When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk to Jesus on the water, we can be certain that he rocked that boat.

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Biblical Authority

Many Christians feel they have to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach to the question of the authority of the Bible. Either it is the sacred word of God from end to end or it is not, and if it is, then what it says is not to be questioned. You can't pick and choose, I have often been told.

I find this a curious way of proceeding. That's not remotely how we treat any otherIsaiah Scroll book. More to the point, whatever such Christians say, no Christian - let me repeat that: no Christian - does actually treat the whole Bible as having equally sacred truth in all its parts. There are many parts of the Bible that no Christian now gives any weight to. Obvious examples include directives in Exodus about what is the right way to sell your daughter into slavery and long chapters in Leviticus on how to avoid the dreadful contamination conferred by contact with a menstruating woman.

Indeed, Christians consider themselves specifically exempt from observance of the mosaic law and therefore from taking whole chunks of the Old Testament with any seriousness. And they do it on good authority, for it was St Peter himself who established the principle that Christians can and should pick and choose. In those very first years after the crucifixion, the earliest Christian community took two enormous and fateful decisions: first, to free themselves from the Old Testament dietary laws which formed a central part of the religious life that they had grown up with, and second, to free themselves from the hitherto mandatory religious requirement for male circumcision. Picking and choosing, being sensibly critical and exercising reasoned discrimination in our treatment of the Biblical text, is right at the heart of Christianity and has been since its inception.

Distinguishing what is historically transient from what is eternally true is one of the key tasks of theology. The Bible is a fearsome mixture of the two and as such, in my view, a book the reading of which is fraught with problems. If you feel you are unable to label parts of the Bible as less inspired, less authoritative than others, if you insist that a certain text is an eternal truth when actually it has arisen out of the demands of its time and has no relevance today, then you are laying unnecessary, perhaps cruel burdens on those you seek to convince.

In my view the degree of inspiration to be found throughout the Bible is decidedly patchy. It contains some of the most sublime, soaring moral challenges and social visions of any book in history, yet it contains also much else of varying degrees of value, and it is a useless exercise to try and sell it as the uniformly inspired, take-it-or-leave-it word of God. We owe it to people of other faiths and of no faith to be as rigorously critical of the Bible as we would be, say, of the Quran or of any other book claiming such vast authority over its readers.

I am content to take the sublime high points of the Bible as my guide and acknowledge the vulnerability to criticism of the rest. Amongst the former I would include the passage in Leviticus that tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves; Jesus's insistence that we should even love our enemies, that we forgive till 70x7, that the father of the prodigal son is a vivid metaphor for the fatherhood of God; Paul's contention that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no Slave nor Free, no Male nor Female, that we are all one in Christ Jesus. This is not an exhaustive list, but we could contrast it with what I would class as lesser statements, such as Paul's stricture against women talking in Church (a curious falling off from the standard he sets himself in the statement quoted just previously), or the statement subordinating women to men in the book of Ephesians– I find it hugely unlikely that the difference between men and women is as great as that between Christ and his Church.

The Bible is not an exact symmetrical fit with the Word of God. As St John puts it in the first chapter of his gospel, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' So to equate the Bible exactly with the Word is a mistake. The Word is not confined to the Bible: the Word was co-existent with God before time began and is active and still speaking today in the hearts and minds of those with an ear to hear, long after the compilation of the Bible was complete. The God whom the Word continues to reveal is bigger and more surprising than we can ever imagine, and to hold the conviction that we have an unquestionable and accurate grasp of God's full nature and of His grand plan for mankind seems to me to be an extraordinary hubris. Doubt that we have got the picture right, the willingness to see today's certainties constantly overturned, seem to me to be the absolute first requirements of the true seeker.

In this belief I take strength from the current Archbishop of Canterbury's enthronement sermon in Canterbury cathedral. He recounted the story of Jesus walking on the water, of Peter's desire to do the same, his jumping out of the boat and so on, and he asked the question (paraphrased here), 'Why would anyone abandon a perfectly serviceable boat in order to do something as daft as walking on water?' Nevertheless, that's what we are constantly called to do: abandon perfectly serviceable, well-tried beliefs and doctrines for something as counter-intuitive as walking on water. This is the challenge. Let's have a look at someone who did just that.


© Hugh de Saram 2014;