The Problem with Biblical Authority

Even the great creeds have screened out the central Biblical message of the coming of God’s kingdom.

In my book Scripture and the Authority of God, I outline a fresh way of talking about biblical authority that is rooted in the Bible — in contrast, I have to say, to some dogmatic schemes that say a lot about authority or inerrancy or whatever but seem to pay remarkably little attention to what the Bible itself is actually about. I develop this view in conscious dialogue with the conservative position, which seems to me to go like this: it’s either the Bible or the pope, so it must be the Bible, so we have to stand by every letter of scripture or Catholicism will swallow us up. That then turns round to face the rationalist or secularist challenge with the same position: the Bible must be literally true from top to bottom, or it all collapses into a mess of woolly liberalism with no gospel, no morality, and no hope. But simply saying, “The Bible is the only authority,” is not enough. We have to nuance it, and when we do, an interestingly different picture emerges. Let me sketch it extremely briefly and refer you to the book for a fuller treatment.

The risen Jesus doesn’t say, “All authority in heaven and earth is given to . . . the books you chaps are going to go and write.” He says, “All authority has been given to me.”

In the Bible all authority belongs to God and is then delegated to Jesus. The risen Jesus doesn’t say, “All authority in heaven and earth is given to . . . the books you chaps are going to go and write.” He says, “All authority has been given to me.” The phrase authority of scripture can only, at its best, be a shorthand for the authority of God in Jesus, mediated through scripture. Why would we even want to mention biblical authority? Why not say, “We live under Jesus’s authority,” and leave it at that? Wouldn’t that be the biblical thing to do? Well, yes, but as centuries of history demonstrate, the Bible is the God-given means through which we know who Jesus is. Take the Bible away, diminish it or water it down, and you are free to invent a Jesus just a little bit different from the Jesus who is hidden in the Old Testament and revealed in the New. We live under scripture because that is the way we live under the authority of God that has been vested in Jesus the Messiah, the Lord.

COVER_Surprised by Scripture by N T Wright
Read more in N.T. Wright’s latest book Surprised by Scripture.

But what is God’s authority there for? Certainly not to give us a large amount of true but miscellaneous information. Solomon made lists of natural phenomena, but they didn’t get into the Bible. The Bible is not an early version of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Here is the central element: the point about God’s authority is that the whole Bible is about God establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven, completing (in other words) the project begun but aborted in Genesis 1–3. This is the big story that we must learn how to tell. It isn’t just about how to get saved, with some cosmology bolted onto the side. This is an organic story about God and the world. God’s authority is exercised not to give his people lots of true information, not even true information about how they get saved (though that comes en route). God’s authority, vested in Jesus the Messiah, is about God reclaiming his proper lordship over all creation. And the way God planned to rule over his creation from the start was through obedient humanity. The Bible’s witness to Jesus declares that he, the obedient Man, has done this. But the Bible is then the God-given equipment through which the followers of Jesus are themselves equipped to be obedient stewards, the royal priesthood, bringing that saving rule of God in Christ to the world.

Therefore, the Bible does what God wants it to do when, through the power of the Spirit, it enables people to believe in Jesus, to follow him, and to share the work of the kingdom — not building the kingdom by our own efforts, of course, but, as I say in Surprised by Hope, building for the kingdom. We become sharers in God’s kingdom work by loving him with heart, mind, soul, and strength, and the Bible is the primary means the Spirit uses to bring about that heart-and-life renewal. The authority of scripture is therefore the dynamic, not static, means by which God transforms humans into Jesus-followers and therefore kingdom-workers.

The Bible seems designed to challenge and provoke each generation to do its own fresh business, to struggle and wrestle with the text.

One of the wonderful things about the Bible is the way no generation can complete the task of studying and understanding it. We never get to a point where we can say, “Well, the theologians have sorted it all out, so we just put the results in our pockets or on the shelves, and the next generation won’t have to worry — they can just pull it out and look it up.” No, the Bible seems designed to challenge and provoke each generation to do its own fresh business, to struggle and wrestle with the text. I think that is the true meaning of the literal sense, in Augustine’s sense of “what the writers really meant”: we have to acquire those old eyes, the historian’s quest to understand Genesis and Matthew and Romans in their historical context. I know that is strongly resisted today by many conservatives, but this is ridiculous: without historical inquiry, parallels, lexicography, and so on, we wouldn’t even be able to translate the text. And, yes, I know that there are many secularizing biblical scholars, and indeed many left-brain dominated conservative ones, who produce a kind of biblical scholarship that the church either shouldn’t use or couldn’t use. But just because the garden grows weeds, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plant fresh flowers, instead paving the whole thing over with concrete. No, each generation must do its own fresh historically grounded reading, because each generation needs to grow up, not simply to look up the right answers and remain in an infantile condition. This too is part of kingdom work.

Finally (and here I draw your attention to my book How God Became King), the problem with all hand-me-down solutions, and especially the rules of faith and even the great creeds, is that they have screened out the central Biblical message, which is the coming of God’s kingdom. There is nothing wrong with the creeds and the rules themselves. What they say is true. But they oversimplify, and when people then start to build systems on that oversimplification they miss the central point. People today sometimes talk about canonical readings of scripture, meaning classic orthodox readings; but classic orthodoxy has routinely forgotten that the central message of the Gospels, as of Jesus himself, was that through him and his work and his death and resurrection, the living God was becoming king on earth as in heaven. If we aren’t getting that message out of the Bible, we aren’t reading the Bible itself but rather allowing our traditions to echo off the surface of a text that is trying to tell us something else. Rules of faith and creeds are like the guard rails on the side of the highway, which prevent you from skidding off into the path of oncoming traffic. They do not themselves tell you everything you need to know about your journey and destination, nor do they put fresh gas in your tank. Only the scriptural message about God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ will do that.


Excerpted from Surprised by Scripture by N. T. Wright, reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2014.

Image via Shutterstock.

N.T. Wright
Written by

  • Martin Hughes

    What is the reason for thinking that the coming of God’s kingdom, a phrase not strongly present in all parts of the Bible, is its central message? Does the Kingdom mean a state which would differ from human experience hitherto by being heaven-like, with no death or hunger or illness? Or would we still be mortal people with scarce resources and political problems, only having all these problems solved by a just and admirable ruler?

    • Ronda Dee

      The Kingdom is now and not yet. With Jesus the Kingdom became “at hand.” We who follow Jesus are already of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not yet complete but one day will be. So, we now are mortal people trusting in God to work all things to the good (Roms. 8:28). One day, the Kingdom come in its completeness, there will be a new heaven and a new earth with no weeping, etc.

    • Rick Sharp

      I’m sure that someone much smarter than I could explain this in better detail. But the simple answer to why the coming of God’s kingdom is the central message of the Bible is, for me, this: The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is centered around Jesus, and Jesus constantly spoke about the Kingdom of God. From the beginning of his ministry, to the parables he spoke, to his discussions with the religious rulers, to his conversation with Pilate, to Revelation, Jesus framed everything in light of the Kingdom of God.

      • Martin Hughes

        Thanks to Ronda and Rick. The overwhelming majority of ‘Jesus and Kingdom’ references are in the Synoptic Gospels. The term is not prominent in the writings of Paul or John: are we to say that they do not give a central place to the central idea? Jesus preaching in Pilate’s Palestine would surely have been taken to mean something fairly close to the political ideas of the Old Testament – happiness and prosperity under a just and generous king – or at least to the Jerusalem-centred, still earthly, conception of the renewed order of things in Isaiah 67. Revelation does use kingdom language and does, esp. in ch. 21, include the ecstatic visions of heaven on earth, taking isaiah’s vision further since there is to be no more death, that Ronda has in mind. I find it difficult to link this with the slightly more prosaic and distinctly more political sense that Jesus’ hearers would have expected.
        Somehow the Kingdom that was at hand (unless we are to take ‘at hand’ in a very strained sense) got pushed away by some terrible and tragic mistake, so the idea can’t, I think, stand by itself as ‘the central one’. It has to be set in the context of some explanation of the long history that began to unfold after Jesus’ death.

        • josh

          John uses the phrases “eternal life & Abundant life” in much the same way that the synoptics use Kingdom of God/ Kingdom of Heaven.
          Paul uses “New Creation & Age to Come”

          • Martin Hughes

            Sorry to have been slow. To say that Jesus offered something new and better variously called the K of God, eternal life and new creation is to say, it seems to me, something very different from NTW’s original claim that the absolutely central message was conveyed by the idea of the K of God. The idea of personal immortality is close to the idea of eternal life, which may have no political associations, whereas K of God does. New creation appears in contexts where Paul is discussing the abolition of the circumcised/uncircumcised distinction, which would not, I would think, have come to mind for the original hears of Jesus’ message as portrayed by the Synoptics. I’m not sure that Paul does use the words ‘the age to come’, though we do find ‘ages to come’ (and indeed K of God) in Ephesians (maybe not by Paul) where it may mean no more than ‘for ever’ – though perhaps I’m being rather trivial here, since Paul like other NT writers must have been influenced by Jewish apocalyptic writing with its ideas of transition between ages and epochs.
            The strong influence of apocalyptic ideas of ‘an end at hand’ bears surely on the question of whether further developments of doctrine were expected. I don’t really see any expectation of a Christian Deuteronomy, with lost words of Jesus being discovered in an authoritative form. I still think that the editors of the Bible could not have expected readers of Revelation, standing last in the collection, to attach a significance to the instruction ‘not to add’ that went beyond the immediate context and alluded to the collection as a whole. We know, of course, that there was lively controversy about whether the time of authoritative prophecy, that had continued since Moses, had really ended, with the prevailing view being that the Christian faith had been known in full to the Apostles and that we are left only to draw out the implications of what the Apostles had taught. This was done amid raging controversies involving Jewish theological and Greek philosophical inputs, not that these two were ever entirely distinct. Some of the claimed implications were rather drastic, notably the doctrine of Trinity. The difficulty of finding NT authority for thid doctrine must have led to uneasiness and perhaps to re-editing of some NT texts – for instance, Eusebius in the fourth century knew of an ending to Matthew’s Gospel from which the Trinitarian language was absent.
            It could be said, of course, that the New Testament writers considered themselves not to be adding to, but only interpreting, the older scriptures and drawing out their implications. Controversially, of course!
            I share NTW’s uneasiness about the difference in the thought-worlds of the NT and of the Creeds but I think he simplifies too much.

  • joe bailey hyden

    the professor says : ” I outline a fresh way of talking about biblical authority that is rooted in the Bible — in contrast, I have to say, to some dogmatic schemes that say a lot about authority or inerrancy or whatever but seem to pay remarkably little attention to what the Bible itself is actually about.”

    this is a standard approach that is neither new nor fresh. it has been old-hat in some theological circles since at least the 17th century. and it often seems to be accompanied by “cutesy”, sarcastic, unfortunate remarks such as these.

    joe bailey hyden

  • James Stagg

    But “The Bible” did not exist at the time of Jesus….only the Septuagint. How could the Church POSSIBLY exist for 15-60 years with no Gospel, not to mention an assemblage of documents of what (little) Jesus is actually recorded to have said? Then, disputing Catholic Tradition, how do you explain the statements IN THE NEW TESTAMENT that these words are incomplete recordings of what the Christ taught and did? There is much more to this discussion than “can you find it in the Bible?”

    • Martin Hughes

      Well, I would think that incompleteness is based on the comparison that Paul uses of children vs. adults – there is no suggestion of additional teachings beyond the point where the first generation has become mature and confirmed Christians. Revelation’s instructions ‘not to add’, given an emphatic final position by the Church’s editors, rules out anything like a ‘Book of Further Revelations’. I understood that Catholic tradition was conceived as interpreting the Bible rather than adding to it.

      • josh

        2 things stand out just on a cursory reading: 1) Gospel according to John says that “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” John 21:25

        and 2) The Book of Acts which is widely accepted as Vol. 2 of Luke’s writings talks about sharing (in the Gospel he authored) “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” Acts 1:1-2

        There is a heavy implication that there is quite enough to go on from here, but it is not exhaustive in what it recorded and reflected on. The bible is not a short handbook on all the questions of life. It is a narrative inviting us to ponder the intention and work of a living God.

        …and lastly, the book of Revelation’s stamp “do not add or take away from this book” is not in reference to the whole of scripture. It is concerning the book of Revelation. It was a customary practice in the ancient world to attach that to significant documents…similar to but not necessarily the same as putting a wax seal on the outside of a scroll. Or today, putting a “tamper proof” seal on a bottle of ketchup or medication. You’d like to know that it came to you from the source without anybody tampering with it. It was a warning. It IS NOT permission for people to read this as “well it’s the last book in our canon, I guess this applies to everything written up till this point”. We have to remember that the church assembled the canon in the first place, and decided the order….and there was more than one voice that thought Revelation shouldn’t even be included.

      • James Stagg

        What you say of Catholic Tradition is correct. The Church holds that no new revelation was possible after the death of the last of the Thirteen. They, the original Bishops of the Church, were considered to be those to whom the Christ passed His authority, and the last to report His teaching (in full) as the ones who had heard His words directly from Him..

    • Kenneth Boggs

      The Church existed bc it had Holy Tradition, that which was handed down to the early Christians by the apostles themselves. The NT does NOT say that the words that were recorded are incomplete. It (John) says that they were simply not ALL that Jesus said and did. That doesn’t mean that what we have isn’t to be trusted.

      • James Stagg

        I accept your criticism of the word “incomplete”, in my sentence. It would have been more precise to say “not complete recordings”. Thank you..

        • Kenneth Boggs

          No problem. Didn’t mean to criticize. Just trying to respond.

  • Joe D.

    I’d be happy if only we could all agree that the Bible is not an early version of the Encyclopedia Britannica… alas, I weep ;(

  • Muddleglum Smith

    Not a bad call on scripture, sir. But aren’t you also simplifying to some extent in talking about the kingdom of God? I have nothing against simplification as long as it results in truth. What if I say that the central point is putting the I AM in proper relationship with ourselves? In saying something less, I am saying something more.

    The Spirit uses scripture because it is hybrid material/spiritual just as we are. Also note that Paul gave us examples and a method to interpret O.T. Scripture, as well as the works of Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 10:1-12) as well as the reason we need the Spirit abiding in us. (i Cor 2) Why don’t we hear more emphasis on the fact that in Christ, we have the mind of Christ.