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Authority in Scriptural Interpretation

Since I have taken on a pet peeve with the “rational”, let me raise one against people of faith.

In arguments of scriptural interpretation, it is all too convenient to claim the authority of God. This was certainly the case during the ministry of Jesus. It was a claim made by the Temple priests and the Pharisees. While Jesus offered parables of counsel to the learned, he also railed against their role in dividing the people from direct relation with God. In part, it was his effort to free the Hebrews from the mistaken “authority” of human consensus that led Jesus to the cross.

We should contrast this with the experiences described in Acts 3. The authority of Jesus is manifested in Peter through the miracle of healing. Peter attained this capacity, as recorded in Matthew 10, directly from Jesus himself. His understanding came through direct revelation. It is clear, in the intervening ages, that few of us attain that same capacity. We have been men teaching men, and something was lost in the transfer through the generations.

Now in Acts 3, the Pharisees and priests are afraid to take action against Peter because they see that the people are moved to God by the power of the grace that moves through Peter. This was proof of the authority of Peter’s understanding, despite that he was “unlearned” (Peter was qualified only by his relationship with Christ). So for those that would assert that any teaching is evil that contradicts theirs, I would counsel: “Take care! Unless you can do the things done by the Apostles in Acts, you cannot claim to have full understanding of the teachings brought by Christ.”

What would those teachings have concerned themselves with? Well, from the words of Jesus himself, it was no less than to participate in the administration of his rule over heaven and earth ([Matt. 28:18] and the Parable of the Talents [Matt. 25:14-30]). Obviously, the scope of Jesus’s concerns exceeds those of human perception, extending even to the angels. It was because of this greater scope of understanding that Jesus was able to explain much that was hidden in the Old Testament. These two things are thus indivisible: Jesus interpreted scripture correctly because and only because he was capable of doing the work. Those that would claim authority to judge the interpretation of others should therefore be modest in their proclamations unless they can claim to be completing the work that Christ left unfinished.

Or do you believe that it will be somehow different when he comes again? Will he truly have nothing new to add to human understanding?

Before you pass judgment on others or denounce them as evil, ask yourself: “Can I do the work described in Revelation?” If not, be humble in your speaking. In particular, do not call fear into the hearts of others with statements such as “Because your interpretation of scripture differs from mine, you are falling into darkness.” No mere human has the authority to render that judgment. Considering the Temple priests and Pharisees, we might hazard that neither does any group of people.

Tomorrow, then, let’s take another look at pronouncements of judgment in Revelation, trying to adopt not the human perspective, but the perspective of one ruling over both heaven and earth.

2 thoughts on “Authority in Scriptural Interpretation

  1. Amen to this post! Dirty little internet secret here, but some of my ugliest criticism actually comes from so called Christians who seem to believe they can “claim the authority of God,” when attacking me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s my own fault for getting into discussions in the first place, it’s just a fascinating phenomenon that I have taken note of. All in good humor here, but must everyone take it upon themselves to be a pharisee?

    • I understand the Bible as a history of social evolution from emotional to rational spirituality. Legalism is an important waypoint, in that no system of rules can be comprehensive, and so just trying to apply them forces us into ethical reasoning.

      Very few people make the journey to loving service in one lifetime – they become far too committed to a God that enables them to be right all the time. I’ve found that evidence and experience of healing is the best way to break down that obstacle. How did I put it once: Jesus did not convince people by reasoning with them, he gave them a problem too big for them to solve, and then the power to solve it. So I always try to ask “What about this problem over here? How do you see us solving that?”

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