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.
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.
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