Monday, March 28, 2011

Authority of the Word of God II (finally!)

[comment]  But what about the authority of Scripture? –or, How do you know Truth?

Your question on authority of Scripture is one I keep coming back to myself. I don't place any greater value on the Bible as the final arbiter of Truth than anything else--not because God couldn't assure that every version in every language said exactly what he wanted it to say, but because quite clearly He didn't since the various versions, translations, and manuscript copies disagree with each other and with themselves. The argument then usually comes back that only the original manuscripts (or the King James’ Version, which is scholastically absurd) were inerrant. That logic defeats the purpose, I think, of placing any authority in documents.  What is the point of having non-existent documents be inerrant when the documents we do have are full of errors (or at least questions and contradictions)? Ultimately, in practice, inerrancy lies then in picking the right interpretations of the Bible and whose interpretation do you choose and how?

Determining a “correct” interpretation comes down to a rational decision, made either personally or by assuming that your religious guru made the decision.  Since I don’t like to leave these sorts of things up to anyone else, I study the resources myself and determine what interpretations of Scripture to accept. Then, using the same logic that I apply to choosing a reasonable interpretation of the Bible, I realized that the authority to determine Truth must reside in myself—I have come to know the Divine beyond reason and logic and I hold that visceral knowing as my arbiter of Truth: a doctrine or interpretation of doctrine or Scripture must be for me both intellectually rational and congruent with what I know of God. Or actually the other way around congruent with my mystical knowledge of God and, secondarily, intellectually rational—because there are definitely things I am sure I know that I can't explain.

There are in German (and many other languages) two words that translate into English as "knowing": wissen and kennen. I wish that English had a similar differentiation between rational intellectual knowledge and experiential personal knowledge—the difference between book knowledge and knowing a person.

I kenn God through personal experience therefore I can weis (work out intellectually) doctrine and theology.

It is important to note, however, that kennen, experiential knowledge, is not just some touchy-feely emotional response. It is more like in physics class there are two ways to prove a theory—the least preferred method is to work out a conclusion logically, to derive it mathematically from a previously known law. The most preferred method is to demonstrate a conclusion through replicable experiment. To know experientially is the gold standard of scientific knowledge.

When I know God experientially, it's not a one-off feel-good warm fuzzy in a worship service or a touching sermon; it is a reliably replicable experience of the Divine—my experience replicates the knowledge and it is replicated over and over in the experiences of mystics in every religion from every era.

As a fundy evangelical, I was taught to doubt strenuously my own experience, my own knowledge in favor of "the Word of God", which in practice came down to the interpretations du jour of my dad and/or church. I had to walk away from Christianity entirely (for a very long time) and learn about seeking and weighing Truth from all kinds of secular and heathen sources before I could accept that the same rules applied to spiritual Truth as well. And that they applied universally whether I accepted it honestly or disguised it with doctrines of inerrancy that required the same work in practice.

(Part I of this two-part post can be found here)


  1. Wow. Kennen and wissen. Good post. I totally get it.

  2. There's a similar problem translating Greek into English for both 'knowing' and 'mind.' When it comes to 'knowing', the Holy Scriptures typically refer to the sort of knowing meant by the personal experience of another person, not a rational formulation about something. 'Be still and know that I am God" isn't describing rational knowledge about God. It's describing the act of experiencing God as God. We all know how to do that. We will sit with each other and even if we say or think nothing we are aware of the presence the other. We experience them. In English, we misunderstand that everywhere in
    Christianity. I think of one of the more famous quotes taken out of context, "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." Go back and what Jesus actually says is that if we follow him and obey his commands, then we will know the "truth" (which is to say we will know Jesus) and he will set us free.

    Frederica Mathewes-Greene has a good illustration. If I said I had the experience of a visit to the dentist and during the course of the the visit, I experienced the dentist, anyone listening would assume I encountered the dentist. While we don't normally speak in such a stilted way, there would be no miscommunication. But if you say you experienced God, many people immediately translate that to mean that you had some sort of emotional experience. An actual experience of another person is ruled out.

    Part of the problem is that we've wrongly divided ourselves into rational mind and emotions. So if something doesn't fit in the first category, it must be the second. And the only word we have in English for 'mind' means the rational, cogitating aspect of our mind. And there is a Greek word for that aspect. However, I don't believe that word is used very often in the Christian NT. The word that is used instead is nous and we have no English equivalent. It means the receptive and perceiving mind. It forms our understanding. It's the part of our mind through we which we experience the world around us. We know each other through our nous. And it's through our nous that we experience or know God. So when Scripture talks about out minds being darkened or being renewed through the transforming of our minds or a host of other statements, it's not talking about our rational, cogitating minds at all. (As scientific advances show, we can cogitate just fine, thank you.) It's talking about our nous. And that is clearly darkened. It's not just that we have a hard knowing or experiencing God. We have a hard time knowing each other (or even ourselves). We constantly misperceive and misinterpret reality and other people. We think someone is looking at us disdainfully or angrily or mockingly, when the truth is they may not even be 'seeing' us at all.

    The whole 'inerrant' thing has always been meaningless to me since it seems utterly self-evident to me that no text actually 'means' anything absent interpretation. History confirms that the Christian Scriptures have been carefully preserved over the centuries (as one would expect with a religious text, actually), but the idea of any sort of exact replication is one that could have only arisen after the advent of modern devices like the printing press. It's amusing the way people will sometime privilege variations in an older manuscript over a more common reading. It's as though they assume older automatically means better. It may, of course. But if the variation in the older manuscript is not widely dispersed, it likely means the older manuscript survived because it was recognized as a poor copy and thus wasn't much read or used.

  3. I spent several months this last year studying Greek philosophy, rationalism, medical theory, and so on. I found the idea of Nous fascinating.

  4. "Your Q on authority of Scripture is one I keep coming back to myself." Yeah, me, too. It is easy to accept biblical authority if you take it literally, but metaphorically it becomes a bit more loosey-goosey. … especially when I am such a concrete thinker who has to stretch to think philosophically or even metaphorically. Interpreting the Bible literally fit my black-and-white thinking just fine! Liberal/metaphorical Christianity is not easy for me … but I know I have to be here!

    Terry Gray

  5. I think it is just that metaphor is more obviously “up for interpretation” whereas the “interpreting” that happens when you “take the Bible literally” is less obvious—it seems to be self-evident that the “clear reading” is the right one (without realizing that the reading is only “clear” if you have already decided or been given the interpretation or paradigm ahead of the reading). That seems just a bit convoluted, let me see if I can clarify.

    The big idea is that whether you subscribe to some form of biblical literalism, or believe all the stories to be some kind of metaphor; or whether you think that God dictated or supervised every word as it was written and copied and translated, or take Scripture as entirely a human construction; no matter how you think the bible became The Bible, what the bible means is always going to be an interpretation.

    No text, biblical or otherwise, has inherent meaning separate from what a writer or reader interprets the words to be saying. Even something as clear and concise as the Constitution of the United States, a document of less than 4500 words, requires a continuously sitting body of nine members to interpret and implement. The Bible, whatever you think of its authorship or historicity or anything else, is only meaningful through an interpretation of the words.

    I think that fact is more readily apparent to those who are not Literalists or Inerrantists. People who contend that the Bible is the Word of God assume that the interpretation they promote is self-evident in the words themselves rather than being something separate from the words that was taught to them or that they derived.