This is the third 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 two installments, Wright noted the different ways that biblical authority has been understood—and misunderstood—by Christians. In this post, he describes how we can live under the authority of a sacred book that is written primarily as a narrative story.
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.
Part 4 of this series continues by describing God’s authority and how it relates to Scripture. It is not the power to control or crush people, as humans are apt to do. Instead, scriptural authority is based on God’s authority as a loving and wise creator and redeemer.