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.