This is part 4 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 and work your way through the series.
Exploring the authority of Scripture opens up lots of questions as one wrestles through how scripture can have “authority”, what that might mean, and how to put it into practice.
Some of these questions include:
- authority – what do we mean when we use the word authority?
- inspiration – was God involved in the writing process of the Scriptures, and if so how?
- inerrancy – to what extant is the text free from errors, contradictions, and inaccuracies? if the text is free from these problems, is that across all matters including historical, scientific, and spiritual or does this only apply to spiritual matters?
- canon – how do we know if we have the right books in the collection we call the Bible? how was the canon assembled? who has the “right” to discover and affirm which books are actually part of the canon?
- transmission – do we have the text that was originally written by the authors? what kind of errors are in the manuscripts we have and how do we handle them?
- interpretation – how do we approach interpreting the text so that we understand what it means and how we can apply it today? should we use a narrative approach, look for allegorical meanings, or treat the text literally? what is meant by literal? how do we bridge historical, cultural, and philosophical differences that exist between the writing of a book and today?
How one addresses the questions raised in each of these areas will have a major impact on how one views the authority of scripture and then applies that to their personal life and the local church community they are a part of. Needless to say these important issues to wrestle through.
We looked at Wright’s brief explanation of his view on inspiration already. In this post we will look at Wright’s views on the canon. Rather than focus on what he says within a single chapter, we will look at a series of statements made throughout the book. Wright explores the purpose of canonization of certain books as a way to identify those books which God has given to His people.
The emergence of a “canon” of scripture, though it has been controversial in some respects in recent discussion, was at its heart an attempt to track the way in which these books had become formative for the life of God’s people, to honor the fact that God had somehow given them to his people, to remind Israel to honor them and attend to them appropriately. (35-36)
Wright highlights some of the challenges and controversies that are mounted against the canon, including suggestions that the early church suppressed ‘”alternative” modes of early Christianity’ and excluded their texts to remove other ‘vibrant forms of early Christian living’. Another challenge often alleged against the canon is that the church included certain books as part of an attempt to gain power and control. Wright tells us that these controversies have little basis historically reminding us that
those who were being burned alive, thrown to lions, or otherwise persecuted, tortured and killed were normally those who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and the rest. … [Irenaeus’] writings make abundantly clear, it was the canonical scriptures that sustained the early church in its energetic mission and its commitment, startling to the watching pagan world, to a radical holiness. (64-65)
Wright does challenge both conservative and liberal handling of scripture (108-111). Those related to the canon include the conservatives ‘implicit canon-within-the-canon’ where an arbitrary set of books and texts in the canonical scriptures are elevated over others based on what they want to stress. This is in contrast with dealing with all of the books in the canon as equally scripture and handling them within the proper context.
On the liberal side the tendency to down play the Bible because of claims that science has disproved some of its teachings, that the Bible is not culturally relevant today, and because they
claim the New Testament writers did not think they were writing “scripture”
the church took awhile to settle on the precise canon … and using this as an argument for discrediting the canon
However, Wright counters that although the writers may not have envisioned a canon like we have today, they clearly saw themselves as writing under the authority of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit.
Paul is most conscious that he is writing as one authorized, by the apostolic call he had received from Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Spirit, to bring life and order to the church by his words. … This is not to say, of course, that the writers of the New Testament specifically envisaged a time when their books would be collected together and form something like what we now know as the canon. I doubt very much if such an idea ever crossed their minds. But that they were conscious of a unique vocation to write Jesus-shaped, Spirit-led, church shaping books, as part of their strange first-generation calling, we should not doubt. (51-52)
Which brings us back around to the idea that the canonization process while messy was – in Wright’s view – focused on identifying those books which filled out the larger story of God and His working toward the renewal of all creation:
canonization of scripture, both Jewish and Christian, was no doubt complicated by all kinds of less-than-perfect human motivations, as indeed in the writing of scripture in the first place. But canonization was never simply a matter of a choice of particular books on a “who’s in, who’s out” basis. It was a matter of setting out the larger story, the narrative framework, which makes sense of and brings order to God’s world and God’s people. (64)
While I felt Wright did readers a disservice in not going into more details explaining inspiration and its implications on authority in the book, I think he made a wise choice in briefly highlighting the issue of the canon development. This is a complex topic that is important to how one views the scriptures but whose details would go beyond the scope of the book.
I will begin re-posting a series I wrote on the canon while also adding to them over the next few weeks.
Do you think these issues are important to how one views the authority of scripture?
Are there other questions or issues you would add to that list?
[Continue reading through the series: part 5]