Friday, March 10, 2006

Suffering and the sovereignty of God

I want to follow up on what Lisa wrote in the previous post "Gospel of Signs and Wonders" in which she gave an overview of what is wrong with the theology presented by Bill Johnson in his book "When Heaven Invades Earth" before moving on to other issues. Apart from the changing of the central message of the bible (Man and his ruined state and God's redemption of man through the death of Jesus Christ) one of the things that disturbs me most is the view of suffering presented by Johnson and many others in the evangelical world. To quote Johnson:
"The same misconception about God affecst those who need to have faith for their own miracle. A woman who needed a miracle once told me she believed God had allowed her sickness for a purpose. I told her if I treated my children that way I'd be locked up for child abuse" (p.45 WHIE) Johnson explains the woman eventually sided with him and received healing.

Now like almost every sentence from this book I could address several errors for example the idea that God is waiting to heal we just need to tap in by "faith". I simply want to focus on Johnson's accusation that if God ordains sickness He is a child abuser.

I) We deserve nothing but wrath from God

a)Do we understand what mercy is?

To say that it would be unfair of God to operate in such a way is not a biblical charge but a humanistic man centered one, note that Johnson appeals to human standards to justify that it would be wrong for God to deal in such a way. The biblical view is one in which man has absolutely no grounds upon which to quibble and accuse God of injustice for God is the very embodiment of justice, He is the standard of what is just. As rebels we deserve nothing but judgement from God and any goodness we may enjoy (such as the sun shining on Wisconsin as I write) is sheer mercy. To go to scripture Jacob, as Esau is about to meet him after years of being apart, is terrified and is inspired to pray in this manner:
"O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me 'Return to your country and to your family and I will deal well with you, I am not worthy of the least of your mercies and of all the truth you have shown your servant..." (Gen 32:9-10)

David when he had sinned prayed in this manner:
"Have mercy upon me according to your lovingkndness; according to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions." (Ps 51:1)
The very essence of mercy is not getting what we deserve, namely wrath.

Jesus gives an excellent description of mercy when confronted with tragic stories in Israel:
"There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them 'Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered such things? I tell you no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think the were worse sinners than all other men in Jerusalem? I tell you no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish." (Lk 13:1-5)

The point that Jesus is getting across is that everyone deserves to have their blood mingled with sacrifices and towers fall upon them. These men on which these tragedies occurred were no more deserving of the judgment than those who were listening to Jesus talk. Thus the real question is not "Is it fair for God to allow such things to occur?" The real question is "Is it fair of God to not have the roof crumble upon me as I write these words!" Jesus' point is that we all deserve to come to such ends but it is sheer mercy that we have woken up this day and took in breath. What I am trying to get across is the reality of God's mercy which we take for granted every day, none of us have gotten what we deserve.

b) Justice?
Thus the accusation against God of being a child abuser for having a purpose behind our trials and suffering is absurd, for it applies a fallen human standard of Justice to a infinitely perfect God. If we deserve nothing but wrath to begin with, what quibble can we raise if God out of His goodness ordains trials and hardships in the lives of men for a purpose which He alone knows? As I said above God Himself is the standard of justice, no creature can ever rightfully bring a charge against the creator. As Job said "I put my hand over my mouth"(Job 40:4)

What grieves me is that we expect the unsaved to bring charges against God, but when Christian leaders fall right in step with the spirit of the age with its humanistic indictments of God I think it is tragic. People raise the question "Where was God when hurricane Katrina hit?" or "How can God be good when there is so much suffering?" I think these are valid questions for doubters to ask, the problem I have is when Christian leaders cop out to humanistic values and join in the remonstrance against God's justice. Saying things like "God wasn't in this tragedy, it was outside His control, but come trust Him and He will comfort you." Extra-biblical mop-ups to appease the consciences of the unconverted are common (I dealt with some examples in post 1 problems that arise from synergism) but what does the Bible say about God's involvement in suffering and tragedy?
"'See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand." (Deut 32:39)

"The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts" (1 Sam 26-7)

"Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him." (Hos 6:1-2)

Looking at these passages I think it is clear that God is in the business of wounding that He might heal. These two things are clear I think, 1. God is in the trials, and 2. The trials God orders have a purpose. These are passages dealing with Israel their trials which God had created, and out of His mercy the trials clearly had a purpose.

II) Purposed Suffering

I think from the above scriptures it is clear that God is sovereign over suffering. I think it is also clear Johnson and all who would bring a charge against God's sovereignty in suffering are imposing a fallen man made/centered standard of justice upon God (another example is Geisler and Pearls' accusation that irresistible grace is rape). The final points I want to make and destroy this theological cyclops, will deal with God's purpose behind suffering.

a)Does God inflict trials/suffering upon His people?

I think I know what Johnson would say in response to this question based upon the quote and the underlying theology I am trying to refute. To go to scripture, As it is written:
"And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. Whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives." (Heb 12:6)

"Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent." (Rev 3:19)

It is obvious that the people whom God loves are chastened, but someone who is pretty staunch in the anti-sovereign suffering mindset could say "Well that doesn't seem to talk about suffering maybe chasten merely means correct when we are going off the path." I think that this response is half right. I think that it is absolutely true that discipline is a correction of error. However the correction of lukewarmness may indeed be a suffering trial, which results in heartily crying to God. Luther calls this the 'alien' work of God, it could be as simple as crying babies or lines at the DMV, but the purpose is to reveal our sin to us resulting in hearty repentance.

"But what about pain" one may ask "is God behind sickness?" Lisa responded briefly by pointing us to Paul:
" So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor 12:7-10)

Most scholars believe this thorn to be blindness. The fact that Paul in the midst of the trials saw a purpose of God should tell us how we are to view our own struggles.

b) Means to an end

To give further biblical evidence of the sovereignty of God in suffering is not easy, not easy because there are so many examples to choose from. The two that I think stand out most are the testimonies of Joseph and Christ.
As we know Joseph was sold by his jealous brothers to slave traders and was consequently sold to be a slave in Egypt. Joseph was blessed by God and became the overseer of all that was his master's until his master's wife accused him of rape. Next he was thrown into a dungeon only to later be exalted to the second most powerful man in the world. Joseph later forgives his brothers when they come as beggars before him as it says:

When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him."
"So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this command before he died,
'Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.' And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, "Behold, we are your servants." But Joseph said to them, "Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." (Gen 50:16-20)

The death of Christ of course is the highest example of God's purpose in suffering. Jesus didn't happen to tick the wrong people off and oops the messiah was crucified. No, the death of Christ was designed by God for a purpose.

"this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." (Acts 2:23)

For what purpose did Christ suffer?
"Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. "
(Rom 5:19-20)

c) Where do Johnson's ideas arise from?

In light of the overwhelming testimony from scripture showing that God is indeed behind our suffering and has a purpose in it, I ask where do Johnson and Christians get these anti-sovereign views of suffering?
I think it is a case in point example of cultural ideas and the spirit of the age interpreting the character of God. Our culture, says Francis Schaeffer, has 2 dominant values: 1.Personal peace and 2.Affluence. We see the church catering directly to these values via health wealth and prosperity teaching. Therefore to have a view of God who orders and designs suffering (the destruction of personal peace) is a monstrosity in our cultural environment. So Christians are left with the options of changing God's involvement in suffering (that He has none) or being counter cultural. And frankly it's easier to tell people what they want to hear rather than what they need (this is the back bone of the emergent church movement).

III) Conclusion
One more brief thought.....

As I looked over Johnson's book I found error underlying at least half of the sentences I read, but to bring up one more statement of his I found extremely presumptuous he says:
"All of church history is built upon a partial revelation. Everything that has happened in the church over the past 1900 years has fallen short of what the early church had and lost. [...] Yet not even the early church fulfilled what God had intended for His people." (WHIE p.186-187)

Good night! It's a good thing Mr.Johnson is here to set Christianity, which has been sub par since its inception, straight. Am I crazy here or doesn't a statement as sweeping as that reek of presumption and error? He might as well say "The church has always failed because it didn't realize what I realize." Isn't that a little arrogant?

I personally would be very hesitant to call men who bled and died for their testimony of Jesus Christ sub par Christians. I find it very hypocritical that Johnson will make such a pummeling statement on all Christendom yet declare autonomy from criticism of his theology repeatedly throughout the book.

To conclude I haven't given a refutation of Johnson's entire book to do that would take a book in itself due to the mass amounts of error in it. Rather I took up the suffering issue because this issue is precious to me, the fact that my trials have a purpose and that God really is working all to the good of His church is a great comfort. I do pray for healings for sick friends, but I do not demand them from God.

Ultimately I think this verse sums up the right perspective towards trials of all kinds for believers:
"I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Phi 4:12-13)

John Piper has recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer, he has written an article that fits perfectly with this issue called "If God wills Disease Should we Work to eradicate it?" the link is here: http://www.desiringgod.org/library/fresh_words/2006/030806.html

4 comments:

renee ershbock said...

i so agree, well at least in part.. i too find comfort in knowing that God has a purpose in whatever suffering may come my way... that's what i was thinking before i got to the end of your post... i think the thing he overlooks (bill Johnson) is that the arguement is lost either way... if you say it's wrong for God to cause a sickness you may think you made a point for God, but then there's still the question of how or why God would allow it... and allong iwith that is the question of whether God just isn't powerful enough to overcome whatever is the so said cause... unless it's just lack of faith, than like you said, a humanistic view, because than it's wewho control God... but anyway, i do think there is an odd balance that may never be fully pin-pointed, at least not by me, and that is between this and the reality of a fallen world, and just in calling it fallen you have to account for the fact that it's not God's plan... it is "short of His glory" as it were, and so there has to be at least some acknowledgement that there are many things happening in this world that aren't what God wants for us...

Dr. md Edward Joseph Ershbock Jr. said...

HERESEY! (pounding on table) HERESEY! (pounding on table) All I got to say brother is, "blab it grab it, name it claim it, shout it God will be about it, yell it smell it, say it spray it, rant it decant it!" just kidding just wanted to put a fire under your rear. thought it might give you a burst of new theological zeal. jesus did say that if your child asks for a fish would you give him a serpent or if your child asks for a loaf of bread would you give him a stone or if the local crack head asks for better crack would you not give it to him. well that last part was the eje transliteration but I think it makes a validated point of reference to the preceding concept. Only God knows good and we are not capable of seeing it clearly for ourselves. as the tao so clearly ilustrates with the story of the father to a father. we live in perpetual subjectivity and God is all in all objective in the universe. the eternal point of reference. selah-

N.T. Wright said...

HOW CAN THE BIBLE BE AUTHORITATIVE?*
N T WRIGHT
I am very grateful for the invitation to give this particular lecture. I should perhaps say that
my reflections here arise not so much from reading lots of books about the authority of the
Bible – though I have read some of the recent ones – but from the multiple experience I find
myself having, of studying and teaching the New Testament at an academic level, of regular
liturgical worship in which the Bible plays a central part, and of evangelistic and pastoral
work, in which, again, though not always so obviously, the Bible is at or at least near the
heart of what one is doing. What I want to offer to you has therefore something of the mood,
for me, of reflection on reality. I am trying to understand what it is that I am doing, not least
so that I can do it (I hope) less badly, in a less muddled fashion. But I hope that this will not
give you the impression that the issues are private to myself. I believe that they are highly
important if we are to be the people that we are supposed to be, as Christians in whatever
sphere of life.
The question before us, then, is: how can the Bible be authoritative? This way of putting
it carries, deliberately, two different though related meanings, and I shall look at them in
turn. First, how can there be such a thing as an authoritative book? What sort of claim are
we making about a book when we say that it is “authoritative”? Second, by what means can
the Bible actually exercise its authority? How is it to be used so that its authority becomes
effective? The first question subdivides further, and I want to argue two things as we look at
it. (1) I shall argue that usual views of the Bible – including usual evangelical views of the
Bible - are actually too low, and do not give it the sufficient weight that it ought to have. (2)
I shall then suggest a different way of envisaging authority from that which I think most
Christians normally take. Under the second, I shall address various issues that arise when we
consider how the Bible can actually do the job that, as Christians, we claim God has given it
to do. This will involve looking at biblical authority in relation, particularly, to the church
task and to the church’s own life.
AN AUTHORITATIVE BOOK?
Authority?
Our generation has a problem about authority. In church and in state we use the word
“authority” in different ways, some positive and some negative. We use it in secular senses.
We say of a great footballer that he stamped his authority on the game. Or we say of a great
musician that he or she gave an authoritative performance of a particular concerto. Within
more structured social gatherings the question “Who’s in charge?” has particular function.
For instance, if someone came into a lecture room and asked, “Who’s in charge?” the answer
would presumably be either the lecturer or the chairman, if any. If, however, a group of
people went out to dinner at a restaurant and somebody suddenly came in and said, “Who’s
in charge here?” the question might not actually make any sense. We might be a bit puzzled
as to what authority might mean in that structure. Within a more definite structure, however,
such as a law court or a college or a business, the question “Who’s in charge?” or “What
does authority mean here?” would have a very definite meaning, and could expect a fairly
* The Laing Lecture 1989, and the Griffith Thomas Lecture 1989.
3
clear answer. The meaning of “authority”, then, varies considerably according to the context
within which the discourse is taking place. It is important to realize this from the start, not
least because one of my central contentions is going to be that we have tended to let the word
“authority” be the fixed point and have adjusted “scripture” to meet it, instead of the other
way around.
Authority in the Church
Within the church, the question of what we mean by authority has had particular focal points.
It has had practical questions attached to it. How are things to be organized within church
life? What are the boundaries of allowable behavior and doctrine? In particular, to use the
sixteenth-century formulation, what are those things necessary to be believed upon pain of
damnation? But it has also had theoretical sides to it. What are we looking for when we are
looking for authority in the church? Where would we find it? How would we know when
we had found it? What would we do with authoritative documents, people or whatever, if we
had them? It is within that context that the familiar debates have taken place, advocating the
relative weight to be given to scripture, tradition and reason, or (if you like, and again in
sixteenth-century terms) to Bible, Pope and Scholar. Within the last century or so we have
seen a fourth, to rival those three, namely emotion or feeling. Various attempts are still being
made to draw up satisfactory formulations of how these things fit together in some sort of a
hierarchy: ARCIC is here one of several attempts.
Evangelical Views
Most heirs of the Reformation, not least evangelicals, take it for granted that we are to give
scripture the primary place and that everything else has to be lined up in relation to scripture.
There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do
not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as
applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any “tradition.” This is
rather like the frequent Anglican assumption (being an Anglican myself I rather cherish this)
that Anglicans have no doctrine peculiar to themselves: it is merely that if something is true
the Church of England believes it. This, though not itself a refutation of the claim not to
have any “tradition”, is for the moment sufficient indication of the inherent unlikeliness of
the claim’s truth, and I am confident that most people, facing the question explicitly, will not
wish that the claim be pressed. But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give
me some cause for concern. First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted positivism: we
imagine that we are “reading the text straight,” and that if somebody disagrees with us it
must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using “presuppositions” of this or that
sort. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the
second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase “authority of scripture” when
they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made
that we (evangelicals or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is
saying. And, though there is more than a grain of truth in such claims, they are by no means
the whole truth, and to imagine that they are is to move from theology to ideology. If we are
not careful, the phrase “authority of scripture” can, by such routes, come to mean simply,
“the authority of the evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.”
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Biblical Authority: the Problem
When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling
people or situations. They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the
church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are
upheld and transmitted to the next generation. “Authority” is the place where we go to find
out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all
kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible. Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it
there to control the church? Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that
we, for some reason, already know?
As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be
“no”. Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations – lists of commands to be
obeyed. Nor does it consist of creeds – lists of things to be believed. And often, when there
ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the
purpose of the writing in question. One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense,
that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible. For the most part the Bible
itself is much more concerned with doing a whole range of other things rather than talking
about itself. There are, of course, key passages, especially at transition moments like 2
Timothy or 2 Peter, where the writers are concerned that the church of the next generation
should be properly founded and based. At precisely such points we find statements emerging
about the place of scripture within the life of the church. But such a doctrine usually has to
be inferred. It may well be possible to infer it, but it is not (for instance) what Isaiah or Paul
are talking about. Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels. He
isn’t constantly saying, “What about scripture? What about scripture?” It is there
sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it. And the attempt
by many evangelicals to argue a general doctrine of scripture out of the use made of the Old
Testament in the New is doomed to failure, despite its many strong points; precisely because
the relations between the Old and New Testaments is not the same as the relations between
the New Testament and ourselves.1 If we look in scripture to find out where in practice
authority is held to lie, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antithesis
at all. As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.
The question of biblical authority, of how there can be such a thing as an authoritative
Bible, is not, then, as simple as it might look. In order to raise it at all, we have to appreciate
that it is a sub-question of some much more general questions. (1) How can any text function
as authoritative? Once one gets away from the idea of a rule-book such as might function as
authoritative in, say, a golf club, this question gets progressively harder. (2) How can any
ancient text function as authoritative? If you were a Jew, wanting to obey the Torah (or
perhaps, obey the Talmud) you would find that there were all sorts of difficult questions
about how a test, written so many years ago, can function as authoritative today. Actually, it
is easier with the Talmud than with the Bible because the Talmud is designed very
specifically to be a rule book for human beings engaged in life in a particular sort of
community. But much of what we call the Bible – the Old and New Testaments – is not a
rule book; it is narrative. That raises a further question: (3) How can an ancient narrative
text be authoritative? How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be
authoritative? It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and
have a string of commands barked at you. But what would you do if, instead, he began,
“Once upon a time…”?
5
These questions press so acutely that the church has, down the centuries, tried out all
sorts of ways of getting round them, and of thereby turning the apparently somewhat
recalcitrant material in the Bible itself into material that can more readily be used as
“authoritative” in the senses demanded by this or that period of church history. I want to
look at three such methods and suggest that each in its own way actually belittles the Bible,
thereby betraying a low doctrine of inspiration in practice, whatever may be held in theory.
Timeless Truth?
A regular response to these problems is to say that the Bible is the repository of timeless
truth. There are some senses in which that is true. But the sense in which it is normally
meant is certainly not true. The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally
conditioned. It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in
which it came to birth. It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a
moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to
give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time. He has wanted to give us
something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to
handle as such a set of truths might seem to be. The problem of the gospels is one particular
instance of this question. And at this point in the argument, evangelicals often lurch towards
Romans as a sort of safe place where they can find a basic systematic theology in the light of
which one can read everything else. I have often been assured by evangelical colleagues in
theological disciplines other than my own, that my perception is indeed true, namely, that the
Protestant and evangelical tradition has not been half so good on the gospels as it has been on
the epistles. We don’t quite know what to do with them because, I think, we have come to
them as we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular
questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not. I
remember a well-known preacher saying that he thought a lot of Christians used the Bible as
an unsorted edition of Daily Light. It really ought to be arranged into neat little devotional
chunks, but it happens to have gotten all muddled up. The same phenomenon occurs, at a
rather different level, when people treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the
Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called “Four Spiritual Laws.”
But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of
Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules – abstract
devotional, doctrinal, or evangelistic snippets here and there.
This problem goes back ultimately, I think, to a failure on the part of the Reformers to
work out fully their proper insistence on the literal sense of scripture as the real locus of
God’s revelation, the place where God was really speaking in scripture. The literal sense
seems fine when it comes to saying, and working with, what (for instance) Paul actually
meant in Romans. (This itself can actually be misleading too, but we may let it pass for the
moment.) It’s fine when you’re attacking mediaeval allegorizing of one sort or another. But
the Reformers, I think, never worked out a satisfactory answer to the question, how can the
literal sense of stories – which purport to describe events in (say) first century Palestine –
how can that be authoritative? If we are not careful, the appeal to “timeless truths” not only
distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not, but also creeps
back, behind the Reformers’ polemic against allegory, into a neo-allegorization which is all
the more dangerous for being unrecognized.2
6
Witness to Primary Events?
So, more recently, we have seen attempts on the part of many scholars to make this very
difficult text authoritative by suggesting that it is authoritative insofar as it witnesses to
primary events. This emphasis, associated not least with the post-war biblical theology
movement, at least has the merit of taking seriously the historical setting, the literal sense of
the text. The problem about that, however, can be seen quite easily. Supposing we actually
dug up Pilate’s court records, and supposing we were able to agree that they gave a fair
transcript of Jesus’ trial. Would they be authoritative in any of the normal senses in which
Christians have claimed that the Bible is authoritative? I think not. A variation on this theme
occurs when people say that the Bible (or the New Testament) is authoritative because it
witnesses to early Christian experience. There is a whole range of modern scholarship that
has assumed that the aim of New Testament study is to find the early Christians at work or at
prayer or at evangelism or at teaching. The Bible then becomes authoritative because it lets
us in on what it was like being an early Christian – and it is the early Christian experience
that is then treated as the real authority, the real norm. In both of these variations, then,
authority has shifted from the Bible itself to the historically reconstructed event or
experience. We are not really talking about the authority of the Bible at all.
Timeless Function?
Another (related) way in which the Bible has been used, with the frequent implication that it
is in such use that its authority consists, is in the timeless functions which it is deemed to
perform. For Bultmann, the New Testament functioned (among other things) as issuing the
timeless call to decision. For Ignatius and those who have taught Jesuit spirituality, it can be
used in a timeless sense within pastoral practice. Now, this is not a million miles from
certain things which I shall be suggesting later on in this lecture as appropriate uses of
scripture. But at the level of theory it is vital that we say, once more, that such uses in and of
themselves are not what is primarily meant when we say that the Bible is authoritative: or, if
they are, that they thereby belittle the Bible, and fail to do justice to the book as we actually
have it. All three methods I have outlined involve a certain procedure which ultimately
seems to be illegitimate: that one attempts, as it were, to boil off certain timeless truths,
models or challenges into a sort of ethereal realm which is not anything immediately to do
with space-time reality in order then to carry them across from the first century to any other
given century and re-liquefy them (I hope I’m getting my physics right at this point), making
them relevant to a new situation. Once again, it is not really the Bible that is being regarded
as the “real” authority. It is something else.
Evangelicals and Biblical Authority
It seems to be that evangelicalism has flirted with, and frequently held long-running love
affairs with all of these different methods of using the Bible, all of these attempts to put into
practice what turns out to be quite an inarticulate sense that it is somehow the real locus of
authority. And that has produced what one can now see in many so-called scriptural
churches around the world – not least in North America. It seems to be the case that the
more that you insist that you are based on the Bible, the more fissiparous you become; the
church splits up into more and more little groups, each thinking that they have got biblical
truth right. And in my experience of teaching theological students I find that very often those
from a conservative evangelical background opt for one such view as the safe one, the one
with which they will privately stick, from which they will criticize others. Failing that, they
lapse into the regrettable (though sometimes comprehensible) attitude of temporary book7
learning followed by regained positivism; we will learn for a while the sort of things that the
scholars write about, then we shall get back to using the Bible straight. There may be places
and times where that approach is the only possible one, but I am quite sure that the Christian
world of 1989 is not among them. There is a time to grow up in reading the Bible as in
everything else. There is a time to take the doctrine of inspiration seriously. And my
contention here is that evangelicalism has usually done no better than those it sometimes
attacks in taking inspiration seriously. Methodologically, evangelical handling of scripture
has fallen into the same traps as most other movements, even if we have found ways of
appearing to extricate ourselves.
The Belittling of the Bible
The problem with all such solutions as to how to use the Bible is that they belittle the Bible
and exalt something else. Basically they imply – and this is what I mean when I say they
offer too low a view of scripture – that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and
it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves,
translation procedures or whatever. They imply that the real place where God has revealed
himself – the real locus of authority and revelation – is, in fact, somewhere else; somewhere
else in the past in an event that once took place, or somewhere else in a timeless sphere
which is not really hooked into our world at all but touches it tangentially, or somewhere in
the present in “my own experience”, or somewhere in the future in some great act which is
yet to come. And such views, I suggest, rely very heavily on either tradition (including
evangelical tradition) or reason, often playing off one against the other, and lurching away
from scripture into something else. I have a suspicion that most of you are as familiar with
this whole process as I am. If you are not, you would be within a very short time of
beginning to study theology at any serious level.
My conclusion, then, is this: that the regular views of scripture and its authority which we
find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible
actually is – a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book. They function by turning
that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the
wrong sort of book. This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it
and whatever words beginning with “in” are used to label it. I propose that what we need to
do is to re-examine the concept of authority itself and see if we cannot do a bit better.
The Bible and Biblical Authority
All Authority is God’s Authority
So, secondly, within the first half of this lecture, I want to suggest that scripture’s own view
of authority focuses on the authority of God himself. (I recall a well-known lecturer once
insisting that “there can be no authority other than scripture”, and thumping the tub so
completely that I wanted to ask, “but what about God?”) If we think for a moment what we
are actually saying when we use the phrase, “authority of scripture” we must surely
acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God,
God has somehow invested his authority in scripture. And that is a complex claim. It is not
straightforward. When people use the phrase “authority of scripture” they very often do not
realize this. Worse, they often treat the word “authority” as the absolute, the fixed point, and
make the word “scripture” the thing which is moving around trying to find a home against it.
In other words, they think they know what authority is and then they say that scripture is that
thing.
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I want to suggest that we should try it the other way around. Supposing we said that we
know what scripture is (we have it here, after all), and that we should try and discover what
authority might be in the light of that. Granted that this is the book that we actually have,
and that we want to find out what its “authority” might mean, we need perhaps to forswear
our too-ready ideas about “authority” and let them be remolded in the light of scripture itself
– not just in the light of the biblical statements about authority but in the light of the whole
Bible, or the whole New Testament, itself. What are we saying about the concept of
“authority” itself if we assert that this book – not the book we are so good at turning this
book into – is “authoritative?”
Beginning, though, with explicit scriptural evidence about authority itself, we find soon
enough – this is obvious but is often ignored – that all authority does indeed belong to God.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. God says this, God says that, and
it is done. Now, if that is not authoritative, I don’t know what is. God calls Abraham; he
speaks authoritatively. God exercises authority in great dynamic events (in Exodus, the Exile
and Return). In the New Testament, we discover that authority is ultimately invested in
Christ: “all authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” Then, perhaps to our
surprise, authority is invested in the apostles: Paul wrote whole letters in order to make this
point crystal clear (in a manner of speaking). This authority, we discover, has to do with the
Holy Spirit. And the whole church is then, and thereby, given authority to work within
God’s world as his accredited agent(s). From an exceedingly quick survey, we are forced to
say: authority, according to the Bible itself, is vested in God himself, Father, Son and Spirit.
The Purpose and Character of God’s Authority
But what is God doing with his authority? We discover, as we look at the Bible itself, that
God’s model of authority is not like that of the managing director over the business, not like
that of the governing body over the college, not like that of the police or the lawcourts who
have authority over society. There is a more subtle thing going on. God is not simply
organizing the world in a certain way such as we would recognize from any of those human
models. He is organizing it – if that’s the right word at all – through Jesus and in the power
of the Spirit. And the notion of God’s authority, which we have to understand before we
understand what we mean by the authority of the scripture, is based on the fact that this God
is the loving, wise, creator, redeemer God. And his authority is his sovereign exercise of
those powers; his love and wise creations and redemption. What is he doing? He is not
simply organizing the world. He is, as we see and know in Christ and by the Spirit, judging
and remaking the world. What he does authoritatively he does with this intent. God is not a
celestial information service to whom you can apply for answers on difficult questions. Nor
is he a heavenly ticket agency to whom you can go for moral and doctrinal permits or
passports to salvation. He does not stand outside the human process and merely comment on
it or merely issue you with certain tickets that you might need. Those views would imply
either a deist’s God or a legalist’s God, not the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ and the
Spirit. And it must be said that a great many views of biblical authority imply one or other of
those sub-Christian alternatives.
But, once we say that God’s authority is like that, we find that there is a challenge issued
to the world’s view of authority and to the church’s view of authority. Authority is not the
power to control people, and crush them, and keep them in little boxes. The church often
tries to do that – to tidy people up. Nor is the Bible, as the vehicle of God’s authority, meant
to be information for the legalist. We have to apply some central reformation insights to the
concept of authority itself. It seems to me that the Reformation, once more, did not go quite
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far enough in this respect, and was always in danger of picking up the mediaeval view of
authority and simply continuing it with, as was often said, a paper pope instead of a human
one. Rather, God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is
designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order
to set people free to be fully human. That’s what God is in the business of doing. That is
what his authority is there for. And when we use a shorthand phrase like “authority of
scripture” that is what we ought to be meaning. It is an authority with this shape and
character, this purpose and goal.
How, in the Bible, does God exercise his authority?
Then, we have to ask, if we are to get to the authority of scripture – How does God exercise
that authority? Again and again, in the biblical story itself we see that he does so through
human agents anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit. And this is itself an expression of
love, because he does not will simply to come into the world in a blinding flash of light and
obliterate all opposition. He wants to reveal himself meaningfully within the space/time
universe, not just passing it by tangentially; to reveal himself in judgment and in mercy in a
way which will save people. So, we get the prophets. We get obedient writers in the Old
Testament, not only prophets but those who wrote the psalms and so on. At the climax of the
story we get Jesus himself as the great prophet, but how much more than a prophet. And, we
then get Jesus’ people as the anointed ones. And within that sequence there is a very
significant passage, namely 1 Kings 22. Micaiah, the son of Imlah (one of the great prophets
who didn’t leave any writing behind him but who certainly knew what his business was)
stands up against the wicked king, Ahab. The false prophets of Israel at the time were saying
to Ahab, “Go up against Ramoth-gilead and fight and you will triumph. Yahweh will give it
into your hand.” This is especially interesting, because the false prophets appear to have
everything going for them. They are quoting Deuteronomy 33 – one of them makes horns
and puts them on his head and says, “with these you will crush the enemy until they are
overthrown.” They had scripture on their side, so it seemed. They had tradition on their
side; after all, Yahweh was the God of Battles and he would fight for Israel. They had reason
on their side; Israel and Judah together can beat these northern enemies quite easily. But
they didn’t have God on their side. Micaiah had stood in the council of the Lord and in that
private, strange, secret meeting he had learned that even the apparent scriptural authority
which these prophets had, and the apparent tradition and reason wasn’t good enough; God
wanted to judge Ahab and so save Israel. And so God delegated his authority to the prophet
Micaiah who, inspired by the Spirit, stood humbly in the council of God and then stood
boldly in the councils of men. He put his life and liberty on the line, like Daniel and so many
others. That is how God brought his authority to bear on Israel: not by revealing to them a
set of timeless truths, but by delegating his authority to obedient men through whose words
he brought judgment and salvation to Israel and the world.
And how much more must we say of Jesus. Jesus is the great prophet; Jesus who rules
from the cross in judgment and love; Jesus who says: all authority is given to me, so you go
and get on with the job. I hope the irony of that has not escaped you. So too in Acts 1, we
find: God has all authority … so that you will receive power. Again, the irony. How can we
resolve that irony? By holding firmly to what the New Testament gives us, which is the
strong theology of the authoritative Holy Spirit. Jesus’ people are to be the anointed ones
through whom God still works authoritatively. And then, in order that the church may be the
church – may be the people of God for the world – God, by that same Holy Spirit, equips
men in the first generation to write the new covenant documentation. This is to be the new
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covenant documentation which gives the foundation charter and the characteristic direction
and identity to the people of God, who are to be the people of God for the world. It is
common to say in some scholarly circles that the evangelists, for instance, didn’t know they
were writing scripture. One of the gains of modern scholarship is that we now see that to be
a mistake. Redaction criticism has shown that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing
what they were writing in order that it might be the foundation document for the church of
their day and might bear God’s authority in doing so. And a book which carries God’s
authority to be the foundation of the church for the world is what I mean by scripture. I think
they knew what they were doing.3
Thus it is that through the spoken and written authority of anointed human beings God
brings his authority to bear on his people and his world. Thus far, we have looked at what
the Bible says about how God exercises his judging and saving authority. And it includes
(the point with which in fact we began) the delegation of his authority, in some sense, to
certain writings. But this leads us to more questions.
How does God exercise his authority through the Bible?
When we turn the question around, however, and ask it the other way about, we discover just
what a rich concept of authority we are going to need if we are to do justice to this book. The
writings written by these people, thus led by the Spirit, are not for the most part, as we saw,
the sort of things we would think of as “authoritative.” They are mostly narrative; and we
have already run up against the problem how can a story, a narrative, be authoritative?4
Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded
and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the
world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, it is wielded (it
seems) in particular through God’s telling the story of Jesus. We must look, then, at the
question of stories. What sort of authority might they possess?
The Authority of a Story
There are various ways in which stories might be thought to possess authority. Sometimes a
story is told so that the actions of its characters may be imitated. It was because they had that
impression that some early Fathers, embarrassed by the possibilities inherent in reading the
Old Testament that way, insisted upon allegorical exegesis. More subtly, a story can be told
with a view to creating a generalized ethos which may then be perpetuated this way or that.
The problem with such models, popular in fact though they are within Christian reading of
scripture, is that they are far too vague: they constitute a hermeneutical grab-bag or lucky
dip. Rather, I suggest that stories in general, and certainly the biblical story, has a shape and
a goal that must be observed and to which appropriate response must be made.
But what might this appropriate response look like? Let me offer you a possible model,
which is not in fact simply an illustration, but actually corresponds, as I shall argue, to some
important features of the biblical story, which (as I have been suggesting) is that which God
has given to his people as the means of his exercising his authority. Suppose there exists a
Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose,
such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is
generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate
actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and
commit Shakespeare as it were, to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his
own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and
experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and
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in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work
out a fifth act for themselves.5
Consider the result. 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 this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or
that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution.
This “authority” of the first four acts would 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, which contained its own impetus, its own forward
movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the
actors a responsible entering into the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the
threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect
by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.
This model could and perhaps should be adapted further; it offers, in fact, quite a range of
possibilities. Among the detailed moves available within this model, which I shall explore
and pursue elsewhere, is the possibility of seeing the five acts as follows: 1) Creation, 2)
Fall, 3) Israel, 4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act,
giving hints as well (Rom. 8; 1Cor 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed
to end. The church would then live under the “authority” of the extant story, being required
to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act.
Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major
theme or characterization in the earlier material. Such an appeal – and such an offering! –
would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the
ways in which it would be (of course) inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from
earlier sections. Such sensitivity (cashing out the model in terms of church life) is precisely
what one would have expected to be required; did we ever imagine that the application of
biblical authority ought to be something that could be done by a well-programmed computer?
Old Testament, New Testament
The model already enables us to add a footnote, albeit an important one. The Old Testament,
we begin to see more clearly, is not the book of the covenant people of God in Christ in the
same sense that the New Testament is. The New Testament is written to be the charter for
the people of the creator God in the time between the first and second comings of Jesus; the
Old Testament forms the story of the earlier acts, which are (to be sure) vital for
understanding why Act 4, and hence Act 5, are what they are, but not at all appropriate to be
picked up and hurled forward into Act 5 without more ado. The Old Testament has the
authority that an earlier act of the play would have, no more, no less. This is, of course, a
demand for a more carefully worked out view of the senses in which the Old Testament is,
and/or is not, “authoritative” for the life of the church; I do not think that my model has
steeled the question once and for all, though I do believe it offers a creative way forward in
understanding at least the shape of the problem. At the same time, the suggestion forms a
counter-proposal to the suggestion of J D G Dunn in chapter 3 of his book, The Living Word.
There he implies, and sometimes states specifically, that since Jesus and Paul treated the Old
Testament with a mixture of respect and cavalier freedom, we should do the same – with the
New Testament!6 But this would only hold if we knew in advance that there had been,
between the New Testament and ourselves, a break in (for want of a better word)
dispensation comparable to the evident break in dispensation between Acts 3 and 4, between
Old Testament and Jesus. And we know no such thing.
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Thus, there is a hard thing which has to be said here, and it is this: that there is a sense in
which the Old Testament is not the book of the church in the same way that the New
Testament is the book of the church. Please do not misunderstand me. The Old Testament is
in all sorts of important senses reaffirmed by Paul and Jesus and so on – it is the book of the
people of God, God’s book, God’s word etc. But, the Old Testament proclaims itself to be
the beginning of that story which has now reached its climax in Jesus; and, as the letter to the
Hebrews says, “that which is old and wearing out is ready to vanish away”, referring to the
temple. But it is referring also to all those bits of the Old Testament which were good (they
weren’t bad, I’m not advocating a Marcionite position, cutting off the Old Testament) but,
were there for a time, as Paul argues very cogently, as in Galatians 3. The New Testament,
building on what God did in the Old, is not the covenant charter for the people of God. We
do not have a temple, we do not have sacrifices – at least, not in the old Jewish sense of
either of those. Both are translated into new meanings in the New Testament. We do not
have kosher laws. We do not require that our male children be circumcised if they are to be
part of the people of God. We do not keep the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath.
Those were the boundary markers which the Old Testament laid down for the time when the
people of God were one nation, one geographical entity, with one racial and cultural identity.
Now that the gospel has gone worldwide, we thank God that he prepared the way like that;
but it is the New Testament now which is the charter for the church.
The effect of this authority
But this means that the New Testament is not merely a true commentary on Christianity. It
has been pointed out in relation to B B Warfield’s theological position that Warfield was
always in danger of saying that Christianity would be totally true and would totally work
even if there weren’t a Bible to tell us all about it (but that it so happens that we have got an
authoritative book which does precisely that, from as it were the sidelines).7 But, according
to Paul in Romans 15 and elsewhere, the Bible is itself a key part of God’s plan. It is not
merely a divinely given commentary on the way salvation works (or whatever); the Bible is
part of the means by which he puts his purposes of judgment and salvation to work. The
Bible is made up, all through, of writings of those who, like Macaiah ben Imlah, stood
humbly in the councils of God and then stood boldly, in their writing, in the councils of men.
The Bible, then, is designed to function through human beings, through the church,
through people who, living still by the Spirit, have their life molded by this Spirit-inspired
book. What for? Well, as Jesus said in John 20, “As the Father sent me, even so I send you.”
He sends the church into the world, in other words to be and do for the world what he was
and did for Israel. There, I suggest, is the key hermeneutical bridge. By this means we are
enabled to move from the bare story-line, that speaks of Jesus as the man who lived and died
and did these things in Palestine 2,000 years ago, into an agenda for the church. And that
agenda is the same confrontation with the world that Jesus had with Israel: a confrontation
involving judgment and mercy. It is a paradoxical confrontation because it is done with
God’s authority. It is not done with the authority that we reach for so easily, an authority
which will manipulate, or crush, or control, or merely give information about the world. But,
rather, it is to be done with an authority with which the church can authentically speak God’s
words of judgment and mercy to the world. We are not, then, entering into the world’s
power games. That, after all, is what Peter tried to do in the garden with his sword, trying to
bring in the kingdom of God in the same way that the world would like to do it. The world is
always trying to lure the church into playing the game by its (the world’s) rules. And the
church is all too often eager to do this, not least by using the idea of the authority of scripture
13
as a means to control people, to force them into little boxes. Those little boxes often owe far
more, in my experience, to cultural condition of this or that sort, than to scripture itself as the
revelation of the loving, creator and redeemer God.
Authority in the church, then, means the church’s authority, with scripture in its hand and
heart, to speak and act for God in his world. It is not simply that we may say, in the church,
“Are we allowed to do this or that? Where are the lines drawn for our behavior?” Or, “Must
we believe the following 17 doctrines if we are to be really sound?” God wants the church to
lift up its eyes and see the field ripe for harvest, and to go out, armed with the authority of
scripture; not just to get its own life right within a Christian ghetto, but to use the authority of
scripture to declare to the world authoritatively that Jesus is Lord. And, since the New
Testament is the covenant charter of the people of God, the Holy Spirit, I believe, desires and
longs to do this task in each generation by reawakening people to the freshness of that
covenant, and hence summoning them to fresh covenant tasks. The phrase “authority of
scripture”, therefore, is a sort of shorthand for the fact that the creator and covenant God uses
this book as his means of equipping and calling the church for these tasks. And this is, I
believe, the true biblical context of the biblical doctrine of authority, which is meant to
enable us in turn to be Micaiahs, in church and how much more in society: so that, in other
words, we may be able to stand humbly in the councils of God, in order then to stand boldly
in the councils of men. How may we do that? By soaking ourselves in scripture, in the
power and strength and leading of the Spirit, in order that we may then speak freshly and
with authority to the world of this same creator God.
Why is authority like this? Why does it have to be like that? Because God (as in Acts 1
and Matthew 28, which we looked at earlier) wants to catch human beings up in the work
that he is doing. He doesn’t want to do it by-passing us; he wants us to be involved in his
work. And, as we are involved, so we ourselves are being remade. He doesn’t give us the
Holy Spirit in order to make us infallible – blind and dumb servants who merely sit there and
let the stuff flow through us. So, he doesn’t simply give us a rule book so that we could just
thumb through and look it up. He doesn’t create a church where you become automatically
sinless on entry. Because, as the goal and end of his work is redemption, so the means is
redemptive also: judgment and mercy, nature and grace. God does not, then, want to put
people into little boxes and keep them safe and sound. It is, after all, possible to be so sound
that you’re sound asleep. I am not in favor of unsoundness; but soundness means health, and
health means growth, and growth means life and vigor and new directions. The little boxes
in which you put people and keep them under control are called coffins. We read scripture
not in order to avoid life and growth. God forgive us that we have done that in some of our
traditions. Nor do we read scripture in order to avoid thought and action, or to be crushed, or
squeezed, or confined into a de-humanizing shape, but in order to die and rise again in our
minds. Because, again and again, we find, as we submit to scripture, as we wrestle with the
bits that don’t make sense, and as we burst through to a new sense that we haven’t thought of
or seen before, God breathes into our nostrils his own breath – the breath of life. And we
become living beings – a church recreated in his image, more fully human, thinking, alive
beings.
That, in fact, is (I believe) one of the reasons why God has given us so much story, so
much narrative in scripture. Story authority, as Jesus knew only too well, is the authority that
really works. Throw a rule book at people’s heads, or offer them a list of doctrines, and they
can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away. Tell them a story, though, and you
invite them to come into a different world; you invite them to share a world-view, or better
still, a “God-view”. That, actually, is what the parables are all about. They offer, as all
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genuine Christian story-telling does, a world-view which, as someone comes into it and finds
how compelling it is, quietly shatters the world-view that they were in already. Stories
determine how people see themselves and how they see the world. Stories determine how
they experience God and the world and themselves and others. Great revolutionary
movements have told stories about the past and present and future. They have invited people
to see themselves in that light, and people’s lives have been changed. If that happens at
merely a human level, how much more when it is God himself, the creator, breathing through
his word.
Conclusion
There, then, is perhaps a more complex model of biblical authority than some Christian
traditions are used to. I have argued that the phrase “the authority of scripture” must be
understood within the context of God’s authority, of which it is both a witness and, perhaps
more importantly, a vehicle. This is, I submit, a more dynamic model of authority than some
others on offer. I believe it is a view which is substantially compatible with the Bible’s own
view (if one dare sum up something so complex in such an over-simplification). In addition,
for what it may be worth, I believe that it is also in the deepest sense a very Protestant view,
however much it diverges from normal Protestant opinion today; after all, it stresses the
unique and unrepeatable events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and it insists that the
Bible, not the books that we become so skilled at turning the Bible into, is the real locus of
authority. In addition, actually, it is also in some senses a far more Catholic view than some
others, stressing the need for the community of Jesus’ people to understand itself and its tasks
within thoroughly historical parameters. It is also, now that we have started on this game, a
more orthodox, charismatic, and even liberal view than those which sometimes go by those
labels; but to spell all this out would be somewhat tedious and anyway, for our present
purposes, unnecessary.
HOW CAN THE BIBLE FUNCTION AS AUTHORITATIVE?
But how, then, can scripture be properly used? How can it exercise this authority? If God
has delegated his authority somehow to this book, what does he want us to do with it?
The Basis: Fundamentals and Overtones
History and Hermeneutics
How can we handle this extraordinary treasure, responsibly? First, we have to let the Bible
be the Bible in all its historical oddness and otherness. We have, again and again, not done
that. We have, again and again, allowed ourselves to say – I’ve heard myself say it, over and
over again – “What Paul is really getting at here is… What Jesus was really meaning in this
passage…” – and then, what has happened is a translation of something which is beautiful,
and fragile, and unique, into something which is commonplace and boring, and every other
Christian in the pew has heard it several sermons before. I am reminded of that amazing line
in Schaffer’s play Amadeus where Salieri sees on stage Mozart’s Figaro, and he says, “He
has taken ordinary people – chambermaids and servants and barbers – and he has made them
gods and heroes.” And then Salieri remembers his own operas and he says, “I have taken
gods and heroes – and I have made them ordinary.” God forgive us that we have taken the
Bible and have made it ordinary – that we have cut it down to our size. We have reduced it,
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so that whatever text we preach on it will say basically the same things. This is particularly a
problem for second and third-generation movements, of which the rather tired and puzzled
evangelicalism in many British churches today is a good example. What we are seeing in
such preaching is not the authority of scripture at work, but the authority of tradition, or even
a mere convention masquerading as the authority of scripture – which is much worse,
because it has thereby lost the possibility of a critique or inbuilt self-correction coming to it
from scripture itself.
In Romans 15, by contrast, Paul says, “That by patience and encouragement of the
scriptures you might have hope”; because scripture brings God’s order to God’s world. And
that order will forever be breaking in as a new word, recognizably in continuity with words
heard from God before, but often in discontinuity even with the very traditions by which
those older fresh words were preserved and transmitted. Scripture is the book that assures us
that we are the people of God when, again and again, we are tempted to doubt. Scripture is
the covenant book, not just in order that we can look up our pedigree in it and see where we
came from (Abraham and so on), but the book through which the Spirit assures us that we are
his people and through which he sends us out into the world to tell the Jesus story, that is, the
Israel story which has become the Jesus story which together is God’s story for the world.
And as we do that in the power of the Spirit, the miracle is that it rings true and people out
there in the world know, in this or that fashion, that this strange story we are telling does in
fact run deeper than the world’s stories. It does in fact tell them truths which they half-knew
and had rather hoped to forget. It is the story which confirms the fact that God had redeemed
the world in Jesus Christ. It is the story which breaks open all other world-views and, by so
doing, invites men and women, young and old, to see this story as their story. In other
words, as we let the Bible be the Bible, God works through us – and it – to do what he
intends to do in and for the church and the world.
A model which suggests itself at this point – and this is more of a mere illustration than
the last one was – is that of the piano. Sit at a piano, hold down the loud pedal, strike a low
note loudly, and listen. You will hear all kinds of higher notes, harmonics, shimmering
above the note originally struck. In the same way, the retelling of the story that the Bible
actually contains is to function as the striking of the low note, the basic fundamental note of
God’s story with his world. As we retell this story there will be harmonics audible, for those,
at least, with ears to hear. The problem, of course, is that historical criticism of the Bible has
insisted on striking the fundamental notes with the soft pedal on, as though by thus screening
out the harmonics it might ensure that the fundamental really made its own point – and then
Christians have grumbled that such criticism makes the Bible irrelevant. The equal and
opposite danger is that pious Christians have only been interested in the harmonics
themselves, and then by actually striking them instead of the fundamentals have produced a
narrower range of tone, making up in shrillness what it lacks in historical depth and basic
substance.
Story and Hermeneutic: Living in the Fifth Act
In the church and in the world, then, we have to tell the story. It is not enough to translate
scripture into timeless truths. How easy it has been for theologians and preachers to translate
the gospels (for instance) into something more like epistles! We must, if anything, assimilate
the epistles to the gospels rather than vice versa. I would not actually recommend that, but if
you were going to make a mistake that would be the direction to do it in. And as we tell the
story – the story of Israel, the story of Jesus, the story of the early church – that itself is an act
of worship. That is why, within my tradition, the reading of scripture is not merely ancillary
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to worship – something to prepare for the sermon – but it is actually, itself, part of the rhythm
of worship itself. The church in reading publicly the story of God is praising God for his
mighty acts, and is celebrating them, and is celebrating the fact that she is part of that
continuous story. And, that story as we use it in worship reforms our God-view – our worldview
– reconstitutes us as the church. The story has to be told as the new covenant story.
This is where my five-act model comes to our help again. The earlier parts of the story are to
be told precisely as the earlier parts of the story. We do not read Genesis 1 and 2 as though
the world were still like that; we do not read Genesis 3 as though ignorant of Genesis 12, of
Exodus, or indeed of the gospels. Nor do we read the gospels as though we were ignorant of
the fact that they are written precisely in order to make the transition from Act 4 to Act 5, the
Act in which we are now living and in which we are to make our own unique, unscripted and
yet obedient improvisation. This is how we are to be the church, for the world. As we do so,
we are calling into question the world’s models of authority, as well as the content and
direction of that authority.
So, we have to tell the story within the world and the church; because the church is
always in danger of getting too like the world. I have already said that this happens in
relation to authority; we use the world’s authority models instead of the God-given authority
models. And scripture demands, in fact, to be read in the context of traditions within the
church, precisely in order that it may judge and redeem the traditions of the church. Not that
it may be under them: the traditions are second-order stories, the stories that you and I tell
about who we are as Christians, which go back through Wesley and Whitefield, or though
Luther or Aquinas or whoever. These are the stories that form the grid through which we
read scripture; we can’t do without them, but they need regular checking. And part of my
whole argument here is that evangelical traditions need checking just as well as anybody
else’s, checking according to scripture itself. We then have to allow the story to challenge
our traditions, not to get rid of traditions but in order to see where we’ve come from, and who
we are as the people of God in the 20th century, and to reshape our traditions honestly and
properly. But, also, we must allow scripture to stretch our reason back into shape. We must
allow scripture to teach us how to think straight, because by ourselves we don’t; we think
bent, we think crooked. Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “The Holy Spirit over the bent world
broods with warm breast and with Ah! bright wings.” And the Spirit broods over us as we
read this book, to straighten out our bent thinking; the world-views that have got twisted so
that they are like the world’s world-views. God wants us to be people, not puppets; to love
him with our mind as well as our soul and our strength. And it is scripture that enables us to
do that, not by crushing us into an alien mold but by giving us the fully authoritative four
acts, and the start of the fifth, which set us free to become the church afresh in each
generation.
Biblical Authority and the Church’s Task
The Challenge to the world’s authority structures and concepts
The church is not made so that there can be a safe ghetto into which people can run and
escape from the world, but so that God can shine out his light into the world, exposing
(among other things) the ways in which the world has structured itself into darkness. And
this is relevant to the concepts of authority themselves. The Bible is a living witness to the
fact that there is a different sort of authority, a different sort of power, to that which is
recognized in the world of politics, business, government, or even the academy. Do you
know that moment in Jesus Christ Superstar where the crowds are coming into Jerusalem and
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the disciples are all singing, “Haysannah, Hosannah?” And one of the zealots says to Jesus,
“Come on, you ride ahead of us and you’ll get the power and glory for ever and ever and
ever.” And Jesus turns round and says, “Neither you, Simon, nor the 50,000, nor the
Romans, nor the Jews, nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes, nor doomed
Jerusalem herself, understand what power is, understand what glory is.” And then he
proceeds to weep over Jerusalem and prophesy its destruction; and then he goes, steadily
through the following week, to his enthronement on Calvary, which with hindsight the
church realizes to be the place where all power, all real power, is congregated.
The world needs to see that there is a different model of authority. Because the world
needs to know that there is a different God. When the world says, “God” it doesn’t mean
what you and I mean by God. It doesn’t mean the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. It means
either a pantheist god: the god of all-being, a sort of nature god. Or, it means a deist-god way
up in the sky who started off by being a landlord, then became an absentee landlord, and now
is just an absentee. We have to tell the world again, that the God who is in authority over the
world, the God who speaks through scripture, is the Father of Jesus, the God who sends the
Spirit. And, therefore, we have to announce to the world the story of scripture.
This is how the gospels are to become authoritative. They are to become authoritative
because, as they tell the story of who Jesus was for Israel in judging and redeeming Israel, so
we continue that story – this is the great message of Luke, is it not – in being for the world
what Jesus was for Israel. That is how the translation works. And that is why we need
narrative, not timeless truth. I’m not a timeless person; I’ve got a story. The world’s not a
timeless world; it’s got a story. And I’ve got a responsibility, armed with scripture, to tell the
world God’s story, through song and in speech, in drama and in art. We must do this by
telling whatever parables are appropriate. That may well be by standing on street corners
reading chunks of scripture. It might be much more appropriate to go off and write a novel
(and not a “Christian” novel where half the characters are Christians and all the other half
become Christians on the last page) but a novel which grips people with the structure of
Christian thought, and with Christian motivation set deep into the heart of the narrative, so
that people would read that and resonate with it and realize that that story can be my story.
After all, the story of the Bible, and the power that it possesses, is a better story than any of
the power games that we play in our world. We must tell this story, and let it exercise its
power in the world.
And that is the task of the whole church. Need I say, not merely of the professional caste
within it – although those who are privileged, whether by being given gifts of study by God,
or by being set apart with particular time (as I have been) to study scripture, do have a special
responsibility to make sure that they are constantly living in the story for themselves,
constantly being the scripture people themselves, in order to encourage the church to be that
sort of people, again not for its own sake but for the sake of the world.
The Challenge to the World’s World-View
When we tell the whole story of the Bible, and tell it (of course) not just by repeating it
parrot-fashion but by articulating it in a thousand different ways, improvising our own
faithful versions, we are inevitably challenging more than just one aspect of the world’s way
of looking at things (i.e. it’s view of authority and power). We are undermining its entire
view of what the world is, and is for, and are offering, in the best way possible, a new worldview,
which turns out (of course) to be a new God-view. We are articulating a viewpoint
according to which there is one God, the creator of all that is, who not only made the world
but is living and active within it (in opposition to the dualism and/or deism which clings so
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closely, even to much evangelical tradition), who is also transcendent over it and deeply
grieved by its fall away from goodness into sin (in opposition to the pantheism which always
lurks in the wings, and which has made a major new entry in the so-called New Age
movement – and which often traps Christians who are in a mode of reaction against dualism
or deism). This story about the world and its creator will function as an invitation to
participate in the story oneself, to make it one’s own, and to do so by turning away from the
idols which prevent the story becoming one’s own, and by worshipping instead the God
revealed as the true God. Evangelism and the summons to justice and mercy in society are
thus one and the same, and both are effected by the telling of the story, the authoritative
story, which works by its own power irrespective of the technique of the storyteller. Once
again, we see that the church’s task is to be people who, like Micaiah, stand humbly before
God in order then to stand boldly before men.
Biblical Authority and the Church’s Life
I shall be briefer about this aspect, though it could be spelt out in considerable detail – and
probably needs to be if the church is to be really healthy, and not go through a barren ritual of
reading the Bible but getting nothing out of it that cannot be reduced to terms of what she
already knows. The purpose of the church’s life is to be the people of God for the world: a
city set on a hill cannot be hidden. But the church can only be this if in her own life she is
constantly being recalled to the story and message of scripture, without which she will
herself lapse into the world’s way of thinking (as is done in the evangelical dualism, for
example, that perpetuates the split between religion and politics invented by the fairly
godless eighteenth century.)
How is this to be done? The church in her public worship uses lectionaries – at least, if
she does not, she runs the grave risk of revolving, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, round the little
treadmill of favorite passages, of “desert island texts”, and muzzling the terrible and
wonderful things that scripture really has to say. But even in the lectionaries there are
problems; because at least those that are common today do their own fair share of muzzling,
missing out crucial passages in order to keep the readings short, omitting verses that might
shock modern Western sensibilities. The Bible is to be in the bloodstream of the church’s
worship, but at the moment the bloodstream is looking fairly watery. We must reform the
lectionaries, and give to the church creative and positive ways of reading scripture, and
hearing it read, which will enable this book to be once again the fully authoritative covenant
charter.
In private reading, and in informal group meetings, we need again to experiment with
new ways of reading scripture. Anyone who has heard an entire biblical book read, or even
acted (think of Alex McCown on Mark, or Paul Alexander on John; I have heard the same
done with Galatians, and very impressive it was, too) will realize that such things as chapterdivisions,
or almost any divisions at all, can be simply unhelpful. We need to recapture a
sense of scripture as a whole, telling and retelling stories as wholes. Only when you read
Exodus as a whole (for example) do you realize the awful irony whereby the making of the
golden calf is a parody of what God wanted the people to do with their gold and jewels . . .
and only by reading Mark as a whole might you realize that, when the disciples ask to sit at
Jesus’ right and left hand, they are indeed asking for something they do not understand.
It is perhaps the half-hearted and sometimes quite miserable traditions of reading the
Bible – even among those who claim to take seriously – that account for the very low level of
biblical knowledge and awareness even among some church leaders and those with delegated
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responsibility. And this is the more lamentable in that the Bible ought to be functioning as
authoritative within church debates. What happens all too often is that the debate is
conducted without reference to the Bible (until a rabid fundamentalist stands up and waves it
around, confirming the tacit agreement of everyone else to give it a wide berth). Rather,
serious engagement is required, at every level from the personal through to the group Biblestudy,
to the proper liturgical use, to the giving of time in synods and councils to Bible
exposition and study. Only so will the church avoid the trap of trying to address the world
and having nothing to say but the faint echo of what the world itself has been saying for some
while.
If we really engage with the Bible in this serious way we will find, I believe, that we will
be set free from (among other things) some of the small-scale evangelical paranoia which
goes on about scripture. We won’t be forced into awkward corners, answering impossible
questions of the “Have you stopped beating you wife?” variety about whether scripture is
exactly this or exactly that. Of course the Bible is inspired, and if you’re using it like this
there won’t be any question in your mind that the Bible is inspired. But, you will be set free
to explore ways of articulating that belief which do not fall into the old rationalist traps of
18th or 19th or 20th century. Actually using the Bible in this way is a far sounder thing than
mouthing lots of words beginning with “in--” but still imprisoning the Bible within
evangelical tradition (which is what some of those “in“ words seem almost designed to do).
Of course you will discover that the Bible will not let you down. You will be paying
attention to it; you won’t be sitting in judgment over it. But you won’t come with a
preconceived notion of what this or that passage has to mean if it is to be true. You will
discover that God is speaking new truth through it. I take it as a method in my biblical
studies that if I turn a corner and find myself saying, “Well, in that case, that verse is wrong”
that I must have turned a wrong corner somewhere. But that does not mean that I impose
what I think is right on to that bit of the Bible. It means, instead, that I am forced to live with
that text uncomfortably, sometimes literally for years (this is sober autobiography), until
suddenly I come round a different corner and that verse makes a lot of sense; sense that I
wouldn’t have got if I had insisted on imposing my initial view on it from day one.
The Bible, clearly, is also to be used in a thousand different ways within the pastoral
work of the church, the caring and building up of all its members. Again, there is much that I
could say here, but little space. Suffice it to note that the individual world-views and Godviews
of Christians, as much as anybody else, need to be constantly adjusted and straightened
out in the light of the story which is told in scripture. But this is not to say that there is one,
or even that there are twenty-one, “right” ways of this being done. To be sure, the regular
use of scripture in private and public worship is a regular medicine for many of the ills that
beset us. But there are many methods of meditation, of imaginative reading, ways of soaking
oneself in a book or a text, ways of allowing the story to become one’s own story in all sorts
of intimate ways, that can with profit be recommended by a pastor, or engaged in within the
context of pastoral ministry itself. Here, too, we discover the authority of the Bible at work:
God’s own authority, exercised not to give true information about wholeness but to give
wholeness itself, but judging and remaking the thoughts and intentions, the imaginations and
rememberings, of men, women and children. There are worlds to be discovered here of
which a good deal of the church remains sadly ignorant. The Bible is the book of personal
renewal, the book of tears and laughter, the book through which God resonates with our pain
and joy, and enables us to resonate with his pain and joy. This is the really powerful
authority of the Bible, to be distinguished from the merely manipulative or the crassly
confrontational “use” of scripture.
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CONCLUSION
I have argued that the notion of the “authority of scripture” is a shorthand expression for
God’s authority, exercised somehow through scripture: that scripture must be allowed to be
itself in exercising its authority, and not be turned into something else which might fit better
into what the church, or the world, might have thought its “authority” should look like; that it
is therefore the meaning of “authority” itself, not that of scripture, that is the unknown in the
equation, and that when this unknown is discovered it challenges head on the various notions
and practices of authority endemic in the world and, alas, in the church also. I have
suggested, less systematically, some ways in which this might be put into practice. All of
this has been designed as a plea to the church to let the Bible be the Bible, and so to let God
be God – and so to enable the people of God to be the people of God, his special people,
living under his authority, bringing his light to his world. The Bible is not an end in itself. It
is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed.
It is our task to be the people through whom this extraordinary vision comes to pass. We are
thus entrusted with a privilege too great for casual handling, too vital to remain a mere matter
of debate.
So what am I saying? I am saying that we mustn’t belittle scripture by bringing the
world’s models of authority into it. We must let scripture be itself, and that is a hard task.
Scripture contains many things that I don’t know, and that you don’t know; many things we
are waiting to discover; passages which are lying dormant waiting for us to dig them out.
Awaken them. We must then make sure that the church, armed in this way, is challenging
the world’s view of authority. So that, we must determine – corporately as well as
individually – to become in a true sense, people of the book. Not people of the book in the
Islamic sense, where this book just drops down and crushes people and you say it’s the will
of Allah, and I don’t understand it, and I can’t do anything about it. But, people of the book
in the Christian sense; people who are being remade, judged and remolded by the Spirit
through scripture. It seems to me that evangelical tradition has often become in bondage to a
sort of lip-service scripture principle even while debating in fact how many angels can dance
on the head of a pin. (Not literally, but there are equivalents in our tradition.) Instead, I
suggest that our task is to seize this privilege with both hands, and use it to the glory of God
and the redemption of the world.
Footnotes
1 See J D G Dunn, The Living Word, ch. 3. Dunn’s own counter-formulation is, I think, equally misleading. He implicitly flattens out
“scripture” so as to be able to speak of “scripture’s use of itself” without real regard for the difference between OT and NT (see
below).
2 See too redaction-criticism, where allegory is the staple diet.
3 Paul comes into this category too, I believe.
4 Similar questions could be asked about poetry or apocalyptic writings, and interesting answers could be given. We must limit
ourselves to a prime case of the problem here.
5 There are, in fact, some modern playwrights who have actually “written” with this sort of thing in mind. Other analogies suggest
themselves: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, obviously, or perhaps Nielsen’s (similarly unfinished) Ninth. There is a parallel here
with the view of Wittgenstein, that the best kind of aesthetic criticism consists in the production of a work in continuity with that
under discussion.
6 In addition, his description of this supposed cavalier freedom fails to take account of the quite evident reasons why Jesus and Paul did
what they did with e.g. circumcision and the food laws. Their stances were not based, as Dunn implies, on the wildly anachronistic
categories of “liberal” and “conservative”, but on definite and thought-out positions about what was appropriate within the new phase
of history which, they believed, was being inaugurated through their work.
7 See D H Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (SCM 1975) esp. e.g. 21 f.

Bob said...

I agree Renee, I think there is a balance to be struck between acknowledging the soveriegnty of God in the world while also acknowledging that things occur that are without question displeasing to Him.The Reformed perspective makes a distinction stating that there are 2 wills in God. His soveriegn will and His moral will.

For example it was the will of the Father to bruise the son (Isa 53). Ye the means by which this was accomplished was all sin,(Judas selling Jesus, bogus trial, and mockings) no doubt God opposed these sinful acts but they were permitted for a higher cause, our redemption.

This is the best I can do to reconcile these two issues together.