The Department of Water Resources representative told an old rancher, "I need to inspect your ranch for your water allocation." "Okay,” replied the old boy, “but don't go in that field over there."
"See this card?” The water representative shot back. “It means I have the authority of the Federal Government with me. This card says I am allowed to go wherever I wish on any agricultural land. Do you understand?"
The rancher nodded politely and went about his chores.
A few minutes later, he heard terrified screams and saw the government man running for his life. Close behind was the rancher's bull, gaining with every step. The rancher immediately threw down his tools, ran to the fence and yelled at the top of his lungs . . . "Your card! Show him your card!"
The water representative’s authority was “card authority,” we may say—the kind someone has merely because of their position or power to force compliance. If you’ve worked for an incompetent, tyrannical boss or cowed before the neighborhood bully, you know what I mean. You don’t trust and respect their judgment and therefore want to follow what they say; you obey solely because of the position or power they represent—their card. And if you can avoid compliance—if you’re a bull, for example—you will.
Some people assume that all authority is “card authority,” a kind of imposition or restriction, something to be escaped if at all possible. It’s certainly common to think this way about the Bible, which claims to be given by God as our supremely authoritative guide to life.
Is It Reasonable to Base My Life on a 3500-Year-Old Book?
How could it be reasonable to base my life on an ancient book (the Bible was written between 2000 and 3500 years ago)? Indeed, how could it be reasonable to base my life on any book? I should think for myself. To live by someone else’s instructions is to surrender my own mind and personality. That approach produces mindless drones, cultists and terrorists.
Yet for two millennia, followers of Jesus from every culture and language have followed the Bible as their authority, from simple folks to some of history’s most influential scholars and intellectuals, from poor people with no political power to those in positions of great influence. And the world is radically different as a result.
Many of the most important things we enjoy, such as public hospitals, public education, charities for the poor, freedom for slaves, and laws based on equal human dignity and universal human rights, did not exist in the ancient world. There was no religious or philosophical basis for even imagining them. They were created by people whose vision and values—whose worldview—was fundamentally shaped by the Bible.
Despite its origin in the ancient world, and although it has been banned, opposed, and censored more than any other historical text, the Bible is still the world’s best-seller. Its influence on the world is wholly without peer.
Perhaps a book with these credentials is worth following. But, the question lingers, wouldn’t that be irrational, oppressive and even dangerous?
Actually, no. These concerns are well-intentioned, but they rest on some basic confusions about the nature of authority and what it means to follow the authority of the Bible. When these are properly understood, I am convinced, the most reasonable way for any of us to live is to follow the Bible as our authority.
In a short series of blogs, I’ll defend that claim by disentangling some of the confusions. In the remainder of this blog, I offer a few more words of introduction.
Let’s follow some familiar words of Jesus as our starting point. Matthew 7:24-28 concludes one of literature’s most famous and influential passages, Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (a teaching he presented on a hillside, not a horse). In this “sermon,” Jesus describes what human flourishing looks like in a number of areas of life, and he finishes with these words (followed by the gospel writer’s comment):
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
Notice that what Jesus is talking about is both very practical and very significant. It’s about how to live a meaningful, flourishing life, how to live in a way that matters and can withstand the difficulties and pressures that come one’s way.
As he often did, Jesus illustrates with a story. He compares building one’s life to building a house, using imagery that resonated strongly with the folks he’s talking to. The landscape in Palestine is full of rocks and sand, and they’ve seen flash floods wash away houses not built on a firm foundation.
(I first put together some of these thoughts for a talk I gave in Boulder, Colorado, on September 1, 2013, where I noted that Boulderites were similarly familiar with flash floods. What I didn’t know, of course, was that a few days later, September 9, would bring them the worst flood in 100 years.)
So Jesus describes two houses: one built on a rock, one built on sand. Consider how would one know the difference between them. From the outside, the two houses may look identical; the house built on sand may even appear stronger. The crucial test is when winds and floods come, when things go bad. One house will stand; the other will fall apart.
Jesus’ point is that this is also true for how we build our lives—whether they end up as strong and flourishing, or fall apart under pressure. The difference, he says, is their foundation; and that is determined by whether we listen to his words and put them into practice. That is, by whether we follow what Jesus has to say as our authority.
According to the text, the audience got the point about authority. It says they were amazed that Jesus taught with authority, unlike the other rabbis, the religious leaders they were used to hearing. The standard rabbinical approach was to appeal to other rabbis. As standard academic types (I speak from personal experience here) they would say: “On the one hand, Rabbi X, says this, but on the other hand, Rabbi Y says this. Alternatively, Rabbi Z says ...”
Jesus was different. Not only did he refer to his own words as authoritative, which is striking enough. But also, Jesus seemed uniquely to know what he was talking about. When he spoke about God and humans and about how to live a life with a firm foundation, Jesus seemed to have special knowledge. He was a true authority.
These features of Jesus and his teaching provide an important basis for reflecting on the nature of authority, the authority of the Bible, and what difference all of this makes—matters we will explore in subsequent posts.