We have been spending a few Wascana Fellowship services examining some of the points N. T. Wright makes in a lecture entitled “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” In this lecture he notes that many of the ways we believe the Bible has authority over Christians may actually reflect a low view of Scripture, notwithstanding our intent.
Oddly enough, the Bible itself does not say much about its own authority over the lives of Christians or over the church. It does say a couple of important things about this, but not really in the way we have tried to make it say. For instance we often read 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to mean that the Bible is our ultimate authority for everything we do in the church. We therefore need only read it and do what it tells us. Actually, what it says is that the Bible is useful for many things, including teaching, correcting (rebuking) and training in righteousness.
2 peter 1:19-21 is also used to show that the Bible is the inspired word of God, so we must pay attention to it. And so it is. But how, exactly? We learn (as if the stories of the prophets haven’t already told us) that prophecy comes as men speak as they are carried by the Holy Spirit. Their words carry weight because they speak about what God reveals to them by the Holy Spirit. In other words they speak as men empowered by God to speak on his behalf. But does that mean, for instance that Jonah’s message to Nineveh, or Elijah’s messages to King Ahab is what God says to all people at all times? Is Jeremiah’s warning to Zedekiah about obeying the king of Babylon applicable to me today? How does that work?
Yes, the Bible is inspired by God.
Yes, it is useful for many things.
But is it our final word about everything?
He notes that when we use the Bible as a rulebook or as a book of guiding principles or book of timeless principles, we actually are making it do something it was not really written to do.
When we make it a book of answers to theological puzzles or difficult questions, we are also making it do something it was not written to do.
When we chop it up into brief Scripture readings that are used to proof-text daily devotions, we are making it do something it was not designed to do.
Yes, the Bible does contain some sets of rules for specific times and circumstances, as well as words of wisdom that may sometimes be timeless, and even has hints that can be massaged into answers to difficult questions. The majority of it is actually written as narrative, poetry and songs. How does poetry or narrative act as our final authority? These are questions he explores in the quest to see the Bible used in the manner it was designed for. For instance, fully half of the so-called five books of the Law (Pentateuch) is narrative, not law. The Psalms is a song-book, and most of the writings of the Prophets comes down to us in the form of Hebrew poetry or song. Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther are all collections of stories.
So where does the Bible say that authority lies, anyway? To quote Wright, “If we look in scripture to find out where in practice authority is held to lie, 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.”
God speaks and a whole universe comes into being. God acts to free his people from Egypt by mighty miracles. God sends his disobedient people into captivity. God brings a remnant back to resettle them into the Promised land. God sends Jesus, his own Son, to die on humanity’s behalf. God raises Jesus from the dead and empowers Jesus’ disciples with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. If that isn’t authority, nothing is.
We need to be careful not to displace the authority of God himself with that of the book that records his actions and the response of his people over the ages.
On the other hand, chopping up the Bible with all manner of interpretational hocus-pocus to turn the Bible’s authority into a set of rules or a set of principles or examples to follow, or doctrines to believe seems to effectively belittle the book itself by making the rules, etc. more important than the book itself. It effectively gives our reasoning authority over the Bible, thereby belittling the Bible itself.
Add to this that our notions of what “authority” itself means may also be more reflective of worldly or cultural norms than of what the Bible itself means by the term.
He concludes the introduction to his lecture by saying, “I have argued that the notion of the ‘authority of scripture’ is a shorthand expression for God’s authority, exercised somehow through scripture; that scripture must be allowed to be itself in exercising that authority, and 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; that it is therefore the meaning of ‘authority’ itself, not that of scripture, that is the unknown in the equation, and that when this unknown is discovered it challenges head on the various notions and practices of authority endemic in the world, and alas, in the church also.”
In the next post we will begin to cover his proposed solution to the problem of how the Bible is authoritative for the believer today.