3]  The Bible does not provide information, a narrow meaning to be grasped and held.  It is an ongoing encounter of revelation.  It can never be closed down.  If it can be entirely accounted for, it bears no relation to the Divine.  The Divine does not simply deliver answers to waiting, receptive minds.

No, an encounter with the Divine is a dialog.  God confronts a person, calls out, and awaits a response.  Similarly, we call out constantly for God and await a response.  Intrinsic to true dialog is openness to the other.  The Bible, as encounter with the Divine, speaks to me and I speak to the Bible.  We may view each other skeptically because there is something at risk.  We must take care of each other in this vulnerable space.  Someone could get hurt. But if we give ourselves to the encounter, we are both revealed.  We both become who we truly are.

Thus, reading the Bible is an ongoing process of mutual self-revelation.  A great deal of the dialog is discovering the difference between the embodied and the transcendent.  This is not to break down the symbol into some hypothetical “essential” reality.  Nor is it to reject that which is temporal and finite.  No, it is to understand it as a whole, to be open to all that it is, in all its truth and beauty and brokenness.  I want to know the collective fears and hopes that produced the text.  I want to live in them because I already do.  The Bible asks me right back: What do you hope for?  What do you fear?  Who do you love?  Who do you turn away from?  Who do you destroy?  As an object, an artifact of centuries of human effort, we can study these things, learn these things, but as a subject we can encounter the Divine, we can know our fears, our sin, and be transformed.  This, for me, is the ethical authority of the Bible.

This authority cannot be regarded so trivially as an object.  It must be interrogated, viewed critically, asked to understand itself.  When the Bible understands God to destroy every living thing in a worldwide flood, what anguish and despair and frustration is revealed?  What is hoped for?  Most importantly, are these things mine?  When the Bible speaks of the gendering of humanity, whose interests are furthered?  Probably mine.  Who is harmed?  Probably someone I care about.  Probably someone who calls out in anguish and despair and frustration.  When I encounter that person, my ethical obligation is to make present the God who rebukes evil to bring forth life.

Because this is not an objective process, it is not easy.  Growing up, I was told that the Bible had all the answers.  Now, I think it has a lot of really great questions.  Maybe it has a few really big, really important answers that help us work on the rest.  But, ultimately, the essence of ethics is making decisions as a real, embodied being.  No one has ever been precisely where I am right now.  No one has ever had the collection of experiences I have.  But if I open myself up to the address of the other, we can render God present.  We can find that space between that is both and neither and so much more.  That is the space in which we can be transformed into people equipped for every good work.  Rather than considering our options, weighing the costs and benefits, appealing to an abstract principle of the good, we can simply spend time with one another in God and act with love, justice, and compassion.  That is the Scripture that is written out in our lives.  That is the authority.  That is God’s presence.

The Bible then, is one of the ways we might render God present, to engage in an encounter of ongoing, mutual self-revelation and transformation toward the Good.  I no longer see it as a guidebook, filled with answers about how to live my life today.  Instead, I understand it as a symbol that I must approach as a subject.  We give ourselves to each other and see who we truly are.  We share our fears and our hopes and meet God.  In so doing, we are transformed.



[1] Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 2003), 66.

[2] Schneiders, 67.

[3] Schneiders, 67.

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