What is Scripture? (Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright)

This is part 2  of the series blogging through the book Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright. You might want to start with part 1. 

When the question is asked – what is Scripture? – what is the first thing that pops into your head?

Was it the revelation of God, 66 infallible books, or Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth? Whatever your answer was, this is the question raised by Wright in the closing pages of chapter one. He is not asking the question regarding how many books, which books, or these kinds of questions we might have when posed with that idea. Nor has he grappled with views on inspiration or inerrancy.

Rather his aim is to explore the question what does Scripture contain that makes it authoritative? In the closing pages of chapter 1 under the section Transcending Revelation, Wright says that scripture is more than simply “conveying information” or a “record of revelation”. His goal is to help us grapple with the idea that scripture should be understood as more than “merely conveying true religious, theological, or ethical information” but as the story of God’s mission to renew creation.

Initially I struggled with what Wright really meant by this section. This book is based on the lecture and subsequent essay, How can the Bible be Authoritative (pdf), which was originally published in Vox Evangelica back in 1991. Even though the book is supposed to be a more lengthy treatment on this topic, the essay gives a more clear picture of what Wright seems to be asserting here. At least it did for me.

He lists three methods that ‘belittle the Bible’ as they attempt to make use of the scriptures in an authoritative way. These three methods are treating the Bible as a ‘repository of timeless truths’, a ‘witness to primary events’, and/or as having a ‘timeless function to perform’.

The problem with seeing the scriptures as a authoritative because they are a repository of timeless truth, according to Wright,  is that the reader can lose sight of the fact that each book of the Bible was written at a specific point in history within the context of a particular culture.

There are some senses in which that is true. But the sense in which it is normally meant is certainly not true. The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned. It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth. It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time. He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be.

This is a good precaution and reminder that we need to wrestle and work through what the text says and what that meant within its historical setting and literary form. However I am not sure why this prevents us from digging out truths and principles that are timeless and authoritative (more on this later).

The problem with understanding scriptures as a authoritative because they are a witness to primary events, according to Wright, is that we shift authority  away from Scripture and onto the historical event.

[Taking scripture as a witness to primary events] has the merit of taking seriously the historical setting, the literal sense of the text. The problem about that, however, can be seen quite easily. Supposing we actually dug up Pilate’s court records, and supposing we were able to agree that they gave a fair transcript of Jesus’ trial. Would they be authoritative in any of the normal senses in which Christians have claimed that the Bible is authoritative? I think not. … authority has shifted from the Bible itself to the historically reconstructed event or experience. We are not really talking about the authority of the Bible at all.

Wright’s problem with understanding scriptures as authoritative because of the timeless function they perform is the most unclear to me, given the direction Wright is going. The book is highlighting the need to view scriptures as a meta-story which has the function (which I assume is timeless) of calling people to take part in that story. Yet he claims that this idea does not do justice to the Bible.

For Bultmann, the New Testament functioned (among other things) as issuing the timeless call to decision. For Ignatius and those who have taught Jesuit spirituality, it can be used in a timeless sense within pastoral practice. Now, this is not a million miles from certain things which I shall be suggesting later on in this lecture as appropriate uses of scripture. But at the level of theory it is vital that we say, once more, that such uses in and of themselves are not what is primarily meant when we say that the Bible is authoritative: or, if they are, that they thereby belittle the Bible, and fail to do justice to the book as we actually have it.

The problem in a nutshell:

Once again, it is not really the Bible that is being regarded as the “real” authority. It is something else.

Basically [these methods] imply … that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves, translation procedures or whatever.

I don’t think Wright is denying that scripture contains timeless truth, is a witness to primary events, or lacks timeless purposes, although that impression can be left on the reader. He rather is stating that these do not make the scripture authoritative because they shift that authority elsewhere. However, what is still unclear at this point in the book is how his solution to this problem differs from these other methods. Lastly, I am not sure how treating scriptures as a narrative will not require its own “hermeneutical moves” that will involve all of the methods above.

[Continue reading through the series: part 3]

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