What is Biblical Authority

lastword The other day I finished reading The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture by N.T. Wright.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  It's fairly short, coming in around 120 pages, but Wright is able to communicate a lot in that time.  He goes through a quick history of how "authority of scripture" has been used and understood.  There are chapters on "Scripture and Jesus," "the 'Word of God' in the Apostolic Church," The Enlightenment, and so on.

There's a lot of argument about how we are to understand and figure out what the Bible has to say, and what we're to do about it (in the Christian and non-Christian communities).  In my experience many of the criticisms of the Bible, and many of the seemingly stupid opinions Christians have, are largely attributable to a misunderstanding of what the Bible is in the first place.  We misunderstand what it is and then we misunderstand how to get information from it or what it's trying to say - then we make it say things it doesn't say and criticize it for things it doesn't say because we think it says those things. (Got that?)

Several worthwhile quotes present themselves in the book, but I'll just put one or two down here that I found helpful and that characterize some of his points in the book.

Here we have the roots of a fully Christian theology of scriptural authority: planted firmly in the soil of the missionary community, confronting the powers of the world with the news of the Kingdom of God, refreshed and invigorated by the Spirit, growing particularly through the preaching and teaching of the apostles, and bearing fruit in the transformation of human lives as the start of God's project to put the whole cosmos to rights. (p. 50)

The above quote comes from Wright discussing the use of scripture in the Early Church.  The Bible is more than just an encyclopedia of religious factoids - it's one of the ways God has decided to work in the world and through people.

Once you can make scripture stand on its hind legs and dance a jig, it becomes a tame pet rather than a roaring lion.  It is no longer "authoritative" in any strict sense; that is, it may be cited as though in "proof" of some point or other, but it is not leading the way, energizing the church with the fresh breath of God himself. The question must always be asked, whether scripture is being used to serve and existing theology or vice versa. (p. 70)

Here Wright discusses how it's important for us to try to find the message within the Bible instead of putting our own meaning onto it.  If God has used the Bible to speak, then what's important is hearing the message, not inventing it.  There is a definite message in there to be found.  Our method of discerning the message is what often leads to conflict.  I like Wright's suggestions in this area.  Historically Christians have put the sources of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience at odds.  We say "my tradition values scripture, while this other tradition values reason."  It's a way of considering what our final authority will be - is our authority scripture or is it reason?  I think Wright has good stuff to say about how to move past that often unhelpful model:

To change the picture, scripture, tradition, and reason are not like three different bookshelves, each of which can be ransacked for answers to key questions.  Rather, scripture is the bookshelf; tradition is the memory of what people in the house have read and understood (or perhaps misunderstood) from that shelf; and reason is the set of spectacles that people wear in order to make sense of what they read - though, worryingly, the spectacles have varied over time, and there are signs that some readers, using the "reason" available to them, have severely distorted the texts they were reading. 'Experience' is something different again, referring to the effect on readers of what they read, and/or the worldview, the life experience, the political circumstances, and so on, within which that reading takes place. (p. 101-102)

This post has already gone on too long.  Suffice it to say if you want to consider some more mature ways of looking at what the Bible has to say or if you're at all interested in the current discourse on Biblical interpretation, I suggest you take a look at this book.  Whether you think the Bible is the Word of God or you think it's a book of fairy tales, this is a way to seriously interact with some of the more thoughtful ways Christians are looking at the Bible.  I think it's useful for either group.

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