Biblical Authority in Light of Decolonial Concerns

Recent years have seen a sharp increase in anti-racist and decolonial commitments among American churches and other Christian communities. In the midst of social protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and #LandBack, which have forced the broader public to grapple with the nation’s deeply entrenched legacy of violence against Indigenous peoples, descendants of slaves, and other minoritized groups, churches, too, are beginning to confront the ways in which their own institutional histories reveal their failure to embody Good News for the oppressed and dispossessed. To a large extent, this institutional self-reflection has been spurred by individual Christians who find themselves in an ambiguous position of ideological tension. Given the deep entanglement of Western colonial violence and institutional Christianity, many now wonder whether living in compassionate solidarity with the marginalized requires them to disavow the religious affiliations and communities which have long provided them with a sense of meaning, stability, and hope.

While this has led some Christians to become disenchanted with the church, their faith, and religion more broadly, still many others regard this ethical prompting to solidarity with the marginalized as an integral component of their evangelical commitment to the “least of these” (Matt. 25:40). Accordingly, many are turning to their faith communities for guidance and support in navigating anti-racist and decolonial action and reflection, spurring the proliferation of anti-racist initiatives, land acknowledgments, social justice oriented small groups, and other similar ministries.

Looming in the background of such undertakings is the textual legacy of the Bible itself. Many Christians struggle with how to make sense of biblical passages such as Deuteronomy 20:16-18, in which God commands the complete destruction of several people groups, including the Canaanites, who inhabited the Promised Land prior to Israel’s arrival. Additional biblical polemics against the Canaanites and other contemporaries of ancient Israel such as the Moabites, Edomites, and Ammonites raise similar concerns. In light of such passages, a pressing question naturally arises, particularly among those Christians with an elevated regard for scriptural authority: is it possible for Christian commitment to the Bible as the Word of God to coincide with lived solidarity with the victims of western colonialism and imperialism?

What, exactly, is Holy Scripture?

Answering this question requires us to think seriously and deeply about what we mean when we refer to the Bible as God’s word. For many, even the phrasing of this charge will elicit skepticism. Scripture, for many Christians, is not something to be questioned or relativized. To say that it is God’s Word is, quite clearly, to say that it has been spoken to us by God for our instruction, edification, and acceptance. To let go of this, many fear, would be to dangerously unravel our entire basis for knowledge of God in the first place and so to let go of Christian faith and hope.

Yet, my suggestion is not that we as Christians qualify our conviction that God has revealed himself to humanity in the words of the Bible. Rather, it is my supreme confidence in the revelatory value of scripture that compels me to acknowledge the transcendent superiority of the One who lies beyond it. That is, to profess that God is revealed in the Bible—that in the words and lives of ancient peoples, prophets, and apostles the one in whom we “live and move and have our being”[1] chooses to make himself known—is also to confess that God is not wholly contained or constrained by it.

Underlying this acknowledgment is a recognition of what Swiss theologian Karl Barth (building upon the observation of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) called the “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and humanity.[2] As wholly dependent and finite creatures, we are fundamentally unable to conceive of or orient ourselves toward God without him first revealing himself graciously to us. We who stand in history cannot somehow reach outside of it to the One who ordains and stands sovereign over it. For Barth, whatever we can hope to say about God must be a witness to God’s revelation of himself, or else it is not speech about God, but rather a projection of our own selves. For Barth, either we know God in his self-revelation or we do not know God at all.
              At first, it may seem less than obvious how this complicates the issue of scriptural authority. If the Bible is God’s word, if he has revealed himself in scripture, then what is so consequential about drawing a distinction between the record of God contained in the biblical text and God himself? The key point here is that all the stuff of earthly existence upon which the Bible depends—names, places, cultures, practices, memories, even language itself—is, for Barth, fundamentally and thoroughly human. Whatever our theory of scriptural inspiration, all humanly comprehensible words and ideas fall short of capturing the ultimate reality of the divine. That God stoops down to our level, so to speak, to make himself known in the context of our limited experiential and linguistic frameworks is nothing less than an act of miraculous grace. Such grace, for Barth, is a corollary of God’s ultimate choice to be “for us” in the incarnation—his self-giving entrance into the world of sin and death in the human person of Jesus Christ.

Scripture, then, is not God. That is, the Bible as the word of God cannot be exactly equated with the Word of God in Jesus Christ. Yet, as a site of self-revelation and a record of God’s working in and through history, scripture becomes what Barth calls a “witness to divine revelation.”[3] Thus, it possesses a certain “both-and” quality. It is both that through which God, who is sovereign over history, mediates knowledge of himself to us and a historical artifact. It is both a human record of Israel’s experience as the people of YHWH in time and the timeless site of ongoing divine self-revelation.

I want to suggest that it is this “both-and” nature of scripture that is helpful for thinking about its authority and value in view of passages that seem to undermine the Bible’s compatibility with contemporary anti-racist and decolonial efforts.

Seeing in a Mirror, Dimly

              Applying this both-and tension raised by Barth’s characterization of scripture as a witness of revelation, we find that scripture (much like Barth’s characterization of the cross) is revelatory in two ways: First, God reveals Godself to us in scripture. Second, scripture reveals us to ourselves. As we discern God through the written memories and reflections of his people in history— who in turn found themselves encountered by God in the midst of all the very human realities of their historical existence—we confront there also all the contours of that existence. Thus, to see the grace of God we must look directly into the dark realities of the sinful and fallible world into which he has entered for our sake.

              Does this recognition make passages in which God appears to demand extermination any more palatable? Certainly (and hopefully) not. It is not my aim here to simply dismiss everything unsavory in the bible as the invention of fallible humanity while holding up everything beautiful and inspiring as the true revelation of the divine. Not only would this be too simple of a solution, but it fails to take seriously the realities of the very real experiences of violence and horror that are both recorded in and perpetuated by the biblical text. On one hand, I take comfort in realizing that inasmuch as the biblical text shows us that we cannot escape ourselves, the complex and (often unsettling) conditions of God’s self-revelation in scripture show that God also does not abandon us to ourselves. On the other hand, I recognize that many of the texts I consider sacred are undeniably texts of terror undergirded by divinely sanctioned ideologies of domination.

              So then, to look at scripture in this both-and light is neither about ignoring its difficult contents or legacy nor disavowing the God who reveals himself therein, rather it is about allowing the Bible to speak to us (and hold us to account) in many ways at once. Keeping in mind also that God transcends both our experience of him and any witness to that experience, reminds us that God may choose to reveal himself through scripture in ways that go beyond a plain reading of the words on the page. If we profess that it is God who confronts us as we read the Bible, we may also profess that it is God who confronts us with discomfort, horror, and sorrow when we read passages that conflict with the love we associate with him. It is God who stokes our curiosity, prompting us to wonder about the identities of the peoples slandered and forgotten in the biblical record and urging us to reclaim and honor their memories. Thus, remembering that God is not imprisoned by scripture but reveals himself there freely, allows us to see that God not only speaks in scripture (as if to no one), but that God speaks to us in scripture, through every moment and facet of our engagement and comprehension.

              Viewed in this light, the ambiguity of scripture need not undermine its value as a revelation. We may trust that, in it, God speaks authoritatively—that in grappling with it, we grapple with him—even as the truth we see there we glimpse as in a mirror dimly[4], grasping him through the messy and limited confines of our own nature and condition. It is the grappling to which we are called, the grappling in which God reveals himself personally to each of us and prompts us to the work of justice in history: reclaiming and honoring the humanity of and memory of all people, past and present.

[1] Acts 17:28

[2] (RII, p. 332)

[3] (CD I/2, p. 457)

[4] 1 Cor. 13:12

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