The question of authority in matters of faith is important for any believer in God to consider. How can we know with any degree of certainty what God expects of us?
Within Christianity specifically, we have to consider whether the Bible is infallible and inerrant and should be considered the sole rule of faith for the church, as many evangelicals believe. A contrary position would be that God has given authority in spiritual matters to human beings (the Pope being the obvious example). I’m currently reading Scripture Alone by James White, and was struck by a quote that I believe encapsulates the predicament very well:
“…without the highest view of Scripture, we can never claim to have heard God with certainty, and hence we cannot teach and preach with any more authority than that which we can create for ourselves.” (p 68)
While I’m inclined to agree with this quote I think it raises questions as to the way in which God communicates with human beings through Scripture. For instance, what about the issue of interpretation? Isn’t the one who interprets Scripture by that very activity becoming an authority in respect of what that Scripture says?
It is an undeniable truth that among Christians who share a high view of Scripture there are contradictions in their views on doctrinal issues. Can it ever be the case that one particular reading of Scripture reflects what is absolutely true? Are some readings right and some wrong, or are different perspectives equally valid? How are we to know?
Whenever we read anything (Scripture or not) God is working in our bodies and minds to bring about understanding. The words we read are merely markings on a page; there is no inherent meaning in these symbols, as if somehow the markings contained ideas within their ink, or could interpret themselves. No, understanding is a work of God who uses His infinite knowledge to illumine our finite minds as we read. I believe this work of God is not solely limited to people of a particular faith or to a particular activity – God as ‘cosmic animator’ is at work in every human being and all His creatures, directing the activity of our minds and all our thoughts, words, and deeds, as we go about our daily lives.
I would not deny, however, that God might use Scripture to speak to a specific group of human beings in a unique way; a way that brings spiritual knowledge and understanding in a manner that we might distinguish from the way God works in the mind of someone who is reading a secular novel, for instance. Christians talk of having a ‘personal relationship’ with God, and there is a kind of closeness with God, a dialogue and an intimacy, that I have as a believer but that I never had before I became a Christian.
So while I believe it makes sense to accept the authority of Scripture within the Christian faith, we should not neglect to think about the deep issues of how meaning and interpretation work on an epistemological level. The power of the gospel is not so much in the words on the page but in God (or the Holy Spirit) bringing understanding from the domain of the infinite to our finite minds as we read.