Moberly on the relationship of faith and the authority of Scripture

In his recent book, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith, the renowned biblical scholar, Walter Moberly, explores questions of the Bible’s continued relevance in the modern world.

Part of what Moberly takes to task is the notion that biblical authority must stem in some way from its historical reliability, noting that this is a thoroughly modern idea, and pushing back on it in a number of different ways. One of the more intriguing arguments in the book has to do with the relationship of faith and trust in the authority of Scripture. Moberly raises this point by pointing to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John. ‘Jesus says that there is a test of his claim that his teaching is from God’, Moberly writes (136). Emphasising Jesus’ humanity, Moberly says that Jesus is not just ‘a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy’, but that he uses his own words; it is instead that ‘the origin of what is his is, in reality, God’ (136). The question, then, according to Moberly, is ‘how…might one be able in principle appropriately to recognise human words as not merely human but also as in some way authentically from God?’ (136) He continues:

The criterion for grasping that the true origin of Jesus’ words is God is clear: it is that one must resolve to do the will of God. What does that mean? …The key point is that a certain kind of knowledge – that particular human words genuinely originate with God – is inseparable from a certain kind of personal responsiveness. The knowledge that is envisaged is participatory. Unless heart and mind have a certain openness towards that which Jesus says and does, the issue of divine origin can only be a matter of mere words, a contestable and unverifiable claim. Whether faith comes in a flash or is a slow and possibly hesitant process does not affect the point that without at least some degree of participatory faith, any possible divine reality in Jesus remains beyond human perception. There is an empirical dimension to faith, but it is the empiricism not of the natural sciences but of the existential engagement of a person with dimensions of reality that can easily remain opaque to the unresponsive (139).

Moberly makes a big deal of plausibility structures in the book, arguing that one of the ways people become open to the possibility of Scripture’s authority is by encountering a community of people who have accepted and live by that authority. The argument is similar here – that one of the ways to test the authority of the words of Jesus is to live as if his words are true, to ‘be led on to dare to believe that which…others believe, that in and through the biblical portrayal of the person, teaching, and works of Jesus (in his life, death and resurrection), the reality of the living God is encountered’ (139). As John Calvin says, ‘All true knowledge of God stems from obedience’ (Institutes, 1.6.2).

In other words, try it on for size. You may be surprised what you find.


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