It’s Monday, which means it’s time to continue our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be.
As part of the series, we’re working our way through several books, and have already discussed The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Up next up is Inspiration and Incarnation, by Peter Enns. But currently, we’re discussing Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright, and today I want to discuss Chapter 8, entitled, “How to Get Back on Track.”
Wright really picks up the pace with this chapter, which begins with a reminder to readers of what he means when he talks about “the authority of scripture.”
The authority of scripture...
“The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion,” says Wright, “that the shorthand phrase ‘the authority of scripture,’ when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community...We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.”
According to Wright, “this means that ‘the authority of scripture’ is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel.”
One thing I’ve appreciated about Wright’s approach in this book is the emphasis he places on dynamic, spirit-led activity—the call to God’s people to join in God’s work of redemption, reconciliation, peace-making, and creative activity in the world. This way of speaking about the authority of Scripture stands in contrast to how it is often spoken of among Christians, as a phrase invoked to shut down conversation and bolster one particular interpretation of Scripture. (For example: “I don’t believe in evolution because, unlike you, I believe in the authority of scripture.”)
To me, Wright’s approach makes the most sense of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The authority of scripture affects the work of God’s kingdom, “at every level, from the cosmic and political through the personal,” says Wright. “Though this can happen in the supposed ‘desert island’ situation,’ where an individual reads the Bible all alone,” he says, “it normally comes about through the work of God’s people, from those who translated and published the Bible itself (even on a desert island, one is dependent on others!) to those who, like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, helped others to understand it and apply it to their own lives.”
In other words, the Bible is intended to be read, wrestled with, applied, debated, cherished, and celebrated in community.
Honoring the authority of scripture means living in dialog with previous readings and respecting tradition, Wright says. Those Christians who have come before us may have been wrong about some things, he notes, but “every key figure in the history of the church has left his, her or its mark on subsequent readings of scripture.”
“Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the church has read and lived scripture in the past. We must be constantly aware of our responsibility, in the Communion of Saints, without giving our honored predecessors the final say or making them an ‘alternative source,’ independent of scripture itself.”
This approach reminds me a little of Scot McKnight’s approach in The Blue Parakeet, where he encourages Christians to read scripture with tradition, not merely through it.
Honoring reason in the reading of scripture means “giving up merely arbitrary or whimsical readings of texts, and paying attention to lexical, historical considerations,” says Wright. This keeps us from accepting readings that propose, for example, that Jesus was really an Egyptian freemason or that the book of Mark is about overcoming alcoholism. (Apparently, these views can be found in actual published books!)
In other words, the interpretation should make sense.
Honoring reason also means “giving attention to, and celebrating, the many and massive discoveries in biology, archaeology, physics, astronomy, and so on, which shed great light on God’s world and the human condition,” says Wright. And it means engaging in civil, reasonable discourse. “This is why public discussions and debates, rather than shouting matches, are such an urgent requirement, says Wright. “Far too much discourse on contentious issues has consisted of rhetorical moves designed to wipe one’s opponent’s pieces off the board before the game has begun...Reasoned discourse is part of God’s alternative way of living, over against that of violence and chaos."
A good reminder.
Wright concludes with a five-part recommendation for approaching scripture today:
1. A totally contextual reading of scripture: “Each word must be understood within its own verse, each verse within its on chapter, each chapter within its own book, and each book within its own historical, cultural, and indeed canonical setting,” says Wright. A contextual reading of scripture also means understanding and appreciating our own contexts and the way they predispose us to “highlight some things in the Bible and quietly ignore others,” Wright adds. “Such a contextual reading is in fact an incarnational reading of scripture, paying attention to the full humanity both of the text and its readers. This must be undertaken in the prayer that the ‘divinity’—the ‘inspiration’ of scripture, and the Spirit’s power at work within the Bible-reading church—will thereby be discovered afresh.” (Love that.) This is an exhilarating process that will never be finished, Wright says, (with all the enthusiasm and joy of someone who truly loves his job as a biblical scholar).
2. A liturgically-grounded reading of scripture: “The primary place where the church hears scripture is during corporate worship,” says Wright. “This means, we must work at making sure we read scripture properly in public, with appropriate systems for choosing what to read and appropriate training to make sure those who read do so to best effect.” Anglican worship, (to which Wright is certainly partial!), at its best, serves as a “showcase for scripture” in which “the authority of God places a direct challenge to the authority of the powers that be,” and in which the reading of scripture together in community is itself an act of worship. (Wright offers some specific suggestions for preserving a liturgically-grounded reading of scripture—including warnings against dropping certain portions of scripture from liturgical readings because they are startling or strange, as well as warnings against making sermons the focus of corporate worship— that we don’t have time to discuss in detail here.)
3. A privately studied reading of scripture: “For all of this to make the deep, life-changing, Kingdom-advancing sense it is supposed to,” Wright says, “it is vital that ordinary Christians read, encounter, and study scripture for themselves, in groups and individually.” Wright notes that Western individualism tends to highlight individual reading as the primary mode, and liturgical reading as secondary, where he sees the two working hand-in-hand.
4. A reading of scripture refreshed by appropriate scholarship: “Biblical scholarship is a great gift of God to the church, aiding it in its task of going ever deeper into the meaning of scripture and so being refreshed and energized for the tasks to which we are called in and for the world,” says Wright. This means honoring the “literal sense” of scripture—not by taking everything literally, but rather seeking to understand what the writer intended. Biblical scholarship can help Christians do this better, and therefore “needs to be free to explore different meanings.” Such scholarship needs to be accessible and applicable to everyday Christians.
5. A reading of scripture taught by the church’s accredited leaders: Leaders must be trained and encouraged to keep the teaching and preaching of scripture at the heart of the church’s life, “alongside and regularly interwoven with the sacramental life focused on the Eucharist,” says Wright.
I think these are strong recommendations. I especially appreciate Wright’s emphasis on both individual and corporate readings of scripture. This is one reason why I love combining Episcopal worship on Sundays, with good, old-fashioned Bible studies on weeknights, with private “quiet time” with my Bible and a book of hours each morning and/or evenings. For me, this represents the best of all worlds, and powerfully integrates scripture into my daily life. (Too bad I rarely engage them all in a given week!)
What do you think of Wright’s five recommendations?
Where do you see your own church tradition excelling, and where do you see it falling short?