Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright (Part 1)
In an oddity of my life and research, I’ve consistently loved everything I encountered of N.T. Wright but only actually read one other book of his from start to finish before now (Simply Christian). Scripture and the Authority of God is one of a few that I have had around for a while but hadn’t read until now. So a few weeks ago I decided to work my way through it and I was definitely not disappointed. As a leading biblical scholar, a work by N.T. Wright on how to read the Bible was bound to be a complex but very important read. Out of necessity, this post and its follow-up post are going to be very simplistic in comparison. Please read the book to dig into it deeper because I think it is something that every Christian can benefit from.
Here’s the central idea of the book: the phrase “authority of Scripture” only makes sense if it is shorthand for “authority of God exercised through Scripture.” Many, particularly in Evangelical Protestantism, want to treat the Bible as the ultimate authority in and of itself. They’re well-meaning and I don’t mean this as any kind of attack but for a variety of reasons this really doesn’t work and is nothing short of idolatry. How the Scriptures speak of themselves, by contrast, is that God’s authority is working through them. That’s an important thing to always keep in mind. We do not serve a static book. We serve a living saviour. One of the ways – one of the most important ways – that God expresses his authority is through the texts of Scripture. This doesn’t demean Scripture but makes it even more powerful as it is applied to something much bigger. Scripture is not the goal; God’s Kingdom is the goal and Scripture is a very important tool in that process. If you’ve read other N.T. Wright work, you’ll know that he strongly emphasizes the Kingdom of God precisely because that’s what the Bible emphasizes.
History of Biblical Interpretation
I’ll compress a lot of the fascinating history that Wright discusses into a few paragraphs. For the first 1500 years of the church, it was understood that the Bible had meanings on multiple levels. Some of the conclusions that were drawn may sound a little ridiculous, like the common insistence that the Song of Solomon was really about the relationship between Christ and his bride the Church, but there’s no doubt that they appreciated multiple interpretations and multiple levels of meaning in Scripture. The priority was not on literal historic/scientific fact, especially since those disciplines didn’t really exist in the same way. While sometimes coming to conclusions that were a bit of a stretch (which is why tradition was also valued to provide a hermeneutical framework), it worked pretty well for 1500 years.
In the Reformation, largely as a way to separate themselves from the corrupt-at-the-time Catholic Church, Protestants embraced a stricter form of authority in sola scriptura. To clarify something, the Reformers themselves promoted sola scriptura which means that Scripture is the ultimate authority; if there was a conflict between Scripture and tradition (or something else), Scripture wins. Many of their followers subtly switched to solo scriptura, which means that Scripture is the only authority and provides the answer to everything. That’s when we start seeing interpreters reading the Bible as the ultimate authority on history, on science, on every single ethical issue including ones that didn’t exist at the time it was written, on every minute theological point, and more because we had to find ways that Scripture answered it all or else we weren’t living up to the false definition of authority we had given it.
This in many ways started the problems in biblical hermeneutics that emerged through the modern era. On one hand, conservatives/fundamentalists took the approach of boiling down the Bible’s authority to literal historical/scientific facts. Liberal theology then adopted the approach but argued that the Bible was not accurate on these literal historical/scientific facts. The whole liberal/conservative divide, only a couple hundred years old, was born. Wright argues, and I would agree completely, that contrary to the complaints in common discourse, these ways of viewing the Bible are actually far less respectful of God’s authority exercised through Scripture. Let’s look at some of these issues.
Problems with the Modernist Framework
Alister McGrath, to bring in a church historian, calls the ensuing claim that the individual has the right to interpret Scripture by him or herself “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea.” After having one church division in the first 1500 years of the church (the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic West and the Orthodox East), we now have thousands of denominations and often still hear some denominations speak bitterly against others.
Conservatives have lost any sense of author’s intent. Liberals have often spent so much time arguing the author’s intent that they don’t leave any room for practical implications. Similarly, we’ve lost any sense of the Jewish/Ancient Near Eastern story which lies underneath all Scripture (if you accused Anabaptists of being especially bad for this, you’d probably have a good argument). This cuts us out of massive depths of meaning.
Church tradition has been seen as harmful and conservatives and liberals both tend to assume that if certain church tradition says it then it is probably wrong. Conservatives automatically reject anything older than the Reformation or outside of their specific tradition and liberals automatically reject anything conservative. In reality, there’s a lot we can learn from the centuries of others who have faithfully tried to interpret Scripture just as we try to do now.
Liberals and conservatives alike have agreed that the only thing which matters is getting your theology precisely right and aggressively judging those who disagree. Similarly, we have transferred modern politic’s left-right spectrum onto theology, villainizing our “opponents” instead of embracing diversity in the family. This is vastly different than the approach of Scripture.
All of these pale in comparison to the big problem, though: we have lost the original purpose of Scripture: a tool for God’s work establishing his Kingdom. This is how Scripture defines itself:
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
In the second half of my review for Scripture and the Authority of God, I’ll follow along with Wright and look more at what it means to read the Bible for this purpose instead of the modernist liberal or conservative lenses.