Holy Scriptures II, by George HerbertOH that I knew how all thy lights combine, And the configurations of their glorie! Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine, But all the constellations of the storie. This verse marks that, and both do make a motion Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie: Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion, These three make up some Christians destinie: Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good, And comments on thee: for in ev’ry thing Thy words do finde me out, & parallels bring, And in another make me understood. Starres are poore books, & oftentimes do misse: This book of starres lights to eternall blisse.
In this poem Herbert implicitly compares the authority of stars – and their associated study – with that of scripture; and the stars don’t fare well. For him there is no doubt that holy scripture is the touchstone of life that ‘lights to eternall blisse’. Yet, this implicit trust in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible is not a given today even among Christians.
Where does the authority of any text come from? One response is likely to be the author (from Latin – auctor(author, founder, originator), auctoritat (power, decision)). If the author is an expert in the subject, uses reliable sources, writes truthfully, and has reputable colleagues, then people are likely to view the book as authoritative or at least willing to test it out. When George Herbert penned this poem his authority came from his life as a parish priest in Bemerton, his knowledge of the English language, and a degree from Cambridge – a combination of external and internal sources.
Questions about authority don’t often arise in relation to a poem – unless it has to do with whether or not the state author actually composed the poem. Yet, when we encounter something that is historical, scientific, or that may ask us take a position, there is a greater desire to understand the authority behind the text. Who should we trust? Political writings that skew statistics in order to denigrate the other side, memoirs that fictionalize a story presented as actually occurring, or historical writings and assumptions that are being constantly revised make us more wary of the trustworthiness of other writings.
The Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, Modern, and Post-Modern eras with the growth of scientific inquiry, industrial progress, historical research, and reliance on human reason has prompted many questions about the authority of once revered texts. Nothing is to be assumed or taken for granted. Does the essential meaning of a text come from the one who writes it or from the reader who is interpreting it? Does the one who puts pen to paper or fingers to keys really define the author of the text? Can a text claim to have authority any more as post-modern critical methods rip away the foundations of trust? What does it mean for something to be true?
The discipline of literary criticism has have been discussing the idea of textual authority for decades whether it’s Michel Foucault’s asking what is an author, Harold Bloom exploring the anxiety of influence, Stanley Fish wondering what makes a text, or Elaine Showalter looking at the authority of male versus female writings. These methods have bled into other disciplines. With its historical and cultural importance, the Bible has not been exempted from, and has often been at the center of this questioning.
In 1633 when Herbert penned this poem, questioning of the Bible’s authority had already started and has continued such that the introduction to his poems in one anthology asserts that people continue to study his poems even though the common belief in biblical authority is now gone. It can be easy to be swept up into the view of scripture as yet another text to question like all the others. That is, we must prove its authority through human reason. However, C. S. Lewis’ relationship with this book prompted him to write that “the Bible is fundamentally a sacred book, and demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms . . . Stripped . . . of its divine authority, stripped of its allegorical senses, denied a romantic welcome it cannot achieve its function.”
So, on what do we base the authority of scripture in this age and take it on its own terms as God’s Word – seeing in it all the “constellations of the storie”? This will be one of my explorations in the coming months.