N.T. Wright on Scripture and the Authority of God
N.T. Wright explores the context and manner in which Scripture is authoritative and cautions us to use it wisely so as not to belittle the richness of God’s Word.
How can the Bible be authoritative? This way of putting it carries two different though related meanings, and I shall look at them in turn. First, how can there be such a thing as an authoritative book? What sort of a claim are we making about a book when we say that it is ‘authoritative’? Second, by what means can the Bible actually exercise its authority? How is it to be used so that its authority becomes effective? The first question subdivides further, and I want to argue two things as we look at it:
(1) I shall argue that usual views of the Bible—including usual evangelical views of the Bible—are actually too low, and do not give it the sufficient weight that it ought to have.
(2) I shall then suggest a different way of envisioning authority from that which I think most Christians normally take.
Our generation has a problem about authority. In church and in state we use the word ‘authority’ in different ways, some positive and some negative. We use it in secular senses. We say of a great footballer that he stamped his authority on the game. Or we say of a great musician that he or she gave an authoritative performance of a particular concerto. Within more structured social gatherings the question ‘Who’s in charge?’ has particular function. For instance, if someone came into a lecture-room and asked ‘Who’s in charge?’ the answer would presumably be either the lecturer or the chairman, if any. If, however, a group of people went out to dinner at a restaurant and somebody suddenly came in and said, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ the question might not actually make any sense. We might be a bit puzzled as to what authority might mean in that structure. Within a more definite structure, however, such as a law court or a college or a business, the question ‘Who’s in charge?’ or ‘What does authority mean here?’ would have a very definite meaning, and could expect a fairly clear answer. The meaning of ‘authority’, then, varies considerably according to the context within which the discourse is taking place. It is important to realize this from the start, not least because one of my central contentions is going to be that we have tended to let the word ‘authority’ be the fixed point and have adjusted ‘scripture’ to meet it, instead of the other way round.
Authority in the church
Within the church, the question of what we mean by authority has had particular focal points. It has had practical questions attached to it. How are things to be organized within church life? What are the boundaries of allowable behavior and doctrine? In particular, to use the sixteenth-century formulation, what are those things ‘necessary to be believed upon pain of damnation’? But it has also had theoretical sides to it. What are we looking for when we are looking for authority in the church? Where would we find it? How would we know when we had found it? What would we do with authoritative documents, people or whatever, if we had them? It is within that context that the familiar debates have taken place, advocating the relative weight to be given to scripture, tradition and reason, or (if you like, and again in sixteenth-century terms) to Bible, Pope and Scholar. Within the last century or so we have seen a fourth, to rival those three, namely emotion or feeling. Various attempts are still being made to draw up satisfactory formulations of how these things fit together in some sort of a hierarchy.
Most heirs of the Reformation, not least evangelicals, take it for granted that we are to give scripture the primary place and that everything else has to be lined up in relation to scripture. There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’. This is rather like the frequent Anglican assumption (being an Anglican myself I rather cherish this) that Anglicans have no doctrine peculiar to themselves: it is merely that if something is true the Church of England believes it. This, though not itself a refutation of the claim not to have any ‘tradition’, is for the moment sufficient indication of the inherent unlikeliness of the claim’s truth, and I am confident that most people, facing the question explicitly, will not wish that the claim be pressed.
But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give me some cause for concern. First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology. The assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying. And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology. If we are not careful, the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can, by such routes, come to mean simply ‘the authority of evangelical tradition’?
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.
The authority of a story
There are various ways in which stories might be thought to possess authority. Sometimes a story is told so that the actions of its characters may be imitated. It was because they had that impression that some early Fathers, embarrassed by the possibilities inherent in reading the Old Testament that way, insisted upon allegorical exegesis. More subtly, a story can be told with a view to creating a generalized ethos which may then be perpetuated this way or that. The problem with such models, popular in fact though they are within Christian reading of scripture, is that they are far too vague: they constitute a hermeneutical grab-bag or lucky dip. Rather, I suggest that stories in general, and certainly the biblical story, have a shape and a goal that must be observed and to which appropriate response must be made.
But what might this appropriate response look like? Let me offer you a possible model, which is not in fact simply an illustration but actually corresponds, as I shall argue, to some important features of the biblical story, which (as I have been suggesting) is that which God has given to his people as the means of his exercising his authority. Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate to actually write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form and commit Shakespeare, as it were, to being responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive, and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.
Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, containing its own impetus and its own forward movement, demanding to be concluded in the proper manner. It would require of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.
This model could and perhaps should be adapted further; it offers in fact quite a range of possibilities. Among the detailed moves available within this model is the possibility of seeing the five acts as follows:
(5) In Act 5, the New Testament would form Scene 1, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Car 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end.
The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act. Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material. Such an appeal—and such an offering!—would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the ways in which it would be (of course) inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from earlier sections. Such sensitivity (cashing out the model in terms of church life) is precisely what one would have expected to be required; did we ever imagine that the application of biblical authority ought to be something that could be done by a well-programmed computer?
The effect of this authority
But this means that the New Testament is not merely a true commentary on Christianity. It has been pointed out in relation to B B Warfield’s theological position that Warfield was always in danger of saying that Christianity would be totally true and would totally work even if there weren’t a Bible to tell us all about it. But, according to Paul in Romans 15 and elsewhere, the Bible is itself a key part of God’s plan. It is not merely a divinely given commentary on the way salvation works (or whatever); the Bible is part of the means by which he puts his purposes of judgement and salvation to work. The Bible is made up, all through, of writings of those who, like Micaiah ben Imlah in 1 Kings 22, stood humbly in the councils of God and then stood boldly, in their writing, in the councils of men.
The Bible, then, is designed to function through human beings, through the church, through people who, living still by the Spirit, have their life molded by this Spirit-inspired book. What for? Well, as Jesus said in John 20, ‘As the Father sent me, even so I send you’. He sends the church into the world, in other words, to be and do for the world what he was and did for Israel. There, I suggest, is the key hermeneutical bridge. By this means we are enabled to move from the bare story-line that speaks of Jesus as the man who lived and died and did these things in Palestine 2,000 years ago, into an agenda for the church. And that agenda is the same confrontation with the world that Jesus had with Israel–a confrontation involving judgement and mercy. It is a paradoxical confrontation because it is done with God’s authority. It is not done with the authority that we reach for so easily, an authority which will manipulate, or crush, or control, or merely give information about the world. But, rather, it is to be done with an authority with which the church can authentically speak God’s words of judgement and mercy to the world. We are not, then, entering into the world’s power games. That, after all, is what Peter tried to do in the garden with his sword, trying to bring in the kingdom of God in the same way that the world would like to do it. The world is always trying to lure the church into playing the game by its (the world’s) rules. And the church is all too often eager to do this, not least by using the idea of the authority of scripture as a means to control people, to force them into little boxes. In my experience, those little boxes often owe far more to cultural conditioning of this or that sort than to scripture, itself, as the revelation of the loving, creator and redeemer God.
Authority in the church, then, means the church’s authority–with scripture in its hand and heart–to speak and act for God in his world. It is not simply that we may say, in the church, ‘Are we allowed to do this or that?’ ‘Where are the lines drawn for our behavior?’ Or, ‘Must we believe the following 17 doctrines if we are to be really sound?’ God wants the church to lift up its eyes and see the field ripe for harvest, and to go out, armed with the authority of scripture; not just to get its own life right within a Christian ghetto, but to use the authority of scripture to declare to the world authoritatively that Jesus is Lord. And, since the New Testament is the covenant charter of the people of God, the Holy Spirit, I believe, desires and longs to do this task in each generation by reawakening people to the freshness of that covenant, and hence summoning them to fresh covenant tasks. The phrase ‘authority of scripture’, therefore, is a sort of shorthand for the fact that the creator and covenant God uses this book as his means of equipping and calling the church for these tasks. I believe this is the true biblical context of the biblical doctrine of authority, which is meant to enable us to be Micaiahs–in church, but so much more in society: so that, in other words, we may be able to stand humbly in the councils of God, in order then to stand boldly in the councils of men. How may we do that? By soaking ourselves in scripture, in the power and strength and leading of the Spirit, in order that we may then speak freshly and with authority to the world of this same creator God.
Why is authority like this? Because God (as in Acts 1 and Matthew 28, which we looked at earlier) wants to catch human beings up in the work that he is doing. He doesn’t want to do it by-passing us; he wants us to be involved in his work. And as we are involved, so we ourselves are being remade. He doesn’t give us the Holy Spirit in order to make us infallible—blind and dumb servants who merely sit there and let the stuff flow through us. So, he doesn’t simply give us a rulebook so that we could just thumb through and look it up. He doesn’t create a church where you become automatically sinless on entry. Because, as the goal and end of his work is redemption, so the means is redemptive also: judgement and mercy, nature and grace. God does not, then, want to put people into little boxes and keep them safe and sound. It is, after all, possible to be so sound that you’re sound asleep. I am not in favor of unsoundness; but soundness means health, and health means growth, and growth means life and vigor and new directions. The little boxes in which you put people and keep them under control are called coffins. We read scripture not in order to avoid life and growth. God forgive us that we have done that in some of our traditions. Nor do we read scripture in order to avoid thought and action, or to be crushed, or squeezed, or confined into a de-humanizing shape, but in order to die and rise again in our minds. Because, again and again, we find that, as we submit to scripture, as we wrestle with the bits that don’t make sense, and as we hand through to a new sense that we haven’t thought of or seen before, God breathes into our nostrils his own breath—the breath of life. And we become living beings—a church recreated in his image, more fully human, thinking, alive beings.
That, I believe, is one of the reasons why God has given us so much story, so much narrative in scripture. Story authority, as Jesus knew only too well, is the authority that really works. Throw a rulebook at people’s heads, or offer them a list of doctrines, and they can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away. Tell them a story, though, and you invite them to come into a different world; you invite them to share a world-view or better still, a ‘God-view’. That, actually, is what the parables are all about. They offer, as all genuine Christian story-telling the does, a world-view which, as someone comes into it and finds how compelling it is, quietly shatters the world-view that they were in already. Stories determine how people see themselves and how they see the world. Stories determine how they experience God, and the world, and themselves, and others. Great revolutionary movements have told stories about the past and present and future. They have invited people to see themselves in that light, and people’s lives have been changed. If that happens at a merely human level, how much more when it is God himself, the creator, breathing through his word.
I want to suggest that scripture’s own view of authority focuses on the authority of God himself. (I recall a well-known lecturer once insisting that ‘there can be no authority other than scripture’, and thumping the tub so completely that I wanted to ask ‘but what about God?’) If we think for a moment what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture. And that is a complex claim. It is not straightforward. When people use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ they very often do not realize this. Worse, they often treat the word ‘authority’ as the absolute, the fixed point, and make the word ‘scripture’ the thing which is moving around trying to find a home against it. In other words, they think they know what authority is and then they say that scripture is that thing.
I want to suggest that we should try it the other way around. Supposing we said that we know what scripture is (we have it here, after all), and that we should try and discover what authority might be in the light of that. Granted that this is the book that we actually have, and that we want to find out what its ‘authority’ might mean, we need perhaps to forswear our too-ready ideas about ‘authority’ and let them be remolded in the light of scripture itself—not just in the light of the biblical statements about authority but in the light of the whole Bible, or the whole New Testament, itself. What are we saying about the concept of ‘authority’ itself if we assert that this book—not the book we are so good at turning this book into—is ‘authoritative’?
Beginning, though, with explicit scriptural evidence about authority itself, we find soon enough—this is obvious but is often ignored—that all authority does indeed belong to God. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’. God says this, God says that, and it is done. Now if that is not authoritative, I don’t know what is. God calls Abraham; he speaks authoritatively. God exercises authority in great dynamic events (in Exodus, the Exile and Return). In the New Testament, we discover that authority is ultimately invested in Christ: ‘all authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth’. Then, perhaps to our surprise, authority is invested in the apostles: Paul wrote whole letters in order to make this point crystal clear (in a manner of speaking). This authority, we discover, has to do with the Holy Spirit. And the whole church is then, and thereby, given authority to work within God’s world as his accredited agent(s). From an exceedingly quick survey, we are forced to say: authority, according to the Bible itself, is vested in God himself, Father, Son and Spirit.
The purpose and character of God’s authority
But what is God doing with his authority? We discover, as we look at the Bible itself, that God’s model of authority is not like that of the managing director over the business, not like that of the governing body over the college, not like that of the police or the law courts who have authority over society. There is a more subtle thing going on. God is not simply organizing the world in a certain way such as we would recognize from any of those human models. He is organizing it—if that’s the right word at all—through Jesus and in the power of the Spirit. And the notion of God’s authority, which we have to understand before we understand what we mean by the authority of scripture, is based on the fact that this God is the loving, wise, creator, redeemer God. And his authority is his sovereign exercise of those powers; his love and wise creations and redemption. What is he doing? He is not simply organizing the world. He is, as we see and know in Christ and by the Spirit, judging and remaking his world. What he does authoritatively he does with this intent. God is not a celestial information service to whom you can apply for answers on difficult questions. Nor is he a heavenly ticket agency to whom you can go for moral or doctrinal permits or passports to salvation. He does not stand outside the human process and merely comment on it or merely issue you with certain tickets that you might need. Those views would imply either a deist’s God or a legalist’s God, not the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. And it must be said that a great many views of biblical authority imply one or other of those sub-Christian alternatives.
But, once we say that God’s authority is like that, we find that there is a challenge issued to the world’s view of authority and to the church’s view of authority. Authority is not the power to control people, and crush them, and keep them in little boxes. The church often tries to do that—to tidy people up. Nor is the Bible as the vehicle of God’s authority meant to be information for the legalist. We have to apply some central reformation insights to the concept of authority itself. It seems to me that the Reformation, once more, did not go quite far enough in this respect, and was always in danger of picking up the mediaeval view of authority and simply continuing it with, as was often said, a paper pope instead of a human one. Rather, God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human. That’s what God is in the business of doing. That is what his authority is there for. And when we use a shorthand phrase like ‘authority of scripture’ that is what we ought to be meaning. It is an authority with this shape and character, this purpose and goal.?
How in the Bible does God exercise his authority?
Then, we have to ask, if we are to get to the authority of scripture. How does God exercise that authority? Again and again, in the biblical story itself we see that he does so through human agents anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit. And this is itself an expression of his love, because he does not will, simply to come into the world in a blinding flash of light and obliterate all opposition. He wants to reveal himself meaningfully within the space/time universe not just passing it by tangentially; to reveal himself in judgment and in mercy in a way which will save people. So, we get the prophets. We get obedient writers in the Old Testament, not only prophets but those who wrote the psalms and so on. God brought his authority to bear on Israel not by revealing to them a set of timeless truths, but by delegating his authority to obedient men through whose words he brought judgment and salvation to Israel and the world.
As the climax of the story we get Jesus himself. Jesus the great prophet, Jesus who rules from the cross in judgment and love, Jesus who says: all authority is given to me, so you go and get on with the job. I hope the irony of that has not escaped you. So too in Acts 1, we find: God has all authority . . . so that you will receive power. Again, the irony. How can we resolve that irony? By holding firmly to what the New Testament gives us, which is the strong theology of the authoritative Holy Spirit. Jesus’ people are to be the anointed ones through whom God still works authoritatively. And then, in order that the church may be the church—may be the people of God for the world—God, by that same Holy Spirit, equips men in the first generation to write the new covenant documentation. This is to be the new covenant documentation which gives the foundation charter and the characteristic direction and identity to the people of God, who are to be the people of God for the world. It is common to say in some scholarly circles that the evangelists, for instance, didn’t know they were writing scripture. One of the gains of modern scholarship is that we now see that to be a mistake. Redaction criticism has shown that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing what they were writing in order that it might be the foundation documentation for the church of their day and might bear God’s authority in doing so. And a book which carries God’s authority to be the foundation of the church for the world is what I mean by scripture. I think they knew what they were doing.
Thus it is that through the spoken and written authority of anointed human beings God brings his authority to bear on his people and his world.
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.
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 a parody 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.
About the author
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
N.T. Wright | The Point of Resurrection
Phil Vischer | Being Evangelical