Can it really be the case that Christians give too much authority to the Bible? George Austin takes issue with Canon Jonathan Draper’s recent lecture, in which he suggested that the Bible is just one of many resources for the faith

The retired clergy of the diocese of York meet three times a year for a lecture by a distinguished speaker – a category of which the city has no shortage. In November it was the turn of Canon Jonathan Draper, Canon Theologian at York Minster, who began by promising to disturb our retirement. He would, he warned, suggest that we’ve given the Bible too much authority and not allowed ourselves – and generations of Christians – to grow into any form of Christian faith.’

Use and misuse

He did just that, using 2 Tim. 3.16-4.4 in the NSRV translation as the basis, rejecting its claim that ‘all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’ Rejecting the idea that the Bible is inspired by God, it was, he said, a passage that contains all that is necessary to destroy Christian unity’

He went on to say that the verses later which claim that ‘the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine or teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths’ is one in which he ‘can hear preaching voice of Christians everywhere.’

I suspect on the contrary that many others, myself included, will find this an apt description of a Church which seems now to be bent on self-destruction. If the Bible is not ‘inspired by God’ then of course you can pick-and-mix, choosing the bits that fit in with your own lifestyle and discarding the rest. And to believe the Bible is ‘inspired by God’ is not to believe it was dictated by God, for of course its content is bound to be influenced by the culture and understanding of those who transcribed that ‘inspiration’ from God.

Used as a stick

Draper goes further: if indeed the Bible is used for the reproof and correction of others, it means that it is ‘often little more than a stick used to beat those with whom you disagree.’ He attended the 1998 Lambeth Conference, at which, in his view,
there was ‘a lamentable approach to the Bible’ and ‘no one paid any attention to meaning, context or interpretation.

He went on to add that nothing he had seen ‘in the public debates of our Anglican Primates, our own house of Bishops or anywhere else for that matter has shown any more intelligence in the use of the Bible, no matter how pious their posturing might be.’

Unfortunately for his argument, he used his own reductionist view as little more than a stick to beat those with whom he disagreed. These of course
included those with theological objections to the ordination of women (who, in his prejudiced reality, simply ‘think women ought to be subordinate to men in all things’), those who see certain kinds of homosexual behaviour as sinful, those who oppose abortion – in other words, anyone who rejects the liberal agenda on biblical grounds. Any intellectual attempt to examine the true basis for their views was abandoned before it began.

Scientific knowledge

Over the centuries, there has been great progress in understanding both the universe and the complexities of our human scientific make-up and sometimes these have seemed to clash with the Christian revelation. Yet even in the matter of creation the extraordinary fact is not that the Bible got it wrong because it was not, in Draper’s words, created the other day by God’, but that even without modern knowledge, Genesis had first the chaos, then the waters, the first animals in the waters and coming to the land, and so on until finally the first of the human beings.

And now we have DNA with ‘its understanding that every human being is made up of a combination of a mother and a father, and not of some unspecified thing called humanity. (But is he aware
that genetics suggest that all men are descended from a single male, Adam’, and a single female, ‘Eve’?) Are we, he asked, ‘prepared to jettison elements of our traditional understanding [of the origins of Jesus] in order to accommodate this new knowledge?’ Although he did not say so in as many words, this presumably means both his virgin birth and his divinity.

And if we do,’ he continued, ‘are we prepared for the ways that will knock-on into other bits of the Christian faith?’ Goodbye to the bodily resurrection, then? No more Christmas or Easter at York Minster?
In his view, Christians need to ‘sort out an approach to the Bible before it destroys the credibility of the Christian faith in the eyes of the world.’ What was it that St Paul said about not conforming to this world? Ah well, it’s only St Paul and it’s only the Bible.

‘No intrinsic authority’

When the Church talks of growing in faith, it is in Draper’s view in terms of ‘having less of a mind of your own and more of what is called the mind of Christ’ – that is to say, ‘being conformed to whatever line the Church is peddling.’ (The lecture was peppered with this kind of offensive sneer.) ‘Instead we must see the Bible as ‘one of the resources – I don’t even say sources – for the Christian faith, but not the only one.’ All our doctrinal formulations and ethical judgements are ‘revisable’.

Indeed, Draper believes we are kept in an ‘infantile state in our faith because we give the Bible too much authority’, so that God becomes little more than a judge, Christ little more than a sort of glorified barrister, and the Christian faith little more than a celestial Highway Code.

He summed it up in a telling phrase: ‘In some sense I’m arguing that the Bible has no intrinsic authority for the Christian, if we are thinking of authority as the sense of having the power to tell us what to believe. I believe the Bible has plenty of what we might call the authority of wisdom, of experience and of profound revelation, but no kind of power to tell us what to do or to believe. The Bible only has the authority we give it.’

If this is what our Church is becoming, what hope is there?