Note: This is the fourth 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 installment, Wright discussed how we can live under the authority of a sacred book that is written primarily as a narrative story. In this post, Wright asserts that scripture is not meant to control or crush people. Instead, biblical authority is based on God’s authority as a loving and wise creator and redeemer.
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 ofthose 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.
Part 5 of this series continues by asking the question, “What does God want us to do with scripture?”
(Originally published in Vox Evangelica, 1991, 21, 7–32. Reproduced by permission of the author.)