2020-09-13

How Believers Rationalise Biblical Authority

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by Neil Godfrey

The following is from How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism by Brian Malley.

Now it is a curious situation when an unclear idea has clear consequences. — Malley, 136

Evangelicals (or fundamentalists) believe that the Bible is authoritative and declare that the reason it is authoritative is that it is the “word of God” or “inspired by God”.

Uncertainty about the idea of inspiration

However, as Malley demonstrates, the same believers in biblical authority do not know exactly how inspiration worked. Evangelicals uniformly believe in the doctrine of biblical inspiration but disagree about the meaning of inspiration: Is the Bible inerrant in all matters or only in spiritual matters? When asked, evangelicals are “quite vague about the process” of inspiration.

That the Bible is inspired is generally found in statements of faith but it is rarely discussed in Bible studies or sermons. When asked about the meaning or process of inspiration, believers will respond with phrases like the Bible’s authors were “mentally stimulated through a spiritual force”, that God had the writers “attuned” or that “God guided their thoughts” or “impressed their minds.”

When I pressed for further details, most informants said that they did not know. I eventually thought to ask a few informants whether it bothered them that they did not know, and, as one man told me, “Not really. I mean, I probably should find out, just so I would know what to tell people, but I’m not worried about it.”

It is important to note that my informants’ responses were quite variable in their wording. Apart from those few who used the words θεόπνευστος and “God-breathed,” they did not seem to be drawing their answers from any common source. And indeed this may be the case because, although there are frequent allusions to the doctrine of inspiration at Creekside Baptist, I never heard it explicitly discussed. (p. 134)

On the concept of Plenary Inspiration, the teaching that the whole of the Bible is inspired, most of Malley’s interviewees declared that the entire Bible is God-inspired. There was less agreement on whether the Bible was the only book inspired by God.

. . . some thought that there were degrees of inspiration, and that other texts might be inspired, but less so than the Bible; some thought that there were kinds of inspiration, and in this way differentiated between biblical and other inspired texts. All informants, however, agreed that the Bible is inspired differently than any other text. One of the most interesting notions came from a man who, in addition to differentiating the Bible with respect to extent of inspiration, also said, “Other texts might be inspired, but we know the Bible is inspired.”

Most fundamentalist and evangelical theologians will say that they believe in Verbal Inspiration, that the very words in the Bible are inspired. Most of those Malley surveyed ticked their agreement with the statement that “The words of the Bible are inspired.” Yet . . .

. . . in interviews, few of my informants expressed strong views on this, and several said that it did not make any practical difference whether the words or the ideas were inspired.

When pressed, some respondents were found to say that the original autographs were inspired but over time errors have crept in through translations and copying. They will insist that the details are unimportant and that despite some limited corruption the main ideas inspired by God have been preserved.

Certainty about the authority of the Bible

When informants said that they did not know exactly how inspiration worked, I followed up with questions about the implications of the doctrine: Does it entail that God is the author of the Bible? Does it entail that the Bible is true? Does it entail that the Bible is authoritative? Each of these questions received an unhesitating, confident yes from all interviewees. Whatever uncertainty they had about the nature of inspiration did not extend to its implications. (p. 136)

Evangelicals will say (Malley empirically demonstrates that they do) that because the Bible is inspired by God it is therefore authoritative. The doctrine of biblical authority is said to be “a consequence of its divine inspiration.”

The doctrine of inspiration is indeed often invoked as a justification and explanation of the authority that evangelicals attribute to the Bible.

Inspiration as rationalization

Here is the interesting observation of Malley:

Yet the relative certainty and uniformity of informants’ views of biblical authority suggests that it is in fact biblical authority that is primary, and that the doctrine of divine inspiration functions psychologically as a rationale for prior belief in the Bible’s authority.Psychologically, it is authority, not inspiration, that is the premise, and inspiration, not authority, that is the consequence.

In fact, practically speaking, there is no need for any theory of biblical authority. At the beginning of his argument for a postmodern theology of biblical authority, Darrell Jodock (1989, 5) writes:

A worked-out view [of biblical authority] is important in order to discern appropriate implications and explain them to others but is not required in order to make the Scriptures significant for Christian living. On the contrary, individuals or groups can experience the claim of the scriptural message without thinking through all the ramifications involved in their approach to the Bible; they need not, in this sense, possess any theory of biblical authority. If persons can find the Bible useful without having any theory of its authority, then surely agreement among Christians about a single theory is not necessary either.

Jodock’s observation is stated without evidence, but aptly synthesizes the results of my empirical work: the people of Creekside Baptist can and do “experience the claim of the scriptural message” without having a clear, well-developed, or uniform theory of biblical authority. They are able to do so because the practice of biblical authority turns on psychological mechanisms that are quite different from those involved in speculative theology. (136f. Bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)

I bypass in this post Malley’s anthropological analysis of the function and roles of biblical authority in the church communities and hew to the question of how this authority is rationalized.

Clearly “the practice of biblical authority invites the question, Why is the Bible authoritative? Why should this ancient text be regarded as so important? It does not demand that this question be answered, but it does create an interest in hearing what answers might be available. More precisely, it creates a situation in which justifications of biblical authority are relevant enough to be attended to and repeated. The doctrine of biblical inspiration is just such an answer. The average layperson does not know what it means, but is nonetheless very sure that, whatever it means, it explains the Bible’s authority: the Bible is authoritative because it is the inspired word of God. The implication is clearer than the premise because the premise came to be entertained precisely to provide an explanation for the “implied” belief. (p. 142)

Advantages of a mysterious explanation

A rationalist will object that a “mysterious answer” or explanation is not an explanation at all. But Malley suggests that practically the mysterious answer has three distinct advantages:

1. It defers the problem by one inferential step. Rather than having the mystery rest on the doorstep of an institutionally foundational belief, it is moved at least as far as the front sidewalk. As I pointed out above, the doctrine of biblical inspiration is seldom discussed at Creekside Baptist, and people are free to get on with using the Bible as an authority without immediately confronting the mysterious nature of that authority.

2. It changes the critical term. The question “Why is the Bible authoritative?” focuses attention on the Bible: What about the Bible makes it authoritative? A direct answer to this question must turn on distinctive and relevant features of the Bible, and this list—probably quite short—would have to justify adequately all community uses of the Bible. But if one says that the Bible is authoritative because God inspired its human authors to write his message for humanity, attention focuses on the term inspire, which can be left mysterious without threat to the community, and which, precisely because of its vagueness, can justify many different uses of the Bible.

3. Finally, it distances the problem. Rather than explaining present biblical authority by reference to the changeable present, the justification is pushed into a closed and inaccessible past: it is simply impossible now to know how inspiration might have taken place, and its location in the past makes any expectation that one should be able to know unreasonable.

In brief, the doctrine of biblical inspiration is nearly an ideal rationalization, socially and psychologically speaking, for biblical authority.(p. 142f)

Another benefit Malley observes is that the doctrine of divine inspiration

helps to raise expectations of the text’s relevance and suggests that God may be particularly likely to speak through this very special work. These expectations do not, strictly speaking, depend on the doctrine of inspiration, but they resonate with it and give it additional relevance. (p. 143)

All of the above gels with my own experience. After I had left the teachings of an authoritarian fundamentalist church and turned back to mainstream congregations, I was discussing my experiences and spiritual journey with a Baptist minister and declared to him my absolute conviction that even if I was uncertain about the “truth” of all church doctrines, I knew one thing with unshakeable conviction: that the Bible was true, the authority! That belief, I emphatically stated, was absolute. No question! (But I did keep asking questions and exploring and that unshakeable conviction was happily shaken enough to fracture and finally vanish entirely. Belief in divine inspiration of the Bible was no longer tenable when I came to discern the fallibility of the “good book”.)


Malley, Brian. 2004. How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism. New York: Altamira Press.


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “How Believers Rationalise Biblical Authority”

  1. Thanks Neil for this brief and helpful essay on so called “biblical” authority.
    Those looking for a good book in this field as well is an older work by the late and great OT scholar Robert P Carroll. All of his works are super insightful. I recall it was called -Wolf in the Sheepfold or something like that.

    Back when I was a hermeneutics professor I used Clark Pinnock’s book The Scripture Principle… Pinnock spends a lot of time dealing with this question and started to get in trouble shortly after he wrote that book. So did I , for using it in my classes.

    He points out though in an infamous line as I recall , that Evangelicals don’t really like the Bible that has come down to them the way it is, and so they constantly feel the need to change much of it for their own purposes. Furthermore, rather than reading its actual lines, they read between the lines to rationalize the things that bother them in the texts or the things they want to fight for in it.

    Interestingly, when I question people’s reading of the Bible they think I am attacking the Bible itself, and that I don’t love the Bible. I tell them I do love it but for different reasons than them. Plus I tell them that I am not questioning the text per se necessarily but the ” authority” attributed to a given text. I don’t get into arguments over “inspiration” . I usually try to understand “what kind of authority” the readers are referring to in the text and how does that “authority” work practically for life and education and knowing the world.

    I look forward to getting the book sometime. Sound fascinating.

    Thanks again Neil.
    Stay well and safe. I am doing okay. Hope you are as well.

  2. One major issue is the lack of uniformity among the authors in the “Bible”, i.e. that believers read only their translated versions and don’t realize when a writer refers to “God” (in English) in their “Bible”, it may be a reference to a deity totally different from another writer’s “God” in the same “Bible”, as well as from the “God” he or she has in mind wwhom
    they believe to have “inspired” that anthology called “Bible”.

  3. Ah yes, the matter of inspiration. Now that’s a very sensitive area and we will step on toes here, but that’s OK as many Christians have steel tipped shoes, while some have blisters and will definitely let out a cry or a whimper. Coming to a realistic view on inspiration was a huge milestone in my journey. Originally I held that the Bible IS the word of God (1974), then that it CONTAINS the word of God (1994) then that the Bible is words ABOUT God (2010) and now that the Bible is a relic of PROPAGANDA.
    .
    Martin it’s difficult to identify with you in “loving” the Bible. I know that is a loaded term. I am fascinated by it as it has been a pillar in my former Christian conversion and so is full of the spiritual experiences I may share with you, but as it has been used by the powers of empire and religious institutions to control, exploit and mislead many, there is a certain stigma attached. I just love people whether Christian or atheist and I am respectful of our common need for meaning, purpose and forgiveness which is promised by the belief in the inspiration of Scripture : as a perfect and innerant guide to life.

    1. I like your comments Peter. As far as loving the Bible. I mentioned I had reasons for “loving” it.. I mean I am extremely interested in it and the way it works. I have invested money and time and guts in studying it seriously for close to five decades. I know it has caused harm, no matter how it has been interpreted but the better we understand it in its own context and circumstances the better we may be able to avoid the claims made about by others, including agnostics and atheists, and whoever.

      FYI I am very firm on believing that not one word of it was written to us today. It was written to continue the traditions and texts of Israel and essentially to them and for them, not for anyone today. It holds no authority for me. I am not its contextual recipient despite many of the worthless and silly attempts to apply it to people today.

      A “responsible use” of the Bible today is quite problematic, not many how many hermeneutic and homiletic courses one has under one’s belt. The infighting caused by hermeneutics among the faithful in the Bible itself is what I find interesting and relevant perhaps to address aspects of religion and life today and for goodness sake it is a very human anthology as my former professor Dr. Thomas Thompson used to say . So “love” is a loaded term and I don’t love how people have used the Bible for their own agendas. It is a collection of books that I simply find downright and damned “interesting” so I made a career as a scholar and pastor getting to know as best as I can. I find it has wisdom as well and its human touches are quite relevant to me at times too.

      I also don’t take the term “unbeliever” as a synonym or indication of it meaning “atheist” in the NT. There are no atheists in the Bible as far as I can tell. They were all “theists” of some sort.. Jews fighting with others over whether or not they got the latest and truest “revelations” from texts or from claims that God or Jesus or the Spirit was at work. No one has to believe the Bible or obey it or even study it. It depends on your motives and agendas for using it or getting into it.

      I don’t “believe” or “obey” ancient texts simply because they are old and claim to have been written by some alleged messenger from some god. So when people try to pawn off the Bible on me I simply ask why it makes any difference whether I believe it or not and why should I care they don’t usually give a satisfying response or answer.

      Btw , at Marquette Univ. when I was working on my diss. I took up the task of finding out how Christianity stayed alive and functioned without a “Bible” until the 4th century…under Dr. Julian Hills (my doc advisor). They had “scriptures” no doubt but surely nothing like we have today. Long ago Francis Schaeffer raised the question…how do you talk to the man on the street today without a Bible? And who couldn’t care less about the Bible , whether believer or not?

      Thanks again Peter for your comments.

  4. In my interactions with my Christian friends, I have found this also to be true. ‘Inspiration’ is certainly treated as a shield from addressing the problem of authority. However, I think to conclude that inspiration only has the utility of self-deception is not quite fair. In order to understand ‘inspiration’ more fully one also needs to look at how people form certain perceptions – they do so based on a type of empiricism. Many create patterns from coincidental stimuli – sort of like finding elephants in the clouds. Even superstitions form like this. They become convinced with the flimsiest correlating data that something is happening. Inspiration have you – it creates a confirmation loop.

    What is somewhat lacking is a critical loop – that in order to assess feedback and stimuli often people are not evaluating the data critically and instead choose to be blind to that parts that go against their ideas and selective ‘see’ the data that supports them.

    As a believer, who is not Christian, who holds the Bible with somewhat some level of respect, can see parts I can agree with and parts I suspect and details I can choose to incorporate in my belief and other parts I leave out. I am at liberty of doing that. I also believe much of this article is very specific to a sort of Christian and may not apply to all.

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