Note: This is the final installment 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 examined what we are supposed to do with scripture—to tell God’s story, and to make it our story. In this segment, Wright looks at how scripture can enhance the health and vitality of the church.
Biblical Authority and the Church’s Life
I shall be fairly brief about this last point, though it could be spelled out in considerable detail. Indeed, it probably needs to be if the church is to be really healthy, and not go through the barren ritual of reading the Bible without getting anything out of it that cannot be reduced to terms of what she already knows. Nevertheless, here’s the crux of the matter: the purpose of the church’s life is to be the people of God for the world: a city set on a hill cannot be hidden. But the church can only be this if she is constantly being recalled to the story and message of scripture, without which she will herself lapse into the world’s ways of thinking.
How is this to be done? In her public worship the church has long used lectionaries to avoid the grave risk of revolving (as C S Lewis pointed out) round the little treadmill of favorite passages, of ‘desert island texts’, while muzzling the terrible and wonderful things that scripture really has to say. But even in the lectionaries there are problems, because at least those that have become common today do their own fair share of muzzling, missing out crucial passages in order to keep the readings short, omitting verses that might shock modern Western sensibilities. The Bible is to be in the bloodstream of the church’s worship, but at the moment the bloodstream is looking fairly watery. We must reform the lectionaries, and give to the church creative and positive ways of reading scripture, and hearing it read, which will enable this book to be once again the fully authoritative covenant charter.
In both private reading and in informal group meetings, we need again to experiment with new ways of reading scripture. Anyone who has heard an entire biblical book read (or even acted) will realize that such things as chapter-divisions, or almost any divisions at all, can be simply unhelpful. We need to recapture a sense of scripture as a whole, of telling and retelling stories as wholes. Only when you read Exodus as a whole (for example) do you realize the awful irony whereby the making of the golden calf is aparody of what God wanted the people to do with their gold and jewels; and only by reading Mark as a whole might you realize that, when the disciples ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand, they are indeed asking for something they do not understand.
It is perhaps the half-hearted and sometimes quite miserable traditions of reading the Bible—even among whose who claim to take it seriously—that account for the very low level of biblical knowledge and awareness even among some church leaders. This is the more lamentable in that the Bible ought to be functioning as authoritative within church debates, which are all too often conducted without reference to the Bible, other than when someone stands up and waves it around, confirming the tacit agreement of everyone else to give it a wide berth. Rather, serious engagement is required at every level: from the personal through to the group Bible-study, to the proper liturgical use, to the giving of time in synods and councils to Bible exposition and study. Only so will the church avoid the trap of trying to address the world and having nothing to say but the faint echo of what the world itself has been saying for some while.
If we really engage with the Bible in this serious way we will find, I believe, that we will be set free from what verges on small-scale evangelical paranoia about scripture. We won’t be forced into awkward corners about whether scripture is exactly this or exactly that. Of course the Bible is inspired, and if you’re using it like this there won’t be any question in your mind that the Bible is inspired. But, you will be set free to explore ways of articulating beliefs which do not fall into the old rationalist traps of 18th or 19th or 20th centuries.
Further, you will discover that the Bible will not let you down. You will be paying attention to it rather than sitting in judgment over it—not coming to it with preconceived notions of what this or that passage has to mean if it is to be true. You will discover that God is speaking new truth through it. I take it as a method in my biblical studies that if I turn a corner and find myself saying, ‘Well, in that case, that verse is wrong’ that I must have turned a wrong corner somewhere. But that does not mean that I impose what I think is right onto that bit of the Bible, either. It means, instead, that I am forced to live with that text uncomfortably, sometimes literally for years, until suddenly I come round a different corner and discover that the verse makes a lot of sense; sense that I wouldn’t have got if I had insisted on imposing my initial view on it from day one.
The Bible, clearly, is also to be used in a thousand different ways within the pastoral work of the church, the caring and building up of all its members. Suffice it to note that the individual world-views and God-views of Christians—as much as anybody else—need to be constantly adjusted and straightened out in the light of the story which is told in scripture. But this is not to say that there is one, or even that there are twenty-one, ‘right’ ways of this being done. To be sure, the regular use of scripture in private and public worship is a regular medicine for many of the ills that beset us. But there are many methods of meditation, of imaginative reading, ways of soaking oneself in a book or a text, ways of allowing the story to become one’s own story in all sorts of intimate ways, that can with profit be recommended by a pastor, or engaged in within the context of pastoral ministry itself.
We discover the authority of the Bible at work here, too: that is, God’s own authority, exercised not to give true information about wholeness but to give wholeness itself, by judging and remaking the thoughts and intentions, the imaginations and rememberings, of men, women and children. There are worlds to be discovered here of which a good deal of the church remains sadly ignorant, not just on the corporate level but at the personal one. For the Bible is a book of personal renewal, after all. It is the book of tears and laughter, the book through which God resonates with our pain and joy, and enables us to resonate with his pain and joy. This is the really powerful authority of the Bible, as distinguished from the merely manipulative or the crassly confrontational ‘use’ of scripture.
When we read scripture in the Christian way, focussed on Jesus and his kingdom-bringing work, death and resurrection, we discover that the purpose of God is not simply to convey true ideas to people’s minds so that, by believing them, they may qualify for an otherworldly salvation. Rather, God’s purposes are advanced through human beings who seek to do his will and so contribute to his on-going work, but those human beings are themselves informed and energized by scripture.
I have argued that the notion of the ‘authority of scripture’ is a shorthand expression for God’s authority, exercised through scripture, and that scripture must be allowed to be itself in exercising its authority—not be turned into something else which might fit better into what the church, or the world, might have thought its ‘authority’ should look like. Yet as Matthew’s Jesus says, all authority in heaven and on earth is given to him, not primarily to the texts that his followers would write. And to say that Jesus has authority is not just to say that Jesus has the right to tell people what they may and may not do. To say that Jesus has authority, an authority then put into practice through scripture in the life of the church and its mission to the world, is to say something about eschatology, particularly about the fulfillment of the ancient creational purposes in Jesus.
Thinking back to my analogy of the five-act play, then, one must see the Bible as a story with different moments, a symphony with different movements, in which the final scene returns triumphantly to the opening one, though now transforming it thoroughly, in a moment of ultimate fulfillment. Scripture is then part of the Spirit-given means, along with the koinonia of the church and the strange new-Temple significance of the sacraments, by which the people who find themselves in Act 5 are able to improvise appropriately as they move towards the ultimate goal. The Bible is not an end in itself, in other words. It is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed. It is our task to be the people through whom this extraordinary vision comes to pass. We are thus entrusted with a privilege too great for casual handling, too vital to remain a mere matter of debate.
(Portions of this paper originally published in Vox Evangelica, 1991, 21, 7–32. Reproduced by permission of the author.)