Saturday, April 23, 2005

Authority and Story

It is axiomatic for evangelical Christians that the Bible is authoritative. But what does this mean in practice? The concept of authority applies most readily to commands or doctrines, i.e., they are to be obeyed or believed. But the Scripture contains many commands that Christians feel under no obligation to obey, and that voices within Scripture itself even sideline. With such conflicting voices, to which do we listen? Simply re-stating the Bibles authority does not help in these situations, we need to know how it is authoritative.

Furthermore, the majority of Scripture consists of narrative or stories, not instructions. The concept of authority does not seem immediately applicable to stories. So how do we stand in relation to these stories? What claims do they make upon us?

Richard Bauckham (‘Scripture and Authority’) joins a number of others in identifying “story” as the key to the problem:

The one comprehensive category within which we can locate all the biblical materials is that of story, meaning the total biblical story of the world and God's purposes for it, stretching from creation to new creation.

What we have in Scripture is a story, a plot-line that spans all of history. All the pieces of the Scripture, whether narrative, prophecy, wisdom or letter, have their place in this great plot-line:

The category of story includes not only biblical narratives - the many smaller narratives, many of them relatively self-contained, but canonically placed within the Bible's total story - but also prophecy and apostolic teaching insofar as these illuminate the meaning of the story and point its direction towards its still future completion. This total biblical story is also the context within which other biblical genres - law, wisdom, psalms, ethical instruction, parables, and so on - are canonically placed. Story is the overarching category in which others are contextualized.

But what of the category of authority in regard to the rest of Scripture, or Scripture as a whole? Bauckham suggests, “If we are to think of the Bible as authoritative, we must think primarily of the authority of this story,” and that to treat this story as authoritative is to “enter it and to inhabit it. It is to live in the world as the world is portrayed in this story. It is to let this story define our identity and our relationship to God and to others…. to privilege it above all other stories. It is to find our own identity as characters in that story, characters whose lives are an as yet untold part of the story.”

Taking these two insights, we can then suggest how to deal with the problem of the profusion of commands and their sometimes conflicting natures. Bauckham sees the problem as having arisen out of an emphasis upon “authoritative commands apart from the biblical story”, and that if “they are read within their context in the biblical story, then the story defines their authority contextually.” Thus some commands are found not to apply to us at our juncture in Gods story, and others are. However we can always learn from those that do not when they are understood contextually.

This approach has much to commend it as it offers a solution to both our problems noted above, and it does so in a very simple and elegant way.

I have unfortunately been unable to locate a copy of the article online, as i have used an online copy that i pasted into a word document from a while back. This is why there are no page references. This paper may however be identicle to the Grove Booklet entitled Scripture and Authoruty Today. I read this quite some time ago and recall it had very similar content, although i cannot be sure that it is the same.

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