N.T. Wright on Scripture and the Authority of God, Part 5
Note: This is the fifth 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 last post, Wright reminded us that scripture is not meant to control or crush people, but rather to reveal God’s authority as a loving and wise creator and redeemer. In this post, Wright examines what we are supposed to do with scripture—to tell God’s story, and to make it our story.
The Bible’s Authority
How can scripture be properly used? How can it exercise authority? If God has delegated his authority somehow to this book, what does he want us to do with it? How can we handle this extraordinary treasure, responsibly?
First, we have to let the Bible be the Bible in all its historical oddness and otherness. We have, again and again, not done that. We have, again and again, allowed ourselves to say—I’ve heard myself say it, over and over again—‘What Paul is really getting at here is . . . What Jesus was really meaning in this passage . . .’ What has happened then is a translation of something which is beautiful, and fragile, and unique, into something which is commonplace and boring, and something which every Christian in the pew has heard several sermons before.
I am reminded of that amazing line in Schaffer’s play Amadeus where Salieri sees on stage Mozart’s Figaro, and he says, ‘He has taken ordinary people—chambermaids and servants and barbers—and he has made them gods and heroes.’ And then Salieri remembers his own operas and he says, ‘I have taken gods and heroes—and I have made them ordinary.’ God forgive us that we have taken the Bible and have made it ordinary—that we have cut it down to our size. We have reduced it, so that whatever text we preach on it will say basically the same things. This is particularly a problem for second and third-generation movements of which the rather tired and puzzled evangelicalism in many British churches today is a good example. What we are seeing in such preaching is not the authority of scripture at work, but the authority of a tradition or even a mere convention masquerading as the authority of scripture. It has lost the possibility of a critique or inbuilt self-correction coming to it from scripture itself.
In Romans 15, by contrast, Paul says, ‘That by patience and encouragement of the scriptures you might have hope’ because scripture brings God’s order to God’s world. That order will forever be breaking in as a new word, recognizably in continuity with words heard from God before, but often in discontinuity even with the very traditions by which those older fresh words were preserved and transmitted. Scripture is the book that assures us that we are the people of God when, again and again, we are tempted to doubt. Scripture is the covenant book, not just in which we look up our pedigree and see where we came from (Abraham and so on), but through which the Spirit assures us that we are his people, and through which he sends us out into the world to tell the Jesus story: that is, the Israel story which has become the Jesus story, which together is God’s story for the world.
As we do that in the power of the Spirit, the miracle is that it rings true—people out there in the world know, in this or that fashion, that this strange story which we are telling does in fact run deeper than the world’s stories. It does in fact tell them truths which they half-knew and had rather hoped to forget. It is the story which confirms that God had redeemed the world in Jesus Christ. It is the story which breaks open all other world-views and, by so doing, invites men and women, young and old, to see this story as their story. In other words, as we let the Bible be the Bible, God works through us—and it—to do what he intends to do in and for the church and the world.
Living in the Fifth Act
In the church and in the world, then, we have to tell the story. It is not enough to translate scripture into timeless truths. How easy it has been for theologians and preachers to translate the gospels (for instance) into something more like epistles! We must, if anything, assimilate the epistles to the gospels rather than vice versa. I would not actually recommend that, but if you were going to make a mistake that would be the direction to do it in. And as we tell the story—the story of Israel, the story of Jesus, the story of the early church—that itself is an act of worship. That is why, within my tradition, the reading of scripture is not merely ancillary to worship—something to prepare for the sermon—but it is actually, itself, part of the rhythm of worship itself. In reading publicly the story of God the church is praising God for his mighty acts, and is celebrating them, and is celebrating the fact that she is part of that continuous story. That story as we use it in worship reforms our God-view, our world-view—reconstitutes us as the church. The story has to be told as the new covenant story.
This is where my five-act model comes to our help again. The earlier parts of the story are to be told precisely as the earlier parts of the story. We do not read Genesis 1 and 2 as though the world were still like that; we do not read Genesis 3 as though ignorant of Genesis 12, of Exodus, or indeed of the gospels. Nor do we read the gospels us though we were ignorant of the fact that they are written precisely in order to make the transition from Act 4 (Jesus’ ministry) to Act 5 (the Church), the Act in which we are now living and in which we are to make our own unique, unscripted and yet obedient, improvisation. This is how we are to be the church, for the world. As we do so, we are calling into question the world’s models of authority, as well as the content and direction of that authority.
So, we have to tell the story within the world and the church; because the church is always in danger of getting too like the world. I have already said that this happens in relation to authority; we use the world’s authority models instead of the God-given authority models. And scripture demands, in fact, to be read in the context of traditions within the church, precisely in order that it may judge and redeem the traditions of the church. The traditions are second-order stories, the stories that you and I tell about who we are as Christians, which go back through Wesley and Whitefield or through Luther or Aquinas or whoever. These are the stories that form the grid through which we read scripture; we can’t do without them, but they need regular checking. And part of my whole argument here is that evangelical traditions needs checking just as well as anybody else’s, checking according to scripture itself.
We have, then, to allow the story to challenge our traditions rather than getting rid of them, in order to see where we’ve come from, and who we are as the people of God in the 21st century: to reshape our traditions honestly and properly. But we must also allow scripture to stretch our reason back into shape. We must allow scripture to teach us how to think straight, because by ourselves we don’t; we think bent, we think crooked. Gerard Manley Hopkins said, ‘The Holy Spirit over the bent world broods with warm breast and with Ah! bright wings.’ Just so, the Spirit broods over us as we read this book, to straighten out our bent thinking; the world-views that have got twisted so that they are like the world’s world-views. God wants us to be people, not puppets; to love him with our mind as well as our soul and our strength. And it is scripture that enables us to do that: not by crushing us into an alien mould, but by giving us the fully authoritative four acts, and the start of the fifth, which set us free to become the church afresh in each generation.
Part 6 concludes our series by examining how scripture can maintain and enhance the health of church.
(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.