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The Search For

Biblical Authority Today


I am very happy to be participating in this celebration of Newton's

150th anniversary, and I am honored by the invitation to speak. I have
chosen a topic within an area of my own interest. Still I would judge that
some reflection on the role of the Bible in the life of the church is highly
appropriate for such an occasion. One does not have to read far in the
history of the American Baptists to discover how important and continu-
ous has been the struggle with the question of biblical authority.
I am impressed in reading the report of the Executive Committee of the
Massachusetts Baptist Education Society, dated Nov. 9, 1825, to see the
central role which had been assigned to the teaching of the Bible in this
original vision of The Newton Theological Institution. Of particular
interest was the obvious concern that the Baptist clergy b e a learned
profession, well-schooled in Scripture, but to the end that the Bible be
used to speak with authority in all the areas of practical Christian living. I
can think of no better formulation of goals for today.
This past summer I once again read through Sidney Ahlstrom's A
Religious History of the American People, with special attention in
seeing how the Bible was read and heard throughout our country's
history. As one would expect, the picture is complex and varied. It does
not fit easily into the familar textbook patterns which one has abstracted
from European history, but it has its own inner dynamic. Although I am
far from understanding all the ramifications of the role of the Bible in
American history, I came away with an impression of great struggle, of
vitality, and often confusion. Concern with the Bible cannot b e restricted
to a "Bible Belt," but its influence has penetrated into every section of
our pluralistic culture.
I am fully aware of the difficult task of addressing the subject of biblical
authority, not least because of the crisis of authority in every other sphere
of American life. I will not belabor the obvious point that the traditional
authority accorded all our institutions, including family, state, and
church, have suffered serious erosion during the last decades. Yet people
continue to submit to authority of some sort, and the issue is not whether
authority, but what kind. Into the vacuum left by traditional religious
authority has come a host of other forces which claim the right to guide. I
recently saw a notice on a college bulletin board announcing the
formation of a new group concerned with survival, which offered its
novel program. It read:
"In view of total governmental control w e wish to establish self-
sufficient centres for living in harmony with universal law, purifying
our bodies, and gaining functional knowledge of the 4th and 5th

dimensions. But most important, surviving the 6th degree adjustment
of the polar axis of the earth (cf. Rev. 6:12)."
I checked the biblical reference, but must confess that I am still in the
dark and need the authoritative interpretation of our local guru.
The problem of biblical authority has more serious obstacles to
overcome than such patent distortions. Many serious people would argue
that the history of those claiming biblical authority for their actions has
been so miserable as to render meaningless any present or future claims.
A classic example given is the alleged failure of the Bible to offer
guidance on the issue of slavery during the two centuries of American
history preceding the Civil War. One only has to read the most recent
treatment of the subject by Scherer, Slavery and the Churches, to be
depressed by the ease in which the institution of slavery was justified by
the Christian Church in the Colonial period. Indeed there was the early
Quaker repudiation of slavery which employed biblical warrants, but that
witness was offset by other learned ecclesiastical treatises which actually
found in the Old Testament a defense of the institution.
Yet I am equally impressed by the fact that in the generation im-
mediately preceding the Civil War, as the conscience of the nation was
slowly aroused both from within and without the church, the Bible did
play a significant role both among Abolitionists and frontier evangelists
as well. It was as if this often quoted and misused book continued to fester
and burn in the hearts of a people, to provide Lincoln with the imagery of
"an almost chosen people" and of the divine judgment on a nation who
would not decide from a God who was "trampling out the grapes of
wrath." The point is that the Bible has a way of overcoming the folly of
men who would seek to chain its authority to their own ends.
I think that one can illustrate this paradoxical feature of biblical
authority from very recent history. We have just come through a period in
American theology in which one dominant paradigm for describing
biblical authority has been replaced. As many of you undoubtedly
remember, in the period following the Second World War under the
leadership of so-called "neo-orthodoxy," there was much talk of the
authority of the Bible in terms of "Heilsgeschichte," of a "God who acts,"
and of a covenant people. For various and complex theological and
cultural reasons, this way of understanding the Bible, in the opinion of
many, proved inadequate to meet the new crises which exploded on
American society in the late sixties. Indeed the ensuing confusion
seemed to call in question whether the Bible even had a role for the new
Again it is significant to note that much of the force of the new
theological winds which had been unleashed came from the same Bible.
When the "new left" spoke about radical honesty, of freedom to live and
love, ofjustice for the oppressed, it was an echooften in secular form

BREVARD S. C H I L D S is Professor of Old Testament and Fellow of Davenport College at

T h e Divinity School, Yale University.

of central biblical notes which, all too often, had become muffled. Martin
Luther King may not have known much about "Heilsgeschichte," but his
famous speech at the Washington Memorial in 1963 was a modern
paraphrase of Isaiah's eschatological hope. From what I have b e e n able to
discern, in spite of the incredible parade of passing theologies which we
have recently experienced, genuine interest in the Bible itself has not
diminished. Again the point is that there are mysteries and paradoxes
surrounding the Bible's exercise of authority which are not immediately
apparent and certainly justify our further reflection.
It is appropriate to speak about a "search" for biblical authority to make
clear that w e are all still seeking illumination. Also I would want to
distinguish between the acutal authority which the Bible exerts and our
theories which try to explain the reality. Surely history has taught us to b e
less confident in our theological systems. In the pre-critical period,
particularly in the age following the Reformation, serious theologians
sought to define the authority of the Bible in much too tight and rigid a
fashion as if by settling the place of the Bible once and for all one could
build a theological and philosophical edifice undisturbed. It is a painful
history to recall the church's retreat before the onrush of the rationalistic,
scientific flood which swept over Western Europe. The theological
theories were first bent and then collapsed. Yet conversely, at the height
of the liberal period in the early 20th century, w h e n Bxible study consisted
of rehearsing the "assured results" of historical critical research, the
Bible once again burst out of the shallow grave to which it had b e e n
confidently assigned, and theologians began to reckon in astonishment
with the new and strange world of the Bible.
Whatever we will have to say in this search for authority, we will do
well to reckon with the element of mystery and strangeness. It would
almost seem as if each new generation must come to grips with unex-
pected effects from this book. When we come with new questions, then
we begin to discover a fresh set of answers. The way in which our hearing
of the biblical witness is influenced by our changing historical situation
was recently dramatized to me. For some years I have b e e n in the custom
of studying the first few chapters of Genesis in a Hebrew exegesis course.
Perhaps it was because I had read these chapters so often, or perhaps I
had become overly captivated by problems of Hebrew grammar. For
whatever reason, I was unprepared for any n e w insight as we plodded
through the various curses and started on verse 16 of ch. 3: "to the woman
he said . . . your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over
you." As if spontaneously from the back of the class there issued a loud
hissing noise, and I looked u p from my Biblia Hebraica to experience the
loud protest of my three women students. Their reaction was unexpected,
to say the least, and I doubt if I shall ever hear that passage in quite the
same way.
I think on a somewhat broader scale that many sophisticated liberals,
long since emancipated from reading the Bible, were genuinely as-
tonished at the effect of Senator Sam Ervin's use of the Bible in the recent
Watergate affair. Cited in the quaint prose of the King James version, the

ancient words "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,"
brought to the consciousness of a whole nation the most penetrating
summary possible of a sordid history. Far from being pious platitudes,
one sensed intuitively both the power and simplicity of truth. I imagine
that most of our theologians were also surprised at the Bible's sharp
cutting edge.
When one stresses the unexpected elements of surprise in the use of
the Bible, I think it also needful to point out those elements of continuity
which have persisted throughout our history. In my reading of the
church's history I find it to be a recurring theme that in those moments of
new life and renewal of the Spirit, invariably there is a concomitant
rediscovery of the Bible's power. At times a new appreciation of biblical
authority precedes the church's quickening; at times it is a derivative of
renewal. But rebirth and rediscovery of the Bible almost always go hand
in hand.
We Protestants immediately focus on the Reformation as our prime
example, and indeed I still experience a thrill in reading the colorful,
blunt exposition of Luther as he expounds the Bible in an idiom which
any peasant of Saxony could understand. But there are many other
examples. In an age which has been dominated by so many illustrations
of the church's retreat it is good to b e reminded of those periods in which
Christians experienced a deeper plunge into the reality of God. We are all
indebted to the research ofthat brilliant English scholar, Beryl Smalley,
for opening u p a period in the late Middle Ages w h e n Hugh of St. Victor
rediscovered the authority of the literal sense of Scripture for a whole
Then again, I have often thought that more credit for the success of the
Methodist revivals was due to the robust commentaries of Wesley's
disciple, Adam Clarke. Along with Pilgrim's Progress Clarke's commen-
tary was one of the few books which accompanied the settlers to the west.
Finally, the new depth of Christian understanding which the Oxford
Movement brought to the Church of England emerged from reading the
Church Fathers. But actually the Fathers served chiefly to mediate
through their study of Scripture the apostolic and catholic dimensions of
the church which had almost been forgotten in England. I am convinced
that unless we are serious in our search for biblical authority, we can
expect no serious renewal in today's church.
I think that we would all agree, however we define the authority of the
Bible, that it must exert itself on the modern church. Ours is a search for
biblical authority today. Therefore, it is important to try to analyze just
what is our present situation before turning to some concrete suggestions
as to what biblical authority might mean to us. It is fair to say that w e are in
a period of considerable confusion as to how the Bible ought to function
in the life of the church. James Smart has spoken of the "strange silence of
the Bible within the church." Others have characterized our age as a
post-critical one. Certainly no one is suggesting that we try to return to an
earlier age of innocence, but then again the confidence that scholars once
had that the critical method would resolve our biblical problems has
badly eroded. Among the professional biblical scholars the contemporary
situation is marked by the intense debate of competing methods which
vie for a hearing, but none of which has attained a solid consensus.
Enthusiastic supporters of structuralism, comparative midrash, Process
theology, and liberation theology pour out a steady stream of learned
articles, but often one comes away with the feeling that everyone is
talking past each other with little real give-and-take.
Out of this unsettled picture of the biblical field today certain charac-
teristic features do emerge which, I believe, the church will have to face
honestly. First, biblical studies in the foreseeable future will b e carried
on in America within the context of a vigorous, secular culture. In fact, I
am convinced that we will see a further radicalization of the secular
position regarding the Bible. This promised "wave of the future" has
already been voiced by the recent executive secretary of America's major
professional biblical society. H e writes: " T h e r e has been a perceptible
shift in the academic base of the profession . . . from the seminary to the
university-based department of religion. (This change) reflects the grow-
ing opportunity of biblical scholars to address themselves to biblical
questions in a purely humanistic as opposed to ecclesiastical
context." I hesitate to predict just what will be the effect on the study of
the Bible as the cutting edge of research moves away from the church's
seminaries to the state universities. Although I do not doubt for a moment
that much learned research will be carried on in this context of secular
inquiry, I seriously doubt that the Christian church will receive much
direct aid in its search for biblical authority from this source. The
questions raised and the answers given are beamed to a different wave
Secondly, biblical studies in America will be carried on increasingly in
the context of our pluralistic society. I would judge this development to
contain elements of great promise. Many of the old fruitless controversies
between Catholics and Protestants regarding the Bible are forever
behind us. Likewise Jews and Christians are learning to understand each
other better as they jointly study a common biblical text. Yet there are also
many subtle dangers involved. If the effect of pluralism is to flatten out all
genuine differences or to subsume the biblical imperatives under broad
psychological or sociological categories, then there is a threat of turning
everything into dull shades of gray under the guise of an American way of
life. Personally I feel strongly that the church cannot long survive in a
healthy condition if it continues to play the role of the beggar with cup in
hand, waiting for a few drops from the social sciences. We are in great
need for living water. In sum, we are challenged today as seldom in our
history to be serious in our search for biblical authority within an
aggressive secular culture.
Let me now suggest certain guideposts which, in my judgment, lead in
the direction toward which the church should move in its search for
Scriptural authority.
First, the church's worship its hymns, prayers, confessions serves
as a continual reminder that the church has a special relation to this book.
Our liturgy, even when fragmented and abused, testifies to the basic
Christian belief that the Bible cannot be anchored in the past, that the
story of Israel is our story. The Bible is for the church not a lifeless source
to be manipulated, but a text to be addressed, and a mirror in which we
still perceive the image of God in the face of Jesus Christ. The God who
once entered into the lives of a people is the God with whom we have to
deal now. In the church's worship the church is still given a true signal on
how the past is caught up into the present to anticipate the future. Note
how the great hymns move the congregation out of yesterday into today:
"As with gladness men of old did the guiding star behold . . .
So, most gracious God, may we evermore be led to thee."
Our Christian worship serves to remind us of the real authority of the
Bible as we are confronted by the living presence of God. Both in memory
and anticipation of his coming we experience the power of repentance
and renewal. Then at that moment w e are prepared to say with Samuel:
"Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth."
Second, the church's peculiar language of faith also points us to our
special relationship to Sacred Scripture. It is a language inextricably tied
to the Old and New Testaments. Yet we do not speak Hebrew and Greek,
nor is this language bound to a special grammar. It is a language grounded
in the experiences of the past, yet it remains a living experience of the
present. It speaks of God, of his redemption in Jesus Christ, of sin and
judgment, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of grace, faith, love and
hope. It is a language which w e do not learn simply by copying the past. It
is not an unknown, esoteric tongue with secrets revealed only to the
initiated. Rather, in the fellowship of the church, in the hearing and the
doing of God's will, one learns to speak the language of faith. The Bible
remains the measure by which each new generation tests how well it has
learned that language. It is the living touchstone by which the church is
guided, the test of family resemblance. If it happens that the church no
longer understands that "the Lord is my shepherd," then the breakdown
in the language occurs not because the church has been urbanized, but
because it no longer believes that God shepherds his flock.
Third, as a guidepost in the search for understanding biblical authority,
w e have to read the Bible in expectation. There must be an anticipation,
an eager and even restless awaiting the signs of God's presence. One
cannot study the Bible with the detachment in which one scans graffiti on
a subway wall and expect these writings to produce great spiritual truths.
St. Augustine approached Scripture as a man who had been invited to a
banquet table and in sheer delight partook of its richness. When the
church sings:
"We praise thee for the radiance that from the hallowed page
A lantern to our footsteps shines on from age to age,"
this expression is not romantic rhetoric, but the acknowledgment of the
promise by which the church has always lived. We come with expectation
that God will continue to address his people.
Fourth, the authority of the Bible exerts itself upon the community of
faith as we stand within the tradition of the whole Christian canon. To
speak of the canon is to acknowledge that our faith rests upon the
witnesses of both the Prophets and the Apostles to Jesus Christ. There is
one Gospel, but four Evangelists who bear testimony to the one Christ. At
times in the history of the church some one of the Gospels has over-
shadowed the others for a time. Yet the canon served to preserve the
richness of the whole apostolic tradition against all heretical attempts to
elevate only a portion of the truth to an exclusive position.
The church searches for biblical authority by struggling with the whole
canon. It cannot pick and choose what it likes, but by submitting itself to
the whole of Scripture, Old and New Testaments alike, it identifies itself
with the tradition of the past while keeping itself open to the n e w and
unexpected from the future. Thus, for example, only recently after many
generations has the wisdom literature Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes
begun to sound fresh notes for proclamation. Therefore, we respectfully
disagree with Luther's characterization of the book of James as a "right
strawy epistle," because it reminds us in the strongest possible language
that our faith is measured by our care of the poor and the oppressed.
Finally, the* Bible functions authoritatively in the life of the church
only when the whole church, the Body of Christ, seeks to hear and
respond to its message. The Bible is directed to the life of the congrega-
tion, and its serious study demands an active participation on the part of
the corporate body. Protestants once claimed that the Roman Church had
taken the Bible out of the hands of the people. The Reformers sought to
restore its common use to the average person by providing translations
and commentaries. I wonder to what extent the Bible has now become
the private bailliwick of the technical scholar. We have left the impres-
sion with our much learning that the Bible is too technical for the average
Christian to understand. People really need to b e told what the Bible
I believe that this attitude reflects a basic misunderstanding of the role
of the Bible in our common life. Certainly the trained scholar is n e e d e d
within the church, but scholarship can never replace the demand for the
study of Scripture by the church as a whole. The authority of the Bible
emerges only w h e n it is used, and the simplicity and power of its
self-authenticating truth is experienced by each person, individually and
Indeed, very few of us even understand any longer how to use the Bible
devotionally. I seriously doubt whether our seminaries will be able to
offer much help in this regard. Could it be that this is an area in which the
working pastor and his local congregation will take the lead and point the
way to a new and creative form of Bible study which addresses today's
In conclusion, what is the test to know whether the Bible has indeed
exerted its authority upon the church in our day? The criterion has never
changed. " T h e fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." The test of whether the
Bible has been faithfully heard is determined by the response of its
hearers. "Ye shall know them by their fruits."
The challenge is to be faithful in our generation to God's living Word,
to be grateful for the past, yet eager for the future, to wrestle with
Scripture in the hope and expectation of a free outpouring of divine
power for the redemption and healing of God's world.

^ s
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