The Subjective Authority of Scripture

So: The last post was an attempted discussion of the "what" of orthodoxy. And I cut it off before really getting into the "how" -- how we know what "seems right" for our time and place in history. I am genuinely trying to do theological science here. "How it seems to us" cannot merely be a hunch, and still rightly deserve the adjective orthos. When we turn to talking about the "how" of right thought about God, we are talking about the evidentiary basis for theological claims.

And, given that what is right in theology must be based on witness to the living God as the object of theology, we certainly have a strong evidentiary role for scripture. Our Lutheran confessions speak of themselves as normative documents because they interpret scripture, because the confessional norma normata is governed by the scriptural norma normans. And we wrap ourselves up in discussions of whether we will subscribe to them because they are faithful interpreters, or insofar as they are faithful interpreters, but one way or another, our ordinands do affirm in their vows that the confessions are "true witnesses and faithful expositions of scripture."

Now, every time I hear that phrase, I love it more. "True witnesses and faithful expositions." And I love it at least in part for its humility. It doesn't say, "true expositions." The confessors testify truthfully concerning what they have seen in scripture. And historically that is the gospel -- the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as an authority capable of showing us God's true will for us, and relativizing every other normative claim of religion upon us. Jesus Christ as the criterion of religious truth. And in this testimony, the confessors are not found to be engaging in falsehood, putting up a pretense for evading legitimate demands of God -- they are true witnesses to scripture, compelled by what they have found there, and making honest declaration of it. And this witness is grounded in their faithful exposition of scripture, faithful to both the text as they found it and the God in whom they trust.

These are guarantees of the subjective truth of the confessions. They are no guarantee of objective truth, nor do they claim to be. I cannot legitimately testify to how something is in itself -- only how it seems to me. I may only truthfully confess what I know. Were I to confess something that I did not know -- even if it turned out later to have been factual -- I would not be a true witness. I would be speculating. And yet if I confess something that I do know, and it later turns out not to have been true, I have not therefore borne false witness. I have only been mistaken as to what is really true, because of the limitations of my understanding and observation.

Now, this is one sense of the distinction between the adjectives "subjective" and "objective" -- insofar as they modify the noun "truth." And this distinction doesn't vitiate claims to scientific rigor -- it has, in fact, its own grand place in the sciences, most frequently attributed to Copernicus. The "Copernican revolution" was the realization that as an observer, I am situated inside the system I attempt to describe. My knowledge of that system can only therefore be guaranteed under the understanding that it is my knowledge of the system, grounded in my perspective, and can only be refined out to the limits of my observational capacity.

And we accept this! This is the basis of the entire field of games we play in science. I cannot know how things truly are, but I can know quite a bit about them, and there is plenty of work to be done within the realm of subjective knowledge. So much, in fact, that we shall never exhaust it, because subjectivity and observational capacity change independently of the changes in the real object of our knowledge.

But in the comments to the last post, we wound up discussing another noun that can be modified by these adjectives, "subjective" and "objective": authority. The "objective authority of the Scriptures" most specifically.

Now, my first response to discussion of the authority of scripture is to talk about the authority of God. I want to make sure that predicates of God's action do not get improperly assigned to scripture that merely witnesses to that action.

My second response to "the objective authority" of scripture is to wonder exactly what such a phrase means. What kind of authority can scripture have by virtue of its objective existence? What authority, as a thing in itself? Much depends here on what kind of a thing it is.

Now, perhaps that's missing the point a little -- the meaning of the phrase in common usage suggests that scripture is an objective authority and I am a subjective authority. Specifically, that scripture is to be preferred to what I want. But that point has never been in dispute here! Scripture embodies a range of perspectives that are not my own, a wide selection of witness to the work of God in the world which I should prefer to learn from, rather than to try and derive the nature of God for myself from any other source. But while I will grant that, I refuse what is usually the corollary point: that scripture is inerrant. Scripture is a body of data -- but it is a body of human data. Its authority is that of witness. So the objective authority of scripture derives from its status as subjective truth. We rely on it before tradition because it is a true witness and faithful exposition of the self-revelation of God in the world. And it is this over a vast body of history and groups of people! But that does not make its every point a true exposition -- else we would not need a canon of different scriptures! Nor does that make it a true witness and faithful exposition of every subject on which an author of scripture may speak. We trust in scripture as a true witness and faithful exposition of the action of God in the world -- not of the world itself.

So: scripture's objective authority, the authority it has by virtue of what it is, derives from its existence as a recording of subjective truth. Objective truth belongs to the object alone -- God in God's self-revelation. Scripture points to this, within the limits of its authors' subjectivities and observational capacities. And at the same time, scripture also does theology -- it speculates, both about God and the world, on the basis of God's action in the world.

Any given piece of scripture is therefore capable of being objectively wrong without ceasing to be either a true witness or a faithful exposition of God's action in the world. Scripture does not remove the necessity of relationship with God for knowledge of God, nor does it remove the necessity for our confession of God, nor yet does it remove the necessity for us to do theology -- to speculate about God and the world on the basis of God's action therein. The Bible has no sufficiency for faith, merely necessity -- it is the necessary beginning-place of faith's search for understanding.

And this brings us to the subjective authority of scripture. If objective authority is the authority something has by virtue of what it is, subjective authority is the authority a thing has by virtue of what it does -- or in the case of non-agents, how it is used. In this case, the authority scripture has for me. For the faithful community. For the people of God. Or, indeed, for anyone who reads it -- which raises the point that the subjective authority of scripture is neither universal nor intrinsic. The subjective authority of scripture derives, not from its objective authority, but from its appropriation and use.

Scripture can therefore be read without any ascription of authority at all. It can be read purely as literature -- and this will not by any means distort the quality of its witness; it will simply disregard it. But scripture can also therefore be misappropriated. It can be used as an authority beyond the limits of its truth-value. And this will in fact distort the quality of its witness, when it is taken to confess as true today what its authors were only interpreting from their observations. We need not affirm the theology of scripture -- but we must affirm its witness. And that requires that we navigate what is (and should rightly be) an unclear line in every age, because the witness of scripture is bound up in its perspectives and quests for knowledge and meaning.

We may say therefore that the right use of scripture is based on the right alignment of its subjective authority with the limits of its objective authority. Only in such a way can we use it to reach a right understanding.

For reference, let us compare the authority of scripture with the authority of God. The objective authority of God is the authority God has by virtue of being God -- the authority of the autonomous Creator, for example. God has objective and unquestionable authority over creation as the Creator. The subjective authority of God, however, is the authority God has by virtue of being the God who has acted for us. The authority God has for us by virtue of becoming our God. The authority of grace, of covenant with creatures. God is an agent, and fully self-determining. Moreover, we say that there is no real distinction between who God is and what God does.

And so we may say something about God quite similar to what we said about the scriptures -- but precisely backwards, because what the scriptures are is objectively accessible to us. So: right understanding of God comes about when the objective authority of God is taken in proper alignment with the limits of God's subjective authority. God's authority, exousia, is exercised in active use of God's power, dunamis. There is nothing in God's being which is not essentially embodied in God's doing. There is nothing hidden that God might do that does not accord with what God has done. And so we are not right to think about God's being or God's actions in ways that are not borne out by the realities of God's actions for us and for all creation. Which is, of course, another and larger topic of discussion!


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