The Authority of the Bible



A. Introduction

1. Modern Debate

2. Doctrines and Definitions

B. Scripture in Ancient Israel

1. Deuteronomic Torah: The Authority of Sacred Law

2. Expanding Torah: The Authority of Sacred Story

3. Prophetic Word and Prophetic Authority

4. The Writings: New Models and Meanings of Scripture and Authority

C. The Birth of the Christian Bible

1. Jewish and Christian Scriptures in the First Century ce

2. The Shape and Authority of the Christian Bible

D. Authority in the Western Church

1. The Protestant Reformation

2. Roman Catholic and Protestant Proclamations and Praxis

E. Authority in America

1. Scenes of Battle: Setting the Stage

2. Behind the Scenes: Roots of the Great Debate

3. Inerrancy on Trial: Scholastic and Populist Defense

F. Current Issues and Options

1. New Evangelicalism

2. Ecumenical Perspectives

3. Feminist Critique


The Bible has always had special authority for Christians, but the nature and consequences of that authority have been understood in different ways during the Bible’s long history of formation and use. Fundamental to all views, however, has been the belief that the Bible constitutes a privileged source of knowledge about the nature and will of God. Traditionally this understanding was expressed in terms of divine authorship or agency. Thus the Bible was, or contained, the "word of God."

Throughout most of the church’s history, the Bible’s authority was simply assumed. It required no defense or theory of origin and operation. In modern times, however, beginning around 1700, traditional beliefs and sources of authority came under attack from several quarters. The church’s attempts to defend the credibility and authority of the Bible against these assaults gave rise during the following centuries to the doctrines of authority and inspiration that have shaped current belief. Today these theories are being reevaluated and reformulated in the light of new questions raised by a "postmodern" age.

This article considers the meaning of biblical authority for contemporary Christian faith. It adopts a historical approach, but is oriented to American debate in the final decade of the twentieth century. Although it is informed by American Protestant experience, it seeks to place the question in a global and ecumenical context. In narrowing its focus to Christian understanding, it recognizes that other faith traditions view the Bible, in whole or in part, as sacred literature, according it varying types and degrees of authority. It also acknowledges a special indebtedness to Judaism, as a community of origin in which the earliest Christian scriptures were formed, and as a continuing community of faith and scholarship. Nevertheless, the centrality of the witness to Christ in Christian understandings of Scripture gives distinctive shape and emphasis to Christian views of biblical authority.

Modern Debate. The subject of biblical authority has occupied a prominent place in the theological debates and church controversies of the twentieth century, especially in American Protestantism. During the latter half of the century, in particular, the question of authority has become the central theological issue relating to the Bible, especially within the evangelical or conservative wing of Protestantism. As a result most recent literature on the subject has been shaped by the debate with and within evangelicalism. Discussion outside this orbit tends to be ignored or obscured, and issues of authority that are not framed in the dominant language of discourse tend to be neglected or misconstrued.2

Modern doctrines of biblical authority were formulated in response to the rise of new historical methods of interpretation (see below), and current debate among evangelicals and other conservatives remains focused on issues relating to historical criticism. But new challenges and new questions have arisen, outside and inside the old camps, and these are shifting the focus and terms of debate.

Within the old liberal wing of the church, a disposition to reject traditional authority, and suspect authority per se, is giving way to a new quest for identity and norms. In a context characterized by religious and cultural pluralism and loss of common social values, the Bible is being rediscovered; and its primacy as a source for faith and life is being reaffirmed. In the Roman Catholic Church, official acceptance of historical-critical methods has fostered a rebirth of biblical scholarship and contributed to a broad ecumenical consensus concerning methods of exegesis. At the same time, theological interpretation in all churches has remained heavily determined by confessional tradition, frustrating earlier hopes of achieving theological consensus by means of a common Bible interpreted by common exegetical methods.4 Ecclesial tradition has been exposed as a far more dominant factor in biblical interpretation than Protestants have generally admitted, reopening older questions about both the nature and the locus of authority for interpretation, and the relationship of the Bible to tradition.

Academic study of the Bible is also undergoing major change. Once dominant historical-critical methods are being attacked or eclipsed by literary, structuralist, and reader-oriented criticism. Some of the new methods appear to invite or employ older, pre-critical ways of viewing the text, thus by-passing the controversies surrounding historical-critical interpretation. But they raise new questions about norms of interpretation and authority for faith that do not permit simple reaffirmation of traditional views. Often their assumptions about the nature of the text, and the reader, conflict with traditional understandings of the Bible as sacred Scripture.

Challenges to traditional conceptions and arguments concerning biblical authority are arising from other quarters as well, as voices excluded from earlier debate are heard. Those on the margins of the old centers of theological and ecclesiastical power remain suspicious of the relationship between the Bible and establishment theology (defined as "orthodoxy" or "traditional" faith). Many feminists, for example, find the concept as well as the claims of biblical authority problematic in light of their experience of the Bible as a weapon of patriarchy. African Americans bring another neglected perspective to the discussion, distinguished by a distinctive hermeneutic, shaped by experiences of slavery and racism and by a distinct cultural tradition. Different, but related, issues of authority are raised by other groups that have received the Bible from the hands of their oppressors or experienced it as an instrument in the suppression of their cultural heritage (e.g., indigenous peoples of the Americas). The question of biblical authority is also being raised in a fresh and urgent way by encounters with nonbiblical religions, not only in distant lands, but also in America’s cities and suburbs.

Doctrines and Definitions. Traditional understanding of the Bible’s authority was closely associated with notions of divine communication. The Bible was described as God’s "Word," although relatively few of its actual words are represented as divine speech. In attempting to explain how human language could represent divine thought, early Jewish and Christian theologians appealed to the concept of inspiration. The idea was derived from a prophetic model, but was extended to writings and utterances of diverse origin and content. In its earliest use it was an inference from effect, a means of accounting for the acknowledged sacred character of certain writings, not a means of establishing their authority. And it described the (inspired) human agent, not the text. It soon developed into a means of asserting a variety of claims about the nature and content of the text itself, but it was not until the modern period that a fully articulated theory of inspiration was formulated or acquired the status of doctrine. In modern formulations, the doctrine of inspiration typically reverses the original order of reasoning; the inspiration imputed to the biblical texts is now seen as proof of their divine origin and authority, and guarantor of their truth.

Because the authority of the Bible has been so closely identified with the doctrine of inspiration in modern discussion, efforts to analyze or reassert the Bible’s claims to authority often focus on this concept. Recent attempts have been made to reformulate the notion of inspiration in a manner compatible with present knowledge of the origins of the canon and modern understandings of psychological and mental processes.7 Nevertheless, the concept of inspiration remains a theory of agency that cannot in itself define or secure the authority of the Bible.

Two other terms that are closely identified with claims of biblical authority are inerrancy and infallibility. Both represent modern attempts to spell out the implications of traditional belief in a new age confronted by new questions—in this case, questions about the veracity of biblical statements, occasioned by new knowledge and new canons of truth. Both seek to maintain ancient affirmations of the trustworthiness of Scripture as divine revelation, translating those affirmations into modern terms. Although the claims expressed by these two closely related concepts are considered by many as essential criteria of biblical authority, neither describes the full nature or scope of that authority, and both are second-order concepts, deriving their meaning from more fundamental affirmations (see below).

Debates over biblical authority tend to focus on particular attributes of the text and neglect the fundamentally relational character of all authority. Authority describes the power of one subject to influence another in such a way that a claim upon the other is established and acknowledged. The nature of the claim and the manner of its operation will vary with the subject and the relationship in which it is exercised, but it is not effected by assertion alone; it requires acknowledgment—through appropriate response. Authority is not a possession, nor can it be freely created. It is a quality of a relationship that develops over time and involves an element of trust and trustworthiness. And it is always exercised within a community.10

Authority is contextual; it is always relative to particular situations and relationships. It is, therefore, highly varied, and variable, in its content, extent, and forms of expression. A given person, institution, or writing may exercise different types and degrees of authority in relation to different audiences, expectations, and needs. While some types of authority may be more generalized than others, such as the authority of a parent (in contrast, e.g., to that of a teacher), none is comprehensive—including the authority of the Bible. Although the authority of Scripture is understood to derive from God, the Bible itself has a particular and limited purpose in God’s relationship to the church and the world, and its authority must be understood in relation to that purpose and those relationships. To equate the authority of the Bible with the authority of God is to fall into the sin of idolatry.

Much of the debate over the authority of the Bible concerns the nature of the authority, rather than the extent ("high" or "low"). What kind of book is this, and what kind of message, or communication, does it contain? To whom is it addressed, and under what conditions? Who or what determines appropriate expectations and responses? Who may "rightly" interpret it, and according to what canons? How does it stand in relation to other sources of authority, and how are conflicting claims to be adjudicated?

Underlying many of these questions is the issue of meaning. The Bible’s authority is one of communication; it depends on understanding. When its message is no longer comprehended, or when its word is heard as false or irrelevant, its authority is jeopardized or annulled. That is the reason for the crisis of biblical authority that has characterized much of the modern period; a radically changed world and world view have rendered old ways of understanding the text unintelligible, objectionable, or simply inconsequential for many. Continued affirmation of the Bible’s authority requires new ways of interpreting the text and appropriating its message. The question of biblical authority is inextricably bound up with the question of interpretation and hermeneutics. Thus some attention must be given in this article to key issues and episodes in the history of biblical interpretation that have particular bearing on the question of authority.

Two principles are crucial to assessing various interpretations and claims concerning the authority of the Bible, and to formulating a contemporary statement of its nature and consequences. (1) The Bible itself must be the primary source of any answer to the question of its nature and purpose, and any view of its message and authority must be consonant with its form—as an ordered collection of disparate writings. (2) The meaning and authority of the Bible cannot be determined apart from the community that created, transmitted, and interpreted it. Both principles require that any understanding of biblical authority must have a recognizable historical dimension, even when the question is limited to contemporary authority. Scripture comes to us as a word from the past and exhibits in its language and content a continuing link with that past. It serves first of all as an indispensable memory of the church. But it must also be heard as a contemporary word, since it witnesses to a God who is not bound to the past, but is active in the present, shaping the future. Thus the Bible’s authority for the church also depends on its ability to speak an intelligible and credible word to the present generation.

These two functions of Scripture, as memory and present word, have corresponding forms of authority, which need not be formulated in identical terms and may change over time in relation to changing needs and world views. Any concept or claim of authority must be congruent, however, with the Bible’s own internal witness to its nature and purposes. Theories of biblical authority that are to have credibility must honor the Bible’s own word in its own world—which can never simply be equated with our own. The contribution of modern historical consciousness and modern historical study of the Bible is insistence that the integrity of the biblical witness not be compromised by denying or subordinating its historical character, hence its cultural particularity, to the demands of contemporary readers. The Bible’s authority is intimately connected with its character as a bridge between the past and present activity of God.


Scripture is the creation of a community that recognizes certain writings as authoritative.13 In the case of the Christian Bible, two communities were instrumental in shaping and defining the final corpus. What the church received from Israel and the synagogue had to be substantially reinterpreted in the light of the new revelation in Christ. Nevertheless, the Christian Bible remains in its most basic sense a Jewish Bible, in which the fundamental terms for the church’s understanding of the divine presence that had broken into history and transformed its life were given to it by the community formed at Sinai. The people of the resurrection read their Bible as descendants and heirs of the people of the exodus.

The writings that the church describes as "holy Scripture" and "Word of God" comprise a diverse collection of documents composed over a period of more than a thousand years and attributed to many different authors. Thus any notion of divine authorship must reckon with the Bible’s own internal witness to its complex human origins. The fundamental issue in the history of debate over biblical authority is the question of how to acknowledge and relate the divine and the human nature of these writings. Modern biblical and historical scholarship has enabled us to reconstruct much of the process by which our canon of Scriptures came into being, permitting us to see it as a historical product in a way that earlier generations could not. The Holy Book is seen once again as a collection (ta biblia, "the books," in its original Greek designation), but this time in a manner that relates individual writings more precisely to the situations in which they arose.

The books that comprise our biblical canon did not originate as "scripture" and, with notable exceptions, do not claim divine authorship or inspiration for themselves. Within these books, however, are references to earlier writings for which divine authorship and authority are claimed. Thus New Testament (NT) writings frequently cite the Jewish scriptures, identifying their words as divine speech. Long before the Old Testament (OT) canon was closed or its writings completed, however, a concept of Scripture had come into being that would have an enduring effect on Jewish and Christian understandings of sacred writings.16

Deuteronomic Torah: The Authority of Sacred Law. The earliest datable reference to a written document whose words are identified, at least indirectly, as the words of God is found in the account of Josiah’s reforms (c. 621 bce). The "book" (or "document") discovered during the course of repairs to the Temple is identified more specifically as the "book of the law" (2 Kgs 22:11) and "book of the covenant" (2 Kgs 23:2). Although the narrative does not use the expression "law of God," it makes clear that the words read before the king were understood as none other than Yahweh’s words and that in failing to obey the "words of this book," Israel had disobeyed Yahweh’s commands (23:13; cf. vv. 16, 19).

Both the language used to describe the book and the covenant-making that accompanies its reception link it with the book of Deuteronomy, whose central section (Deut 4:44–28:68) is introduced as "the law that Moses set before the Israelites" (4:44 NRSV), and more specifically as "the commandments of Yahweh" (4:2). According to Deut 4:13–14, the book contained the covenant stipulations declared to Israel by Yahweh at Horeb (Sinai) and expounded by Moses at Yahweh’s charge.

Torah as Constitution. Deuteronomy is unique within the Hebrew Bible in its claims to embody a written deposition of authoritative law and as a book whose text is referred to elsewhere in the OT. References to it abound in the "Deuteronomistic" exhortations and accusations of the books of Joshua and Kings, as well as various prophetic writings (e.g., Josh 1:7, 8; 1 Kgs 2:3; 2 Kgs 10:31; 17:34, 37; Jer 9:13; Amos 2:4). The collective term used to designate this body of writings is תורה tr, traditionally rendered as "law," but etymologically identified with "teaching" or "instruction." In Deuteronomy’s usage it refers to a body of stipulations having normative and prescriptive force, but it is not an umbrella term for every rule, decision, or enactment of Israelite legal authority. It is more specifically covenantal law, the implementing legislation of the covenant made by God with Israel at Horeb.

This special sense of Deuteronomic torah as Israel’s "constitution" was recognized by Josephus, who rendered it with the Greek term πολιτεία (politeia, "polity") rather than νομός (nomos, "law"/"lawcode"). Interpreting the Pentateuch for a Gentile audience in the first century ce, Josephus described the book of Deuteronomy as preserving the "divinely authorized and comprehensive ‘polity’ or national ‘constitution’ " that Moses had delivered to Israel, in both written and oral forms, in the final days of his life. The torah of Deuteronomy sets forth the principles and policies of a "divinely authorized social order that Israel must implement to secure its collective political existence as the people of God."20

The notion of divinely issued decrees and commands contained in a written document and intended as a normative guide for a people bound to God by a covenant relationship is specific to Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic "school," but it has played a foundational role in Jewish and Christian understandings of Scripture. It contains the essential notions of a communal document, which is to be appropriated individually and internally by each member of the community. It is a gift of God, the consequence of divine initiative in creating a new people. In its demands it reveals the character of its giver. It is both written and oral in nature and, therefore, not limited to the word once spoken. It is a word that always addresses a new generation, with demands for new covenant commitment.

The term torah was ultimately extended to the Pentateuch as a whole and with it the claims of divine origin and authority, as well as Mosaic "authorship." In that context "law" would come to have a broader meaning, and the Deuteronomic ordinances would find their place as the climactic word of a story of God’s purposes and action from the creation of the world to the creation of Israel, a story to be continued on the other side of the Jordan. In that narrative context, the words of Moses spoken on the plains of Moab are for the new generation that will claim the promise and enter the land. The book of Deuteronomy is fully aware that the Israel it addresses no longer stands at Horeb. It recalls, and refashions, the words spoken at the mountain, so that they remain true to the character of the divine speaker and the changing historical circumstances of the audience.

The Two-Part Structure of Covenantal Law. Deuteronomy represents a critical stage in the transformation of tradition, but it was neither the beginning nor the end of the process. Behind Deuteronomy stands the covenant tradition of the older narrative sources of the Pentateuch; after it stand the later prescriptive collections of the Pentateuch and the body of oral and written decisions of the rabbis that continued to give instruction to Israel in ever-new circumstances of life. Within this continuing tradition one feature deserves special note, since it points to the essential combination of stability and flexibility in Israel’s notion of "law" and scripture. Deuteronomy, like the older tradition on which it rests, is presented as a two-part composition, consisting of the Decalogue (Exod 20:2–17; Deut 5:6–21) followed by a diverse body of ordinances, or "rulings." While the Decalogue remains essentially unchanged, the collection of rulings is greatly expanded in Deuteronomy, not only by new and different cases, but also by interpretive and hortatory elaboration.

Two classes of divine commands are recognized in this arrangement. The "Ten Words" may be understood as statements of policy or basic norms that Deuteronomy insists were heard by Israel directly from the voice of God at Horeb and received on tablets written by the finger of God (Deut 4:12–13; 5:4, 22; 9:10). The "statutes and ordinances" may be understood as implementing legislation that Yahweh had charged Moses to teach to the Israelites for their observance in the land they are about to occupy (Deut 4:14; cf. 5:31). The distinction between the two classes involves differences of form, function, terminology, and historical setting—but not authority. Both are covenantal law and expressive of divine will, but the latter body is mediated and historically conditioned in a way that the former is not.

Deuteronomy’s interpretation of the two-part structure of covenantal law employs both historical and theological arguments. The covenant made at Horeb must be reappropriated by every generation (Deut 5:3; 11:2–7). Its basic demands of loyalty and justice are unchanging; they are heard and stamped upon the mind as the direct address of God (4:10–13; 5:22–24), and their constancy is assured by memoranda on stone tablets. But changed and changing circumstances are reflected throughout the book and signaled by the constant refrain of "today" (Deut 5:1; 11:2, 8, 13, etc.). Deuteronomy’s "today" is a dynamic concept and must be understood as such. The social and political circumstances reflected in the book clearly point to the seventh century bce as the time of its composition, rather than the eleventh century of its narrative setting. To Hebrew readers of Josiah’s day, the references to the "nations" and their practices would have been transparent allusions to religious and political relations of their own day.

Mediated Word. Deuteronomy contributes one further element of Israel’s understanding of Scripture: the fundamental role of human mediation in divine communication. The divine law is spoken and expounded by Moses. But mediation implies contingency. At the heart of Israel’s traditions concerning God’s revelation to Israel lies a tension between the absolute and unchanging nature of God and God’s will for the covenant community, and the changing (historical) circumstances of life in which Israel must live out its covenant faithfulness. Both are acknowledged, and bound together, in the traditions of God’s revelation in the wilderness—and Moses is the figure who unites them. All divinely authorized law or instruction in Israel was "Mosaic," identified with the formative period of Israel’s life, located in the wilderness narrative. Yet the several collections of laws in the Pentateuch and the obvious accretions to the earlier laws clearly point to later times. The later laws do not replace the earlier ones, but stand side by side as witness to a continuing "Mosaic" function.

Torah in Post-Exilic Judaism. A century after Josiah’s reforms, Mosaic torah figures prominently in another account of national renewal. Nehemiah 8 relates how Ezra, the priest and scribe, read from the "book of the law of Moses" (8:1) to an assembly of returned exiles at their request. The assembly comprised "both men and women and all who could hear with understanding" (8:2 NRSV), and the reading was accompanied by interpretation (8:7–8). Whether this is to be understood as translation (into the Aramaic vernacular) or exegesis (spelling out meanings and implications) is uncertain, but the narrative makes clear that the law was understood as both authoritative for the community and requiring interpretation by skilled experts. It also introduces us to a new religious title, "scribe" (8:1, 4, 9, 13), apparently designating a new class of scholars who study and expound the law (cf. Ezra 7:6, 21). The context of the reading (from a raised platform, with accompanying acts of homage and blessing) and the subsequent action by the heads of the ancestral houses (who gather on the following day to "study the words of the law") appear to reflect late practice associated with the synagogue, where public reading and private study were the central activities of religious life. But whatever the date, torah in this account has assumed a new place in communal life.

The book designated alternately as the "law of Moses" (8:1) and "law of God" (8:8, 18) appears to have been substantially identical with that read by Josiah to "all the people, both small and great" (2 Kgs 23:2 NRSV), although it may have been contained in a larger pentateuchal corpus. In both instances, it is understood to represent the authoritative word of God, binding on the community as a whole; but the meaning of the book has changed with the changing circumstances of the community.

Mosaic torah as defined by Deuteronomy contained directives for life, more specifically the life of the nation. It was communal in its orientation and political in its implications: The king was to meditate upon it and govern in accordance with its commands (Deut 17:18–20; cf. 2 Kgs 22:10–13; 23:1–3, 24); foreign alliances were to be rejected (Deut 7:1–2); and the fate and welfare of the nation depended on obedience to its commands (Deut 30:16–18; 2 Kgs 17:19; 22:13). But it also laid demands on every Israelite able to understand its commands (Deut 31:12; 2 Kgs 23:2; Neh 8:3, 12). It was to be read publicly before the entire assembly (Deut 31:10–12; cf. 2 Kgs 23:2; Neh 8:2) and to be an object of study and meditation (Deut 6:6–7; Neh 8:13). It was not simply policy for rulers or guidance for judges and cultic officials. Its primary audience was the covenant community, individually and collectively.

In the postexilic setting, the political dimensions of the law are absent, and the problem of foreign alliances is now a problem of marriage with foreigners (Neh 9:1–2; 10:28–30; Ezra 9–10; cf. Deut 7:3). A scribe of the law holds the book, and the people take the initiative, not the king. The community has been redefined as constituted by the reading and hearing of the word of God. Authority for governing the community is now invested in a book and its interpreters.

Implications for Christian Understanding of Scripture. All of these features of the understanding and use of Israel’s earliest Scriptures have relevance for Christian understanding of the nature of Scripture and scriptural authority, and all have received confirmation in Christian doctrine and use. The fundamental affirmations of this tradition are that Scripture is both communal and individual in its address, and its authority must be realized at both levels. Understanding is necessary to assent, and understanding requires interpretation. Interpretation involves special knowledge and skill, but study and meditation are the obligation of all who are capable. The authoritative word is from the past, but is directed anew to each generation. Its message is heard differently in different contexts, requiring different responses. The word lays demands on its hearers—for the ordering of community, family, and individual life—but it also provides the means to fulfill those demands. It is a means of grace, God’s gift, in which the nature and will of the giver are revealed. Its purposes are life and well-being. If later interpretations of the "law" narrowed and perverted this understanding in frozen literalism and false contrasts with the "gospel," the Deuteronomic understanding of torah continued nevertheless to dominate the evolving corpus and conception of Scripture.

Expanding Torah: The Authority of Sacred Story. Varieties of Scripture. Although the law occupied a position of primacy in Israel’s Scriptures, it was not the only form of sacred writing recognized as authoritative in Israel, nor the earliest composition. Before the "book of the law" had received its final form, other writings had come into existence that would ultimately form part of Israel’s sacred canon. Some were joined to the "book of the law" to form the Pentateuch. Others found their way into later collections of Hebrew scriptures, and some were lost, forgotten, or circulated outside the finally authorized canon. During the whole period of canon formation, new writings continued to be produced. The question of when these writings became "scripture," and for whom, is difficult to answer. Originally composed and cherished by particular groups within Israel, as the law itself, they served limited purposes related to particular institutions or occasions, and only gradually became part of a "national" literature. Outside the Pentateuch, they never formed a single unified corpus, but retained the character of a library, even in their final canonical form.22

The history of the growth of the canon, and of individual books within the canon, shows that the authority of the scriptures depends on the recognition of a community, but also that recognition may be accorded in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. Before the individual writings were assembled into a body of "scripture," each had established its authority in respect to its own peculiar character and use: laws, to guide and govern the community; ancestral tales and historical narratives, to create and confirm a sense of identity and trace the activity of God in past experience and event; prophetic oracles, to illuminate God’s action in the present and to warn; proverbs, to counsel; psalms, to direct prayer and praise; didactic tales, to instruct and encourage steadfastness. Similar distinctions of purpose and use, and consequently types of authority, characterize the NT writings.

The distinctive character and authority of the individual writings is maintained by continuing distinction of form and boundaries within the canonical collection. But the unity of the collection, however loose or variable, imposes a new demand on interpreters to relate the component parts to each other and to the new whole—and a corresponding new demand to reconceive the authority of the whole and its parts. The unified collection has a new locus, or loci, of interpretation—the synagogue and the church—and it is in relation to the new needs of these two new institutions that the authority of Scripture came to be defined. The shift to a new communal context of interpretation and use began with the liturgical reading of Scripture in the postexilic period, as evidenced by Nehemiah 8, but the move from Scripture to canon extended over centuries. Not until the end of the first century ce was there a definitive Jewish canon; the OT canon, together with the NT of the Christian Bible, was not fixed until the fourth century ce—without final unanimity. Thus even as collections of writings began to be formed for use by new religious bodies, the boundaries of the collections varied, reflecting differing theological emphases and interests and differing views of the authority of individual writings as well as criteria of authority.

The Narrative Setting of Israelite Law. Mosaic torah played a determinative role in Israelite understanding of Scripture, but in its present literary context, it is embedded in a narrative that is decisive for its interpretation. The Pentateuch presents an account of Israel’s origins, set in the context of world history and looking to the occupation of a homeland in the mountains of Canaan. In various recensions, the underlying narrative attempted to comprehend, and defend, Israel’s identity and vocation as the people of Yahweh and spell out the terms and consequences of that relationship. Thus history complemented law in revealing God’s nature and purposes for Israel by supplying the story of divine initiative and action that had given birth to the nation and preserved it through various threats.

Covenantal law had a narrative setting, which was finally fleshed out, from many sources, to comprise the present pentateuchal account. In this literary context, torah as divine instruction was extended from sacred law to sacred story. Within this context the words of the law are given a specific historical setting and purpose, appearing as the historically conditioned terms of a relationship set within God’s overarching purposes and actions in the world. Fixed in time, Mosaic law opens the way to new teachings and new commands in relation to God’s new actions in history. But it is also located outside of time and history. The place of revelation is the mountain of God, located in the wilderness, in a place apart. Mosaic law is isolated and magnified as the model of all subsequent teaching. Thus torah is both absolutized and historicized in its pentateuchal setting.

Prophetic Word and Prophetic Authority. The Pentateuch, as the first corpus of writings to acquire the shape and authority of canonical scripture, was composed of testimony to God’s revelation in deed and word. So too was the second major section of the Jewish canon, comprising the historical books from Joshua through Kings together with the prophetic writings. Here, however, the divine word is mediated not by Moses, but by prophets. The Deuteronomists represented the prophets as continuing the Mosaic office (Deut 18:15, 17–20; cf. 34:10). In their construction, the word once spoken at Horeb is spoken anew to successive generations through the prophets, giving divine direction to a new age. In contrast to the word from the mountain, however, the prophetic word is timely, specific, and bound to the circumstances of its delivery—or so it would appear. As a divine word, however, it also had the potential of disclosing God’s nature and will in a way that might instruct future generations as well. Ultimately, prophetic words, like Mosaic commands, were preserved in collections that were studied, expounded, and amplified.

The attempt to link the two forms of divine communication represented by prophecy and law is clearly a secondary effort. It is nevertheless instructive as an attempt to claim the authority of written torah for prophetic speech and at the same time to subordinate prophecy to Mosaic law. While the activity of prophets is attested from premonarchic to postexilic times, and prophetic speech may have been viewed by some as the primary and preferred form of divine communication, prophetic oracles do not appear to have been gathered into books until the eighth or seventh century bce, the same period in which the Deuteronomic book of the law was being formed and promulgated; and they did not achieve the status of Scripture until the exile, at the earliest.

Prophetic speech in its primary setting was marked by directness and immediacy; it provided divine guidance for specific occasions and needs, solicited and unsolicited. And it carried the authority of divine speech; the prophet spoke in the divine first person, as God’s messenger or as one possessed by God’s Spirit. These very attributes, however, made the prophetic word a problematic source of divine guidance. It was sporadic, occasional, tied to passing events, and sometimes unavailable (Mic 3:7). It could not be obtained at will, and when it could, it was suspect (1 Kgs 22:5–7; Jer 23:16, 21–22, 25–32).

The question of authority in claims of divine communication is raised in its earliest and most acute form in relation to prophetic words. Conflicting messages (1 Kgs 22:5–28; Jer 28:1–17), predictions that failed (Jer 28:11; 29:18–19; cf. 2 Kgs 24:6), and lying or deluded prophets (Jer 23:16–32; cf. 1 Kgs 13:18; 22:19–23; Mic 3:5–8) are among the issues that attended prophecy, especially in the final years of the Judean state, a time in which the question of truth in prophetic pronouncements had come to have life-and-death significance. Who had the true word from God? By what signs could one recognize it? On these questions hung the fate of the nation—and the future of prophecy itself.

In this period, tests were formulated that have significance for contemporary debates. First, the truth of a word, and hence the assurance that it was a message from God and not simply an invention of the prophet’s own mind or desire, could not be assured by any formula of speech or professional title. False messages, described as "lying" or "deceptive" words, were spoken by persons bearing the title "prophet" and introduced by the standard formula of introduction, "thus says the Lord" (Jer 28:1–5, 10–11; cf. 12–16). Attempts to distinguish true from false messages by the manner of reception or delivery are accorded limited credibility. "False prophets" (a term coined by the Greek translators, but unknown in Hebrew) are said to receive their messages through dreams or visions of their own heads, rather than by direct audition or access to the divine assembly (1 Kgs 22:19–23; Jer 23:16–32), or to "steal" one another’s words (Jer 23:30). They may also be characterized by frenzied behavior (1 Kgs 18:26–27). But most of these criteria are not easily discernible, or may be applied to canonical prophets as well (Jer 29:26–27). Another effort to establish criteria of credibility was associated with signs, but this too was judged inadequate (Deut 13:1–5). In the final analysis, the truth of a word could be judged only by its content and by the vindication of time (Deut 18:21–22; Jer 28:9)—a criterion of little use to the hearer, who must decide immediately which word to follow.

If the message itself held the clues to its origins and truth, then the hearer’s, or reader’s, chief resource for assessing its claims was the faith tradition. For the Deuteronomists, this core of belief was embodied in the law given through Moses, and more particularly in the Decalogue and the first commandment. This was no strange word or new command, not difficult to obtain or comprehend, and not dependent on dreams or esoteric interpretations, but available to all (Deut 30:11–14). It was to be recited, bound to head and hand, written on the door post, and taught to the next generation (Deut 6:4–9). Nine centuries later, early Christian theologians would make a similar appeal to the "rule of faith" as the criterion for judging the claims of various writings to authoritative status in the church’s Scriptures. Such appeals to tradition have their own pitfalls, however, tending to make past formulations and experience a norm rather than a guide for discerning the divine presence and will in new situations and new forms. The tension between prophecy and law characterizes the whole history of the canon and of the church.

The Writings: New Models and Meanings of Scripture and Authority. The Law and the Prophets formed the heart of the Jewish Scriptures, which the church inherited from Israel, but those Scriptures embraced a far more diverse collection of writings, whose boundaries were still in flux when the first Christian writings were being formed. The third section of the Hebrew canon, designated simply The Writings, was a loose assemblage of works that had for the most part arisen subsequent to the earlier collections or did not fit the recognized categories of form or content. It included a collection of sacred songs and prayers drawn from public worship and private devotion (Psalms) and a number of compositions from the world of wisdom, including a collection of maxims and instructions (Proverbs); a skeptic’s monologue on the apparent meaninglessness of life (Qoheleth), and a dramatic poem on the justice of God explored through the dialogue of a sufferer with his would-be comforters (Job). Love songs (Song of Solomon), elegies (Lamentations), didactic novels and heroic tales (Ruth, Esther, Daniel [1–6, together with apocalyptic visions, 7–12]), and new historiographic writings (Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles) completed the collection that ultimately won the approval of Pharisaic Judaism. Other works contended for inclusion, however, and are cited as authoritative by Jewish writers in the first two centuries bce and even as late as the fourth century ce, although the shorter canon was generally accepted after 90 ce.

The final segment of the Jewish canon involves a debate concerning the nature and scope of Scripture and the manner of divine revelation in which the emergence of Christianity as a distinct movement within sectarian Judaism played a critical role. The closing of the OT canon was precipitated by a crisis of identity in which two religious communities defined themselves, in part at least, by their differing uses of common scriptures and their eventual construction of distinct canons. The process was complex, especially in the first century ce, when both Judaism and Christianity were marked by great internal diversity, including diversity of views about the authority of Scripture and the canon of sacred books. The final outcome of this internal and external debate was a contracted Jewish canon and an expanded Christian OT.

The third section of the Jewish canon is a miscellany, lacking any clear center or overarching conceptual framework. In Greek canon lists, these writings do not constitute a distinct unit, but are combined in varying order and arrangement with the prophetic and historical books, thus extending the category as well as the corpus of "the Prophets." This segment of Scripture has played an important role in a series of critical questions concerning definitions and boundaries of canon, scripture, church, and synagogue. It also contributes more specifically to the question of scriptural authority.

First, the diversity of the writings that completed the Jewish canon, even in its short version, extends the notion of Scripture to include works that cannot readily be interpreted as the record of divine speech or action, even when broadly defined as "sacred story." The authority of these books must rest on broader grounds, which cannot be identified by a single concept of origin or agency, but must be related to their function in shaping and sustaining community identity—a function that is also central to the earlier collections. The concept of Scripture must be recast in relation to this broader corpus, as the collection of writings that informs and instructs Israel in its identity and vocation as the people of God. In myriad ways it tells Israel who it is, why it has been created and preserved ("chosen"), and what is expected of it.

It performs this function by means of multiple voices and genres. The internal diversity of the scriptures is magnified in the third division of the Hebrew canon, which preserves voices of conflict and dissent, defenders and critics of tradition, even religious skeptics. Thus it is the witness of a community in debate—a feature also discernible within the older canonical writings. Theological diversity and debate are a fundamental feature of both testaments, and any doctrine of biblical authority must be consonant with this aspect of its character.

The Scriptures are not simply multivocal, but historical in their essential nature. They grew—through accretion and selection. They were not handed down from heaven or created in a single moment, but are the product of a particular community and changing circumstances of life. They testify to the eternal out of their own historical and cultural particularity. Their authority is one of historical and historically conditioned writings. That is equally true of the Christian canon, which added a final chapter to the collected writings—but not to the history of dialogue and witness, which continued beyond the boundaries of the canon.

Canon and Authority. The formation of the Jewish canon as a bound collection of sacred writings was the final stage in the community’s recognition of the authority of these works, a process that would be repeated in the church’s formation of its own canon. The canon did not establish the authority of the writings, but acknowledged existing authority. And it did not contain all of the writings judged to be inspired, true, and profitable for knowledge of God and conduct of life, but only those deemed essential and having broad appeal within the community. The criteria for inclusion remain one of the most debated issues; what is essential to affirm here is that the canon represents a selection, based primarily on use.

Canon implies boundaries, which have significant consequences for interpretation and use. Different degrees or types of authority are accorded to works inside and outside canonical boundaries, as may be seen in differing Protestant and Catholic uses of the deuterocanonical/apocryphal writings. Canon does not, however, imply fixed or unchangeable boundaries. The Hebrew canon grew—and contracted—and differed according to the community of reference. The Pentateuch appears to have acquired the status and function of a canon for Second Temple Judaism, and a small prophetic "canon" may have been recognized by some Jewish circles as early as the exile. In the century before the closing of the Jewish canon, however, Sadducees, Essenes, and Pharisees all had different canons, with the Sadducees recognizing only the Law of Moses as authoritative and the Essenes employing the widest selection of writings.

Canon is a function of political power as well as theological persuasion. The canons of both Judaism and Christianity reflect the views of the dominant parties—and the survivors. To the extent that canonical status was determined by use, it was weighted in favor of use by the largest or most prestigious cities, churches, and religious leaders. Modern historical scholarship has allowed us to see the losers and dissenters in earlier battles over the Bible and to recognize that early Judaism and Christianity were far more diverse than the later orthodoxy of each tradition has suggested.

The church inherited a canon of scriptures that was still in flux, in respect to both the number of books and the written text. From the evidence of first-century bce and ce manuscripts, and from what can be reconstructed of the history of the OT text, it is clear that the notion of inspired and authoritative writings did not mean for the ancient guardians of those texts that the words themselves must remain unchanged—even where those words are represented explicitly, as in the prophetic writings, as the direct communication of God. Until the end of the first century ce, a dynamic understanding of divine communication in Scripture seems to have prevailed. This is exhibited in its early stages in redactional activity, evident in virtually all of the OT books: New understandings of the divine purpose and will were incorporated directly into the received scriptures. With the closing of the canon, however, that continuing interpretive effort had to take its place outside of the canon and alongside the received text in various types of commentaries. Thus at the time the church was coming into existence, the concept of Scripture as the "Word of God" had not yet acquired the literal interpretation it received in the second century ce.

Scripture in the time of Christian origins also did not imply that all "canonical" writings had the same type or degree of authority. Within the Hebrew Scriptures a hierarchy of authority was recognized, which is discernible in NT citations. The Pentateuch had preeminence, as the earliest body of writings to achieve its final form and as a corpus identified with Mosaic teaching and authority. Prophecy had succeeded torah as the means of continuing revelation in the post-Mosaic age and had given rise to a second corpus of authoritative writings, which appears generally to have been accorded secondary status within early Judaism. By 200 bce a relatively closed prophetic canon was recognized by the dominant group, which held that the period of prophecy had ceased.

For those holding this view, inspired and authoritative writing had also ceased. Those writings that were ultimately recognized as the third division of the Jewish canon had either to claim continuing inspiration or to establish their authority on other grounds. One attempt to formulate a criterion of authority that did not depend on the concept of prophetic inspiration is exhibited in the argument of "defiling the hands" that was used to assert the canonicity of certain contested works (Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs). The expression appears to refer to a quality of holiness recognized in the liturgical reading of Scripture, particularly the Law. This was ultimately extended to the whole corpus of authorized scriptures, distinguishing them from other popular, but "noncanonical," writings, especially the so-called "hidden" or apocryphal works.31 In seeking a term to describe writings that could not be included within the prophetic corpus, the creators of the three-part canon simply named them "the Writings" (in Greek, hagiographa, "Holy Writings"). In some circles of first-century Judaism, however, the concept of "inspired" or prophetic writing appears to have been extended to include all of the writings outside the Pentateuch (evidenced by LXX canon lists). Some believed that prophecy had not ceased, among them Christians who attempted to portray their movement as a revival of prophecy in the latter days.32


Jewish and Christian Scriptures in the First Century ce. Christianity was born as a sectarian movement in first-century Judaism, and for a century at least some Christians continued to think of themselves as Jews. For all Christians in the formative period, "Scripture" was the Jewish Scriptures, whose authority and importance for the church’s self-understanding are evidenced in the multitude of citations and allusions in early Christian writings. The center of the earliest Christian canon was the Law, and references to Scripture as a whole employ the two-part designation "the law and the prophets" (Matt 5:17; Luke 24:27; Acts 28:23). Only one NT reference suggests a three-part canon (Luke 24:44 [NRSV], referring to "the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms"). The notion of divine authorship and agency in the Scriptures can be seen in citations of OT passages that attribute the words directly to God or the Holy Spirit, without reference to the intermediary author, even where the OT lacks the rubric "says the Lord." Little or no distinction of author or literary type is made; all words are understood as God’s words and, therefore, as having equal authority.34

The church inherited a canon and a concept of Scripture, together with means of interpreting it. In developing its own distinctive hermeneutics, it adapted current Jewish theory and practice. Where the church differed from its parent faith in respect to a common Bible was primarily in the relative weight it attached to scriptural authority. For Christians, the primary focus of divine revelation was not Scripture, but Christ, to whom Scripture was understood to bear witness. Christian preaching ("the gospel") was the primary authority for faith in the first centuries, and Scripture was interpreted in its light. Christians believed that God’s purposes for Israel as revealed in the Scriptures had reached an end in Jesus. As a consequence, they sought to show how Scripture pointed to Christ. Scripture, as the authoritative word from the past, had a decisive role to play in confirming and interpreting the new revelatory event, but it had no meaning, or could not properly be understood, apart from that event (2 Cor 3:12–18). It was still the authoritative Word of God, but it no longer communicated salvation. This orientation toward Christ as the center and source of faith distinguished Christianity from the beginning and determined Christian understanding of Scripture, including the new Christian writings that would eventually stand alongside the OT canon. Christians, in contrast to Jews, were not primarily a people of the book.

Christian use of Scripture shifted emphasis from God’s activity in the past to God’s activity in the present, a shift that affected the shape of the Christian OT and also the Jewish canon. Christians shared the belief of certain Jewish groups that the time of revelation was not past. In their conviction that the new age of the Spirit, predicted for the final days, had dawned, Christians were attracted to Jewish apocalyptic and messianic literature, which likewise expected a dramatic reappearance of divine activity in history. Christian use of these writings, as well as their "misuse" of the older canonical literature, seems to have been one factor behind the move by the dominant Jewish party to fix both the corpus and the text of the Jewish Scriptures at the end of the first century ce. The resulting canon admitted only one apocalyptic writing (Daniel) and no writings composed originally in Greek, apparently in reaction to the Christian adoption of the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures, produced in Alexandria). Thus hermeneutics had a decisive influence on which books were considered authoritative as well as on how their authority was understood.

The Christian OT canon remained open for two more centuries, with continued, and ultimately unresolved, debate concerning some of the later writings, but a general preference for an expanded corpus based on the Septuagint. Nevertheless, the main corpus of the OT had already attained such a degree of authority by the time Christians appropriated it as their own that no significant challenge was made against any individual book of the shorter Jewish canon. The real challenge to the authority of the Jewish Scriptures was directed to the corpus as a whole, and from that challenge the Christian Bible was born.

The Shape and Authority of the Christian Bible. The first century and a half of the church’s life was marked by wide diversity of understanding and practice as different communities attempted in different ways to relate the new faith to its parent religion and to other religious and philosophical movements. The consensus that finally emerged charted a course between two extremes, represented on the one hand by Jewish Christians, who insisted on maintaining their Jewish heritage and denied the divinity of Christ, and on the other by Gnostic Christians, who depreciated the created order and the Jewish Scriptures and denied the full humanity of Christ. By the mid-second century the primary challenge came from the Gnostics and Gnostic-influenced thinkers.

Marcion, a lay member of the Roman congregation who was heavily influenced by Gnostics and Paul, had come to believe that the Jewish Bible was incompatible with the gospel. Moreover, he argued, the God of the Jewish Scriptures was not the God of Jesus Christ, but a vengeful and changeable god, whose eye-for-eye morality was superseded by Jesus’ ethic of love. Christ had not only rendered the law obsolete, but also revealed a new God. Marcion insisted that the church sever its Jewish roots completely, including the Jewish Scriptures; and he rejected attempts to hold on to these (in his view) outmoded and antithetical texts by such arbitrary methods of interpretation as allegory and typology. Establishing a counterchurch in 144 ce, he also proposed a counter Scripture. In place of the Jewish Scriptures, he proposed a canon of Christian writings consisting of an expurgated version of the Gospel of Luke (with all OT influences eliminated) and a freely edited collection of ten letters of Paul.

The church ultimately rejected Marcion’s theology and his canon, but in so doing it had to rethink its understanding of Scripture. In the end it reappropriated and reappraised the Jewish Scriptures in relation to a new collection of Christian Scriptures.

Christian Writings. Christian writings had begun to appear soon after the birth of the church, but they were intended to assist, not replace, oral proclamation, which was the authoritative form of the apostolic witness in the first century. The circulation of written Gospels, referred to as "Memoirs of the Apostles," did not mean, however, that they were immediately treated as Scripture. The creation and adoption of a canon of Christian Scriptures had multiple sources and motives. The death of the first witnesses and the delay of the parousia gave impetus to the recording of the oral tradition, as did the difficulty of certifying oral tradition. Apologetic motives played a role in the composition and use of some of the NT writings, as did the needs of community worship and instruction, and the need to communicate with a rapidly expanding church for which personal communication was no longer possible. Practical reasons dictated the composition of most of the writings.

The growth of the NT and final establishment of a closed authoritative canon paralleled in many ways the process by which the OT canon came into being. The sayings of Jesus were considered authoritative from the beginning and had the status of Scripture before they were recorded in any collection or Gospel. Citations of Jesus’ words became frequent in the second century, typically coupled with OT citations, and often derived from written Gospels (mostly Matthew). Citations from NT epistles also appear in this period, though less frequently, and there is evidence that Paul’s letters were being circulated among a number of churches in Asia Minor and beyond. There is also evidence of liturgical use of the Gospels for public reading in worship—alternating with the Prophets. Whatever the original purpose and occasion of these writings, when they were placed alongside the OT Scriptures in worship and in appeals to authoritative teaching, they functioned as Scripture, whether they were formally accorded this status or not.

The Twofold Canon. The NT canon was not finally fixed until the fourth century, but the principal and the core literature had been established by the time of Irenaeus (writing c. 170–180), who provided the nomenclature and the theory for uniting the two canons in a single Christian Bible. Irenaeus, who appears to have been the first to designate the two-part Scriptures as OT and NT, conceived of the history revealed in the two testaments as that of salvation in which the Hebrew Scriptures had a positive role in preparing the Jewish people for Christ. The incarnate Word of God was the head of this history, uniting and summing up all in God, but present in it from the beginning, revealing God the Father in creation and in the whole history of Israel. The revelation of the Word as attested by the Scriptures occurred in stages, marked by four covenants (Adam, Noah, Moses, Christ), in which the form and content of the message were appropriate for the particular dispensation in which it was given. Consequently, each testament was necessary to this progressive revelation of the one God, with the OT providing an indispensable pedagogy for Christ.

Irenaeus’s main contribution to the developing Christian Bible was his recognition of the need for an authoritative collection of NT writings to represent the apostolic witness. He did not define the limits of the canon, but focused on the Gospels, which he saw as the primary source for the tradition held by the church. His insistence on a fourfold Gospel, rather than the selection of one (as Marcion’s Luke or the Ebionites’ Matthew) or a harmony (Tatian’s Diatessaron), was based on use in the churches of his day. But his arguments (four were dictated by the four quarters of the world and the four winds) are a reminder that the whole process of Scripture formation, including canonization, is stamped by finite and culturally determined human reasoning.

Irenaeus’s effort to establish a Christian Bible was motivated by his concern to defend the Christian message from heresy. For him, the primary form of that message was the apostolic witness, entrusted to the church and guaranteed by the succession of bishops. Its key, and the true canon of the church, was the "canon [or "rule"] of faith" (regula fidei), a summary of the essential content of the apostolic preaching resident in the church. While not verbally fixed, Irenaeus’s formulation of it corresponds closely to the content of the later creeds. It represented the essential content of "the one faith" that "the church, though dispersed throughout the whole world … [had] received from the apostles and their disciples." It was with this canon that heresy was opposed, but it needed the fuller witness of the Scriptures.

For Irenaeus, the rule of faith was the key that unlocked the Scriptures and the standard of truth by which all writings and teachings were to be judged, but it also depended on the Scriptures, deriving its categories of interpretation from them. Irenaeus likened the Scriptures to a mosaic, made up of many distinct passages, and the rule of faith to the "hypothesis" that enabled one to arrange the passages in the right order. Elsewhere he described the two as twin brothers whose message was in principle identical. For Irenaeus, Scripture and tradition could not be opposed or ranked; they needed each other and were mutually dependent.

Irenaeus’s understanding of Scripture and scriptural authority became the common property of Christian orthodoxy. It included a two-part canon, a hermeneutical principle derived from it and applied to it, and an authority structure capable of determining valid interpretations of Scripture. He also found a way of holding on to the Jewish Scriptures without resorting to allegory or other methods of interpretation that ignored their plain meaning and ancient context.

In his defense of the Jewish Scriptures as essential to Christian theology and authoritative for Christian faith, Irenaeus addressed a fundamental problem of all Scripture: its dual character as a word from the past, which is always to some degree alien and unrepeatable, and as a word for the present, informing and forming faith. With his view of progressive revelation and his concept of the educational purposes of past failings and punishment, Irenaeus was able to claim the continuing truth and revelatory power of the past while expressing a clear realization that elements in the ancient writings no longer represented the understanding of the community—and might even stand in opposition to it. That recognition is not new with Irenaeus, but is a constitutive feature of the whole process of scripture formation and transmission. What is new is the explicit recognition of a historical dimension: revelation as suited to the times and conditions under which it occurs. With this view of accommodation, both past and present are freed from the constraints of forced harmonization or unanimity of thought.

Criteria of Canonicity. The primary test for authority made by the early church was faithfulness in conveying the apostolic witness, which came to be formulated in terms of authorship. The underlying concern was to ground the church’s faith in Jesus in reliable tradition. Yet the notion of reliable transmission of the Jesus tradition did not rest on historical connection alone. Neither Mark nor Luke could claim apostolic authorship, and the Gospel of Thomas, which did, was rejected—because its message did not conform to what the general church understood as apostolic teaching, even though some of its sayings may actually have originated with Christ. Thus the claim of apostolicity, which was eventually extended to the whole NT canon, was a claim about the content of the message, rather than the history of its origins.

The notion of "orthodoxy" as a criterion of authority is even more strained. The church opted for a canon characterized by a plurality of theologies, because the church itself, from its earliest days, did not have a single unified theology. The unique contribution of Scripture, over against the rule of faith, was and is its irreducible pluralism, its articulation of the one faith in multiple voices—which requires prioritizing in the act of appropriation. The truth in the notion of orthodoxy as a criterion is that the recognized writings needed to lie within a general range of accepted belief.

Inspiration is the criterion most commonly cited by modern interpreters to explain the authority of the canonical writings, but without elaboration it is inadequate and misleading. All of the competing canons consisted of writings understood to be inspired, but writings that claimed no canonical status were also recognized as inspired. Thus inspiration was a necessary, but insufficient, criterion. Moreover, many noncanonical writings claimed inspiration, while few canonical writings did so. The Montanists, with their new scriptures, made the church wary of inspiration as a criterion, especially in the East, resulting in a neglect of prophetic literature—and suspicion of the book of Revelation as late as the fourth century. The Montanist excesses illustrate an important feature, however, of general early Christian understanding of inspiration—namely, the belief that inspiration had not ceased with the canonical writings—and that it was a gift to the whole church, not simply a possession of certain writers.

In the final analysis, the formation of the NT canon and the Christian Bible closely paralleled the process for the OT Scriptures. Both rested ultimately on the recognition of a community through its use, but in neither case does this supply an adequate criterion of judgment. At the base of the recognition was the community’s belief that these writings conveyed a true representation of God and of the saving acts that constituted the community, that they offered trustworthy guidance for the present, and more particularly that they served the needs of the community at the time of the closing of the canon. Thus truth in representing the tradition and suitability for meeting current needs were the twin tests of authority in the creation of the Christian Bible.


Wherever the question of biblical authority has been raised in the history of the canon, it has been linked to the question of meaning and the underlying question of purpose. For most of that history, belief in the Bible as a source of divine revelation and a guide to salvation was unchallenged, but it could be maintained only by hermeneutical means that enabled readers to discern the spiritual message in the human words. Modern critics of the Bible’s primitive cosmology and ethics are not alone in finding much within the Scriptures incredible or offensive, and Marcion was not the first to expose the defects in the OT’s portrait of God.

The Jewish philosopher and exegete Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 bce–50 ce), recognized that the biblical stories were filled with "impossibilities," "impieties," and "absurdities" when read literally. But his Hellenistic understanding of inspiration, as affecting the production of the text itself, led him to seek a deeper spiritual meaning through the use of allegory—a method of interpretation developed by Greek exegetes as a means of discovering higher cosmological or ethical truths behind the ancient Greek mythical texts. He also found a rationale for the OT’s anthropomorphic representations of God in the concept of accommodation. The anthropomorphisms, he argued, were an accommodation of God to human thought, enabling finite human minds to apprehend the infinitely great and unknowable God.

The great Christian theologian and exegete of the early church, Origen of Alexandria (c.185–254 ce) built his own hermeneutical theory on these foundations. Origen found the model for God’s condescending or accommodating to human weakness in the incarnation, which he saw as revealing God’s manner of communication from the beginning. In Scripture, God had stooped to speak human language, which was like children’s speech. Like a school teacher or a father, God adopted "baby talk" to lead his children according to their ability to comprehend. The means of communication, Origen argued, was suited to its purpose. The Bible was a book of salvation, not of human science; it suited God’s salvific purposes, not the human search for knowledge. For Origen, Scripture was a guide for the soul in its ascent to its true home in the Platonic realm of spiritual reality. The "stumbling blocks" placed before the reader by the divine author were a sign of the Bible’s higher purpose and an invitation to search it out. Origen’s hermeneutical theory enabled readers to move from the limited literal sense of the text to the higher spiritual meaning, but it also lent itself to uncontrolled speculation, arbitrary equivalences, and even denial that the ancient writers had spoken for their own time at all.

In the fourth and fifth centuries a rival school arose in Antioch, challenging the excesses of Alexandrian spirituality. Antiochene exegesis drew upon a different pagan and Jewish philosophical heritage in its grammatical-historical approach to the text. Rabbinic exegesis, aimed at applying the text to practical questions, and a concern for history, textual criticism, and classical rhetoric provided the foundations for the Antiochene emphasis on the natural meaning of the text in its historical context. For John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), the principle of accommodation exemplified in the incarnation led to a focus on the humble text, rather than the lofty meanings spun out by philosophers. But he too recognized that some statements could not be understood literally and that mere literalism, with no concern for the divine purpose and character of the words, could easily result in "utter absurdity." Antiochene exegesis was also governed by a stronger emphasis on the apostolic tradition as a guide to interpretation.

Despite the differences between the two ancient exegetical schools, they shared a common belief that the primary purpose and content of Scripture was salvation and that whatever did not accord with that message was not authoritative. They also recognized a distinction of content and form, in which the form of the message represented a divine accommodation to human thought and speech. That meant that the literal meaning of the text, however incomprehensible or offensive, had a purpose in God’s communication in the Scriptures and could not be dismissed entirely. Thus readers were able to acknowledge difficulties in the text without jeopardizing the fundamental authority of the Scriptures.

Elements of both Alexandrian and Antiochene exegesis combined in the hermeneutical theory of Augustine (354–430). He, like Origen, sought the higher meaning of the text by means of allegorical interpretation, but he also affirmed the root historical meaning, preferring to give both a literal and a spiritual meaning of the same text. This did not, however, affirm their equal value, but rather showed that the one prefigured the other. His preference for the spiritual meaning led at times to strained interpretations, but his exegesis was generally more restrained than Origen’s because of his appeal to the rule of faith and the authority of the church in interpreting Scripture.

Augustine believed that the goal of Scripture was to induce love for God and neighbor and thus to order Christian life toward its heavenly home, but this love was to be found in its true form only in the church. Against various heretical sects who based their beliefs on private interpretations of Scripture, Augustine appealed to the authority of the church, declaring that he would "not believe the gospel except moved by the authority of the Catholic Church." For Augustine, as for Irenaeus and Chrysostom, the rule of faith supplied the basic principles for interpreting Scripture and for resolving ambiguities.

Augustine developed a hermeneutical theory that became the foundation for exegesis throughout the Middle Ages. Recognizing four "senses" to be sought in every biblical book (if not every text), he brought together all of the major exegetical streams of the earlier period. Attention to the literal sense preserved the Antiochene tradition of grammatical-historical exegesis; the allegorical sense continued the tradition of typological interpretation; the tropological meaning made room for the moral message emphasized by Chrysostom and the rabbis; while the anagogical sense maintained the Alexandrian emphasis on the spiritual sense. Appeal to the fourfold sense of the text permitted the Bible to serve a variety of practical and speculative needs, as the foundation for doctrine and ethics and as a guide to the spiritual life. Recognition of multiple senses was an ideal solution to a problem inherent in the concept of Scripture as it had developed in Jewish and Christian tradition and in the character of the text. A clearly composite text of different types of material and levels of insight, divergent views, and conflicting statements was to be read as the authoritative record of God’s self-disclosure and saving action in the past and as a present source of divine guidance. But the notion of multiple meanings also led to uncontrolled speculation and ecclesiastical control, which undermined the authority of Scripture while maintaining the principle of Scripture as norm.

The authority of the Bible, understood as the inspired and inerrant word of God, was maintained throughout the Middle Ages without formal challenge. Although Scholasticism revived the question of the place of philosophy in apprehending divine truth, suggesting a role for reason alongside revelation, the greatest of the Scholastics, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274), gave precedence to Scripture in his magisterial synthesis of reason and faith. While he sought to secure a place for reason in leading to faith, he recognized the divinely revealed truths of Scripture as surpassing reason. The means of apprehending those truths, however, was through the literal sense of the text. In his concern to be scientific, Aquinas turned away from allegorical speculation to the grammatical-historical sense of the text, insisting that it must be the basis of all other meanings.

The Protestant Reformation. Luther. Where Luther differed from his medieval colleagues was not in asserting the authority of the Bible, but in denying the authority of the church and pope. Forced to acknowledge a conflict between the two authorities to which he had appealed, he chose Scripture. Luther’s choice, and his view of opposing claims, widened a rift between the church and Scripture that had begun developing in the fourteenth century. Prior to that time Scripture and the tradition maintained in the church were understood to "co-inhere"; there could be no ultimate discrepancy between the two sources, because each derived authority from Christ, the living Word who spoke through both. In his earliest arguments, Luther still tried to hold on to the belief that church and Scripture spoke with a common voice. When he could no longer reconcile the two, however, he chose Scripture as the firmer foundation and surer guide. Although his view of alternative, and opposing, authorities had antecedents, the political and theological crisis in the church of Luther’s day made his appeal to sola scriptura ("Scripture alone") a revolutionary cry, whose echoes still resound in a fractured church.

Luther’s attempt to reform the church of his day appealed to the Bible as the norm of faith and doctrine, setting it over against the church’s teaching. As the primary and unchanging source of the gospel, it stood as witness against ecclesiastical perversions and served as a source of both judgment and renewal of the church. Moreover, it was accessible to every believer, or at least potentially so. Luther’s opposition to the ecclesiastical establishment of his day was directed at its control not only of souls, but also of Scripture. The fanciful interpretations characteristic of medieval biblical exegesis served mainly, he believed, to obscure the meaning of the text, setting human invention in the place of the divine word. For Luther and his Reformed colleagues, the "plain" or literal (grammatical-historical) meaning, rather than the allegorical sense, conveyed the intention of the divine author—hence the true "spiritual" sense.

The Reformers’ appeal to the Bible as the primary source and norm of faith and their understanding of Scripture as the self-interpreting word of God set Scripture over against, or at least alongside, the church and its teaching office as an independent, and privileged, source of authority. Thus the Reformation reversed the two interpretive principles of the preceding age, setting literal reading over spiritual or allegorical and the word of Scripture over the word of the church.

Luther never gave systematic formulation to his understanding of the authority and inspiration of the Bible. While he regarded both the book and the authors as inspired and referred to the Scriptures as the "Word of God," he never simply identified that word with the words of Scripture. Rather, the word of God was Christ; but like Christ, whose humanity Luther emphasized, God’s Word in Scripture was incarnate, communicating the divine message in weak and imperfect human speech. The authority of the Bible for Luther came from the One to whom it bears witness, and must be confirmed in the heart of the believer. Thus it was both objective and subjective.

Luther recognized the Bible as both a divine instrument and a human document—of decidedly uneven quality. The aim of exegesis, in his view, was to discern the gospel, contained in both testaments, and distinguish it from the Law. Those portions of Scripture that did not "urge" Christ were not worthy of belief. With this criterion of authority for faith, Luther boldly dismissed some Scripture as unworthy, including the books of Esther, James, and Revelation—yet he retained them in his canon, honoring tradition over his own discernment. He also reopened the question of the OT canon, which had never been formally settled, opting for the shorter canon of Jerome and Jewish orthodoxy.

Calvin. Calvin’s understanding of Scripture was close to Luther’s, but was given more systematic and theoretical expression in his theological writings and commentaries. For Calvin, the key to the understanding and authority of Scripture was the activity of the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture, but also prompting the heart and mind of the believer to recognition and assent. This "internal testimony of the Holy Spirit" is essential to the acknowledgment of Scripture as "the word of the Lord." The words themselves are merely the record of God’s speaking and are not themselves either inspired or authoritative. The content of Scripture, apprehended through the internal action of the Spirit, is the word of salvation, but the words of Scripture in their human and historical meaning constitute the essential and sole access to that divine word.

Both Luther and Calvin gave new emphasis to the authority of Scripture, drawing on traditional views of the Bible as the inspired "word of God," but both emphasized the continuing activity of the divine speaker and the necessity of encounter with that speaker in the heart and mind of the believer. Consequently, the authority of Scripture could not be located exclusively either in the words themselves or in the historical authors. The two great Reformers had opened the door to a new understanding of the inspiration and authority of Scripture that had ancient roots and combined emphases on faith and reason that had tended to diverge in medieval exegesis. Their successors, however, fell back on the medieval underpinnings of the Reformers’ thought, attempting to defend the Bible against the counterattack of the Roman Catholic Church and new critical forms of interpretation by means of a rigid theory of verbal inspiration. Protestant orthodoxy also extended and absolutized the claims of scriptural authority, vesting in the biblical text the authority previously given to tradition, philosophy, and ecclesiastical structures. By the seventeenth century, the Bible had become a compendium of fixed theological statements. Gradually a new apparatus of interpretation was imposed upon the text in which doctrine would again hold the key.

Roman Catholic and Protestant Proclamations and Praxis. Roman Catholic response to Protestant elevation of scriptural authority took a variety of forms, exhibited in the debate on Scripture that took place at the Council of Trent (1545–1563). While all of the participants were intent on upholding the authority of the church against Protestant assaults, they differed on the mutual relations of the church and Scripture and the connection of each with revelation. The Council had to reconcile differences that ranged from "Scripture alone" to "the church alone," as well as the priority of "continuing revelation." The statement that was finally adopted affirmed two modes of revelation, declaring that the pure gospel was contained and handed on in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus, "in written books and unwritten traditions," and that both were to be received and venerated pari pietatis affectu ac reverentia, "with equal feeling of piety and reverence." The compromise displeased those who objected to placing tradition on the same level with Scripture, but by refusing to specify how each authority related to the other, it permitted a view of the priority of Scripture.

The mainstream of Roman Catholic thought interpreted the Tridentine declaration as affirming Scripture and tradition as "two sources" of revelation, in which the content of revelation was divided materially between the two. This interpretation has recently been called into question, but it stood for almost five centuries as the dominant view and "one of the most important points of controversial theology" directed against the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. The Council itself apparently rejected this interpretation when it removed the partim … partim from an earlier draft that had declared that the "truth [of the gospel] is contained partly (partim) in written books, partly (partim) in unwritten traditions." Moreover it defined Scripture as norma normans et non normata, "the norm that governs, but is not governed," suggesting an understanding of Scripture as the norm for the traditions of the church, which appears close to the views of Protestant orthodoxy.

Despite similarities in formal pronouncements and doctrines affirming the authority of Scripture, the Bible played a quite different role in Protestantism than in Roman Catholicism or the Eastern churches. The two branches of the Western church had different canons and different authoritative texts, and they differed markedly in their views of interpretive authority. Against Luther’s preference for the Jewish OT canon favored by Jerome, the Council of Trent endorsed the longer canon drawn up at the council of Hippo (393 ce), declaring that all of the books of the OT and the NT, including the deuterocanonical/apocryphal books, were of equal authority. It also authorized the Latin Vulgate as the "authentic" edition for public reading, exposition, and disputation, in contrast to the Reformers’ appeal to the original Hebrew and Greek. But the Council went beyond the establishment of an authoritative text and canon, attempting to secure authoritative interpretation as well. No interpretation should be considered valid, it decreed, which was "contrary to that sense which holy mother Church has held and now holds," for "it is her office to judge about the true sense and interpretation of Scripture." This reassertion of the principle that Luther had opposed resulted in continuing ecclesiastical control of Roman Catholic biblical interpretation.

Protestants, following Luther, shifted authority for interpretation from the teaching office of the church to the individual conscience informed by the Holy Spirit. Despite latent conflicts and unresolved tensions concerning the actual locus of authority for interpretation, Protestantism took a generally "democratic" approach, marked in some traditions by a strong populist emphasis.

The Bible also functioned in a quite different way in the congregational life and personal piety of Protestants. The symbolism of the word, read and expounded, at the center of the traditional Protestant service of worship points to a fundamentally different way of understanding scriptural authority than that of the traditional Roman Catholic mass. Similarly, the subordination of Scripture to the liturgy, or incorporation of Scripture into liturgy, in Orthodox practice signals a different disposition toward Scripture, even where common affirmations may be made concerning its authority for faith. Moreover, the Bible functions for many Protestants as the primary medium of communion with God, hence it plays a critical role in Protestants’ experience of God—a major factor distinguishing Protestant and Catholic approaches to feminist theology. The dominant image of evangelical Protestantism today is of a Bible-centered faith, and Protestants in predominantly Roman Catholic or Orthodox countries typically identify themselves as "Bible believers." Whatever the accuracy of this claim, and implied contrast, it is an important witness to the authority accorded to the Bible by a major stream of the Reformation.63

In its practice, as well as its confessions, Protestantism centered its life on the Bible and looked to the Bible for guidance in all matters of belief and practice. As a consequence, the challenge to traditional understanding of the Bible and biblical authority occasioned by the Enlightenment had an especially traumatic and far-reaching effect on Protestantism. Although it eventually made an impact on Roman Catholicism, in the Modernist controversies of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ancient church remained intact, while the younger churches were shaken to their foundations, many sustaining irreparable breaches.


Scenes of Battle: Setting the Stage. American Protestantism, together with its descendants around the globe, is characterized by a unique interest in the question of biblical authority, which arises from its peculiar history and distinguishes it from its European ancestors and confessional kin. Both the shape of the church, with its multiple denominations and independent churches, and its theological discourse have been deeply marked by battles over the Bible, battles that are being replayed in many denominations today. The major battles were fought in the period between the 1880s and the 1920s and have their roots in the particular confluence of two streams of influence, Renaissance learning and Reformation piety, as they met on the American frontier. The history of their antecedents and earlier interactions in Europe is important for understanding the modern debate, but the constraints of this article limit consideration to a few key developments.

The Doctrine of Inerrancy. Post-Reformation Protestantism, especially on the Continent, responded to the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation by adopting its weapons, reverting to an older scholastic mode in attempting to systematize the work of the Reformers. Fighting battles on several fronts, including battles with humanists and intra-Protestant disputes, both Lutheran and Reformed traditions developed confessions aimed at securing the faith, in which the doctrine of Scripture was the key article.66 Theology, conceived as a science of systematically ordered truths, was grounded in Scripture, whose sufficiency and trustworthiness had to be defended. Viewed as a book of revealed truths, which together presented a comprehensive system of knowledge, the Bible’s technical accuracy took on heightened importance, especially in the new intellectual climate created by the revolution in science and philosophy. The meaning and efficacy of Scripture came to depend on a conception of the Bible as verbally inspired and inerrant; and the work of the Holy Spirit was now conceived primarily as ensuring the Bible’s accuracy, rather than as awakening faith in the believer.

In seventeenth-century Reformed scholasticism, inerrancy became the key claim on which the Bible’s authority rested, a claim that directed interpretive efforts to resolving apparent conflicts in the text and focused attention on the form of the text—even including the Hebrew vowel points. Thus the Reformed theologian Francis Turretin (1632–87) argued:

We have always thought the truer and safer way to keep the authenticity of the original text safe and sound against the cavils of all profane persons and heretics whatever, and to put the principle of faith upon a sure and immovable basis, is that which holds the points to be of divine origin … and therefore, that the adversaries err who wish to impugn the authority of the Hebrew manuscript from the newness of the points.

These efforts at securing the authority of the Bible would later serve to undermine it as new historical and scientific data challenged the premises of the claims. The battle over inerrancy had its roots in the seventeenth century, but it did not break in full force until two centuries later.

Renaissance Scholarship. The Renaissance revival of classical learning brought with it a new interest in the study of the Bible and new linguistic and historical tools for the task. In contrast to the ecclesiastical exegesis of the Middle Ages, whose aims were theological and devotional, the new scholarship was primarily historical in its interest, broadly humanistic in character, and marked by a spirit of critical and open inquiry. Its focus on the literal and historical meaning of the text corresponded to the new Reformation emphasis; and many Protestant scholars welcomed the new learning with enthusiasm, viewing it as a means of recovering the original meaning of the ancient authors and freeing the Bible from dogmatic interpretation and ecclesiastical control. But the alliance was an uneasy one, and many within the church saw the new scholarship as a direct threat, not only to traditional interpretation of the Bible, but also to the Bible’s authority as a source and norm of faith. Their apprehension was fueled by free thinkers, as well as others, openly hostile to the church, who saw in the new criticism a means to unmask religion and reject its supernatural claims by exposing the Bible’s human character, crude expression, and fallibility.

The new biblical scholarship analyzed the Bible in the same manner and with the same tools that had been used to study classical literature, making comparisons of content, concepts, vocabulary, and style between different writings, both inside and outside the Bible. The results challenged traditional views of authorship and chronology, which had been the linchpins of a biblical history of salvation. Historical-critical scholarship transformed salvation history into "mere history"—and judged it historically false, or so it appeared to many. In its reconstruction of the history behind the texts, it resembled the old allegorical readings in finding the key to the "true" meaning of the text in a reality behind the text—only it reflected the new spirit of the times by seeking a historical explanation rather than a spiritual one.

For pious advocates, the new method liberated the Bible from traditional dogmas of interpretation that had been imposed on the Scriptures and did not arise from the text itself. It allowed the Bible to speak in its own voice, or better, voices. Recognition of multiple authors and circumstances of composition made it possible to explain discrepancies and contradictions that had troubled exegetes from earliest times. It was no longer necessary to deny or disguise the discord by harmonizing readings. Many welcomed the new clarity and believed they could now hear the ancient authors’ words as they had intended them, unobscured by intervening interpreters. One could now know, or hope to know, the historical Jesus behind the dogmatic portrait. After initial resistance, the new learning made rapid progress in the universities, especially in Germany.

Among most believers and ecclesiastical authorities, however, the new interpretation caused deep consternation. In its focus on the human words of Scripture and natural causality, it appeared to deny or exclude the notion of divine authorship and to leave no room for the action of the Holy Spirit. Whether directly or indirectly, it challenged traditional understandings of the authorship, inspiration, and authority of the Bible. It replaced a divine oracle with a collection of human words, robbing believers of the one sure foundation of faith and casting doubt on the wisdom of the past. At a time when Protestants had elevated the Bible to the position of supreme authority and infallible guide, critical scholarship appeared to many to have turned it into a babble of voices from an alien past without a clear and authoritative word for the present. A new scholarly elite had taken away the Bible so recently restored to the people.

Resistance took many forms and varied according to regional and confessional context, personal disposition, and education. For the broad base of believers, historical-critical scholarship was, and remains in much of the Christian world today, an esoteric science that has obscured the plain meaning of the text. The seeming alliance of Christian scholars with humanists of anti-ecclesiastical and even atheistic bent served to reinforce a latent suspicion of all critical scholarship, leaving a legacy of anti-intellectualism deeply embedded in some streams of Protestantism, in particular in American evangelicalism. The embrace of the new criticism by the Deists in England and its contribution to a radically atheistic rationalism in France led to ecclesiastical responses by both Protestants and Catholics that attempted to maintain the authority and traditional interpretation of the Bible by means of prescriptive confessions and declarations. Scripture was once again subordinated to the ruling authority of the church.

Protestant rhetoric invested supreme authority in the Bible but left unclear where authority for interpretation lay. One stream of the Reformation emphasized the individual conscience, illumined by the Holy Spirit, as the final interpreter, with the Bible as the ultimate source of truth. This emphasis on individual interpretation apart from, or in opposition to, church tradition encouraged fragmentation into new denominations and sects based on differing understandings of particular biblical teachings (e.g., baptism and sabbath observance). The mainstream of Lutheran and Reformed tradition, however, retained a strong sense of the church’s teaching and disciplining authority, exercising that authority in attempts to demonstrate and defend the Bible’s truth and primacy.

New Locus and Form of Authority. Protestant orthodoxy’s attempt to control biblical interpretation was a response not merely to new interpretations that were deemed false and dangerous, but also to a new locus of interpretive activity—hence authority—that was largely outside of ecclesiastical control. The early and strong opposition of Roman Catholic and orthodox Protestant ecclesiastical authorities to the new biblical scholarship had the effect of branding it secular and forcing it into opposition to the church, or at least independence from it. Thus the church contributed to the autonomy of biblical criticism, freeing it from clerical supervision, but also severing its ties to the dogmatic tradition that continued to dominate private devotion and preaching. "Precritical" interpretation continued to be the norm long after critical study had become established in the university, and attempts to open the church’s door to the ostracized criticism were hampered by its history of secular development.

It was not simply the secular character of the new biblical scholarship that created a problem of authority in the church, but the independence of the new discipline from dogmatic theology—and from the new "scientific" theology that had emerged from the old biblically oriented dogmatics. The new discipline of biblical studies raises a number of critical new questions concerning authority in biblical interpretation: What is the authority of biblical scholarship in its historical and literary judgments for theological construction and for the faith of believers? Are some methods of interpretation more valid, or more appropriate, than others for use of the Bible as a resource for faith? Are some excluded, and if so, on what grounds? What are the criteria for judging the adequacy or truth of the methods and results of modern critical study of the Bible, and who is qualified to make such judgments?

The questions raised for the church and for traditional belief by all forms of new knowledge and investigation, including biblical studies, are not easily answered. Appeal to old standards in response to new questions may actually serve to undermine the Bible’s authority, since these are commonly formulated in propositional forms involving extrinsic norms (such as plenary verbal inspiration, Mosaic authorship, or concepts of historicity and facticity foreign to the biblical writers). Attempts to defend traditional understandings also tend to deny the essential character of Scripture as a bridge between the past and present action of God, by means of which God addresses new generations through words from the past. The expectation of hearing a word for today—hence a new word—is fundamental to the church’s understanding of Scripture. This means, however, that the message for the present generation cannot simply be equated with the message spoken to the ancestors. The problem with both historical and dogmatic interpretations of Scripture is that they tend to fix as normative a single meaning at a single time, thereby missing the essential dynamic character of Scripture as the meeting place of past word with an ever-changing present. The word of God becomes imprisoned in the text rather than freed for fresh hearing and response.

Behind the Scenes: Roots of the Great Debate. The roots of the American debate lay in the German universities and the English and Scottish churches. General ecclesiastical resistance to the new criticism was first broken in Germany during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where the relative freedom of the universities from church restraint provided an environment in which the new exploration could take place. But the universities were also the primary centers of theological debate and training of pastors, so that the new study had a significant impact on the church. The result was that Germany pioneered historical-critical study of the Scriptures—as an expression of faith, rather than doubt.

The Battle in Britain. England lagged behind the Continent in accepting a critical approach to the Bible. Ecclesiastical control of the universities and the early Deist controversy gave a different cast to the discussion, as did the Evangelical Revival, which largely ignored the questions raised by the rationalist critique. In Germany, discussion had focused on the problem of relating historical fact to religious truth, or dogma. German theologians responded by developing a science of interpretation (hermeneutics) that would enable movement from historical exegesis to contemporary faith within the framework of the church’s traditional confession. In contrast, the English debate focused on the problem of science and faith, and more specifically on the conflict of reason and revelation as defined by early-eighteenth-century Deism. This debate decisively affected the American understanding of the problem.

Deist denial of special divine action or communication in history and its insistence on a universe ruled by divinely instituted laws of nature as revealed by modern science left no room for revelation (identified with miracles) or prophecy and cast doubt on the credibility of the biblical "reports," and hence on the authority of the Bible. An overconfident young science, embraced by critical religious thinkers, forced the argument onto its ground. Defenders of Scripture were pressed into an uncritical stance and responded by asserting the infallibility and the scientific credibility of the Bible in all its statements. Biblical apologists attempted to give scientific proof for the Genesis account of creation, to find evidence of the deluge and Noah’s ark, and to defend the Bible’s chronology as well as its miracles. In this defense, however, the problems of literalism became ever more evident and the arguments more strained.

The publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species directly challenged the literalists’ attempt to defend biblical cosmology with a six-day creation in 4004 bce. Scientists and religious skeptics acclaimed the new theory, as did numerous theologians who saw it as generally supporting current studies on the Pentateuch (which had recognized a development of ideas exhibited in a succession of "documents" discernible within the Pentateuch). But for those who linked the authority of the Bible to literal infallibility, it was a call to arms. In 1864 some 11,000 clergy signed the Oxford Declaration, aimed at countering the new "heresy" by denouncing all who denied that the whole Bible was the word of God. In the view of the signatories, Genesis said all there was to be known about origins; any other view was blasphemy.

The victory, however, was short lived; within three decades, biblical faith had made peace with natural science through the mediation of devout but critical biblical scholars. Contributing factors were the broad support for Darwin’s theory of evolution by the scientific and philosophical communities and the arguments of a new generation of biblical scholars influenced by German criticism, who insisted that the Bible should be treated on its own terms, not forced to fit the categories of modern science. The Bible was a book of religious testimony, they insisted, not a manual of science.

New Awakening, New Science. In America, critical biblical study was a foreign import, which did not finally take root until the end of the nineteenth century—although it had been introduced almost a century earlier. The early decades of the nineteenth century saw a new wave of revivalism sweep the country and establish itself on the frontier, giving rise to new denominations and sects and reshaping older ones. This movement, which determined the character and shape of American religion for the rest of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, elevated emotion as the sign of authentic religion and emphasized individual decision and simple propositional faith. The Bible figured prominently in the new religious wars over the "essential" content of faith, but the major battle over the Bible did not break until the end of the century.

Renewed contact with the intellectual world beyond America’s shores after the disruption of the Civil War brought in rapid succession two new waves of assault on the thought world of most Americans, challenging a broad stratum of the population to come to terms with the scientific world view. Darwin’s evolutionary theory had an impact in America similar to that in England, with public debate by national leaders and immediate general rejection. But its rapid acceptance in the scientific community and among the more broadly educated segments of the population led ultimately to wide acceptance of a critical scientific-historical world view. The crisis this caused for traditional religious views was profound and prolonged, however, because the religious regeneration that America had experienced in the New Awakening had been linked to a theological retreat into a rigidly anti-critical defense of "traditional doctrines." The key to the reintegration of the intellectual and religious worlds of devout, but thinking, Christians was critical biblical interpretation. Although its advance was marked by bitter resistance, heresy trials and church divisions, this time it had come to stay.

Inerrancy on Trial: Scholastic and Populist Defense. The Briggs Trial. Biblical criticism came to America in the latter part of the nineteenth century as a mature and established discipline, part of a broad influx of German learning. Many American biblical scholars embraced it eagerly, and conservatives rallied to meet them in battles that affected virtually every American denomination. None was more deeply torn than the Presbyterian Church, whose conflict was symbolized in the heresy trial of Charles Briggs. At his inauguration in 1881 to the chair of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Briggs had defended historical criticism, characterizing the dogma of inerrancy as an attempt to "prop up divine authority by human authority." Such errors as historians find cannot destroy the authority of Scripture, he argued, which is from God. Moreover, he insisted, the claim of inerrancy is nowhere made by the Bible itself nor sanctioned by the creeds of the church.

The immediate target of Briggs’s attack was an article in the Presbyterian Review (April 1881) by Princeton theologian A. A. Hodge and NT scholar Benjamin Warfield. In it they produced a classic statement of the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy. According to them, the Scriptures not only contain the word of God, but are the word of God; hence all their elements and all their affirmations are absolutely errorless. Apparent inconsistencies and conflicts with other sources of information are due to imperfect copies of the now-lost originals ("autographs") or failure to realize the point of view of the author. In their view: "The historical faith of the Church has always been, that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without any error, when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained and interpreted in their natural and intended sense."

This statement was adopted as the official position of the Presbyterian Church, and Briggs was suspended from the Presbyterian ministry on grounds of heresy—retaining his chair, however, as the seminary severed its denominational ties. The "Princeton theology" had won the battle of the Bible, at least for the time—but its time was measured. A half century later, biblical study at Princeton was taught with the same critical assumptions and the same methodologies as at Union. By the third decade of this century, a critical approach to the Bible was the norm in the seminaries of all of the older denominations, if not in the pew. And in the middle of the century the Roman Catholic Church, the only Western church that had officially condemned historical-critical study of the Bible, opened its doors to it and commended it as a pastoral tool. Today many evangelicals are also cautiously appropriating its methods and perspective. The shift in stance, which is still contested in significant segments of the church, came about as the church came to see the new scholarship as an ally, rather than an enemy, of faith.

The backbone of Presbyterian resistance in the twentieth century was the "Princeton Theology," an expression of post-Reformation scholasticism deriving from Turretin and the Westminster Confession. Hodge contributed to this theology by shifting attention from the Confession to the Bible as the final authority for the system of theology presented therein. He also gave the first systematic treatment to the doctrine of inspiration. "Inspiration," he wrote, "was an influence of the Holy Spirit on the minds of certain select men, which rendered them the organs of God for infallible communication of his mind and will. They were in such a sense the organs of God, that what they said, God said."75 Maintaining that this view was "the common doctrine of the Church" since the beginning, Hodge appeared unaware of the concept of accommodation common to the early church theologians and the Reformers.

The Princeton Theology linked the authority of Scripture to its inerrant words, treating the Bible as a repository of information on all manner of things, whose accuracy had to be defended by current standards. Scripture was understood as divine speech in universally valid and universally intelligible form, in which historical and cultural contexts played an insignificant role. This frozen view of Scripture had widespread appeal, and continues to appeal to those who seek a changeless word in changing times. In America the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century were times when the world was changing too fast for many. Current revival of the debates of that period is likewise a response to rapidly changing times and uncertain, or conflicting, values.

The Scopes Trial. A distinctive feature of the inerrantist debate in America has been the coupling of rationalistic scholasticism, as represented by the old Princeton school, with fundamentalist, and populist, anti-intellectualism. These two strains within the inerrantist camp are symbolized by the two debates that galvanized opinion: the Briggs trial of 1891, featuring two eastern seminary professors, and the Scopes trial of 1925, featuring a frontier school teacher, represented by an atheist "big-city" lawyer, and an evangelical populist politician. The latter trial was a key battle for fundamentalism, which had made inerrancy its touchstone. It provided a national forum for its cause, but also subjected it to a devastating media attack.

Fundamentalism arose in the early decades of this century out of the old revivalist evangelicalism that had been the Protestant establishment in nineteenth-century America, but found itself increasingly challenged or eclipsed by the rise of new philosophies of life and new religious perspectives. Its primary target was the new liberal theology (later called "Modernism") that attempted to integrate the findings of science, biblical criticism, and historical studies and reformulate Christian doctrine in their light. Distrusting the new syntheses, traditional Protestants emphasized a simple Bible-centered theology, whose appeal was strengthened by the perplexing array of new alternatives. Between 1920 and 1925 the movement gave particular attention to the teaching of evolution in the public schools, culminating in the Scopes "monkey trial," which served as a public debate between Fundamentalism and Modernism.

John Scopes, a Tennessee biology teacher, was charged with violating a state law against the teaching of Darwinism in the public schools. He was defended by ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow, whose primary aim was to ridicule and humiliate those who would bring such a charge. While Darrow’s immediate target was the lawyer for the prosecution, the famous politician and orator William Jennings Bryan, he meant to discredit fundamentalists generally as well as the "stage of civilization" of the state of Tennessee.

Bryan, a lay preacher and ardent champion of social reform, had become obsessed with the question of evolution, because of the social Darwinism he identified with it. Opposing the notion that the strongest must prevail in society, he entered the fray, but allowed himself to be discredited when he attempted to defend the Bible’s science. With the national media covering the debate, Darrow forced Bryan into an untenable literalist position; and although Darrow lost the case (later reversed on a technicality), he succeeded in portraying the fundamentalist position as intellectually untenable. Americans in the 1920s were generally enthusiastic believers in science, and that included many moderate Protestant conservatives, who quietly withdrew their support from the fundamentalist movement after 1925.

That did not mean the end of the movement, however, nor did it signal a general willingness to accord religious scholarship the same trust and awe as scientific expertise. Fundamentalism continued to thrive in local congregations, Bible schools, mission organizations, and through various media, and it remains a significant force today, although splintered into a number of factions. Distrust of biblical scholarship continues among a wide spectrum of believers who share Bryan’s conviction that "the one beauty about the word of God is that it does not take an expert to understand it."


New Evangelicalism. Contemporary evangelicalism represents a complex phenomenon, whose diversity has been analyzed in a variety of ways. Despite wide differences of theology and ecclesiology, evangelicals share a common emphasis on the final, or sole, authority of the Bible. In their emphasis on the primacy of Scripture, they understand themselves as maintaining the ancient faith of the church in the tradition of the Reformers, defending it against modern forms of perversion and erosion.

Within evangelicalism, differing theological positions are associated with differing ways of describing or appealing to the authority of the Bible. Thus fundamentalists and other conservative evangelicals generally prefer the term inerrancy to describe their understanding, insisting that it is "the badge of evangelicalism." The language of "inerrancy" emphasizes the necessary relationship between the accuracy of the words and the authority of the message, often extending the claims to historical and scientific statements as well as spiritual and moral teachings. An example of this position is provided by "The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy" (1979), which bears a close resemblance to the Hodge and Warfield statement.

The "Chicago Statement" represents an attempt to reassert an older view of scriptural authority in the face of a new evangelicalism, which began to emerge in the 1940s and departed in various ways from its fundamentalist roots. Neo-evangelicalism represented a resurgence of evangelicalism in a postmodern milieu in which neither the old liberal nor fundamentalist positions seemed adequate. Arising from a stagnant and defensive fundamentalism, the new evangelicals rejected the separatism, sectarianism, and social conservatism of their once-vital parent. In their attempts to move evangelicalism into the mainstream of American society and religion, they have been drawn increasingly into the world of contemporary biblical scholarship. Thus new evangelicals commonly exhibit some degree of openness to modern, historically informed understandings of Scripture and doctrine and consequently reject efforts to bind Scripture to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century understandings of inspiration and truth.

While new evangelicals represent a considerable spectrum within evangelicalism and define their positions in different terms, most tend to prefer the language of "infallibility" to describe their confidence in Scripture as the authoritative word of God. They are no less committed than fundamentalists to upholding the authority of the Bible, but they understand its message and purpose differently—and thus operate with different hermeneutics. For new evangelicals, the purpose of Scripture is to "bring people to faith and salvation in Jesus Christ." It accomplishes this purpose as "a book that presents a gospel message of salvation received, interpreted, and handed over by men," not a timeless truth or idea. The authority of its message is established by the witness of the Holy Spirit, not by rational argument. Thus inerrancy is viewed as an inappropriate and misleading term for describing the basis of the Bible’s claim to authority. As a book whose purposes are theological, rather than scientific or historical, its "complete trustworthiness and its ability to accomplish its purpose" is better affirmed, they believe, by the term infallible.

Ecumenical Perspectives. The prominence of evangelicalism in the history of American religious life has meant that its preoccupation with the question of biblical authority has generally set the terms for addressing the subject. Ecumenical discussion fostered by the World Council of Churches and the contributions of a vigorous and theologically grounded Catholic biblical scholarship in the last half of this century have brought new perspectives and a broader horizon to the question, which is still largely neglected in most general treatments of the subject. Ecumenical consideration of the place of the Bible in the churches’ attempts to articulate their unity has led Protestants to acknowledge a much greater role of tradition in shaping doctrine and uses of Scripture than confessions generally admit. And although evangelicals have generally remained outside these discussions, a similar recognition has begun to emerge concerning the role of church and tradition in evangelical interpretation. What has been learned from ecumenical discussion is what the history of the Bible itself has taught us: The Bible is the creation of the church and reflects, as well as directs, the church’s understanding in its continuing interpretation and use. Behind slogans of "Scripture alone" are the realities of community faith and doctrine, which have an inescapably particular, and therefore plural, character when viewed from the perspective of the church as a whole.86

While Protestants have gained new appreciation for the church and tradition in their understanding of Scripture and scriptural authority, Roman Catholics have elevated the place of Scripture within the church and redefined tradition. It is now widely believed that the traditional two-source theory misrepresented the Council of Trent, which held a more unified view of Scripture and tradition, and that its equation of the two sources is unacceptable. In reinterpreting the Tridentine statement, Vatican II substituted "tradition" for "traditions," understanding it as a fluid and dynamic process, rather than a collection of beliefs, directives, etc. Tradition is described as "the presence of Christ in the faith of the Church manifesting itself anew for each generation.… [It] makes Scripture available and understandable to a changing and imperfect world where the biblical text must be reinterpreted." This understanding has much in common with Protestant notions of the living Word and the Holy Spirit as the author and interpreter of Scripture. The main difference between converging Protestant and Roman Catholic views of Scripture remains authority for interpretation, with Protestants unwilling to hand this over to the church, and Catholics unwilling to entrust it to unqualified or unscrupulous exegetes.

At the same time that greater variety has been recognized in understanding and using the Bible, and hence variety in the ways its authority is conceived and actualized, a new and broad consensus has been achieved concerning the meaning of the Scriptures in their ancient contexts of origin. This consensus spans confessional, and even religious, divisions, creating a new meeting place for biblical scholars—and a new set of questions for the churches. But it also contributes positively to reformulating the question of authority. Through its recognition of the irreducible plurality of perspectives and theologies within the Bible itself, modern biblical scholarship has occasioned a more dynamic conception of the Bible’s message, a search for continuities rather than a center and acknowledgment of contextual factors in the communication of divine truth. It has thereby provided a bridge to the pluralistic and conflicted world of the present, in which the word of Scripture can carry the authority of the word of God only as it addresses individuals and communities in their specific needs, while simultaneously witnessing to the oneness of God, whose purposes are the redemption and shalom of the whole creation. Modern historical understanding of the Bible also suggests that the Bible’s authority does not rest in its word alone, as declarative utterance or command, but in its nature as the witness of a community to the source of its life and the record of its continual struggle to comprehend the new thing God is doing in creation. Thus the Bible presents itself as a book of questions as well as answers, and it has authority insofar as it compels us to engage those questions with our own experience.

Feminist Critique. As early Christians found much within the Jewish Scriptures morally and intellectually incompatible with their faith in Christ, so feminists today find much within the two-part canon morally offensive and incompatible with the message of the gospel as they have come to understand it. And as early Christians took different paths in responding to the perceived defect of the Scriptures, so too do feminists today.

Those in the early church whose position would ultimately receive the stamp of orthodoxy insisted that the witness to God’s activity in the ages prior to Christ was essential to Christian understanding. In order to retain that witness they developed various means of interpretation that subordinated, reinterpreted (by figurative and allegorical means), or dismissed as no longer relevant passages that appeared incompatible with later belief. A similar approach is taken by some feminists today. But the enterprise of recovering a liberating message from a sexist text involves a more radical assessment of the problem of Scripture, for it is apparent that the patriarchal and/or androcentric bias that feminists identify as a sinful betrayal or denial of the gospel is deeply embedded in the texts of both testaments—and also in the communities behind the texts.

Feminist theology shares in large measure the basic hermeneutical stance of other liberationist theologies, but it exhibits a stronger sense of disparity between the gospel as transmitted historically through Scripture, creeds, and church teaching and God’s intention for humanity as discerned through the contemporary working of the Holy Spirit, in communities outside the church as well as within. For most feminists, in contrast to other liberationists, the record of the past contains no model for the future, no core of tradition untainted by patriarchy—although some find a message of equality in an original Jesus tradition, and in selected texts and traditions of both testaments when read with a feminist hermeneutic. Whether they acknowledge such a "subversive memory" in the text, feminists in general regard the memory of the past as recorded and brought into the present by Scripture as failure to grasp and actualize the will of God, rather than faithfulness. The Bible, they insist, presents a deficient and distorted witness to God’s nature and purposes by virtue of its androcentrism.

Reaffirmations. Feminist critique represents the most radical form of the contemporary questioning of biblical authority, often extending to the notion of authority itself. Any affirmation of the authority of Scripture today must take account of that critique, which requires clarification of what is essential to the claim. Different assessments and different formulations will be made according to the believer’s experience, theology, and social or ecclesial context. The following is one attempt to reaffirm the authority of the Bible in light of feminist critique and modern biblical scholarship. It is not intended as a comprehensive statement, but as a concluding summary of the preceding arguments.

Feminist critique contributes two fundamental assertions that correlate closely with two essential affirmations of traditional understanding of the Bible and biblical authority. The first is the recognition of the pervasive androcentrism in the text and the culture, which serves as a needed reminder that Scripture is a human product and instrument and, therefore, culturally conditioned and limited—a feature of Scripture that has been affirmed in every age, even as every age has attempted to deny or minimize it. The Bible conveys the word of God, or becomes the word of God, only as fully human words, the record of human thought and experience. The temptation in claiming divine authority for Scripture has always been to deny its fundamental human character. The offense of the Bible’s androcentrism provides a needed reminder that its words and ideas, as our own, are culturally conditioned. It is also a reminder that the Bible is the record of a sinful people—fearful, shortsighted, rebellious, like ourselves—a record of betrayal as well as faithfulness to the revelation they had received. The authority of Scripture does not depend on infallible words or model behavior but in the ability of its words to confront readers with the story and the presence of a God who redeems sinners by assuming their weakness, and empowers the weak and the silent (or silenced) with visions and with speech.

The second assertion is the ground of the first: Feminist critique of androcentrism is rooted in the conviction that it is a perversion of the gospel, or of God’s intention for creation. The condemnation points to continuing recognition of a norm within the tradition, and the Scriptures with which the tradition is bound. Feminist critique is rooted in the gospel, or in an ideal of full humanity that is consonant with the gospel. Whatever the ultimate origin of the shared sense of injustice over patriarchal structures of social organization and meaning, Christian feminists find resources of judgment and alternative vision in the gospel transmitted by the church and informed by the Scriptures. That affirmation, which is made in different ways by different feminist theologians, is evidence of the Bible’s continuing authority, even where it is sharply limited or formally denied. And it is consonant with the traditional understanding of a norm within Scripture, interpreting and judging Scripture. The Bible’s authority rests in its ability to confront readers or hearers with the gospel so that it is heard not merely as a historical word, but as a present assurance and demand.

The authority of the Bible is communal, requiring individual confirmation. It is, therefore, marked by inevitable tension and is always in the process of being reconstituted. Affirmation of biblical authority is indispensable to Christian identity and belief, but it does not compel assent to any particular interpretation of content—only hearing, with a disposition to hear a word from God. That predisposition to hearing is a sign of the Bible’s authority. The Bible comes to each reader or hearer with the church’s commendation and testimony that God has spoken through its words and will continue to speak through them. For Christians, the Bible is not a neutral or unknown entity, however unknown its actual content; it bears credentials and a burden of expectations. But the authority that gives it a hearing can be retained only as it is reconfirmed through fresh encounter with the text and appropriation of its message. This reappropriation is both an individual and a communal task.

The Bible means different things to different people, but Christians are not free to construct their own meanings apart from the community that created and transmitted the Scriptures—however painful that relationship. The Bible is the church’s book and never stands alone, despite Protestant declarations of sola scriptura; nor does it simply stand alongside tradition, as the traditional Catholic theory of two sources suggested. Rather, Scripture is both a product of tradition and a part of the church’s ongoing tradition, and it cannot be interpreted as a document of faith apart from that context of communal interpretation and use. Communal authority does not demand consensus, but it does demand engagement. The Bible exercises no authority for those who cease to listen or to struggle with it. While the degree of dissent tolerated by communities and individuals varies widely, unanimity of belief is not a demand of biblical authority.

The Bible’s authority is grounded in past experience, which is never sufficient for an ever-changing present. The insufficiency of past formulations of belief as contained in Scripture, and tradition, is seen with particular clarity by feminists in their identification of the patriarchal stamp of all our inherited institutions and ideas. Feminist insistence that past understanding, however profound and essential to Christian identity, is not sufficient for the future exposes false bases of biblical authority. The reason why the Bible continues to exercise authority for successive generations in ever new situations is that it points beyond itself to God, whose purposes and nature are never fully or finally expressed in historical communications. Even in its function as memory, the Bible witnesses to a dynamic relationship at the heart of its testimony.

The Bible’s authority derives from God, but it must be understood in terms appropriate to the medium in which it operates. The Bible comes to us as literature, a human, historical product combining memory, art, and reason in the attempts of a community to comprehend and confess its encounter with the divine. Its multivocal and multivalent witness comprises the testimony of more than a millennium, framed in different languages and idioms, in different political and cultural contexts. As the record of many voices, speaking in harmony and discord, its authority is exercised through the conversation, not by suppressing or harmonizing the multiple voices. The church is obliged by the form of its Scriptures to listen for the voice of God in the dialogue of a community. It acknowledges the authority of Book and Author by continuing that dialogue.

The Bible’s authority does not rest in the infallibility of its statements, but in the truth of its witness to a creating and redeeming power, which can and must be known as a present reality. The Bible as the word of God in human words exhibits the cultural limits and sinful distortions of humanity in every age, witnessing thereby to the central affirmation of Christian faith that God is most fully and truly revealed in assuming this same human nature. The Bible shares the incarnational character of the One to whom it bears witness. It proclaims by its composition as well as its declarations that the Creator has chosen to be revealed in creation, even coming among us as one of us. But that manifestation does not exhaust or circumscribe the divine presence or power, and the word by which that action is recalled and re-presented is only the servant of the living Word. The words of God spoken to prophets and poets are essential to Christian faith and carry the authority of their Speaker, but the word of God cannot be contained in any document; nor can it be comprehended apart from the Word made flesh, which is both the center and the norm of Scripture.


Achtemeier, Paul J. The Inspiration of Scripture: Problems and Proposals. Biblical Perspectives on Current Issues. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980. Not a discussion of authority per se, but an analysis of a key idea in theories of scriptural authority.

Barton, John. People of the Book? The Authority of the Bible in Christianity. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1988. A reformulation of the meaning of biblical authority by a British biblical scholar in dialogue with fundamentalist views.

Flesseman-van Leer, Ellen, ed. The Bible: Its Authority and Interpretation in the Ecumenical Movement. Faith and Order Paper 99. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1980. An analysis of issues identified in a series of ecumenical studies between 1949 and 1978.

Gnuse, Robert. The Authority of the Bible: Theories of Inspiration, Revelation and the Canon of Scripture. New York: Paulist, 1985. A Roman Catholic perspective by an American biblical scholar.

Jodock, Darrell. The Church’s Bible: Its Contemporary Authority. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989. A constructive Lutheran approach based on the collaboration of a historical theologian and a biblical scholar.

Rogers, Jack B., and Donald K. McKim. The Authority of the Bible: An Historical Approach. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979. An attempt to reclaim a Reformed tradition eclipsed by post-Reformation scholasticism.


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