Right now a vigorous conversation is being hosted on Rachel Evans’ site, http://rachelheldevans.com/blog on the topic of the authority of scripture. Each Monday Rachel posts a comment on a chapter of N. T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God; How to Read the Bible Today. After Rachel posts her reactions to Wright’s material there follows a string of comments (and comments on comments) by her many viewers. This week, as of today, the post, a discussion of Wright’s second chapter, has 94 comments and there are 125 comments in the discussion strings of chapter 1. [A Side Note: It is not that Rachel’s viewers comment at a higher rate than one might find anywhere else in the blogosphere; she gets thousands of hits a day and about one in 100 viewers comment.]
Rachel Held Evans on N. T. Wright
In her post on Chapter 2, Rachel observes and comments on Wright’s usual method of approaching big questions. She writes:
Entitled “Israel and God’s Kingdom-People,” this chapter takes a step back to look at the big picture. Wright returns to a theme you will find in quite a bit of his writing, and that is that we must understand both Scripture and Jesus in the context of the question—“How is Israel to be rescued, and how is the whole world to be put to rights?” In other words, we have to frame the existence of Scripture and the presence of Jesus with the Problem of Evil.
She continues later:
“’Inspiration,’” he says, “is a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were books God intended his people to have.”
Hmm. I’ve never heard it explained quite that way before.
Wright then goes on to offer an explanation of what is meant by “the word of God” – and this really got my attention.
“And in and through it all, we find the elusive but powerful idea of God’s ‘word,’” he says, “not as a synonym for the written scriptures, but as a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing recreating” (emphasis mine).
This strikes me as an important point, for often, when I’m talking with Christians—particularly evangelicals—I get the sense that there is an assumption that “God’s word” is synonymous with, (and perhaps limited to), “the Bible.” But Wright points to Scripture itself to make the point, as he had earlier, that “God does indeed speak through scripture. But we cannot either reduce God’s speech to scripture alone, or for that matter ignore the fact that ‘speech’ must itself be thought of in terms of ‘speech-acts,’ the deeds which are performed by the fact of speaking at all…”
And again, she quotes what is salient in Wright:
Concludes Wright: “It is as though…‘the word of the YHWH’ is like an enormous reservoir, full of creative divine wisdom and power, into which the prophets and other writers tap by God’s call and grace, so that the word may flow through them to do God’s work of flooding or irrigating his people.”
I love that thought!
But, if I am understanding Wright correctly, this idea has consequences for both uber-conservative Christians (who may tend to see God’s presence and revelatory activity as limited the words printed in the Bible) and more liberal Christians (who may prefer to think of the words of Joshua and Jeremiah as entirely their own, and not the words of God).
My comment on RHE’s post:
Rachel, I think you are catching Wright’s meaning and the truly salient features of this chapter just right. Having lived within the “Neo-Calvinist” philosophic framework for almost all of my adult life, let me suggest this chapter powerfully articulates that viewpoint and adds evidence to my (earlier) assertion (some weeks ago) that Wright is writing largely from within that perspective.
As I commented in another context on your blog a while back, for Wright, the Word of God is that dynamic space between the creator and his creation. As such, all of creation came into existence by the “let-there-be”s of the Word(s) of God and all creation exists, moment by moment, by the “continual-ing” power of the Word.
And then, when God’s “project managers” of creation rebelled and lost their connection with the living wisdom of that Word, only then did God begin to verbalize that Word which before that time would have been as clear as, “Well, duh!” Why put into words what is obvious, after all!
Eventually, some of those words which crystallize the Word of God-wisdom from which they come, were written down. Yet even before that written vessel, the Bible, which contains the written Word was complete, humanity, in its perversity was already inventing ways of twisting the written Word to sometimes make it mean the opposite of what its Spirit-driven, Word-shaped authors had intended!
And so the creator who had fashioned all creation by the Word and who had distilled the Word into scripture, finally embodied that communication of God as a human being:
“Behold the (hu)man!” said God. “Here is what loving and serving and truth-telling and even faithful dying really look like!”
Today, therefore, when we read the Scriptures, we need to not only be aware of when they were written and by whom and for what purpose but also we need to keep in mind that their larger purpose is to make clear, to guide the paths of those who walk by faith in the very creation which King Jesus has claimed as his own because he first created it and at last, redeemed it by his death.
I believe the Word behind creation, the Word in Scripture and the Word made flesh speak together with one true voice. And someday, I believe, we humans will all finally hear clearly and powerfully that one loving and reconciling voice. So if it seems to us now that what we read in creation differs from what we read in the Bible or if the story of Jesus seems to contradict what we find either in creation or elsewhere in the book, we can be certain we are presently reading something, at least, wrong. That knowledge does not solve all the problems with the authority of the Bible but it does clarify where the problems can be found: in the places where our reading of creation, the scriptures and the life and teaching of King Jesus do not agree.
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Any thoughts on this subject? Can you think of any examples of where it seems like our understanding of the Bible, the creation and what we know of Jesus are in conflict?
You can follow “the authority of the bible” discussions each Monday and thereafter on Rachel’s blog (link, above). Tomorrow, here, I will post an excerpt from one of those discussion strings which another member of the discussion asked me to publish. Stay tuned!