Monday, September 09, 2019

Is the Bible the final authority?

Recently I was asked to comment on this:

In fact, I already did:

But since the same article was once again brought to my attention, I have a few additional observations to make:

i) Ball fails to distinguish between a final interpreter and a final authority. There's a sense in which every reader of the Bible or reader of a a Bible commentary is the ultimate interpreter for himself. That's unavoidable. He will find a particular interpretation plausible or implausible, convincing or unconvincing. But there's no reason to recast that in terms of making him "the authority". "Authority" has the connotation of having authority over another or others, not having authority over oneself. 

I suppose you could say "I'm my own authority," yet that just means no one else has authority over me in that regard. But collapsing authority into each individual isn't what we normally mean by authority, since that normally requires a distinction between the subject of authority and the object of authority. If we collapse the distinction, then the word "authority" does no work. It adds nothing to the concept. You could more accurately say "It boils down to what seems true to me". 

ii) Or we could reframe the issue by saying that I'm ultimately responsible–which is different from saying that I'm the ultimate authority

iii) In addition, the fact that every reader is the ultimate interpreter for himself doesn't mean interpretation is necessarily arbitrary. Moreover, it doesn't mean the interpretation overrides the text.

To take a comparison: suppose I live in tornado alley. If a tornado siren goes off, or if I see a news report about a tornado in my neighborhood, I have to interpret the warning, but the tornado remains sublimely independent of my interpretation. If I recklessly disregard the warning, I may pay a terrible price. In a contest between the "authority" of the tornado and the "authority" of the interpreter, guess who's going to be the "final authority"!

Likewise, although there's a sense in which every reader is the final interpreter (for himself), that doesn't make him the standard of comparison–anymore than my interpretation of the tornado siren is the standard of comparison. No, the tornado remains the standard of comparison. 

Likewise, the meteorologist must interpret information about the tornado, viz. speed, velocity, trajectory. But there's something external to the weather report, and that's the tornado itself. Does the report correspond to the behavior of the tornado? That's the test. The reporter is not the criterion. 

iv) At the end of the day, exegesis isn't autonomous. It depends on divine providence. While we might say it's up to the reader which interpretation he find persuasive, that only pushes the question back a step: why does he find that interpretation more persuasive? Sometimes because it's has more explanatory power. Sometimes because there's better evidence for that interpretation.

But in back of that is the will of God for particular individuals as well as church history in general. Every reader is at the mercy of God's benevolence and providence. God protects some readers from more error than others.  

Yet that's out of our hands, so that's not something we ought to fret over. What we think is the result of something anterior to ourselves. So our concern should be to make conscientious use of the best resources that God has put at our disposal, which varies from individual to individual. 


  1. Out of interest Steve, have you read Vanhoozer's "Is there a Meaning in This Text?" and any thoughts/comments on Speech-Act theory as a viable tool for Christian theology and philosophy?

    1. I think speech-act theory is overrated and I think Vanhoozer is overrated. Speech-acts theory makes some useful distinctions, but it's not a magic hermeneutical key.