This post continues a series of reflections on a lecture given by N. T. Wright about the authority of the Bible.
To this point we have looked at how the church has tried to make the Bible into things it was not intended to be, such as a rulebook or a collection of timeless principles to live by or a book of answers to difficult moral questions, and thereby have made the Bible less than it was intended to be. We have also looked at how God exercises his authority in the human realm according to the Bible. Through this look we have discerned that God exercises his authority, in Wright’s words, “through human agents anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit” (emphasis his).
The question we now consider is one that provides the controlling factor in the exercise of God’s delegated authority. What is God’s purpose in exercising his authority according to the Bible? Knowing why God does what he does will, we hope, go a long way to understanding what God means by the word “authority.” We can hope that this understanding will shape how God’s delegated authority is intended to be exercised by the scriptures and its readers.
It does not take long to establish in the Bible that God uses his authority to 1) create, 2) maintain and improve his good creation, 3) judge his creation and 4) save his creation. We see this in the creation story, the story of the fall, the story of the flood, and the story of Israel (from promises to Abraham to the Exodus to Exile). We especially see God’s judging and saving authority in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who is anointed to judge and save from death by dying in our stead and rising again, defeating death. He sends his disciples out to tell his story and teach them to obey Jesus’ teaching.
God is out to save humanity as well as the rest of his creation (which we are desecrating and destroying at an alarming rate). His acts of judgment are not just about human beings, even according to the New Testament. Revelation 11:18 notes that judgment is upon unrepentant humanity (the “Beast”) in order, among other things, “for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
Jesus uses his authority to save humanity from eternal death (John 3:16) and to bring liberty and freedom from oppression as typified by the ancient Jubilee Year (Luke 4:14-21 and compare with Deuteronomy 25:8-10). Jesus’ use of authority should be a clue to how we are to use the authority of the Bible: to bring salvation and freedom from fear, sin and oppression to others.
Notice that each of the items above comes in the form of a story. We know God’s will through the stories of the Bible. Because God reveals his authority to us through stories we are going to need “a rich concept of authority” to “do justice to this book” according to Wright.
The things written by these people, thus led by the Spirit, are not for the most part, as we saw, the sort of things we should think of as ‘authoritative’. They are most narrative; and we have already run up against the problem how can a story, a narrative, be authoritative? Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, this authority is also wielded through his people singing psalms. Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus. We must look, then, at the question of stories. What sort of authority might they possess?
What sort of authority can a story possess? Wright likens the authority of story to an unfinished play by William Shakespeare. There is no ending written that resolves the entire play, yet there are clues built into the script about what a proper ending should accomplish. There are also characters who have been developed up to the point of the stopped work.
Here Wright imagines the Bible is like a five-act play that is unfinished near the start of the fifth act. The script is given to a group of actors who are well versed (pardon the pun) in Shakespeare’s work and know the script to that particular play exceedingly well. The four written acts are set, and no deviation from them or the plot-lines they have charted can be permitted. The actors are then set free to work out the rest of the play, but only as they stay in character of their roles and only to bring the play to a logical conclusion based on the plot outlined in the previous acts. The actors must remain consistently within their roles and within the world created by the first four acts. (Any ad-libbing that is inconsistent with either of those things will lead to the play being panned by the critics as untrue to the Bard.)
In a similar manner Christians rely on the plot and characters outlined in the Bible to form the basis of their interaction with the world. We truly need to know the book fully to fulfil our roles properly. Deviations from the story (gospel) of Jesus Christ as told by the Bible, even by well-meaning Christians, will be glaringly obvious to other Christians, who will condemn them for exchanging the truth of God for a lie.
This is a call to internalize the story of the entire Bible. Get to know the God who is the ultimate hero of the story. Get to know the plot, from creation to fall, exodus to exile and redemption in Jesus Christ and his anointing/empowerment of the disciples by the Holy Spirit to preach the good news to all creation.
Learn to love that story so much that your own life revolves around living it out and conveying it to others in whatever way is consistent with the gifts the Holy Spirit has given you.
Letting the Bible be itself, a story with authority, is the best way to fully conform to the authority of the Bible in our lives.