How to get the Bible to work
Evangelicals believe the Bible’s a kind of tool for day-to-day life and eternal life. But how exactly? At one point Moses asks God about what to with someone gathering sticks on the Sabbath. ‘Stone him to death’ comes the answer. Okay…
Tom Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God is the fun-size version of his much larger The New Testament and the People of God. But most of us won’t eat that rich meal, and provided you can put up with its cut-down, written on a Saturday afternoon, would-love-to-linger-but-must-dash breathlessness, there’s a fully working framework for thinking about the Bible in these sparse pages.
Wright points out, first, that Scripture is a story. If you don’t think ‘authority’ can be located within ‘story,’ look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. It teaches ‘Love your neighbour’ better than any number of laws, bye-laws, special exceptions and precedents. So scripture exercises its authority largely by setting out a grand narrative and getting us to work out how we fit in it.
Second, it’s a story in several phases. Wright suggest five. His five stages are:
- Creation (Genesis 1-2);
- Fall (Genesis 3-11)
- Preparation for Christ (all the Old Testament from Genesis 12 onwards);
- Jesus’ incarnation and what he did next (the gospels)
- The working out of New Creation through the life of the Church (Acts onward.)
It assumes a sixth act, the end/beginning of all things, of which Act 5 is just a foreshadowing and catalyst.
Third, it’s a story we are in. And we work out our part of the story by engaging with the earlier chapters.
So, roughly Wright’s framework for understanding and being shaped by the authority of God through scripture is:
- Read earlier phases in the light of the final phase
- Draw on the whole story as we play our part in progressing the story.
This framework explains a lot: the unity of scripture; and the reason for discarding lots of its commands and emphases, such as the ones about stoning sabbath breakers.
We discard them because we understand them to have had, and have now finished having, their role in their story. Once you’ve dug the foundations, you can stop digging foundations and do the next things. You stop digging not because foundations were a bad idea, but because they have done their proper job of providing the necessary base for the next layer. In that specific example, the total-war mindset to preserve tribal identity in the late bronze age is different from the mindset of living out the good of Christ’s kingdom today, and you can’t simply cut-and-paste from one era to another.
So it isn’t that the Old Testament is ‘somehow about legal stuff’ and the New is ‘somehow about mercy stuff’, but we read and consider different parts depending on where they fit in the overall story.
As Wright puts it himself at one point: one cannot see the Bible ‘in the flat,’ with something being validated or somehow even ennobled just because it is in the Bible …
… But when we approach the question of scripture’s authority … in the light of the whole story and intention of the creator God, dealing with his world step-by-step and eventually dealing decisively with it in and through Jesus Christ, then we discover that the authority of God, as mediated through and in the whole scripture, points to the renewal of creation through Jesus Christ as the key theme of the whole story. (p 194)
our task is to discover, through the Spirit and prayer, the appropriate ways of improvising the script between the foundation events and charter [the first phases] … and the complete coming of the Kingdom [the final future phase] …once we grasp this framework, other things begin to fall into place. (p127)
I bought my copy of this book from CLC Cambridge. It’s also available online: