A few months ago I printed this article by N.T. Wright entitled How Can The Bible Be Authoritative? and put it into by bag, excited to get it home and pop into my mental toaster until well-browned. Of course, I only got around to reading it a week or so ago . I was still mulling over it (I still am!) when I was pleasantly surprised with posts by both Jaybercrow and Zoomtard on the matter (Zoomy also has an older post here).
Both Jayber and Zoomy are both positively bubbly about Wright’s article. This is a common phenomenon among those of us who while away the wee hours, our spouse sleeping soundly by our side, contemplating what it would be like to steal Bishop Wright’s brain and use it as our own.
There is much fantastic discussion in Wright’s article about the nature of authority (and specifically, the sort of authority God exercises and more specifically the sort of authority he exercises through scripture) which by itself should make the article required reading.
In the course of the article Wright offers a critique of the usual evangelical views of scripture and then attempts to offer a solution. His critique is based on two main complaints. Firstly, despite the fact that the Bible, or at least large chunks of it, has been given to us in the form of story/narrative, evangelicals have refused to recognise this and have instead treated the stories as source material for the construction of a list of “timeless truths”. This having been accomplished, these truths — largely freed from the shackles of narrative — are declared to be authoritative. In this way we, in a sense, accuse God of giving us the wrong sort of book and work hard, in effect, at producing the sort of book God should have given us in the first place (a manual for life, or a systematic theology, or whatever). Wright’s second (and, to an extent, underlying) complaint is that evangelicals have, by and large, refused to recognise that such efforts to extract timeless truths from scripture involves the act of interpretation, viz. more often than not it is not “the” set of timeless truths evangelicals proclaim to be authoritative but “our” set of truths — conditioned by our cultural positioning, our tradition, our prejudices, our hermeneutical biases, &c.
Wright offers an alternative way to view the way in which scripture might function as authoritative. Here is Jayber’s summary of it:
He [Wright] asks us to imagine that someone discovers a lost Shakespeare play, but that the fifth and final act has been lost. Rather than have someone write a fifth act, the existing parts are given to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who are asked to immerse themselves in the story, and then work out a fifth act for themselves. You can see where this is going:
“The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that some character was now behaving inconsistently, or that some sub-plot or themeâ€¦ had not reached its proper conclusion. This authority of the first four acts would not consist – could not consist! – in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier parts of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, containing its own impetus and forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in an appropriate manner. It would require of the actors a free and responsible entering into the story…”
Wright suggests that in the Bible we have been given the first four acts of the Story (Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus), as well as hints as to how it will end. Our job is to immerse ourselves in the Story, and then improvise the fifth act in the power of the Spirit. Simple!
This is an interesting proposition, one which I am unwilling to pronounce much judgement on until I have thought over it much more carefully. Wright is a man to be grappled with, not dismissed. To make the situation more difficult, Wright refrains from giving too much detail as to what the practical hermeneutical implications of this way of viewing scripture’s authority might be. However, there is one element I want to write about now, hoping to prompt some discussion.
Leaving aside whether or not I agree with his conclusions, I think I can wholeheartedly agree with Wright on both of his premisses. Much of Scripture comes to us as narrative. This fact must be taken seriously. We cannot treat scripture like “an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes”. Furthermore, the role of the interpretive act in the process of our reason reading scripture and producing “timeless truth” must be acknowledged, and mere interpretation (i.e. doctrine) can never be given the place of authority reserved for scripture. We cannot “use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology” and we cannot make the “assumption … that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying.” The proper place for hermeneutics is within the body of Christ — this includes all who believe and have faith in Christ and call upon his name. Scripture becomes authoritative only in the context of dialogue within the entire corporate body of Christ as a whole.
However, it would be wrong to say that a solution to the problem of premiss number one (which is what Wright’s suggestion is) is also necessarily a solution to the problem of premiss number 2. Now, Jayber (and Zoomy too, or so it seems to me from his older post) seem to think that Wright’s solution to problem one does in fact constitute a solution to problem two. Thus Jayber says:
“Crucially, you can challenge my improvisation if it seems to be in discord with the first four acts, if it is not in harmony with the whole flow and direction and spirit of the Story.”
But, my chances of challenging Jayber’s “improvisation” are no better than my chances of challenging his assertion of a “timeless truth” he has culled from scripture. They depend entirely on his (that is, Jayber’s) character — it seems to me my chances of entering into dialogue with Jayber are equal in each case. The problem is this – the act of deciding what constitutes an improvisation in accord with the first four acts of God’s great big cosmic west end musical is really equivalent to the act of deciding what timeless truths are contained within scripture. Each involves “interpretation”, the exercise of ones hermeneutics, each is bound to be influenced by ones presuppositions, &c. Wright’s proposal really doesn’t or so it seems to me at present, release us from the pressure of being hermeneutically responsible, it merely exchanges “acceptable improvisations” for “acceptable truths” in our dogmatic systems. Of course, this may be a good thing (it might, for one thing, allow us to forget about our dogmas and actually live out our truth in the final act) but I don’t feel it really solves the (second) problem.
Zoomy says “Often, authority has meant, ‘our interpretation’ and instead of it being used as a measuring rod against which to moderate our own community, it has been used as a weapon to beat up other communities”, and he’s right. However, I don’t feel Wright’s proposal really rectifies this, although it may perhaps push us in the right direction toward a more body-oriented view of the interpretation of scripture which might solve the problem.
What does everybody else think?