The Last Word on Biblical Authority

Address to the 2000 Covenant Conference
Pittsburgh, PA
November 3, 2000 

Brian Blount
Professor of New Testament
Princeton Theological Seminary


Several weeks ago, when I was finally putting my thoughts for this talk down on paper, a friend asked what the title of my lecture would be. I said tentatively, testing the waters a bit, but still eager to get his reaction, “The Last Word on Biblical Authority.” He chuckled and said, “I hope they get the joke.” “What joke?” I thought. I wondered for a moment whether I was so clever that I had ended up talking over my own head. I’m thinking, “There’s no joke; it’s a conference that will address issues of biblical authority, and I’m up last.”

But there is a joke, and you know it, don’t you? We all know people who for some unknown reason just have to have the last word on any and every subject. It’s maddening. You can’t leave unless you hear their voices ringing in your ear. No matter what has happened in the intervening argument, they haven’t heard, they haven’t cared, because they know they’re right, and all they want to do is let you get what you have to say out of your system so they can get in their word, the last word. As far as they are concerned their word is the authoritative word on which we ought to build our lives.

There are many who treat the biblical words that way. Those words, all of them, must always be the last words standing. Now in matters of faith, in matters of understanding our human relationship before God and God’s moves to nurture, develop, restructure, and refine that relationship through the prophetic and Incarnate Word, most of Christendom, I think, agrees that those inspired words are lasting words. But in matters of the proper way to appropriate those words of faith ethically, there is and has always been considerable discussion and debate.

This is because deep down we know that even the inspired biblical authors, when they applied God’s prophetic and Incarnate Word to their very human situations, allowed those situations to influence how they heard God and therefore to influence how they talked to each other. In the biblical world of the first century, for example, generally speaking slavery was a given, women were understood to be inferior to men, and the power of the empire demanded allegiance or at least acquiescence from those who wanted to survive. The many, many authoritative New Testament biblical words which sanctioned slavery (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18), devalued women (1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Cor. 11), or encouraged an almost blind obedience to the state (Romans 13; 1 Peter 2:13-15) are testimony to the fact that the biblical authors were themselves creatures of their contexts who, just as we do today, felt the inspiration of God, and then translated the Word of God for their lives through those contexts.

What are we to say about the biblical words being the last word in such cases? Now there have been many esteemed men and women of faith who argued that those words on slavery ought to be the last word and who thereby defended slavery and the enslavement of black folk in the United States up to, through, and even beyond the horror of the Civil War. There are many esteemed men and women of faith who have argued and continue to argue that the words on the secondary status of women are the last word on the issue of ordination of women to the Christian clergy. There were many esteemed men and women of faith in the United States who during the days of the Civil Rights movement chastised the freedom riders and prophetic protesters because they disobeyed the governing laws of the land, and denigrated them because, instead of waiting for change to evolve slowly over time, they acted to press for an immediate allocation of equal rights. But were those esteemed men and women of faith right?

Of course not! This is because ethical biblical authority is contextual biblical authority. Now, what does that mean? Think of it this way: Loving God is like loving silent movies. There are kaleidoscopes of colorful emotion, juggernauts of reeling action, and narrative schemes of implied ethical direction. But there is no sound.

Yet, there is a voice. Every story, every power has its own voice, a way of viewing the world and being viewed by it that signals a message as much by how it “speaks” as by what it “says.” Voice, though, does not necessarily require sound. It needs only an audience and a channel to reach it. The physical ear need not be involved.

That’s because the human spirit is a kind of inner ear. It is the instrument upon which the reverberations of God’s voice make their impact. It is the human spirit that translates what our eyes see, our fingers touch, our noses smell, our bodies experience, and our ears do not hear into the voice of God. That is why even though God does not talk in a way we are accustomed to hearing others, we are capable of listening to God.

The role of the spirit is a constant. Laced into the fabric of human being is that part of us that reaches beyond the boundaries of our flesh and blood and touches the essential voice of God’s own Holy Spirit. Did you ever hear someone say a room is wired for sound? We’re wired for God, wired by God with a human spirit that despite its limitations can be touched by God’s Holy Spirit. In every time, in every place, in every moment of history, the spirit plays this interlocutory role. It is how we “hear” God, and through this hearing, when we are fortunate, hear each other. The spirit is a constant.

The “human” is not. Being human signals contingency, limitation, and context. Because they are human, our spirits always encounter God through the context in which God finds us and we find ourselves. This means that each one of us as individuals or in community always perceives God, and what it is that God wants from us, differently.

God’s voice, then, is like an inaudible whisper, sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce, that jangles the nerves of the human spirit until, tensed and alert, it attends to what it is that God wants to “say.” That saying will be different according to the variable conditions in which the human spirits who encounter it find themselves. When that spiritual whisper grips the human spirits where they live, it becomes an incarnate word taking up the cause of the people who encounter it in the situations of that encounter. It is in this way that God’s eternal voice for all becomes a living word exclusively for them. God’s whisper takes on flesh.

That flesh is the human word of the human disciples who have written our biblical texts. Like all flesh it is limited, and so, often, are the ethical words they have written limited to their times and their places. This means that the words of those texts ought to be challenged when we find that they were influenced by their contexts in such a way that they are damaging, and not life affirming, in a contemporary circumstance.

This is heavy stuff. We’re asking the question, how do you go about understanding which biblical words live today, and which don’t? I know it’s always scary for seminary students when such a notion comes up in a class lecture or discussion. We need some absolute, something hard and lasting, a last word on all things for all ethical situations for every ethical context imaginable. We are like Paul’s babes in the faith; we need the suckling security of a milk bottle filled with authoritative assurances about what we should do and how we should live in any and every time for any and every circumstance. We don’t want complexities because we’re not spiritually grown up enough to handle them. We want it simple. Simplified faith; simplified ethics in light of that faith. We want “Do this” or “Do that.” “Don’t do this”; “Don’t do that.” We’re too often not ready for the meat of mature considerations about the words of texts that were often right for their own time twenty centuries ago, but may well be wrong for our time. We’re too often the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time pietists who equate faith in God to faith in the written words of human texts. Carlos Mesters makes the case provocatively. He is talking about poor Latin American peasants. Their oppressed circumstance often motivates them to challenge the ethical exhortations of the biblical texts whenever those exhortations would perpetuate their oppression. So Mesters writes that these “…common people are putting the Bible in its proper place, the place where God intended it to be. They are putting it in second place. Life takes first place!”

That means, then, as far as biblical ethics are concerned, for the peasants Mesters was talking about, there is no last word on Biblical Authority. That’s because the authoritative words are linked to the contexts in which they were uttered. And since we’re always changing, and our contexts are always changing, the words that interpret the whisper of God’s Spirit in our time must necessarily be changing as well. God, you remember Jesus saying, is a God of the living, not the dead. But a last word is necessarily a dead word. It stops listening. It stops learning. It stops living! It just wants to be repeated over and over without learning anything about anything that has happened between the time of its first utterance and its purported final utterance now.

We’ve often made the biblical words like that. We’ve made them the last word in the sense that none of them can ever change. Even if the words were on the mark for a first century community, but no longer on target for ours, even when they have become like rickety, arthritic knees that don’t bend and twist so well in the new race we’re running for God, we treat them as if they just started competing yesterday. A last word can’t breathe; it can’t endure this marathon of living with the people of God who run in the presence of God’s ever living, ever sustaining Holy Spirit.

Making the biblical words the last word turns them into a literary artifact. Over time any church working with such a word becomes fossilized into the past itself; it becomes an archaeological dig rather than a living faith community that digs seeing God say and do new things in new times.

A last word tries to mask its own insecurity about its timelessness by forcing the present to live in the past. One often hears the criticism that the church ought not to adapt to the surrounding culture, but speak to it. That’s a powerfully correct assertion in my mind. But the church and its believers also ought not to adapt to any past culture, but speak to it! Speak from it, yes. But also speak to it in a way that values human living now before God just as human living before God was valued in the first century. And that valuing process may well mean that words that may have been valuable in the first century must no longer be equally valued today. Let me say it this way: nothing that is living is ever last. A living word is always a beginning word. In a reality of living that believes in the word of resurrection, even the word of someone’s death is a word of beginning. Even death is not the last word. That’s because God is a God of the living.

I know how many people will respond to what I’m saying. “It hardly sounds Christian.” But it is, and I’ll give you two Christian examples of this kind of biblical interpretation. The African American slaves in the United States were a community that was as faithful to the powerful message of Jesus Christ in their lives as any community in history. In spite of what they endured, what they lost, how often they were brutalized or killed, their songs, their sermons, their narratives and stories are a testimony to their faith in God’s powerful presence in their lives. And even though the laws of the land, the same laws many biblical words suggested they should blindly obey, made it illegal for them to learn to read, somehow they learned the biblical stories and internalized them. God’s story became their story. But they realized that human beings interpreted that story and put God’s holy Word into their own contextually influenced human words. So when slave owners talked about the Bible saying that slaves ought to obey their masters, the slaves resisted not just the slave owners but the biblical words and the biblical authors themselves. The grandmother of African-American spiritualist Howard Thurman, once the dean of the chapel at Howard University, is a grand case in point. This is what Thurman records about what she once said to him.

My regular chore was to do all of the reading for my grandmother–she could neither read nor write….With a feeling of great temerity I asked her one day why it was that she would not let me read any of the Pauline letters. What she told me I shall never forget. “During the days of slavery,” she said, “the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves….Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves be obedient to them that are your masters…, as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.

Here is an illiterate woman who knows instinctively that a last word is too dead a word to keep living for her. There are other examples. Like the a group of slaves in Georgia in 1833 listening to a white preacher go on about Paul’s text on Philemon.

In Liberty County a group of slaves were listening to a white minister hold forth on a staple topic–the escaped slave Onesimus, and his return to his master. According to the report from Georgia, half of the Negro group walked out when the point of the sermon became clear, and the other half stayed mostly for the purpose of telling [the preacher] that they were sure there was no such passage in the Bible.

Well, it is in the Bible. It’s in your Bible and my Bible,and it was in the slaves’ Bible. But they contested it! They walked out on it! You know why? Because theirs was the living Bible. Professor Jacquelyn Grant is correct in her assessment of what is going on here. She writes that “What we see here is perhaps more than a mere rejection of a White preacher’s interpretation of the Bible, but an exercise in internal critique of the Bible.” In other words, if the biblical words on slavery were the last word on slavery, they were too dead a word to keep living for them.

This doesn’t mean that the New Testament text loses its sense of authority for the slaves. But it does mean that their perception of God in their midst is more authoritative. The text must be in line with God’s being and agenda of liberation. Where it is not, the text, because of the frailty of the humans who composed it, must be challenged and, if need be, resisted as much as the system of slavery it was purported to support. In this way the slaves were perhaps the first biblical critics in America to read so aggressively from “in front of the text” that they could recognize the text for what it really was, the words first-century human writers employed in their attempt to convey the Word of the eternal God.

There’s another famous Christian community that looked at the biblical words in the same way. I’m talking here, of course, about the biblical authors themselves. The New Testament authors didn’t see the words of the Old Testament as the last word, for they interpreted the Old Testament words time and time again in light of their contextual circumstances, in light of the circumstances of the churches to whom they were writing, and in light of who Jesus perpetually is. Psalm 2:7 is an example. “You are my son,” the Psalmist proclaims for God, “this day I have begotten you.” Of course it is language in the Psalmist’s own time about the Davidic king who would be at his enthronement considered begotten of God. But the word in that form, if it was to stay in that form was a dead word in a time when Davidic kingship itself no longer existed. But the Lordship of Jesus Christ did exist. And that is why when New Testament writers from the Gospels to Revelation interpreted those words of the Psalmist they interpreted them in light of Jesus and either his baptism or his crucifixion.

Examples like this are legion. Perhaps one of the best things to do is to look at how the New Testament writers not only interpreted the Old Testament but interpreted each other. Clearly, Matthew and Luke, who used Mark as a source for their own words, felt that the Spirit of God was still on the move, so that they could change Mark’s words in ways that were applicable to their contexts and people, and indeed, change Mark’s Gospel itself. So they add the birth narratives where there were none and resurrection stories that Mark did not himself deploy. Or they adjust stories in the text so that, for example, in the storm on the sea, Jesus’ words about the disciples’ complete lack of faith becomes in Matthew a less harsh word about their little faith which has the possibility of growth. Why? Because the disciples in Matthew’s community were playing a more important role in the life of the community of faith. It just wouldn’t do for them to have appeared as ignorant in his telling of the story as they did in Mark’s. One might also consider Luke. He’s writing to a Gentile audience and trying to call these Gentiles to faith in Christ Jesus. Little wonder then that when he gets to Mark’s story about the Syrophonecian woman, where Jesus calls Gentiles “dogs,” that he decides to edit those words out of his word.

Then there’s Paul. Given the shift in situation from Jesus’ time to his, Paul even feels the need to adjust Jesuswords. Even Jesus’ words! Actually, he’s even doing more than that. He’s taking a leap. He’s writing new material because the context demands it. At 1 Corinthians 7:10-15, Paul first cites Jesus, by saying, “This is the Word of the Lord.” Then he goes on to say how Jesus’ words disallow divorce. But then he does something radical. He goes on to say, “Not the Lord, but I say,” that if a situation arises that is different from the one Jesus envisioned, where a pagan is married to a believer and threatens to pull that believer from his or her faith, then it is perfectly permissible to let the pagan partner go his or her own way. This is a living word of authority from a man who believes he is in contact with the Spirit of Christ who is still living in his midst.

By now, surely you know clearly where I’m going and what I’m doing. The New Testament words on homosexual behavior are clear. They are words of condemnation; I don’t try to deny that. I don’t think anyone should. But they are words out of a particular context. Our context is so significantly different that I don’t think the words are any longer living, but dead words if we try to read them without contextually understanding them today.

Paul was inspired by God’s Word in a world where sexuality was understood in a radically different way from how it is understood today. In fact, homosexuality as we presently understand it wasn’t a part of their secular or religious vocabulary. No one talked in terms of a genetic predisposition or early social conditioning/learning, or a way of life, or a nurturing, caring partnership of two people. That’s because such a concept did not exist. What existed instead was a first century pagan, Jewish, and developing Christian understanding of individual sex acts that could or could not be seen as appropriate.

When you consider the surrounding contextual perspectives on the issue you see that in this case Paul is very much speaking from and with his surrounding culture in an accommodating rather than a prophetic way. Philosophers like Seneca and Dio Chrysostom considered same-sex activity to have been driven by dehumanizing lust. Of course, they recognized that lust was not just a problem for same-sex activity, but plagued relationships between men and women as well. It was sexual activity driven by lust that dehumanized in all cases and therefore had to be avoided. Others, like Plutarch, argued that it was love between a man and woman that was recognized as natural. Sexual activity between people of the same gender was considered dehumanizing in this case because it was unnatural. This meant of course that it had nothing to do with the procreation process of condoned sexual activity between men and women. The two primary secular concerns with same-sex activity, then, were the unreasonable motivation of lust and the unnatural quality of the acts. As Victor Paul Furnish notes, “When we turn now to Paul’s remarks about such conduct, it becomes apparent that he perceived it in essentially the same way.”

New Testament writers do, of course, have a different starting point. For Paul sexual activity between persons of the same sex was a direct result of idolatry, of human acceptance of false gods or a false understanding of their own relationship before the gods. Paul was thinking of individual, separate actions as God’s punishment for idolatry. He was not thinking nor was he prepared to think in terms of relationship. He was thinking of what humans did and not what God had created, a person predisposed by reason of biology or social learning towards relationship with other persons of the same gender. For him it was a matter of controlling behavior, not running from or living out one’s human identity.

In this kind of thinking one’s behavior was proper behavior if it fit the intentions of creation which pushed procreation, not sexual intimacy, and controlled not only the type but the frequency of that intimacy. One performed such acts not as a way of sharing intimacy, but of procreating the human species or checking the fires and flames of passion between men and women. The contemporary understanding of intimate homosexual union that often expresses itself physically and celebrates passion within committed relationship was as alien to Paul as Paul knew the possibility of a believer marrying a pagan was alien to Jesus. So Paul kept doing what others in his Greco-Roman context were doing. He kept his understanding of sexuality tied to an understanding of sex acts that were properly condoned only when done according to the natural order designed for procreation, or as a remedy for the burning passions of lust that apparently threatened the eruption of human bonfires all over the ancient world.

There are times, though, when Paul breaks beyond the boundaries of social expectation in the ancient world and cracks through the status codes implied in creation. His work with the church at Galatia is a case in point. Here the Jewish/Gentile issue takes center stage. The letter opens with the immediate presumption of a grave crisis (1:6-9); people have entered the community teaching a radically different gospel. Paul’s work of bringing together Jew and Gentile into the same community of faith is in jeopardy, at least in the manner that he had envisioned. His opponents in Galatia agree that Jews and Gentiles may worship together in one community of faith. They, however, demand that Gentiles, to be included, earn that inclusion by observing major components of the Jewish Law, particularly the ritual components dealing with circumcision and dietary matters. Paul, though, is already on written record in his correspondences to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:12; 3:3; 4:7; 5:9,24) and Corinth (1 Cor 2:2) arguing that inclusion into the people of God is based on God’s election through the gospel of Christ, specifically the gospel that records Christ’s death on the cross. It is God’s action, through Christ that determines one’s inclusion into the people of God, not one’s adherence to and compliance with the Jewish Law. But this means, if the Law is no longer the deciding factor, but God’s act in Christ, then any and everyone who believed in that act could become a part of the people of God. It is this kind of radical thinking that provokes Paul when he makes his radical statement at Galatians 3:28: ” There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

A community whose theology of justification by faith led to a social reality where slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile lived on an equal plane would have been a radically counter-cultural plane indeed. Faith, then, has worked itself out in an incredibly liberating, boundary-breaking, counter-cultural way. As Wolfgang Schrage points out in his book on ethics in the New Testament, now, after Galatians 3:28, “In the one body of Christ, all secular categories are transcended, even distinctions inherent in the created order.” This is a crucial point. Paul’s understanding of God’s actions in Christ lead him to the almost insane conclusion that even the categories that God established in the act of creation have now been superseded.  Even the biblical words of human creation are not the last words for human living. The boundaries standardized for all time at the very beginning of time have been eschatologically smashed down in the act of Jesus’ coming, death, and resurrection. Here is a place where Paul’s Christ theology crashes hard up against his creation theology, shattering the territorial lines it imposed, redrawing the orders of separation it enacted, and, along the way, inaugurating the genesis of a very different kind of human social and ethical landscape.

The implications are staggering. For in Paul’s thought, God’s doing is simultaneously the mandate for human living. The shattering of creation’s boundaries that occurs with Jesus’ death and resurrection is the gracious provocation of a new eschatological reality that enables human transgressions of the same kind. All people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, stature, or, dare I say it, even though Paul does not, sexual preference are equally acceptable in God’s sight and therefore must be equally treated in human living.

What I’m suggesting, of course, is that contexuality is not only important when we compare Paul to our time, it is also important, indeed imperative, when we compare Paul to the Paul of his own time. When the contextual base of his theology shifts, so does the emphasis in his ethics. When that theology operates from the radical thing that God has done through Christ Jesus then boundaries break down, people rise up and are brought together. This is Paul’s living word, the one that continues into our own time and gives us hope for the way in which all peoples who have been created as God has created them, just as they are, might be treated equally and accepted faithfully together in the one body of faith.

We can’t be faithful, we can’t get to God’s truth if the biblical words don’t live for us like this. The Gospel is not useful to us if we don’t interpret like this. This is the way our human spirits hear God’s voice today. We can follow the Paul who followed the trail of divine, living activity, and we can challenge the Paul operating in his culture with words driven from a theology of creation that endorses slavery, devalues women, reveres every government, and appears to denounce gay and lesbian sexuality. This is difficult, I know, because the words are biblical words and the words are in the canon and we find it hard to challenge them no matter what their context because every word is supposed to be the last word. That’s why inclusive language is often so difficult for many people to accept when reading the Bible. The words, the pronouns, “he”, “him,” and “his” have become THE WORD. A faith mathematics of simple addition takes hold. All the words form an equation that equals faith. Just like you need every number if the total sum of a simple addition problem is going to be correct, so you need every word in an equally authoritative state if simple faith is going to add up. So the words “his”and “him” become just as important as the words “justification” and “cross.” Mess with either one and you’re equally messing with the faith. So the words, “Slaves obey your masters,” or “women be silent in church,” must be equal to the words “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.” So the words, “their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another,” become as important as “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Every word, no matter how it’s tied to its context, must be the last word or faith itself is somehow challenged.

What I have been trying to say is that such a perspective on the biblical words does a disservice to the power of the Living Word to confront, challenge, and liberate us in the places where God’s Holy Spirit of Christ meets us today. I know it’s hard to think like this. It’s hard to give up the simplicity of thinking that every word is the last word no matter how tied it was to its own time and history. When I think of how hard it is, I remember that line from a Tom Hanks character in the movie, “A League of Our Own.” When one of his players tells him that playing baseball is too hard, he responds to her, “It’s baseball. It’s supposed to be hard. If it weren’t hard, then everyone would do it.”

Christian faith, and the biblical interpretation that goes along with it, supports and directs it, is hard. Not everyone can do it, not everyone wants to do it. Many want the comfort of having someone just say forget about the contexts, forget about how the biblical writers were writing for their people in their time, forget about all that and just read all the words as the last word and do what they say, whatever they say. Even if I don’t want to tell a slave to go back to his master; even if I don’t want to tell a woman to sit down and keep quiet in church and cover her head while she’s at it; even if I don’t want to tell someone politically oppressed to obey a government without protest when I think it’s wrong; even if I don’t want to tell a gay or lesbian couple that they are idolatrous, lusting, unnatural sinners whom I’ll love even though they have absolutely no business and no place in the kingdom of God, I’ll do it anyway because it’s easy. It’s simple. And I long for a simple faith. I’ll cry but I won’t do differently. I won’t try to find a way to do differently because it’s too hard. “It’s supposed to be hard.” “Whoever would be my disciple must take up my hard cross and follow, follow daily, follow into tomorrow, where every word is a living word for people living where they are in their present and future, not in somebody else’s past.”

You talk this way, say this kind of thing in seminary to first-year seminarians and you know what you get. You get fear. I’ve heard the words time and time again. “You’re taking away my faith when you tell me all of this stuff about interpreting the words, understanding the words in light of our living, and not just taking all the words just as they are, no matter how tied they were to their first-century contexts. You’re taking away my faith.” And we listen, and we struggle, and we wonder what to say as we say we’ll try to help them rebuild their faith. When in truth, when they charge, “you’re taking away my faith,” we ought to respond, “No, this is your faith. Your living faith. I’m trying to give it back to you. This is how the first Christians did faith, aggressively using it to interpret, not just recite their traditions. The Spirit was alive and the Word of God was on the move. You couldn’t catch it and you couldn’t hold it so you’d be safe and secure. You had to move on dangerous ground with it.” Why? Because the biblical words are not the Last Word. They are the Living Word.

Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.