Hebrews 4:12 - For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
“Word of God” and “Bible” are not synonymous. The word of God can be found in and through reading, studying and meditating on the biblical text, but “word of God” is a more specific term, which can be applied to words on a page but primarily refers to the person of Jesus Christ.
The word of God is living and active. Life involves constant movement and adaptation. Relying on the Bible as a source of authority must take this into consideration. It is tempting to let the words on the page become hardened, retaining interpretations that no longer hold meaning for new situations, which the authors and editors of the Bible never even considered much less encountered. Consider, the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture in which women tended to be illiterate. It would have been irresponsible to have those who could not study biblical texts in leadership, which led some authors in the New Testament to prohibit women from being elders. However, in our culture, women are just as educated as men, forcing us to reconsider the prohibition on women in the pulpit as it applies (or doesn't apply) in our own churches.
The words in the Bible were inspired, not dictated, by the Holy Spirit. Though we are frail and prone to error, God used human beings to write the words of Scripture and continues to use us to interpret them. Knowing this, we must make allowances for the human elements in Scripture, being careful not to turn description into prescription. Care should also be taken in not adopting the cultural prejudices of the biblical writers or characters as our own (e.g. racism, sexism, shunning the poor, disabled, and diseased).
Some people think of the Bible as an instruction manual for life. Thinking in terms of the text from Hebrews cited earlier, which compares the word of God to a sword, it seems more appropriate to think of it as a tool. The instruction book model may leave the impression that the Bible gives an easy and obvious answer for every life situation. On the other hand, a tool model gives the idea that the words and ideas contained in the Bible enable us to live a more faithful life. Such a model also serves to remind us that the Bible is not a fit tool for answering every question. For instance, the Bible is not a textbook which can be used to support scientific research. However, it is a tool which can be used in dealing with the ethical implications of applying scientific discoveries.
Further, viewing the Bible in too simplistic a way does not follow with the interpretive traditions of the Jewish rabbis, the church fathers, the reformers, or modern theologians. The Bible is something much more complex than a yardstick.
Given the way human contexts have varied over time and space and the depth of meaning to be found in the biblical text, it seems reasonable to assume that there could be many different and faithful interpretations of the same text. There are not unlimited faithful interpretations of every text, but neither is there one unquestionable interpretation for any. For example, a community of people living with AIDS in South Africa and a small congregation of farmers in rural Idaho will likely have differing interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Ultimately, the Bible only has authority in the lives of Christians if it can offer guidance in living faithfully toward God and one another in our time and place. In order for the Bible to function in this way, we must consider both the context of the author and our own. We must allow the text to challenge our assumptions and we, in turn, must challenge the text's assumptions. And we must remain dependent on the Holy Spirit, who can enlighten our hearts and minds to find what the text is saying for us, for now.
The Bible doesn't give us easy answers. We are held responsible for immersing ourselves in the texts of Scripture as often as we are able in order to discern its meaning for us and for our communities. Unfortunately, the busyness of our lives often keeps us from pursuing deep study and reflection. It is tempting to rely on notes at the bottom of the pages of our study bibles or the interpretation provided by the familiar voice on the radio or face on the television. Listening to alternative voices is an important part of biblical study but as much as is possible, we should examine what familiar voices tell us in light of what we see in the text ourselves.
This is a work in progress, which makes it a bit stilted, but I trust that as I have more time to consider the question of biblical authority that my ability to express myself on the subject will improve. I'm interested to know what any of you might think about what I've written here whether you agree with me or not. Thanks for taking the time to walk with me.