The early twentieth-century New Testament Scholar, C. H. Dodd, argued that "the measure of any authority which the Bible may possess must lie in its direct religious value, open to discovery in experience; and this value in turn will be related to the experience out of which the Scripture came."1 One reviewer (J.Y. Campbell) objected arguing that "I cannot see that anything is gained by talking of authority if what we really mean is religious value."2 Dodd defined authority "in its primary form" as "the authority of the truth itself, compelling and subduing," and adds to that a "secondary sense of the term 'authority,'" which he sees as the following: "the authority of persons who being presumed to know the truth communicate it to others."3 Hence for Dodd the authority we meet in the Bible is in this secondary sense, which is "the authority of experts in the knowledge of God, masters in the art of living; the authority of religious genius."4 We cannot, however, today engage these "experts in the knowledge of God" in person. They can only be met in written texts that have been passed down to us.
Campbell counters, however, that "any such authority is certainly quickly destroyed when we discover our 'authorities' [i.e., the written texts] making erroneous statements,"5 which modern critical studies have clearly demonstrated to be the case with the Bible, as Dodd himself acknowledges.6
The preeminent "religious genius" in the Bible in Dodd's view is Jesus. According to Dodd, "His inner life possessed a unique moral perfection, which would account for the unique authority His words have actually carried in spite of all local and temporal limitations."7 Sayings of Jesus as reported by the evangelists, however, do not possess the same authority as the man, for in the Gospels one finds sayings attributed to Jesus, as Dodd admits, that "either are simply not true, in their plain meaning, or are unacceptable to the conscience or reason of Christian people."8 This acknowledgement by Dodd of the clearly flawed condition of the gospels leads Campbell to conclude: "This crucial instance suffices to show that no authority of this secondary sort can be claimed for the Bible."9 In other words, the religious authority of those living "experts in the knowledge of God" is not passed on in the texts that contain writings about and by them. On the other hand, Campbell agrees that modern biblical scholarship "has revealed more clearly than ever" the "abiding spiritual value" of the Bible "as Mr. Dodd has shown so excellently."10
This brief exchange contrasting the ideas of Dodd and Campbell uses two words in assessing the relevance of the Bible: authority and value. Dodd had in his book considered and rejected the word: "infallible," in the sense that "the biblical writers infallibly set forth the truth."11 And Campbell rejects Dodd's claim that the Bible has authority in itself. Both agreed, however, that the Bible has religious value.
Both scholars, however, were speaking as men of faith and evaluating the Bible from within the house of Christian faith, rather than from a disinterested broader historical perspective in a universal and timeless sense. Objectively speaking the Bible has no inherent or intrinsic religious value or authority in itself; the Bible only has that religious authority and/or value that one chooses to give it. According to Dodd, "the Bible itself does not make any claim to infallible authority for all its parts."12 How could it? Later people of faith collected its various parts to make it a whole long after the individuals who lived and wrote it had passed from the historical scene. The Bible is the product of modern critical scholarship, and represents only two episodes (Israelite and Christian) in a longer and broader human quest for God.
Calling the Bible "the Word of God" is a learned personal opinion about the Bible and is not a description of the Bible itself. The Bible consists of human words about how God was understood in two religious communities long before the modern era commenced. Hence its words and ideas need to be vetted for contemporary religious significance. Quite clearly the Bible has historical significance as part of the religious history of Western civilization, but whether or not it has a claim to be the exclusive authority and value for shaping religion in contemporary life is a personal choice on the part of its readers.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1C. H. Dodd, The Authority of the Bible (2nd ed. London: Nisbet, 1938), xiii. The first edition appeared in 1928.
2J. Y Campbell, "An Interpretation of Biblical Authority," Journal of Religion 10.3 (July1930) 423.
3Dodd, Authority, 21.
5Campbell, "Biblical Authority," 424.
6Dodd, Authority, 233.
9Campbell, "Biblical Authority,"424.
11Dodd, Authority, 8-18. The quote is from page 8.
Once you remove the unsubstantiated claim of faith that God somehow was involved in authoring the Bible and further study reveals the multiple sources and unreliable historical value, then the Bible is forced to stand on its own two feet. It is "classical" literature in the sense that it has withstood the test of time and multiple generations have found insight in it and in that sense it takes its place along side the works of Plato and Homer. In our progressive church, we changed our use of a weekly scripture reading to a "wisdom lesson" several years ago, much as is done in Unitarian Universalist congregations. We sometimes use Biblical texts but not more than six or seven times a year. Sometimes we use a Biblical text as a negative example of historical prejudices and the indoctrination of hatred and irrational thought in many generations of Christians and Jews.
The real loss, in my opinion, is that for centuries pastors have had this common meeting ground…a single body of literature we had all studied and who language became our shared language for conversation and the sharing of ideas and resources. The loss of a common text will impoverish faith communities. The Bible is not entirely gone but, we both know, that when you talk to pastors, even the ones in rather traditional churches, their actual awareness of the content of the Bible and the scholarly thought about it would, well, embarrass Charles Darwin.
I particularly appreciated your description of what the Bible actually is, and this description is certainly in conflict with what I was told/taught that it is as a child and adolescent.
It is also different from what I was taught as well. In the religious tradition in which I was raised confessions trumped objective description,
Good Evening Charlie,
I have been pondering what (if any) value the Bible has for me personally. It was presented to me as a child as being a protection against the devil and hell. When something is taught to you in that fear-based manner, it is difficult to examine the value it may or may not hold to the adult. Anything that you submit to doing out of fear usually holds that association permanently... So I associate fear and guilt with the Bible and therefore don't find much other value in it aside from protection from hell and of course sin.
There's an unspoken rule in churches and in society in general that the Bible must be "taught" and "interpreted" and "explained" to the common lay person... You can't just pick it up and read it for yourself and come to your own conclusions about it. That's where your concept of authority comes into play- it's not that the Bible itself has the authority. The people who interpret it for us are the ones with the authority, or so it seems.
Charlie, what value does the Bible hold for you at this time, in this day and age? (If you don't mind my asking) Many thanks, Elizabeth
I love reading your blogs as they keep me moving forward as a critical thinker. Keep up the good work in helping us move forward in our own journey.
My view is that any hand-ringing over the authority and value of the bible, or any literature, is a huge waste of time, unless someone in the room seeks the harm of the other, and when that occurs we have a chain reaction of very unfortunate events.
Because I'm a Jesus follower I retain the bible because its far and away the primary witness to Jesus. Others value other literature for a incredible variety of reasons. Truth will be found in dialogue which carries no harm intent with it.
When I and a Jew can talk about the cross together without apprehension, dishonesty, or fear on either side, then the mustard seed has grown into a large protective plant (Mark 4:30-32 and //s).
good Morning Elizabeth,
Good question. For me personally, it is without question that the Bible has historical significance as the record of ancient quests for God and the highest truths in the Western religious tradition containing both helpful and dangerous ideas. It is a helpful resource for those of us in a very different modern world as we try to come to a responsible understanding of God and live out our own lives in an ethical way. It is not the only resource.
Thank you Kerry,
Join in the discussion and let us know how you make sense out of things.
I agree that the Bible is the most complete source for raw data about Jesus of Nazareth, but it at the same time it obscures and frustrates a historical understanding of the man behind a heavy brocade of different religious faiths.
What I'm trying to say is that the value of any religious source is fearless dialogue with adherents of other religious sources. To date, in my opinion, it's been a very poor effort even by those who claim to do it full time. Too much fear of change I guess.
Gene is totally right and I do wish there were more open dialogue- without the participants being militant about defending their turf.
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