The Bible, Spiritual authority and Inspiration - Lecture by Tom Wright

The status or authority of the Bible is a very important topic that many Christians seem to have gone somewhat astray with regard to. Here some valid and important considerations by Tom Wright on this theme….

How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?
(The Laing Lecture 1989, and the Griffith Thomas Lecture 1989)
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 a 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 took 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’s task and to the
church’s own life.
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
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 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 round.
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 behaviour 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 such attempts.
Evangelical Views
Most heirs of the Reformation, not least evangelicals, take if 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
naive, 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
evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.’
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 relation between the Old and
New Testaments is not the same as the relation 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 antitheses 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 text, 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 . . .’?
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 a
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 got 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 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 unrecognised.
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
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 the others. Failing that, they lapse into
the regrettable (though sometimes comprehensible) attitude of temporary
book-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 that 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 out 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 tuning 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 this 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.
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 remoulded
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 law courts 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 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 loving and wise creation 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
his world. What he does authoritatively he dots 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 or 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 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 his 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 judgement 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. As 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 judgement and salvation to
Israel and the world.
And how much more must we say of Jesus. Jesus the great prophet;
Jesus who rules from the cross in judgement 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 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 documentation 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.
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 round, 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 art mostly narrative;
and we have already run up against the problem how can a story, a
narrative, be authoritative? 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, this authority is also wielded through his people singing
psalms, Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s
people 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
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 in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and
who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.
Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be
the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. 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 in to 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; 1 Cor 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 ail 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 settled the question once and for all, though I
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! 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,
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 now 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 was 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 set an authoritative book which does precisely that, from as it were
the sidelines). 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 judgement and
salvation to work. The Bible is made up, all through, of writings of
those who, like Micaiah 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 moulded 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 judgement 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 judgement 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 as a
means to control people, to force them into little boxes. Those little
boxes often owe far more, in my experience, to cultural conditioning 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 behaviour?’ 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, [See Pilgrim Simon’s Notes at the end of this essay]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 bypassing
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: judgement 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 favour of unsoundness; but soundness
means health, and health means growth, and growth means life and vigour
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 that, as
we submit to scripture, as we wrestle with the bits that don’t make
sense, and as we hand 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 head, 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 genuine Christian story-telling the
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 a merely human
level, how much more when it is God himself, the creator, breathing through
his word.
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 some-what tedious
and anyway, for our present purposes, unnecessary.
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 Salient 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, 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 a 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, recognisably 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 a 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 which 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 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 world-view–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 us 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 blunder 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 through
Luther or Aquinas or whoever. These are the stones 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 needs 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 on, 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 mould 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 the disciples
are all singing, ‘Haysannah, Hosannah’. And one of the zealots says to
Jesus, ‘Come on, you ride in ahead of us and you’ll get the power and the
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 realises 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
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 not 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 and structure 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 (ie its 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 world-view, 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 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 injustice 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 the 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 ways 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
favourite 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
Bible 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 Alec 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 chapter-divisions,
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 whose who claim to take it
seriously–that account for the very low level of biblical knowledge and
awareness even among some church leaders and those with delegated
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 Bible-study, 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 your 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 judgement 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 God-views
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, by
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.
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 remoulded 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 gory of God and
the redemption of the world.
Notes by Pilgrim Simon
I do consider that the so-called ‘Great Commission’ of Matthew 28 is not the church’s commission but the apostle’s commission, with its line of succession in the form of Elders. Thus I feel that Wright is slightly incorrect when he says near the end of this essay: ‘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.’
I would rather suggest that this is primarily the task of the
professional caste within the church – those who are privileged by being set apart and ordained as Elders, and who have particular time to study scripture. They do indeed 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. This is not to negate the responsibilities of Christians to live a holy life appropriate to those who are servants of the Lord, nor to suggest that they are excluded from the sorts of responsibilities outlined by Wright in this essay. But the main responsibility for declaring the good news and baptizing new believers falls upon ordained elders.

1 See J D G Dunn, The Living Word, ch 3. Dunn’s own counterformulation
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 differences between the OT and the 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 o f thing in mind. Other analogies suggest
themselves: Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, obviously, or
perhaps Nielson’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 work in continuity with that
under discussion.
6 In addition, his descriptions of this supposed cavalier freedom fails
to take account of the quite evident reasons why Jesus and Paul did
what they did, eg circumcision and the food laws. Their stances
were not based, as Dunn implies, on the wildly anachronistic
charges of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, but on the 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, eg, 21 f.

Inner Spirituality

I am a person who seems to have a natural inclination towards mystical experiences. There are so many definitions of ‘mysticism’ these days that the word has almost become meaningless but when I use the word ‘mysticism’ or ‘mystical’ I tend to be referring in very broad way to ‘inner spirituality’ or to ‘inner wisdom’ traditions. In exploring ‘inner spirituality’ I drew my ‘inner spiritual’ philosophy or theology from the contents of my own experiences but nevertheless I found a resonance with thinkers within Islamic, Hindu and Christian traditions. You can see this mystical theology on this blog by clicking the tab at the top of the page.
My interests in spirituality began within the Christian tradition, a Calvinist one to be precise, but after a while, I began to find increasing problems with what many would call a ‘Christian Fundamentalist’ position, and which other people might call a ‘conservative evangelical’ perspective. One result of this was that I increasingly began to explore ‘mystical’ experience and theology both within and outside of the Christian tradition. Many of these explorations and studies can be found in my book ‘Behind the masks of God’. ‘Inner spirituality’ was particularly my focus since the millennium.
Very often when it comes to different theories and perspectives, such as those within psychology or politics for example, a particular perspective seems to fit the bill very well initially. Then after a while, a few problems arise and with them, a certain discontent. If the discontent becomes strong enough then a person may change their perspective – they may move from being politically left wing to being right wing for example, or they may even create a new perspective or orientation. This new or changed perspective usually seems to address the problems encountered in the previous orientation and certainly for a while at least, all seems well. Then, the same thing may happen again – a certain rising discontent may rear its head once more. ‘Inner spirituality’ seemed to deal with some of the problematic issues that arose for me from the Christian fundamentalist perspective, but then some issues began to arise from within the ‘inner spiritual’ tradition itself.
Firstly, try as I might, I could not reconcile ‘inner spiritual’ theology with Christian theology. Sure, I know – there are a number of respected Christian mystics – Meister Eckhart and Jan Ruuysbroeck to name but two. But all of these Christian mystics use a metaphorical and analogous interpretation of Bible verses and passages in such a way that meanings are drawn out of these passages that they do not actually contain. If we read a verse that says ‘Jesus entered a house’, then these mystics draw out of this phrase concepts to do with the spirit of Jesus entering the heart or soul of the believer and so on. When I read the Bible, I am constantly reminded that it has it’s roots in real, objective, historical events – it does not lend itself to these kinds of speculative spiritualizations.
Secondly, there was the problem of moral debt. It is an unfair world – innocent people suffer injustice and violence; corrupt and violent people are not always brought to justice and so on. The ‘inner spiritual’ tradition deals with this in various ways, according to its context. Within the Sufi tradition of Islam, there is a belief in resurrection and a form of purgative existence whereby a person pays their moral debts over a long, sometimes a very long period of time. Ultimately of course, God is Merciful. Within Hinduism there is the concept of reincarnation, of a long period of birth-death-rebirth cycles in which the quality and status of a person’s rebirth depends upon the moral nature of their behaviour in their present incarnation. Eventually, with diligent effort, a person reaches a sufficiently high spiritual level as to escape this cycle and attain union with the Divine. In some ‘inner spiritual’ traditions, such concepts of purgative resurrection and reincarnation are simply transcended. In these cases, the person’s True Self, the Ground of their being, is seen as being one with and the same as Transcendent Spirit – Atman and Brahman are One. Hence there is a focus on the ‘Inner Light’. Here, there is no Judgment, no heaven or hell, but rather a transcendent boundless return to Undifferentiated Oneness. The bounded, objective, material universe is transcended altogether. Hence also, the material world is seen as undesirable, even evil – a place to retreat from, a place to transcend. I have never been persuaded of the concept of reincarnation and if I rejected the concept of resurrection then I was left with this transcendent return to Essence. But this left moral debt unpaid. The response to this objection was that it was seen as synonymous with immature thinking. Concerns with moral debt and a Final Judgment would simply be rendered useless – irrelevant as transcendence took place. To think in terms of Final Judgment and moral debt was seen as thinking in a narrow, ignorant, delimited way – to fall for an illusion that the material world is Ultimately the only Reality. Sure – the material world has substance – but it is temporal and finite. But no matter how I tried, this sat uneasily with me.
Thirdly, ‘inner spiritual’ experience was Immediate, Vital and Real. It had a sense of Immediate Truth and of clear perception. It had a sense of Closeness, Unity and even Union with Spirit. But was it what it seemed to be? Mystical experience seems to be found in all religions and there is some commonality of experience to be found in all these traditions. There are also significant differences between them. This is due to the different starting points of individual spiritual adepts – they belong to different times and cultures and they frame and inform their transcendent experiences using cultural forms such as language and the religious ideas that they are familiar with. There is a difference between the Essence of the experience and the forms used to express and describe it. There are also different levels of attainment and as the spiritual adept goes the ‘higher’ and ‘deeper’ the perspective changes, such that what they may have embraced earlier, they may now reject. Ultimately, a form of apophatic or negative theology is adopted, where everything is a delimited expression of the Spirit but Spirit is Essence is Unknowable – God is ‘not this, not that’. Despite all this, the niggling doubts remained: was I really experienced what I thought I was experiencing?
‘Inner spiritual’ experience is an individual, personal, subjective, introspective or inward-looking experience. The attention and focus is directed inwards based on the concept of having the ‘Light within’ or ‘God within’ as Essence. As the adept progresses to deeper and deeper levels of introspection, they approach what is perceived as the very ‘ground of their being’, to be aware of their essential ‘isness’ – a level of receptive awareness present beneath the overlay of bounded conceptual forms, language and active, rational cognitive processes. Indeed, they seek to set aside active conceptualising, boundary making, analyzing and logic, in order to allow the ‘isness’ of things simply to be. This means that a more holistic, intuitive mode of perceiving or knowing comes to the fore – a mode that has always been there ‘under the surface’, but which we tend to be less aware of and which tends to be subsumed under our active analytical, conceptualising and rationalizing processes. This holistic, less differentiated, intuitive mode of perception carries with it a sense of Immediacy because the adept’s ‘knowing’ is no longer filtered and mediated through their conceptualising and analyzing processes, or at least, this is engaged less than usual. The Immediacy of this subjective experience carries with it a sense of Depth, Reality, Truth and so on. However, it does not therefore follow that such intuitive experience is in fact True or Real. For example, the intuitive experience of many people is that the sun revolves around the earth – it rises, it courses across the sky, it sets – but we know that in fact it is not the sun that revolves around the earth, but the earth revolving on it’s own axis that gives this effect. The less differentiated and more holistic quality of the adept’s experience means that boundaries and forms begin to seem irrelevant, they fall away giving rise to a subjective sense of expansiveness, even of Infinity – a sense of Boundlessness and Unity or Oneness with all that is. At this depth of introspection and surrender the practitioner of ‘inner spirituality’ still has a subjective sense of their own bounded self as the experiencer and perceiver of ‘what is’.
The internal subjective sense of the bounded self as a focal point or locus of perception and experience is sometimes called the ‘ego’. The ‘ego’ is a subjective mental ‘structure’, an emergent subjective quality that arises primarily from biological processes in the brain. In the physical, material world of bounded objects, our body provides a physically bounded point of perspective and relationship to other bounded physical objects. Even in the mind, in non-material fantasy and imagination, a person’s ‘ego’ provides a similar focal point or locus of perspective and relationship. However, further, deeper introspection and surrender by the person practicing ‘inner spirituality’ can lead the practitioner to the ‘isness’ of their being and a level of undifferentiated perception or knowing that exists as it were beneath the ‘structure’ or focal point of the ‘ego’ – and thus the adept can enter an ‘egoless’ state – where the division, separateness or boundary between observer and observed is lost and the adept attains a subjective sense of timeless Oneness with all that is, a sense of becoming Expansive Pure Light Emptiness or the Silent Desert in Undifferentiated Oneness. Subjectively, the adept is still perceiving, experiencing and ‘knowing’, but the sense of self, the point of focus, the locus for these experiences – the ‘ego’ – has itself been surrendered or transcended as the adept receives perceptual experiences beneath the level or mental structure of a bounded sense of self or ‘ego’. At the same time, active analysis, conceptualization, labelling and differentiation has also been surrendered. In this state of being there is the perceptual experience of there being no ‘God’ and no ‘self’ – because the boundaries between subjective and objective are being lost – self is merged with Godhead as the Ground of Being of all that is – which is simultaneously Transcendent of all that is.
This level or state of perception is sometimes referred to as the ‘divination of the self’ – Atman and Brahman are perceived and experienced as One – the adept is God and God is the adept. The adept may experience a sense of merging into Formless Transcendent Omniscient Omnipresence. Because the usually active processes of differentiation and conceptualization have been surrendered and let go of, this experience carries with it a sense of Immediacy and therefore, to the practitioner, it seems Vitally Real and True. But it is important to remember that all of this is subjective – if the adept were to be hit by a falling tree or collapsing building then they would die or be injured like anyone else – they have not objectively or materially transcended into boundless undifferentiated Oneness. All of this subjective experience is grounded in properties that are emerging from the adept’s biological base – from activity and biochemical reactions taking place primarily in their brain.
In this state, the mediation of language, concept, form, image and sound is no longer operating or hardly operating at all and the point of focus, the sense of differentiated or bounded selfhood or ‘ego’ has been surrendered, let go of or penetrated. Despite this ‘egoless’ state and the loss of the focal point of subjective experience, the adept is still subjectively experiencing – but the experience is being processed in a non-usual way. Wherever the adept’s perception goes, they are subjectively there – but in the adept’s intuitive, holistic, undifferentiated mode of perception this gives rise to a sense of Omnipresence: ‘Wherever you look, there I am’ – and ‘I am you and you are me’ – the ‘inner spiritual’ adept, like everyone else, subjectively fills their own universe.
This lack of differentiation between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’, this loss of the sense of self as being distinct from other selves and objects, is an important consideration in the light of a process called reification. Reification occurs when a person projects the contents of their subjective experience ‘out there’, as though these contents have real, objective or substantial existence quite independent of the person who has experienced them. The loss of the subjective/objective differentiation coupled with the sense of Immediacy, Truth and Reality means that adepts of ‘inner spirituality’ are particularly prone to this error. Indeed, they may place such subjective experiences and knowledge above the conceptualized, differentiated knowledge of the objective universe. Thus it is that adepts in some traditions talk about the universe and the objective world as being ‘an illusion’ and only secondarily real in comparison to the Godhead that is Ultimately and Finally Real.
In returning to a more usual state of actively processing their subjective experience, the adept resurfaces out of the depths and their cognitive/conceptual overlay becomes active again. The person begins to actively attempt to try and make sense of what they have experienced – they place value on it, categorise it, conceptualize it, describe it, give it form and shape, relate to it and so on using their memory and shared cultural symbols such as language. The ‘inner spiritual’ adept, like everyone else, conceptually constructs his or her own universe and overlays a set of conceptual categories on their experience. Such conceptual constructions are subjective and relative. However, because their subjective experience surrendered the subjective/objective boundary, surrendered the bounded sense of self and carried with it a sense of Immediacy, there is a strong sense of it being Real and True. It remains very easy for the adept to reify their experience and regard the content of their experience as being objectively true. The adept may have a strong sense that the contents of the experience – as they have conceptualised them – are objectively Real. Even when they return to this more usual state of perception, because of this sense of Immediacy, Reality and Truth, it is very easy for the adept to place their subjective experiences in a primary position – as the main source of spiritual, theological and philosophical information – and to relegate other, mediated and even objective experiences or sources into secondary positions. Thus, when it comes to Christianity, ‘inner spiritual’ experience may take precedence over objective events. This is a major difference between Christianity and paths of ‘inner spirituality’. Christianity emphasizes the real, objective historical events of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is grounded in the objective, historical events – not in subjective experiences, hallucinations or empty fantasies of the imagination. Christianity answers the problem of moral debt and the reality of the universe: it promotes the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, a restored creation where death, decay and corruption are defeated, together with a bodily resurrection and a facing of a Final Judgment.
Here is the main contrast between ‘inner spirituality’ and Christianity. ‘Inner spirituality’ evaporates into insubstantial subjective experience – into empty imagination. Christianity stakes its base in objective, material reality, both historical and in a proposed future. Christians are bound for a physical, bodily resurrection in a restored, material creation in which there is a new order – with God as King and Lord. In the light of the insubstantial nature of ‘inner spiritual’ experience, this is what I have come back to.