The Nature of Scriptural Authority: A Protestant Process Perspective

Publication Date: 
April 29, 2002
Author - First Name: 
Ronald L.
Author - Last Name: 

Among Protestants, scripture plays a foundational role in both personal piety and congregational life. The centrality of scripture and its proclamation manifests itself even in the architectural arrangement of the chancel and its furnishings in most Protestant churches. Not surprisingly, then, the rise of modern biblical criticism has provoked intense discussion and debate regarding the nature of scriptural authority.

In this brief paper I first describe and evaluate several of the more common Protestant approaches to scripture. Against this backdrop I then offer a number of process-inspired proposals that could engender a new understanding of the nature of scriptural authority. I conclude with a brief description of the key features of a process hermeneutic.

Five Common Protestant Approaches to Scripture

This section of the paper consists of brief descriptions of five common Protestant approaches to scripture as well as concise critiques of each from a process perspective.

(1) Attempting to Read and Apply Texts “Literally”

An approach associated with fundamentalist circles, though not exclusively so, is to “take the Bible as it is”—that is, interpret it literally—and seek correspondences or parallels between present situations and situations related in the Bible. When a parallel is found, God is considered to be speaking directly through the past to the present. In such cases, the believer is obligated to make the present, analogous situation conform as closely as possible to the past situation (for example, women being silent in church).The search for correspondence between the present situation and the Bible can be a point of departure for exploring the relevancy of the Bible for modern readers, yet in the opinion of most Protestant scholars this approach has at least three serious flaws. First, it limits the significance of the biblical message to present-day situations that have a parallel in the Bible, as if God were incapable of self-revelation in any other manner. Second, this approach fails to recognize the historical and cultural “conditionedness” of the Bible. Consequently, it restricts the biblical message to the level of external fact, confusing “what happened” with “the meaning of what happened.”  That is, the message is confused with its cultural garb. Third, this approach adopts a static approach to spirituality: it assumes that the goal is to make modern life conform as closely as possible to a golden era in the past. From this perspective, the religious aim is the continual redepositing of a fixed content in succeeding generations. This approach does not consider the possibility of an evolutionary development of spirituality—God using the past as an impetus for a trajectory of development. In summary, this approach understands the Bible as a “fixed deposit”; it has already spoken its entire message, and the believer is obligated to follow it literally in all analogous situations.

(2) Viewing Present Religious Experience as the Primary Revelatory “Text” and the Bible as a Secondary Text

Some devout people—especially those committed to the struggle against social and economic injustices—approach the Bible as a text that is no longer relevant to the present. Indeed, they note that the Bible is frequently used as an agent of oppression rather than liberation. Rather than seeking guidance from the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures, these Protestants view present religious experience as the primary revelatory “text,” that is, as the primary theological locus in which God speaks. When this “living Word” is clear, there is no reason to read the ancient words of the Bible. And when the Bible is consulted as one among many secondary texts, it is appropriated primarily in terms of broad themes such as liberation, justice, and love.

Although this approach assumes an evolutionary understanding of spirituality and recognizes the cultural and historical conditionedness of the Bible, it shares one characteristic with the literal approach. It fails to distinguish between a biblical text’s message and its cultural garb. As was the case with literalism, the Bible is understood as a fixed deposit; it has already spoken its entire message. Because the Bible is viewed as a fixed text in a cultural milieu that is no longer ours, it is regarded as largely irrelevant today.  

(3) Seeking the Religious “Essence” of the Text  

Many Protestants, aware of the historical and cultural conditionedness of the Bible, nevertheless seek to uncover the religious “essence” of a text. In this way they distinguish between a text’s meaning and its cultural garb. Although this approach has taken several different forms—for example, classical Protestant liberalism’s search for the “timeless truth” of a text, and Bultmann’s quest for the “existential meaning” of a text by means of his demythologizing methodology—the element common to each form is the stripping away of a text’s non-essential “husk” in search of its essential “kernel.”

Although most Protestant scholars agree that this approach is a significant improvement over the preceding two, recently many scholars have come to agree that it manifests two noteworthy weaknesses. First, one cannot discover a text’s essence and present it in some form freed from cultural and historical trappings. One cannot “peel off layers of husk” until the essence has been laid bare. Any so-called essence can be discerned only in terms of the cultural and historical categories in which it is expressed, either those of the author or those of the interpreter. Although one can distinguish between essence and cultural form in theory, this  does not mean the two can be separated in practice. There is no such thing as “formless content”; consequently, these interpreters find themselves peeling an onion!  Second, although this quest-for-essence approach avoids the implication that modern life must conform to a past golden era, it nevertheless assumes somewhat of a static approach to religion in that it presupposes that the reader will conform to the text’s religious essence expressed (or translated) in terms of the reader’s world. It fails to consider a more thoroughly evolutionary approach to spirituality.

(4) The Exclusive Use of Historical-Critical Methods

The historical-critical exegetical methods formulated during the modern period have created a new approach to the Bible. Readers can now appreciate and to a large degree recreate the historical and cultural milieu in which the biblical texts took shape, resulting in a better understanding of their original meaning. (Obviously, these methods underlie the second and third approaches above. A reader using the first approach may use some, though not all, of the historical-critical methods.)

In spite of the many benefits that render historical-critical methods indispensable for a holistic reading the Bible, their exclusive use can lead to problems. For example, by exposing the way a text came into being, the attention of the reader tends to shift to pre-canonical stages behind the text. The emphasis tends to fall upon the formation of the text (that is, its literary history) rather than upon the text itself. Or, to take another example, these methodologies tend to result in a reductionistic reading of a text by concentrating on the “historical” meaning, the meaning “intended” by the author or redactor. The focus, therefore, is upon what the text meant rather than what it means. This approach results in shutting up the message of the Bible in the past. Indeed, frequently it seems that the better one understands the historical and cultural setting of a text, the less one knows what to make of it as canonical literature. The more one knows, the more the gap between the past and the present seems to expand—a phenomenon that increasingly relegates the Bible to the status of a dusty museum artifact rather than living Word.

(5) The Exclusive Use of Literary and Structuralist Methods

Recently the language sciences have contributed new methodologies to biblical criticism. These methods focus attention on the text itself (as opposed to its historical and cultural context); provide new keys to assist in reading texts, especially poetic or highly symbolic texts; and seek universal structures and concerns buried deep within texts. Because the literary critical reader has a direct encounter with the text itself, these methods offer a way to escape the irrelevancy that can result from a strictly (reductionistic) historical-critical methodology. Some interpreters have compared the invigorating results of this approach to a breath of fresh air rushing through the stale museum of biblical studies.

As helpful as these methodologies have proven, they also tend to be reductionistic in so far as they abstract from the life of a text by neglecting its literary history and its original historical and cultural milieu. Because the exclusive use of this methodology neglects the tough, concrete questions of history and culture, in the hands of some theologically naïve practitioners this approach can lead to a rather simplistic understanding of the nature of scriptural authority not unlike that of fundamentalism.  

Toward a More Satisfying Approach to Scripture

Space constraints prohibit a detailed presentation of a process hermeneutic and an explication of how it addresses the shortcomings of the approaches noted above. The next section of the paper will content itself merely to set forth five process-inspired proposals toward a more satisfying approach to scripture.

(1) Interpreters typically assert that the basic components in the hermeneutical enterprise are the author, the text, and the reader. All five of the above approaches take these three components into account, albeit in different ways. To these three components I suggest adding a fourth—the expanding universe of ideas and events. Authors, texts, and readers do not exist in a vacuum. They influence and are influenced by their environment, an environment that is constantly expanding. This open-endedness is hermeneutically significant.

(2) A temporal and cultural gulf separates the biblical writers from present-day readers (to some extent this is true of all authors and readers). Moreover, authors and readers alike are conditioned by their own culture, place in history, and personal experiences. Because this is so, there must be a “radical historicity” to the Word of God if it is to impinge upon human lives, both in the original revelatory moment of inspiration that produced the text and in the subsequent illuminating moment of interpretation. To use a theological category, this proposal means that the Word of God is engaged in a continual process of incarnation.

(3) The existence of a text presupposes an ongoing process or dance of experience and interpretation. A text originates from a religious experience that is interpreted; that is, a scripture text is an author’s interpretation of an experience. A reader has the experience of interpreting a text. Thus, a biblical text is “sandwiched” between two existential moments or two historical poles:  the original experience that the text interprets and the reader’s experience of interpreting the text. This ongoing sandwiching of experience-interpretation-experience is pregnant with implications.

(4) All language functions in time; there is no language for all time. Or to state the idea differently, all language is culturally and historically conditioned. Furthermore, all language is to some degree indeterminate; that is, no verbal expression is precise and unambiguous enough to refer to one and only one idea. Some language—scientific language, for example—attempts to be more precise than other forms of language—religious language or metaphorical speech, for example. But all language is relatively indeterminate; each instance of language can be located on a spectrum ranging from one hypothetical extreme (completely determinate) to the other hypothetical extreme (completely indeterminate).

(5) Rather than seeking to express or translate the essence of an ancient text in the categories of the modern reader’s world—a hermeneutical approach that assumes a static approach to religion—one could adopt an evolutionary approach to spirituality. Such a hermeneutical scheme would take seriously both the expanding universe of ideas and events and the indeterminacy of language. Some (but not all) of the ideas entertained by the author are expressed in the language of the text; yet, the language of the text can evoke ideas not entertained by the author. Ideas evoked in the current reader’s experience of reading the text, therefore, may include some of those entertained by the author, some of those evoked by the text in its original setting (and/or other settings prior to that of the current reader), and some that the language of the text evokes only (or for the first time) in the setting of the current reader. Moreover, there are ideas that the text has not yet evoked in any reader’s experience but will, given the opportune setting in the expanding universe of ideas and events. Thus, there is a “growing edge” to the tradition associated with an author and a text. Because this is so, what a text might come to mean can be more important than anything it has meant in the past. From a process perspective, then, one could describe scripture as living Word.  

A Brief Description of the Key Elements of a Process Hermeneutic

The final section of the paper presents a brief description of the key elements of a process hermeneutic. For a detailed presentation, evaluation, and application of a process hermeneutic see my book Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic (Mercer University Press, 1997). A process hermeneutic is a theory of interpretation derived from process philosophy, which is based on Alfred North Whitehead’s view of language. One aspect of Whitehead’s view is that language does not so much describe a reality as it  lures us into particular ways of thinking and feeling about it. A text, then, is a cluster of proposals that lure the reader to think or feel something a certain way in the reader’s moment-by-moment process of self-creation; that is, the text lures the reader to entertain a particular way of being in the world.

Because a text lures the reader, one of the goals of a close reading is to identify the lures at work in a text. Some lures are readily identifiable; these more prominent lures are labeled surface lures. Other lures operate below the surface of the text at the presuppositional level; that is, they reflect the author’s assumptions and so typically are implied rather than stated. Because they underlie the surface lures, they are termed basal lures. At times basal lures may operate in a manner quite at odds with a straightforward reading of the surface lures. In such instances one may speak of these basal lures as an undercurrent.

Unlike some hermeneutical models, a process hermeneutic does not excise aspects of a text that are incompatible with the process world view or that conflict with one another; on the contrary, a process hermeneutic encourages special attention to those dimensions of a text. What some hermeneutical models see as contradictions, a process hermeneutic attempts to view as contrasts. Careful consideration of lures foreign to the interpreter’s own sensibilities, or lures that are at odds with other lures in the text, may result in the emergence of a novel pattern large enough to include both the foreign and the familiar in a harmonious contrast. A contrast is the unity had by the many components in a complex phenomenon, for example, perceiving many colors in a unified pattern (as in a kaleidoscope) as opposed to perceiving only a single color. Contrast is the opposite of incompatibility, for an incompatibility is resolved by the exclusion of one or more elements to achieve a more trivial harmony.

According to process philosophy, the more a subject can hold the items of its experience in contrasts, and contrasts of contrasts, the more it elicits depth and intensity of experience. When this occurs, the subject (in the present case, the interpreter of sacred texts) experiences creative transformation.

Because of the expanding universe of ideas and events and the relative indeterminacy of language, the process-informed interpreter anticipates the emergence of novel interpretations of scriptural texts. How, then, does one determine validity in interpretation?  What are the theological norms that guide the interpretation of texts? 

Based on the conviction that God’s work is always transformative and always in a creative manner, a process hermeneutic proposes evaluating interpretations according to the following criteria:  Does a proposed interpretation of a text result in a creative transformation of the individual and the individual’s community?  That is, does the novel interpretation enliven much of the individual’s and the community’s past while at the same time opening the individual and the community to novel elements, resulting in an enlarged perspective?  Or does the novel interpretation entail abandoning much of the past simply for the sake of appropriating novel elements, resulting in a diminished perspective?

The preceding sketch of a process hermeneutic applies to the interpretation of any text. What is the process view of the authority of scripture texts?  To begin with, one should note that process thought stands on its own apart from any special scriptural warrant—Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. How, then, do process-informed Protestants view the Bible?

One could state the question more pointedly: Why do they even bother with the Bible?  Theologians from at least the time of Augustine have observed that one can be Christian apart from any knowledge of the Bible. To be sure, Christian existence is genetically indebted to the events of its emergence (first-century Judaism, Jesus, and the early church), but it is not dependent upon conscious knowledge of those events or conscious beliefs about them. Nevertheless, if one’s theology is to remain Christian—that is, if one is to maintain continuity with the Christian tradition—one must attend to the Bible. Conscious knowledge and beliefs do increase the effectiveness of the past in shaping one’s present existence. Therefore, one must attend to the Bible because it records and interprets the events surrounding the first appearance of Christian existence.

From a process perspective, the interpretation of scripture does not have as its goal the mere repetition of the past—either literally or in the sense of some essence extracted from the past. But only by attending to the Bible can the process-informed interpreter discern a present movement of God’s Spirit that is continuous with a movement begun earlier. Only by attending to Christian origins can one discern a trajectory of development in the present.The process understanding of scriptural authority, then, enables one to live from the past, in the present, and toward the future.

Presented April 29. 2002, by Ronald L. Farmer at the William A. Beardslee Consultation of Process & Faith Farmer is the former dead on the Wallace All Faiths Chapel, Chapman University.