The Authority of Scripture


In a world where we increasingly rely on scientific investigation to answer important questions about the world around us, the use of special documents called “scripture” by religious leaders and their billions of followers is puzzling. Religious people just assume scriptures have some special (dare I say, magical) powers that ordinary writings don’t have. But the fact that we are to consider scripture special in this way needs, first, explanation and, second, justification.

The Special Status of Scripture

First, and this is fairly obvious, for specific groups of believers, not all books considered scripture by some group or other have this special status. For the believer it is only his or her book that qualifies. And the fact that millions or possibly even billions of adherents put their faith in some other book doesn’t seem to matter. Claims for scriptural authority are, generally, exclusive claims. Only our book has the special sauce.

This is unusual for authoritative texts. A scientific work such as Newton’s Principia Mathematica, or Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory are considered authoritative texts by virtually all scientists. Of course there will be differences of opinion on certain details, and it is true that theories may be superseded by others. But anyone who knows anything about a specific field in science will consider certain works authoritative by virtue of the fact that the methods used in developing the theory rise to the standards expected by scientists. This is precisely the criterion that religious scriptures do not meet: their status as “inspired” is given to them by the believers themselves (or their leaders) and there is (and cannot be by their very nature) corroborating evidence to support the claim that they are inspired in any special way.

Even the very concept of “scripture” has no clear and unanimously accepted meaning or usage. The concept has evolved over the last 3 millenia. So it is fairly clear that different religious groups have different opinions on the way scriptures have developed and how they should be used. Hindus view holy writings quite differently from fundamentalist Christians or Moslems. Jews have a different view, as do Roman Catholics. Fundamentalist groups like “Bible-believing Christians” would like us to focus only on their view of the matter. But this is just another example of their claim to have the exclusive version of the truth.

Scripture and Writing

Generally what we mean by “scriptures” are “sacred writings” that contain or summarize – either directly or somewhat metaphorically – the most important beliefs of the specific religious community in question. In many traditions this was assumed to mean a written record of the message as communicated from god to his people (presumably through a “scribe”).

Historically, scripture (from the Latin word “scrÄ«ptus”) and writing have gone hand in hand. Before there was writing, or at least material means of keeping records, there were no documents or items we would be inclined to call “scriptures”. If there was any sort of “revelation” to the group or tribe it came through a shaman or prophet, and was passed along orally from generation to generation.

We may think of writings like the Old Testament as “ancient”, but when you consider that humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, scripture is a relatively modern invention. In other words, most of the history of humanity was lived without scriptures. You would think that this would concern a believer in a god concerned with fairness and justice, because it implies that the vast majority of people who have ever lived have not had access to these special books. And if that is the case, either the books are relatively unimportant, or god simply didn’t care as much about those people.

Clearly this means that the history of scripture matters. In the western (Christianized) world, the role of scripture has developed and “grown up” as the use of formalized language and writing have developed. In fact, since the educated classes within many ancient societies were bureaucrats and priests, it is in those areas where we find evidence of the earliest documents: tax records, census rolls, financial and legal records on the one hand; priestly writings, prayers, and moral guides (including moral narratives, myths and stories) on the other.

There is one significant exception to this idea that a society’s earliest writings were scriptures. In the Hellenized (Greek) world (eventually including Rome) the earliest documents that we know of were transcriptions of oral narratives such as the Iliad and Odyssey.

It is interesting that these stories were not considered “scripture” in the Hellenic or Roman world, but were nevertheless considered important guides to how to live a worthwhile life. Perhaps this is why Greek religion never had the austere, legalistic feel of the Middle Eastern traditions derived from places like Persia, Babylon, Egypt, and, of course, Palestine.

This fact, along with a more detailed look at holy books or other writings from places like ancient India, China, and North and South America would almost certainly show how provincial and limited the normal western view of scripture is.

Products of a Pre-Scientific Era

Another very important thing we can say about scripture in general is that virtually all books today considered scriptures were the product of a pre-scientific, superstitious age. Until the last few centuries very little was known about the workings of nature, and so we can expect scriptures that developed in that pre-scientific age to reflect the understanding of the times. Virtually nothing was known about the solar system, disease, the way our bodies work, the mysterious forces of nature, why crops grow the way they do, and so on.

There can really only be two responses to this fact. Either you have to accept some convoluted theory about the reasons god was unable to simply tell like it is – giving us scriptures that contain the final word on scientific and moral matters. Or you have to accept that scriptures reflect the beliefs of the times in which they were written, and that what makes them special is something other than their historical, scientific and moral accuracy.

Many adherents of various religions still put a great deal of stock in the importance of scriptures. And many of these either don’t appreciate how it is rooted in pre-scientific history, refuse to believe it, or simply ignore it. This often results in an inevitable conflict between their faith and science, and reduces their belief in scripture to the belief that it is some kind of magical book which cannot be wrong because their god says so. But this does not square with the way most scriptures – and, in particular, the Bible – actually came to be the collection of writings we know today.

How the Bible Came to Be is A Problem for Christians

Anybody who knows even a little bit of early Christian history knows that the New Testament “canon” Christians now recognize as authoritative came about as the result of a group of church elders simply deciding that some books would be included and others left out. And they did this two or three hundred years after Jesus died.

In fact there are two different collections of “authorized”, “canonical” New Testament scriptures – the so-called Vulgate New Testament used by Roman Catholics contains books not contained in the version generally used by Protestants. Indeed, some of the books included in both of these authorized versions of the New Testament are considered by most scholars to be forgeries – actually not written by the people who claim to have written them.

These are serious issues that speak to the credibility of the New Testament – and there is much, much more that could be said about the way the Bible came to be written, how it was passed down through the centuries, how it was translated from the original languages, how it reflects ancient Near Eastern religious themes, how much of the Jesus story mirrors that of other messianic and mythical heroes of many of the local cultures: Egyptian, Babylonian, Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Hittite, Phoenician, Greek, Roman. And yet all of this is blissfully ignored by the vast majority of Christians and even educated Christian apologists who should know better.

Reconciling Pre-Scientific Scriptures With Modern Science

But there is little doubt that where Christian apologists have their biggest problem is in reconciling the pre-scientific, superstitious elements of the Bible with our modern attitude towards science.

Any religious group that appreciates this important conflict between pre-scientific scriptures and the findings of science must try to approach it with some measure of sophistication. Many evangelical Christian groups address the faith/science issue by endorsing attempts to rewrite science. Since modern archeology, geology and biology do not fit their literalist interpretations of the Bible – which, for example, on their reading denies the validity of evolution and claims that the earth is only about 6,000 years old – they endorse pseudo-scientific theories (like creationism) that do fit it (presumably by design).

You would think in a case like this the argument between creationists and evolutionists could be solved by an appeal to facts. But it is never that easy when simplistic faith positions are involved. Never doubt the willingness of the true believer to dismiss things that don’t fit his or her view of the world.

Roman Catholic apologists take a completely different tack. Official Catholic doctrine accepts evolutionary theory as a proven fact. They also generally accept that scripture (the Bible) contains inconsistencies, historical inaccuracies and misleading scientific assumptions. The official position of the church is that “the word of god” is mediated through the church hierarchy and tradition. The Bible is important, but ultimately it is the Church that decides on the meaning and application of scripture.

So the position the RC Church takes on an issue like abortion or homosexuality is arrived at by deliberation at the highest levels of the Church. What scripture says is important, but it must be interpreted by Church leaders in the light of official doctrine that has been worked out over centuries.

Catholics therefore adhere to a doctrine of scripture that is significantly at odds with their Protestant first cousins. In fact it is this issue more than any other that separates the two branches of Christianity. Catholics accept that religious doctrine grows and evolves over the centuries, and claim that it is their historically justified position to shepherd those changes along.

Protestants, on the other hand, see this as a usurping of power and authority from god him- (or her-, or it-) self, and pretend that scripture alone can stand in this position. What they don’t seem to realize or accept is that the (mostly?) inerrant, magical scripture they pretend exists is to a large extent a figment of their imagination. The scripture they hold in such high regard is the product of the very process they reject (deliberated on and given the seal of approval by early church fathers) – and it needs interpreting whether they admit it or not. Furthermore it becomes an object of worship itself – often taking the place of god – thereby usurping power and authority in the same way they see the Catholic Church doing.

…more to follow…