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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

From Where Does Scripture Derive Its Authority?

I Intro

The origin of the authority of scripture is highly disputed. To many, it may not have any authority at all. To determine its just authority, one must first establish its source. The method this essay employs to determine the just authority of scripture is to evaluate the two most widespread schools of thought on its origin, and then consider where the ultimate moral authority actually originates from. The first two of the schools of thought which this essay considers are the belief that scripture is the direct word of God or that it is divinely inspired. They thus both base their legitimacy on divine influence. Nearly all denominations of Christianity use one of these two origins. The third potential source of authority is not endorsed by any large religious groups yet is concluded by this essay to be the ultimate source of authority for scripture in a modern rational world. This essay primarily looks at Christian scripture to evaluate the authority of scripture, however, the concepts within this essay are applicable to scriptures of non-Christian faiths

II The Inerrant Scripture School of Thought

The first school of thought this essay is to analyse is the school suggesting the authority of scripture is derived from its inerrancy. This school of thought’s basic idea is that scripture is the direct word of God, and this in turn leads to it having supreme authority. The argument in its most basic form is laid out below.

Premise 1: Scripture is the exact word of God

Premise 2: As a perfect being, everything God states is inerrant

Conclusion: Scripture is inerrant

The conclusion of the above argument does follow from its premises. If one accepts these premises, scripture’s authority is justifiably absolute. An inerrant piece of literature should not have any checks upon its authority as the checks imposed on it would be errant whilst the text itself is inerrant. This view of scripture containing absolute authority is held by many modern evangelicals, including famous theologians such as Francis Schaeffer and R.C. Sproul. The idea that scripture’s authority is absolute is entirely justified for people who already believe both premises of the above argument.

However, for most believers, this argument should not be considered sound. This is because its premises, particularly the first premise, have nearly no epistemic grounding and thus do not alone warrant belief. There is very little reason to suggest that scripture is indeed directly from the mouth of God. The evidence which does exist for this premise is overwhelmingly provided by two sources: scripture itself or other sources, such as evangelical groups, which base their justification for the authority on scripture itself. To justify the authority of scripture using scripture itself creates a circular argument whose validity is void. Therefore, there exists little concrete evidence for either of the two premises needed to prove that scripture is inerrant, and thus little concrete way in which one can have certainty that scripture is the word of God.

Conversely, there is significant evidence to the contrary. Anthropological evidence highlights that the Bible’s tone and style shifts alongside the general cultural trends and changes which occurred over the course of human history. There would be little reason for an inerrant God to shift his writing style frequently throughout the Bible alongside anthropological trends. This would seem to suggest that the Bible is written by humans. Moreover, there are numerous inconsistencies within the text of the Bible which further serve to tarnish the legitimacy of the principle that scripture can be inerrant. A perfect God writing an inerrant text would not include inconsistencies within his work. The Bible is very far from consistent. This further serves to question the legitimacy of an inerrant text. While there is little to no evidence that that scripture is inerrant, there is evidence which would suggest that it might not be. Thus, whilst scripture would be completely authoritative if one accepts the described premises used by evangelicals, there is simply not enough evidence to support them and there is indeed some evidence to the contrary. This essay therefore rejects the idea that scripture rightly derives authority from its inerrancy or from being the direct word of God.

III The divine inspiration school of thought

The second school of thought on the just authority of scripture argues that scripture is divinely inspired but is not the exact word of God. Proponents of this viewpoint argue that scripture was inspired by the revelations and visions given by God which were henceforth transcribed by humans. This view may initially seem very similar to the view that scripture is inerrant. However, it differs in one key respect: as scripture is written by humans, those who believe that scripture is divinely inspired concede that scripture may have a degree of errancy. As imperfect creatures, humans would taint the inerrant divine inspiration and revelation which were bestowed and therefore leave flaws within their ultimate end product of scripture.

If scripture were to be divinely inspired, it would still command a great deal of authority. This authority would likely be superior to that of any other source of authority which we can have. This is because, whilst it would be flawed to some extent by the human interpretation, the origin of the ideas and messages within scripture, as they originate from the divine, would be inerrant. We as humans phrase the concepts which we consider imperfectly for all sources, therefore its imperfections would not make it less authoritative than other sources. However, since the source from which the concepts were derived would be inerrant, as is not the case with any other human writing, scripture would thus have a greater degree of authority than any other human text.

This view of scripture is far more palatable than the belief that scripture is the divine word of God and inerrant. To say that scripture is written through human authors helps to explain why scripture would shift alongside human anthropological and literary trends. Moreover, having human authors who may err occasionally would help provide a justification for why inconsistencies within the Bible continue to exist.

However, those arguing that scripture is divinely inspired again run into the epistemic issue which faces the inerrant school of thought. Whilst perhaps there is very little active evidence against scripture being divinely inspired, there is similarly practically no evidence to believe that it is. All of the main epistemic theories, from Popperian falsification to rationalism to empiricism, fail to provide a solid reason to believe that scripture itself should have authority. As is the case with evangelical views on scripture, the supposed evidence justifying scripture’s legitimacy tend to derive from scripture itself or institutions whose authority is based on scripture. The Catholic Church is an example of a major institution promoting this revelatory account of scripture. Due to this need for scripture to justify its own authority, divine inspiration is prone to the same issue of cyclical evidence which plagues the inerrant scripture school of thought. Therefore, the propositional claim that scripture should derive its authority from the proposition that it is inspired by the divine is ultimately based on limited epistemological basis and thus does not provide any concrete authoritative reason to believe in scripture.

IV The Ability of Scripture to Benefit Individuals

The two claims above for why scripture has authority are the claims generally embraced by the different denominations of organised Christianity. They are factual, propositional, and objective claims about the manner in which scripture was written, and therefore rely on the epistemological validity of their premises to warrant belief. To some, the uncertainty this essay highlights regarding the validity of their premises would mean that religion has nearly no authority at all. After all, if one cannot prove the propositions that religion lays out, surely it should not be able to claim to have authority.

This essay posits, however, that scripture does indeed have a right to exert authority over an individual. The just type of authority which it exerts, however, is substantially different from the type of authority described in the previous two examples. The basis for the authority of scripture is not propositional evidence but rather the effect scripture can circumstantially have upon the individual.

To have authority, in a religious sphere, is to have the moral right to control and affect the thought of those for whom authority would apply. This essay will argue that scripture can fulfil this criterion not because the propositions within it are epistemically valid and objectively demand the truth but instead because, if it is allowed to control thought, it can in many instances be strongly beneficial for those to whom it applies. This benefit occurs in two forms, the first of which is that scripture can maximise utility for those who believe in it which can be considered an intrinsic good. There are a plethora of ways in which scripture can provide utility for a believer, however this essay will only outline two.

For many readers scripture can lead to profound happiness when being read. Its power is not simply on a mundane hedonistic level. Scripture can engage with a higher faculty of human consciousness. The pleasure which reading it provides is extremely profound and would be in qualitative utilitarian framework such as that proposed by Mill be considered a ‘higher pleasure’. This higher pleasure would give scripture authority in a manner similar to how we consider some other great works of literature, such as Shakespeare or Dickens to be authoritative. However, scripture transcends such works. Unlike most other literary works, scripture additionally creates a community and way of thinking which can fundamentally alter believers’ lives. Scripture provides the ability to be a part of a religious community, whose purpose is to deify and worship this scripture. Whilst the act of worshipping this scripture is not generally based on reason, it can develop a sense of community and solidarity leading to meaningful contentment. In cases where this fulfilment does not harm others, the utility-maximising effect scripture has can thus be considered an intrinsic good, and therefore provide a moral justification for it to control people.

The second way in which scripture can be considered to have moral authority is how scripture can, in many instances, promote virtue within an individual in a manner similar to the Aristotelian view of morality. Believers often look to scripture and ultimately use it as a set of principles used to govern their lives. Believers can, for instance, look at scripture and extract from it many key principles, such as the Golden Rule, which make them more virtuous. In cases where the influence of scripture ultimately does cultivate virtue within an individual, the effect which this cultivation has can be considered morally just. It is an oversimplification to think that this will always happen. In many cases scripture has the opposite effect, promoting unvirtuous beliefs such as intolerance or hate. However, the ability scripture has, when influencing individual thought, to cultivate virtue and morality ultimately provides a justified moral authority, contingent upon scripture actually cultivating morality.

V Conclusion

Thus, this essay concludes that there is little reason to think that scripture justly derives its authority from the divine. The two premises that scripture has authority due to being the direct word of God or due to being inspired by God simply have too little epistemic certainty to warrant authority. Scripture does, however, have just authority to control and inspire individual thought for two reasons. Firstly in many cases it derives authority from the principle of utility, as Scripture has the ability to provide higher pleasures and profound, lingering contentment. Secondly, religion can justly derive authority from its ability to cultivate virtue within individuals. Both of these mean that, whilst scripture may not have universal authority, it can justly have a great deal of authority in a range of circumstances. This does not mean that religions should stop using one of the two divine sources to justify scripture. To do so would be to eliminate the benefits of cultivation and utility, as they are contingent upon the belief of one of the first two sources of authority. However, it is reasonably the good which scripture can cause which gives it its authority.


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