The six-part series that begins today is 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. Then he begins to examine how our popular conceptions of authority shape (and sometimes distort) our understanding of biblical authority.
My title reflects the book that I published six years ago as The Last Word, which has recently reappeared as Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. In this new edition I have included two substantial new chapters explaining more fully how the model I propose works out in practice. Both versions of the book and the paper I wrote some years before that (from which this series of posts is adapted) cast light on a puzzle which became clearer to me in the early years of the century. At that time I was involved in many discussions within the Anglican Communion on the one hand, and in dialogue with Roman Catholic theologians on the other, in which reference to scripture and its authority was ubiquitous but frequently opaque. That is, everybody says that scripture is authoritative, but few stop to explain what that means in practice. My book gets off to its start by pointing out that in scripture itself, it is God who is authoritative. This may be obvious, but when you chase through the ramifications it becomes less so.
The Christian tradition has assumed, of course, that what scripture says, God says. But even those who were most concerned to make this point – specifically the Protestant reformers – were often, from our perspective, somewhat cavalier in how they applied this. Some reformers were eager to draw on Old Testament narratives and prophecies in order to instruct the princes of their day – I think of Latimer preaching before Edward VI – while others, notably Martin Luther, could say such things as ‘Moses knows nothing of Christ’. What’s more, the idea of the authority of scripture was used as a limiting statute in the sixteenth century (i.e. one should only insist on that which could be plainly shown from scripture, and not insist, on pain of damnation, upon dogmas that did not have scriptural warrant). But in more recent western church life the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ has been used in a maximal sense, especially of course within fundamentalism. And yet the underlying problems of aChristian ‘authoritative’ reading of scripture have not gone away, but only been parked.
The question before us, then, is: 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.?
The next part of our series explores whether we are unwittingly “belittling the Bible” by appealing to the wrong kind of authority.
(Originally published in Vox Evangelica, 1991, 21, 7–32. Reproduced by permission of the author.)