I hold the Bible to be authoritative for the rather banal reason that it is the single best source for an understanding of our faith. "Authority" in my understanding rests on nothing more than, "What else do we have as a starting point?" We can certainly quibble over non-canonical texts, texts declared heretical by the early church, early post-Apostolic writings that almost made the canon. Some of them are certainly fun to read. At the same time, the Church was deliberate about the structure of the canon, and it seems to me the writings of both testaments (the Protestant rejection of Greek parts of the Old Testament is interesting, to be sure) do a fine job as a starting point.
And a starting point is what the Bible is.
I was asked a long time ago how I read the Bible. I said, without any sense of sarcasm, "One word at a time." How else do we read? How else should we read? I have cited, at various time, my conditional acceptance of the Rortyan view of language - as a tool and nothing more; marks on a page (or screen) or sounds - but I want to make the conditions more explicit here. Words have meaning not just because I make them meaningful. Others have found them meaningful as well. How have they been meaningful? Indeed, what is "meaning"?
This is the kind of circular argument and questioning that gets us all bogged down in interesting tangents. Something is "meaningful", words have "meaning" because we respond to them. Should someone attempt to call my name in Urdu, say, or Togalog, I'm not going to respond because those sounds, meaningful to some, would not be so to me. The Bible is meaningful in the same way - it gets us to respond to its words.
I'm not sure how else to put the background to all this.
Anyway, the Church has said over the millennia that the Bible is the source of our faith. It is to be read, to be studied, allowing its words to inform our lives, to challenge our lives, and (one hopes) to change our lives. And we do this by reading. One word at a time.
There is no magic formula for this. There is nothing in the Bible itself, no holy secret sauce that is going to grab this or that person and make him or her suddenly grasp what it is the Bible is offering. We approach the Bible always with the understanding that it is also approaching us. It is a collection of writings from all sorts of places and times, the authors of which are often unknown to us, the original intent of which is also often opaque. Speculating on authorship or original intent might be helpful to some; we can grasp some of the original intent of, say, the Pauline corpus, or the Gospels, without too much difficulty. I say "some" because I am skeptical of ever getting to the point where we read them as their original audience would read them (or hear them, should they be read to an audience).
Like reading any text that no longer serves its original audience, we should always approach "meaning" with the proviso that, with time like a river, layers of meaning have been added to the words, layers we very often can't see. We need to respect all those layers of meaning - even those we aren't aware of - by at least acknowledging their existence. The Bible has been read around much of the world, over the course of two thousand years, sometimes in ways and languages that still surprise us (an ancient Chinese text dating from sometime in the 3rd or 4th century was uncovered not very long ago, suggesting Christian missionaries, or perhaps just caravan members, were moving in to China far earlier than is usually thought). When we approach the Bible, we aren't a "self" in the current understanding of that word. Rather we are just a small part of the whole host of readers, past and present.
Unpacking a Biblical text has more requirements, however, than surrendering the illusion of our autonomy. Part of recognizing the distance in time and space that exists between the text and us means accepting the original language, and understanding that our reading in our contemporary idiom is as much an issue of interpretation as our reading of it. There is no escaping, at our distant remove from the original settings of the writings themselves, the question of interpretation. With this in mind, we should always read consciously, which is why my original answer, "One word at a time," was meant in all seriousness. Each word has weight, if we open ourselves to the possibility. The sum of the linguistic parts is certainly greater than those parts, themselves, but if we disregard those parts in search of some whole, it becomes detached from it.
The Bible is the first source of our understanding of what it means to be a believer. It is the deep root and trunk of our faith. In it we encounter kings and queens, slaves and whores, abandoned children and murderous siblings. We see how God has worked through all of them to bring about God's desired end of communion with us, the creatures God declared to be "very good" at the end of Creation.
In the Bible, we encounter the One whom we declare is our Savior, our Judge, the embodiment of the Divine Word that Created us and sustains us.
How we unpack what these events might mean, well, that's the subject of much of the rest of my planned posts. For now, it is enough to state up front this is the position taken herein.