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Part 3: Challenges to biblical authority

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of five articles by David S. Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., on the authority of the Bible. The five articles were published as one article in the February 2008 issue of SBC Life, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention (www.sbclife.org).

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–Challenges to biblical authority often arise when we apply biblical teachings to our 21st century context. The question we bring to the Bible shifts from, “What did the Scripture mean to those to whom it was first given?” to “What does the Scripture mean to us?” The biblical context and our context are sometimes embedded in different cultures and worldviews. I. Howard Marshall asks, “How is meaning found when what is common sense in one culture is not common sense in another?”

Paul’s command to obey one’s master in all things (Colossians 3:22- 23) is addressed to a culture of involuntary slavery. Our economic system differs greatly from that world. Today, employees are often partners in their work with employers.

Does this kind of relationship call for loyalty or obedience? If we say that for today the biblical command means that we should give appropriate respect and loyalty to employers rather than unconditional obedience, are we diluting it or expressing the essential meaning in terms appropriate for contemporary working conditions? [3] Cultural differences challenge us to hear God’s Word clearly.

A missionary has related an account of telling the Joseph story (Genesis 37-50) to a group of Europeans and to a group of Third World people. The Europeans heard the story of Joseph as a man who remained faithful to God no matter what happened to him. The Third World group, on the other hand, pointed to Joseph as a man who, no matter how far he traveled, never forgot his family.

Different cultural backgrounds prompted each response. Can we say that one is more consistent with the authority of the biblical story? Is the other one incorrect? Is it possible that both are legitimate understandings? [4]

How can an ancient text speak to us authoritatively so that our own cultural, temporal and social meanings do not become dominant over the historical meaning of the Bible? Certainly, D. A. Carson is right when he says, “No human being living in time and speaking any language can ever be entirely culture-free about anything.” [5]

In line with our divine-human (Christological) understanding of Scripture, Harvie Conn has suggested six helpful clues on this subject. From the divine perspective, he offers three important guidelines:

1. The beginning point is a commitment to Scripture’s total truthfulness. The only proper control for our judgments remains the primary historical meaning of the biblical text.

2. The cultural patterns of the biblical time period do not simply provide God with sermon illustrations. That culture becomes the providentially controlled matrix from which His revelation comes to us (for example, Exodus 3:12; Luke 22:19-20). That context is the place from which the history of God’s unfolding special revelation has been manifested. From that cultural particularity come the universals that link the faith of the biblical characters to ours.

3. The Holy Spirit, who brought the first horizon of the text into being (2 Peter 1:20-21), must open our hearts and illumine our minds to open the biblical text for our world. The Spirit does not become some mechanical or magical answering service. Nor does the Spirit become an intermediary between God and us; He is God who addresses us.

Conn also provides three helpful insights from the human perspective:

1. A distancing must take place before we can hear the ancient biblical text for our day. This might sound like just the opposite thing we want to accomplish. But many biblical stories (such as the parables of the prodigal son [Luke 15] or the repentant publican [Luke 18]) need to be distanced from our setting so the parables’ “punch lines” can be heard.

2. Our presuppositions and worldview must be reshaped by the Bible. Our values and perspectives must become more and more what God wants them to be. Our vantage point must be shaped by creation, the fall, redemption and consummation. In this sense, our cultural and temporal distinctions can become a help, not a hindrance, to understanding and responding to the biblical message.

3. Holy Scripture is presented in cultural forms that are different from ours. These cultural forms often need to be restated and translated for our day to speak to matters of our day. [6]

We can maintain our confession of biblical authority, recognizing the divine-human aspects of the nature of Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture. The Bible’s truth is untainted by either the culture from which it comes to us or the culture to which it goes. The message of Scripture uses various cultures while simultaneously and authoritatively standing in judgment over them.
David S. Dockery is president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.


[3] I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1982), p. 105.
[4] Harvie M. Conn, “Normativity, Relevance and Relativism,” Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, ed. Harvie M. Conn (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988), pp.186-89 and Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 58-60.
[5] D. A. Carson, Biblical Interpretation and the Church: The Problem of Contextualization (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), p. 19.
[6] Conn, “Normativity, Relevance and Relativism,” pp. 197-209.

    About the Author

  • David S. Dockery