N.T. Wright on Scripture and the Authority of God, Part 2
This is the second of a six-part series adapted from a paper Dr. Wright presented for his colleagues at St. Andrews and an earlier paper published in Vox Evangelica. It considers some of the topics he discusses at length in his book Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. In the first installment, Wright notes the different ways that biblical authority has been understood by Christians through the centuries. In this post, he describes how confusion over what evangelicals mean by the term “authority of scripture” has led us to belittle the Bible instead of exalting God.
Biblical Authority—The Problem
When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations. They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation. ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible. Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church? Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we already know?
As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’. Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed. Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed. And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question. One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible. For the most part the Bible itself is much more concerned with doing a whole range of other things rather than talking about itself.
There are, of course, key passages, especially at transition moments like 2 Timothy or 2 Peter, where the writers are concerned that the church of the next generation should be properly founded and based. At precisely such points we find statements emerging about the place of scripture within the life of the church. But such a doctrine usually has to be inferred. It may well be possible to infer it, but it is not (for instance) what Isaiah or Paul is talking about. Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels. He isn’t constantly saying, ‘What about scripture? What about scripture?’ It is there sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it. And the attempt by many evangelicals to argue a general doctrine of scripture out of the use made of the Old Testament in the New is doomed to failure, despite its many strong points, precisely because the relation between the Old and New Testaments is not the same as the relation between the New Testament and ourselves. If we look in scripture to find out where authority is held to lie in practice, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antitheses at all. As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.
The question of biblical authority, of how there can be such a thing as an authoritative Bible, is not, then, as simple as it might look. In order to raise it at all, we have to appreciate that it is a sub-question of some much more general questions.
- How can any text function as authoritative? Once one gets away from the idea of a rulebook that might function as authoritative in, say, a golf club, this question gets progressively harder.
- How can any ancient text function as authoritative? If you were a Jew, wanting to obey the Torah (or, perhaps, obey the Talmud) you would find that there were all sorts of difficult questions about how a text, written so many years ago, can function as authoritative today. Actually, it is easier with the Talmud than with the Bible because the Talmud is designed very specifically to be a rulebook for human beings engaged in life in a particular sort of community. But much of what we call the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—is not a rulebook; it is narrative. That raises a further question:
- How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative? How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative? It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you. But what would you do if, instead, he began ‘Once upon a time . . .’?
These questions press so acutely that the church has, down the centuries, tried out all sorts of ways of getting round them, and of thereby turning the somewhat recalcitrant material in the Bible itself into material that can more readily be used as ‘authoritative’ in the senses demanded by this or that period of church history.
Evangelicals and Biblical Authority
It seems to be that evangelicalism has flirted with, and frequently held long-running love affairs with all of these different methods of using the Bible, all of these attempts to put into practice what turns out to be quite an inarticulate sense that the Bible is somehow the real locus of authority. And that has produced what one can now see in many so-called scriptural churches around the world—not least in North America. It seems to be the case that the more that you insist that you are based on the Bible, the more divisive you become; the church splits up into more and more little groups, each thinking that they have got biblical truth right.
In my experience of teaching theological students I find that very often those from a conservative evangelical background opt for one such view as the safe one, the one with which they will privately stick, from which they will criticize the others. Failing that, they lapse into the regrettable (though sometimes comprehensible) attitude of temporary book-learning followed by regained positivism: “We will learn for a while the sort of things that the scholars write about, then we shall get back to using the Bible straight.” There may be places and times where that approach is the only possible one, but I am quite sure that the current Christian world is not among them. There is a time to grow up in reading the Bible as in everything else. There is a time to take the doctrine of inspiration seriously. And my contention here is that evangelicalism has usually done no better than those it sometimes attacks in taking inspiration seriously. Methodologically, evangelical handling of scripture has fallen into the same traps as most other movements, even if we have found ways of appearing to extricate ourselves.
The Belittling of the Bible
The problem with all such solutions as to how to use the Bible is that they belittle the Bible and exalt something else. Basically they imply—and this is what I mean when I say that they offer too low a view of scripture—that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves, translation procedures or whatever. They imply that the real place where God has revealed himself—the real locus of authority and revelation—is, in fact, somewhere else; somewhere else in the past in an event that once took place, or somewhere else in a timeless sphere which is not really hooked into our world at all, or touches it tangentially, or somewhere in the present in ‘my own experience’; or somewhere in the future in some great act which is yet to come. And such views, I suggest, rely very heavily on either tradition (including evangelical tradition) or reason, often playing off one against the other, and lurching away from scripture into something else. I have a suspicion that most of you are as familiar with this whole process as I am. If you are not, you would be within a very short time of beginning to study theology at any serious level.
My conclusion, then, is this: that the regular views of scripture and its authority which we find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is—a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book. They function by tuning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book. This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it. I propose that what we need to do is to re-examine the concept of authority itself and see if we cannot do a bit better.
Part 3 of our series describes how Christians can live under the authority of a sacred book that is written primarily as a narrative story. Story authority, which Jesus, himself, regularly employed, is the authority that really works.
(Originally published in Vox Evangelica, 1991, 21, 7–32. Reproduced by permission of the author.)
N.T. Wright is a leading biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and current Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St Andrews. He studied for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and was ordained at Merton College, Oxford. Wright holds a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in addition to several honorary doctorates. Wright has also written over fifty books, including the multi-volume work Christian Origins and the Question of God and his two most recent books Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters and How God Became King.