All Christians share the belief that the Bible is divinely inspired. We all turn to it to be challenged and inspired by it, and to expose ourselves to the divine perspective. For the church the Bible is normative. That is to say, the church places itself under the authority of scripture. But what sort of authority are we talking about? And how does the biblical authority impinge on our life?
In 21st century North America, we live worlds and ages removed from the time when the biblical writers addressed very specific problems and questions of their own day and within the setting of their own culture. When we discover that whenever God speaks God addresses a particular historical situation, we experience that as a stumbling block. One Old Testament professor from Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod used to call it "the scandal of particularity."
It will not do for us to try to "play first century," as Krister Stendahl put it. It would be futile to think that we can transport ourselves back in time by some twenty centuries or more, and pretend that the world has remained static throughout all of those ages. Not only do we speak a different language, we also follow different cultural conventions, and we espouse different social values.
When we have reasonably well established what a given Bible passage may have said to the people to whom it was first addressed, our task of interpreting the text is not finished. A major step remains to be completed. We now need to determine what that text has to say to us.
In order to do that responsibly, we must reflect carefully about the nature and purpose of the Bible, about revelation and inspiration, about law and gospel, about the purpose and authority of scripture. What does it mean to confess that scripture is inspired and the only norm for faith and life?
When we come face to face with a particularly vexing problem, we often discover that what we had thought were closed questions need to be reopened. We all believe that scripture is the norm for faith and life, but we do not all understand that concept in the same way.
In his characteristically quaint way, Luther likened the Bible to the cradle in which we find the Christ. We have deep respect for the Bible as the vehicle in which we find the Christ. But we do not worship the cradle. To do so would be "bibliolatry," another form of idolatry.
Luther cautioned his contemporaries not to make Christ into a new Moses, and not to make the gospel into a new law. In this admonition Luther echoes the words of Paul himself. "Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified"(Romans 10:4). However it must be acknowledged that even within Lutheranism, there is no total consensus on what that may mean in practice.
The use of the Bible to address moral questions is far from an easy task. In his New Testament Ethics, Richard Hays reports about a conference held at Duke University in the Spring of 1995, at which some of the leading Christian ethicists tried to achieve a consensus about how the Bible functions in the life of the church when ethical issues are being discussed. Hays himself came away disillusioned. A consensus had not been achieved. Equally competent scholars had recently published impressive works in the area of biblical ethics, but their approaches and their methodologies differed so significantly that the scholars occasionally lapsed into acrimonious debate.
At the risk of oversimplification, basically two opposite views have commended themselves to honest and sincere students of the Bible. There are also various gradations between these two extremes.
At the one extreme, people think of the Bible as a collection of eternal truths which must forever remain inviolate. According to this view the Bible identifies moral absolutes. Because it tells us what is always right and what is always wrong, one can turn to the Bible in order to discover what is to be done under any given circumstance. The Bible is essentially a code of laws. Just do what it says!
At the other extreme, people contend that the Bible's main aim is to assure us that God loves us as we are, warts and all, and that God justifies sinners. It does not deal in moral absolutes at all. It does not tell us what is always right or wrong. It is not a law. The Bible is essentially the good news of God's grace. Just hear what it promises!
While most of us would probably not agree totally with either one, there is a great deal of truth in both of these positions. Probably we would want to say that the Bible is a record of how God dealt with various people under various circumstances over a long period of history. It documents God's steadfast love to a wayward people, and it calls upon those people to express their gratitude in worship of God and in service to the neighbour. The Bible challenges those people to maintain high standards of responsibility.
It is clear that the message of God's grace goes hand in hand with ethical exhortation. What is not so clear, however, is how one becomes attuned to the tenor of that exhortation and how one picks up its tune. What is the cantus firmus? Where is the melody? Most of us will probably find ourselves somewhere between the two extremes of "do what it says!" and "hear what it promises!"