Monday, December 10, 2018

Authority and Index

In some end-of-year off-list reading, I just finished Gary Scott Smith’s Religion in the Oval Office. A couple of years ago, I read Smith’s Faith & the Presidency, in which the author goes to heroic lengths to detail the religious positions of eleven American Presidents (Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, and others), their relationships to religious groups, and the influence of their faith on their policies. After finishing that first book, I thought, “I wish he had included John Quincy Adams, William McKinley, Nixon, and Clinton.” And then I found that Smith had written a second book that included those very Presidents and seven more! Smith is a better researcher than writer: after tracking down hundreds of quotations from speeches, letters, diaries, conversations, and even junior high English essays (!) by each of his subjects, Smith seems to think that the goal of writing a chapter is to get every last note card represented in the text one way or another. Organization, flow, analysis, and reader wakefulness suffer as a result. But the information is extremely interesting and typically neglected in standard biographies, so I’m grateful to Smith for sharing the fruits of his labors with me.

One curious detail in Smith’s commentary on Barack Obama caught my eye and reminded me of something I had read two other times in the last year. After noting President Obama’s statement that his interpretation of the Bible could conceivably change based on what other Christians might tell him, Smith says that Obama’s position implies that conversation has authority equal to or higher than the Bible. I had read a very similar view earlier this year in Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology, and last year in Mark Noll’s America’s God: in those two versions, changing one’s interpretation of some piece of Scripture based on someone else’s argument ascribes to reason an authority higher than that of God’s Word. (The point was Allison’s own; Noll was reporting the position of historical personages.) The idea sounded obviously wrong to me the first two times I came across it, but the way Smith worded it, I can’t see how anybody could believe it. What does Smith think Sunday School lessons or sermons or Bible commentaries are for if not potentially to change one’s mind about what the Bible means? Does he think that once he has an understanding of any given scriptural passage, it is necessarily the right understanding and can never be corrected?

I think the problem comes down to a misunderstanding of the word authority. If authority simply means the reason you think something, then many factors compete with the Bible in authority for a believing Christian: reason, grammatical fluency, the dictionary, memory, eyesight. I believe that in the beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God, because the Bible says so. But I know the Bible says this because I’ve read it and remember that it says it. And I believe the words that I remember reading partly because I have an understanding of what those words mean and how they go together grammatically – even if I wonder at the mystery of the Divine Being involving at least two Persons who are at the same time separated (“was with”) and unified (“was”). If these factors determine my understanding of the Scripture and that makes them authorities, well then, I guess I have to recognize many authorities for my beliefs.

But the word authority doesn’t in fact denote any and all things that provide reason to believe and submit. There’s authority, and then there’s recognition of authority. Suppose you’re a child living in fairy-tale land, and you hear there’s a big parade coming through your town. Your mother takes you out to see the spectacle, and as a fine-dressed man on a splendid horse passes by, your mother points and says, “Look! There’s the king!” Now let’s say this man stops, looks your way, and tells you to come near. Your mother has told you never to talk to strangers, and yet kings demand and deserve obedience. So you go, knowing that, as the king, he has the authority to command you. But how do you know he has this authority? Only because your mother told you. So does that make her the actual authority? Ridiculous! Her pointing out the authority to you doesn’t give her higher authority than the king. He is the authority; she is an index to the authority. And, yes, you see your mother as an authority, but clearly it’s possible for one authority to point to a higher one.

Similarly I have my reasons for recognizing authority in the Bible. That the Bible is authoritative to life is not a self-evident truth like “The whole is greater than or equal to any of its parts.” If it were, every sane person would acknowledge it as soon as the idea is presented to the mind. But they don’t, so believers must have reasons for believing. These reasons indicate the authority (which is why I’m calling them indices); they don’t trump the authority.

Now if a fairy tale makes this distinction clear, how can so many American Christians get confused by it?

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