Authoritative, but How?

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Students of Christian ethics and of the Christian life may differ widely in the ways they use the Bible and in their interpretation of how it is authoritative, but they generally agree that it is authoritative. Some scholars and Christians in general would cite particular laws or specific rules as authoritative in the Christian life. Those who take this position turn to the commandments of the Bible which they claim are found in both Testaments.

There are others who place the emphasis on the principles or ideals of the Bible instead of on laws and specific precepts. Those who take this approach do not necessarily turn to the Bible for specific answers for every question or as a solution to every problem. They suggest that more important than the commandments are the principles or ideals that may be expressed through the commandments or may be the source of the commandments. Also, some would say that more important than any specific principle is the spirit or attitude revealed by and through the ideal.

T. B. Maston, Both-And: A Maston Reader, Selected Readings from the Writings of T. B. Maston

If you want to be charitable in debates with fellow Christians regarding differences in Scriptural interpretation, keep in mind Maston’s distinction between how and is. Most Christians agree that the Scripture is authoritative. Disagreements arise from how.

The quotation I’ve selected names two ways Maston saw Christians approaching biblical interpretation. The first is law or precept. The second is principle and ideal. The third, which Maston names later, is relationship. And of course, Maston argues that interpretation should not be confined by only one of these approaches, but should enfold them all.

Maston writes, “A strict choice does not have to be made between law, principle, and relationship…It is a question of emphasis or primary concern.” For Maston, it is always a “both-and,” with weight distributed based on the needs of the case.

That’s fine, in so far as it goes. But then it is still a question of how one interprets and applies the Scriptures, because while you may factor more than one approach in deriving at an answer, you are still privileging one approach over another.

The categories may remain helpful, at least in how you listen to your conversation partners. Knowing how others approach the Scripture can help you to trace the source of your differences, not necessarily in the substance of the text itself, but in the disposition towards it.