Friday, September 02, 2005

Scripture and the Authority of God

N T Wright

Not only does the Bible declare that all authority belongs to God revealed in Jesus and the Spirit; the Bible itself, as a whole and in most of its parts, is not the sort of thing that many people envisage today when they hear the word ‘authority.’

It is not, for a start, a list of rules, though it contains many commandments of various sorts and in various contexts. Nor is it a compendium of true doctrines, though of course many parts of the Bible declare the great truths about God, Jesus, the world and ourselves in no uncertain terms. Most of its constituent parts, and all of it when put together whether in the Jewish canonical form or the Christian one, can best be described as story. This is a complicated and much-discussed theme, but there is nothing to be gained by ignoring it.

The question is, how can a story be authoritative? If the commanding officer walks into the barrack-room and beings ‘once upon a time,’ the soldiers are likely to be puzzled. If the secretary of the cycling club pins up a notice which, instead of listing times for outings, offers a short story, the members will not know when to turn up. At first sight, what we think of as ‘authority’ and what we know as ‘story’ do not readily fit together.
But a moment’s thought suggests that, at deeper levels, there is more to it than that. For a start, the commanding officer might well need to brief the soldiers about what has been going on over the last few weeks, so that they will understand the sensitivities and internal dynamics of the peace-keeping task they are now to undertake. The narrative will bring them up to date; now it will be their task to act out the next chapter in the ongoing saga.

Or supposing the secretary of the club, having attempted unsuccessfully to make the members more conscious of safety procedures, decides to try a different tack, and puts up a notice consisting simply of a tragic story, without further comment, of a cyclist who ignored the rules and came to grief. In both cases we would understand that some kind of ‘authority’ was being exercised, and probably all the more effectively than through a simple list of commands.

There are other ways, too, in which stories can wield the power to change the way people think and behave – in other words, can exercise power and/or authority. A familiar story told with a new twist in the tail jolts people into thinking differently about themselves and the world. A story told with pathos, humour or drama opens the imagination and invites the readers and hearers to imagine themselves in similar situations, offering new insights about God and human beings which enable them then to order their own lives more wisely.

All of these examples, and many more besides which one might easily think of, are ways in which the Bible does in fact work, does in fact exercise authority. This strongly suggests that for the Bible to have the effect it seems to be designed to have it will be necessary for the church to hear it as it is, not to chop it up in the effort to make it into something else.

From chapter 3 of Scripture and the Authority of God, published by SPCK 2005
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