Standing behind this issue - what is to become of the Church if we can't read the Bible the way we used to? - is the question of authority. Upon what authority do we rest our conviction that, in Jesus of Nazareth, we have a, perhaps the, unique manifestation of God, God's Will and intention for humanity, the expression of Divine Love and Grace, for all creation? If the Bible is no longer understood as "authoritative" in the sense it was 200, or 500, or 1500 years ago (which it clearly is not, nor should it be), upon what do we rest our insistence that we are followers in an unbroken line that stretches back to Roman Judea and Galilee?
I would suggest a partial way to begin to answer this question as follows: The Bible is authoritative - for all its flaws - first of all because it has been the collective decision of Christians down the ages to affirm that authority. This may seem either empty, or tautological, or both, but in fact it represents our (individual) assent to the (collective) agreement that we Christians, for all our myriad differences, rely upon a certain set of testimonies, not as the foundation of our belief, but as the authoritative guide for why we believe what we do.
The second way to deal with this issue is, I suppose one could say, to sidestep it all together. Having said above that the Bible is a testimony to why we believe what we do, the question becomes, What is that? This is where confession in Jesus of Nazareth as the unique manifestation of God, etc. enters the picture. Now, obviously, there is something circular here - where else but in the Bible do we receive our information on who this Jesus was, what he did, and why we should believe? Yet, the Church has confessed since its earliest days that it exists not because of the Bible, but because of Divine action (think Pentecost, the Holy Spirit). The authority of the Bible, it seems then, rests not on any merits it might hold, but on the Spirit which enlivens the dead words on the page for believers.
The interplay between the individual and the community, between the text and the hearers/readers, the confessions of the ages and our own refusal to stand pat - or our acceptance of the wisdom of the ages (following Newman, in some sense) - is part of the ongoing struggle of defining "church" in each age and generation.
I believe this problem is far more acute for Protestants than for, say Roman Catholics or the Orthodox faiths. Along with Scripture, the latter have tradition, liturgy, and the divinely invested authority of the hierarchy as supplements. Particularly we American Protestants have a problem with authority (not necessarily a bad thing), and I'm not sure there are any a priori answers to the question of "on whose (or what) authority do you claim to believe?"
This is something with which we all struggle, in some way, all the time. For myself, I believe because of the interplay between my own life, the life and history of the community of believers of which I am a part, and the way each informs the other. It is an on-going process. Different texts - historical, Biblical, whatever - inform different times and phases of belief - and while it might seem attractive to incorporate non-traditional, non-Western, non-Christian texts in to one's own personal canon, this is a decision I, for one cannot make. Some can. I cannot. Mine is a wholly pragmatic, contingent decision, resting upon nothing more than my own conclusion. Others may reach different conclusions, and that's OK with me. I do not believe, at this late date, there is any way to arbitrate such differences (see how pragmatism works in my spiritual life?).
Lively discussion ensued, I re-entered the fray once more, but the crux of the issue, for all intents and purposes, still seem to revolve around this question - Why should we trust the Bible? This issue seems bedeviling only if one seriously believes it necessary to give some account of why we believe or trust anything.
My first stop along the way is . . . the Bible. In Matthew's gospel, chpater 21, comes the story where the priests ask Jesus on whose authority he says and does the things he says and does. The author presents the story as one in which these priests attempt to trap Jesus; Jesus, understanding the trap being set, turns the tables and asks the priests their opinions on John the Baptist. The priests are suddenly thrown in to a tizzy. They decide by not deciding, and Jesus then says, "Fine. You won't answer. Why should I?"
There are many ways to read this wonderful account, not the least wonderful of them being the fact that Jesus manages to stick a big old finger in the eye of the Establishment.
For our purposes here, I would suggest one possible reading - don't get trapped in to discussions by other people which use their premises from which to begin, toward an answer they are seeking, for their own purposes. It is a rule I attempt to follow at all times.
The entire discussion, at least Feodor's rather long comments, all boil down, in the end, to the question, "But why should we listen to the Bible?" He doesn't like my own answer, which is really of two part. First, why worry about this issue at all? Second, if you are going to worry about it, my own answer is, "Just because."
Why are we "small 'd'" democrats? Feodor insists because people once held certain beliefs as part of a larger moral and philosophical system that showed this was the best way to organize society. I agree this was once true, but isn't anymore. We are democrats because it has shown, through history, to be the worst form of government there is, unless one considers the alternative (to quote Winston Churchill). While in speeches during the Civil Rights movement, many leaders invoked the Bible and various Enlightenment figures from Montesquieu to Jefferson, in the end, it all boiled down to legal issues, defining who is included as Americans and who is not, and a larger understanding of "American" was settled upon.
Feodor wishes to insist that this lines up in some way or another with some grand moral theory or system. If that makes him happy, please indulge. It is certainly better that this is so, and America is a much better place to live because of those laws; we even have a President who could not have been imagined before those laws were passed. Is it necessary to reward ourselves with some kind of transcendental cleverness award, insisting that by passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, our legal system was now in line with some ephemeral thing called The Good? Is it necessary to show this to acknowledge that America is a better place because of these laws?
Is it even necessary to continue to argue, as Feodor insists, the way the people who supported these laws did, invoking long-dead white folk from previous centuries?
Nah. If he wants to, I won't stop him. I think America is a better place - a much better place - because we decided to codify the general consensus that discrimination based upon race is a bad thing. The appeal in the laws was not to philosophical arguments, however, nor to moral systems. The appeal in the laws was to the Constitution of the United States. As far as I'm concerned, that's a legal "just because" argument. One cannot, nor should not, attempt to "get behind" the Constitution of the US and ask, upon what principles do its propositions rest? Why should we? The endless spiral would simply ignore the reality that, for all practical purposes, the Constitution runs the show. We need no more justification than that, nor should we.
The same goes for the whole issue of Biblical authority. At some point, the issue seems to arise - why should we listen to the Bible? The history of the churches is rife with discussions of Biblical authority, especially vehement in the past half-millennium with the rise of the sola scriptura principle of Lutheran Protestantism. As a member of a denomination whose chair has four legs, rather than one (Albert Outler set out what he called "The Wesleyan Quadrilateral" - Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience), the question of "authority" becomes a bit more diffuse, although our Articles of Religion insist on the primacy of Scripture. Why shouldn't it? Setting aside all other considerations, it is the primary source of information on why we are the community we say we are. It is the text against which we set ourselves, and usually find ourselves wanting.
Now, it is common among non-traditional Christians, skeptics, and anti-Christians of various kinds to point out the historical accident that is the Biblical canon. They point with glee at the mundane reality that the Biblical canon developed over time, shaped as much by partisan politics as by anything else. Further books were dropped during the Reformation (what we Protestants call "The Apocrypha" - mostly Greek-text additions to the majority-Hebrew Old Testament), and Luther himself wanted to get rid of both the Epistle of James and the Revelation to John (the last highly surprising, considering Luther's own view of his own time's dispensation).
All I can say is, so what? Some Christians wish to insist there is something magical behind the canon in its final form. What's really surprising is, if one reads those texts rejected as canonical, one should be surprised that the texts chosen, for the most part, are not only better written, but far more uniform, given their variety. There are "Gospels" in which Jesus has a twin; there is the Gospel of Thomas in which a young Jesus kills someone who pisses him off (like Elisha and the bear, no?). The final form of the Biblical texts - and I would add that I fully accept the reality that there was probably some judicious edition at some point to make the various texts line up the way they do in a number of areas - shows a remarkable consistency.
The Bible is authoritative because the Christian Churches in various ways, using various philosophical and theological formulae, have declared it to be so. I, for one, do not adhere to the neo-Platonism of the Church fathers, nor the revised Aristoteleanism of the Scholastics, nor to the various theologies of the Reformation, nor even the kind of semi-Empiricism of Wesley, but I, too, affirm the authority of Scripture because there is nothing else. Why should that be a bad thing to say? Our national laws are based upon the Constitution because there is nothing else.
I fail to understand why this is a big deal. At one point, Feodor insists I do not say why I set aside these previous language games. I thought I had, but I shall be explicit.
I don't think it's necessary to create arguments in the way of Greco-Roman neo-Platonists, or 12th-century Scholastics, or 13th century nominalists, or 18th century Enlightenment figures, or mid-20th century existentialists because I am not any of those things, and the society in which I live isn't Greco-Roman, or even mid-century European. Feodor claims I say we cannot read the Bible as one of these figures. I never said that, although I think that is true (there is so much cultural and linguistic baggage that one carries along when reading that is invisible, even to oneself, that attempting to read the Bible as anything other than who one is would be so artificial as to be nonsensical). If you wish to read the Bible like a 4th century neo-Platonist - go for it. I certainly won't stop you, but I also really wouldn't be interested in the results of such a reading.
The greater task, for any Christian, is to be faithful both to the text, and to ourselves. Even more than reading, living the text in the here and now is always the challenge. The authority of Scripture rests upon no foundation other than "just because" and we live that out every single day. If one wishes to set aside the authority of the Bible, I will not, nor could I stop you, by inventing some grand meta-narrative of Divine intervention, or perhaps with the theological threat of eternal damnation. Alternately, if you wish to worry yourself over the question of authority - knock yourself out.
For myself, I'm just reminded of Jesus being asked about authority, and gleefully setting the question aside because he recognized that the question is almost always posed by someone setting some kind of trap. I've said it before and I will continue to say it - I just don't play that game.