N.T. Wright, is a noted Bible scholar and the former Anglican bishop of Durham. He is probably best known as an advocate for the “New Perspective on Paul”. He has written a book, Scripture and the Authority of God, which explores ‘the role of the Bible within the church’s mission and common life’. Wright is currently posting a six part series on this topic over at BioLogos and Rachel Held Evans is opening up weekly discussions on the book as she reads through it. I have been interested in reading this book so I am using the current activity to read through it myself.
In chapter 1, Wright explains that many refer to the Scriptures as having authority, but few explain what they mean by this statement. He compares this statement to a suitcase which allows us to carry around lots of ideas about what the authority of scripture means. The book is about unpacking and examining the contents of the suitcase.
When we take the phrase “authority of scripture” out of its suitcase, then, we recognize that it can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture’s authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possess and that which Jesus possesses as the risen Lord and Son of God, the Immanuel. (emphasis in original)
This seems straight-forward (and is certainly a good reminder), after all, as the Gospel according to Matthew, records (Matt 28:18; NET):
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. – Jesus
And the Bible is really our compass to point us to our Savior (John 5:39-40; NET).
You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life. – Jesus
The topic of authority fits well with the idea that as Christians we are ‘under authority’, which we explored as part of the series on how to be an elite Christian.
After unpacking the “authority of scripture”, Wright then opens up a series of questions (summarized from the blog series and the book):
- If Jesus has authority, what do we mean by authority?
- How does Jesus exercise His authority through the Bible?
- How does this relate to the authority of leaders in the church?
- Since the Bible is mostly narrative, how can a story be authoritative?
That last question is interesting. Wright points out that much of the Scriptures are not lists of rules, nor theological treatises, but are actually narrative. This is true. Much of the OT consists of accounts of Abraham, Moses, David, and the history of Israel. In the NT we have gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did and the book of Acts records the history of the early church. So how can a story be authoritative?
Wright will hopefully go into more detail, but, in this opening chapter, he explains that an authoritative story is one where ‘the narrative will bring [us] up to date’ with what has been going on and then invite us to ‘act out the next chapter in the ongoing saga’. Therefore Scripture is currently an ‘unfinished story in which readers of scripture are invited to become actors in their own right’.
This too seems straight-forward. We are asked to follow Jesus, make disciples, and be His witnesses not stare into the sky waiting around for Jesus to return (Acts 1:6-8;NET).
So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him,“Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.”
The authority of God is tied to the Kingdom of God, which Wright defines as God working to accomplish the renewal of creation.
The biblical writers live with the tension of believing both that in one sense God has always been sovereign over the world and that in another sense this sovereignty, this saving rule, is something which must break afresh into the world of corruption, decay, and death, and the human rebellion, idolatry, and sin which are so closely linked with it. … The Jewish hope was that God’s Kingdom would break into their world, to set them free from oppression and put the world to rights. …
God’s authority, if we are to locate it at this point, is his sovereign power accomplishing this renewal of all creation. … God’s purpose is not just to save human beings, but to renew the whole world.
The idea of creation being corrupted and in need of renewal was explored in a previous post. This invites the question:
- What role does Scripture play as God works to renew creation?
While I suspect Wright is leading us down a road whose destination will be narrative theology, I agree with much of what he has outlined so far.
- Jesus is the one to Whom all authority was given.
- any authority Scripture has is ultimately derived from God.
- much of Scripture is in the narrative literary form, and that the meta-narrative of Scripture is that creation is corrupted and needs renewal.
- the renewal of creation will not be completed until Jesus’ return.
- Scripture calls us to be part of the ‘unfinished’ story by living our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
[Continue reading through the series: part 2]