Read Again: Scripture and the Authority of God by NT Wright

Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today

Takeaway: I do not know any book that takes the reading, study and importance of scripture more seriously than this book.

Normally I do not read a book so quickly after I read it the first time. But I am going backpacking next week, and the group decided to read two books in advance so we can discuss them as we are hiking.  This group of guys has been going on a trip together since spring of 1995 (17 trips total).  We are all in quite different places since we started, we have all graduated from college, completed 5 masters degrees, a PhD and an MD between the six of us.  We are all now married and have 16 children between us.  We now live outside of Chicago, Toronto, Paris, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Dallas.  We work as a nanny, a family practice doctor, a Hebrew/Old Testament professor, a missionary, a trader and a computer consultant for an HR firm.

These are guys that I am closest to and trust deeply.  I have found our discussions of faith and life and family to be one of the most important things I do every year.  Naturally as the guy that reads too much, I suggested that we actually do some homework and read before hand to talk.  I wanted to pick a book on scripture because our resident Hebrew professor can give us some real insight into the academics, while all of the rest of us have very good backgrounds in theology.

I am intentional about reading books again because I always catch something new.  There are three main points that caught my attention this time.  First, in Wright’s discussion about what the authors of the biblical books thought they were writing he said that they believed they were writing the word of God.  He thought it is unlikely that they could have conceived that the the books would have world wide circulation and be around thousands of years after they were written.  But Wright believes that the authors were writing what they thought was the word of God.  In many ways, I think that this is exactly what pastors should be striving for when they preach.  Not in a “Thus says the Lord” way, but in a “with fear and trembling, I speak what God has told me” type of way.  Mostly this struck me because I believe that pastors should have a very similar attitude toward preaching.  They should be seeking after God for a message that God wants them to preach and when they receive it, it should be delivered, humbly but with conviction that it is a message from God.  I am not suggesting that pastors should be saying “thus says the Lord” all the time.  But I do believe that they should be seeking after God for the message much more than many currently do.  When I read the biographies of great preachers and talk to preaching that I know that preach with real power (not fire and brimstone power, but the power of authority that is the result of knowing scripture and knowing God), those pastors have been on their knees begging for a message from God.

Second, I am continually struck about how different Wright, and many others, conceive of the role of scholarship and faith.  I am on Wright’s side, but I have no idea how to move people that are anti-scholarship to a better understanding on the role of the academy for the church.  In large part, the reason for the need for scholarship is that we need to continually re-discover our faith in relationship to the world around us.  Wright knows we need to continue to search not because of the weaknesses of the past, but more because he knows that the current research that he is participating in will be supplemented in the future.

“Again and again, such older scholarship, and such older traditions of reading, turn out to be flawed or in need of supplementing. Today’s and tomorrow’s will be just the same, of course, but this does not absolve us from constantly trying to do better, from the never-ending attempt to understand scripture more fully. It is my own experience that such attempts regularly result in real advances (measured not least in terms of the deep and many-sided sense that is made of the text), and that even making the effort almost always results in fresh pastoral and homiletic insights. To affirm “the authority of scripture” is precisely not to say, “We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.” It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions.”

So where do we go when people reject the need for scholarship.  I read a blog post today about controversy around the 2011 NIV.  One of the comments was clearly a troll that was searching for blog posts to complain about.  What he complained about was the very reasonable suggestion that a person not rely solely on a pastor (very few of whom have much expertise in translation theory) and instead read some of the discussion among professional translators (which do not have much concern with NIV 2011).

The last point that really struck me on this reading was the importance church leaders teaching scripture:

“It might seem obvious that church leaders should be teachers of scripture, but today it is by no means necessarily so. All too often the official leaders of the various denominations are so swamped with bureaucratic and administrative tasks that, though they still preach sermons and perhaps even give lectures, they do not give the church the benefit of fresh, careful, and prayerful study of the text, but rather simply draw on their studies of many years ago, and the inspiration of the urgent moment. When this happens, the problem is not merely that the church will miss out on new insights, and be treated to the recycling of well-worn ideas. The real danger is that church leaders forget what “the authority of scripture” actually means in practice. And if that happens, the chances are that that authority will not be working as it ought to be. As I have argued in this book, “the authority of scripture” is really a shorthand for “the authority of God exercised through scripture” and God’s authority is not merely his right to control and order the church, but his sovereign power, exercised in and through Jesus and the Spirit, to bring all things in heaven and on earth into subjection to his judging and healing rule. (Ephesians 1 sets this out more spectacularly than most passages.) In other words, if we are to be true, at the deepest level, to what scriptural authority really means, we must understand it like this: God is at work, through scripture (in other words, through the Spirit who is at work as people read, study, teach, and preach scripture) to energize, enable, and direct the outgoing mission of the church, genuinely anticipating thereby the time when all things will be made new in Christ. At the same time, God is at work by the same means to order the life of the church, and of individual Christians, to model and embody his project of new creation in their unity and holiness. To be a leader in the church is, almost by definition, to be one through whose work this mission comes about, enabled and directed by this scripture-based energy; and one through whom, again with scriptural energy to the fore, that unity and holiness is generated and sustained.”

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One Comment

Thanks for these thoughts! I have the book; now I should read it.

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