The Authority of Scripture: From Priests to Prophets

I promised to post some of the thoughts that I have been having on the subject of the authority of Scripture. In my earlier post I raised the issue of the form in which we encounter the Bible, arguing that the fact that we primarily engage with the Bible as a printed, bound, mass-produced and privately-owned text has significant implications for the manner in which we relate to the text and the manner in which the authority of Scripture functions within our lives.

I plan to post a few posts on various aspects of the authority of Scripture, exploring certain dimensions of the authority of Scripture that I believe are often overlooked. In doing this I am not intending to provide a comprehensive treatment of the doctrine of Scripture. Rather, my intention is that of encouraging new ways of looking at a doctrine that we think that we are familiar with. I have become frustrated at many of the contemporary debates around the question of the authority of Scripture. Most of these debates are very stale, in part because they tend to centre on the wrong questions, questions that generally result from modernist presuppositions.

Whilst I do not want to dismiss these debates as entirely unhelpful and misconceived, I do want to argue that they are missing certain important dimensions of the Scripture’s teaching concerning itself. I am going to claim that the familiar debates raised by the Bible that Gutenberg gave us need to be put to one side for the present, so that we can ask a new series of questions. I really don’t think that another discussion on the inerrancy of Scripture, for example, is what the Church needs at the moment. I see posts like this online and I inwardly sigh. We will be doomed to engage continually in such debates until we rid ourselves of the picture of the Scriptures that the technology of our modern Bibles gives us — that of a book containing facts to be looked at and interpreted.

Rather than simply hitting our heads against the impasses reached by old debates, I believe that what we really need is a new set of questions, arising from a very different vision of what the Scriptures are, and the role that they are to play in the Church. This picture is challenging and unsettling. It presents us with Scriptures that are not so easily domesticated, co-opted by our various agendas and silenced. These Scriptures are hard to pin down and define; they cannot be controlled or circumscribed. I am arguing that the Scriptures are a story to be told and performed with the whole of our bodies, rather than merely a text to be looked at and interpreted. Our debates have centred around the script; I am encouraging us to re-centre them around the dramatic performance itself.

Many of the traditional debates have a measure of truth on both sides, which makes it even more likely that they will be interminable. There are those who refuse to reduce the Word of God by identifying it with the Bible (conceived of as a book containing facts) and react against what they (often rightly) perceive to be a dangerous distortion of the Christian faith in the direction of ‘bibliolatry’. Whilst I find few of their alternative formulations palatable, their objections are not without their weight. A stress on the Bible as the Word of God has often gone hand in hand with a form of Christianity that simply does not appreciate the significance of the Incarnation. Part of my intention in this and subsequent posts is to provide a high view of Scripture that avoids the bibliolatry in certain evangelical circles and demonstrates the inseparable connection between the Word made text and the Word made flesh.

Covenant-Historical Perspective
Central to the position that I will be presenting in this and other posts on this subject is the claim that the Bible needs to be understood as a participant in God’s plan of salvation and that its role is one that develops over the course of time, as God’s purposes gradually come to fruition. As one aspect of this position, I will argue that the role that the Scriptures played in the OT era differs from the role that the Scriptures play in the new covenant era.

Systematic theology has often failed to pay enough attention to the biblical story. The temporal, progressive and narrative character of God’s self-revelation has all too frequently been treated as something accidental to the essential message of Scripture. A failure of this magnitude is more than sufficient to fatally compromise entire theological projects. Most of the terms used by systematic theology only make biblical sense when understood within the larger framework of redemptive history. Regeneration, justification, election, call, adoption and many other such terms are inextricably linked to movements in redemptive and covenant history.

The same holds true when we try to develop a doctrine of Scripture itself. When developing a doctrine of Scripture, far too often the Bible is treated as if it were a document that fell down from heaven in a complete form. Even when it is not, its role in bringing about God’s purposes in maturing and saving humanity is downplayed. Many of the doctrines of Scripture that one encounters treat the Bible as the deposit that was gradually laid down after events in which God revealed Himself in redemptive history. Instead of seeing the Scriptures chiefly as an actor in God’s purposes, the Scriptures are regarded merely as a commentator or spectator on those purposes. Within the approach that I will be presenting in this and other posts on the subject, Scripture is seen to be a dynamic participant in the outworking of God’s purposes.

The readers of this blog should be familiar with my belief that, at the most basic level, the narrative of Scripture is not about the salvation of men from sin (no matter how important that theme is), but is concerned with the progressive maturation of humanity. It will be in terms of this overarching theme that I will develop my thoughts on Scripture.

This post will serve as a prologue to my more direct comments on the authority of Scripture. It will outline a way of thinking about the biblical process of maturation that I have found very illuminating in my own thinking.

James Jordan has argued for a development in biblical history from a priestly to a kingly to a prophetic phase, a progression that he claims is recapitulated in all sorts of areas of human life. The first — priestly — phase is one of obedient service under instructors or governors. The second — kingly — phase involves a movement into wisdom. The final — prophetic — stage involves a greater degree of authority; the prophet is a member of the divine council (Amos 3:7).

This progression can be seen in the movement from childhood to adulthood to eldership. Jordan also uses the example of learning a computer as an illustration. In learning a computer you start off using the manual and acting under the instruction of others (priestly stage). You proceed to become sensitive to the computer and to use it for yourself, having a sense of what to do when you face new problems that were not directly addressed in the manual (kingly stage). Finally you reach a stage when you can participate in the process of redesigning the computer in order to make it better, becoming an advisor both to the computer manufacturers and its users (prophetic stage).

For Jordan this pattern is not merely a helpful heuristic one. He claims that the pattern actually corresponds to key stages of the maturing process of the people of God in the OT. He claims that, within the OT we find three sub-testaments. The first books are the priestly material and the Law, followed by the kingly material of the books of wisdom. The final stage is represented by the books of the prophets. These correspond to distinct eras within the history of Israel.

There are a number of aspects of the priest-king-prophet development that we can unpack.

1. There is a progression in the role that God calls His people to perform. In the first phase, the faithfulness of the people of God is primarily expressed in the form of obedience to commandments. The commandments present the people of God with black and white, universally applicable guidelines. There will never be a time when adultery is not wrong. This is similar to the earliest years of a child’s life, during which they are presented with clearly defined standards of right and wrong by their parents.

In the second phase, the people of God must act according to wise judgment — the knowledge of good and evil. Jordan argues that the knowledge of good and evil is not a bad thing. The knowledge of good and evil belongs to the mature king. It comes to those whose characters have been formed by the Law. They can discern the right course of action even in situations that the Law does not explicitly address.

When one has grown into wisdom through the catechesis of the Law one is able to make judgments in areas that are not merely a matter of black and white. Wisdom has a time dimension that the Law does not. Wisdom can look at a situation, discern what is fitting and not fitting and know how to change things. We can see the time dimension of wisdom clearly illustrated in passages such as Ecclesiastes 3. Wisdom can recognize the difference between good and better.

In the third phase the people of God must fulfill their task, not merely with obedience and wisdom, but with imagination. The prophet begins new trends in history, pulling down old world orders and establishing new ones. Prophets are the gadflies that irritate old world orders, by asking questions that cannot be easily answered. Prophets are imaginers of new futures. They paint new pictures in terms of which people start to live their lives. Whilst ‘kings’ are engaged in the task of ‘normal science’ (to use Kuhnian terminology) ‘prophets’ pull down the old paradigms and establish new ones in their place. This is primarily a work of the imagination.

If the priest’s role is to be associated primarily with the ear (hearing the Word of God and obeying) one could argue that the king’s role is primarily one of the eye (seeing and judging) and the role of the prophet is one of the mouth (carrying God’s Word inside him and calling new world orders into existence by words alone).

Whilst ‘priestly’ and ‘kingly’ forms of ethics are still present in the ‘prophetic’ stage in certain respects they have been superseded. They no longer have the centrality that they used to.

2. There is a progression in the manner in which the authority of Scripture functions in each of these stages. In the first stage the authority of God in the Scriptures is something that the people of God must serve under. It addresses them primarily in the form of commandments — in a ‘do this; don’t do that’ form. There is little room for interpretation. The commandments are specific and must be kept to the letter. The priest is a servant under the Law and must do exactly as he is commanded.

By the second stage the authority of Scripture has guided us into principles of wise judgment. The Word of God comes as a character-forming word. The person who has reached this stage is able to make his own wise judgments and apply God’s authoritative Word in situations that it never directly addressed. The king is God’s vicegerent and is given authority among God’s people. He has a position of rule under God. The king must be careful that he does not undermine the Law in his judgments. However, he is given far more freedom in interpretation, being able to bring the authority of God’s Word to bear in new situations and in new ways.

In the final stage the authority of the Bible can be regarded primarily as something that we exercise and embody in our inspired prophetic witness as those whose characters have been formed by the earlier stages. The prophet is far more than merely a bearer of messages from God, a servant to be sent on errands (that is more of a priestly role). The prophet is one who has been given a greater level of authority. He is a member of the divine counsel (Amos 3:7) with the right to challenge God’s expressed purpose (like Abraham did when God declared His intention to destroy the city of Sodom).

The Word of God comes to the prophet primarily as an authorizing Word. The Word of God sets the prophet over nations and kingdoms. God does not merely present the prophet as one who will bear the tidings of His rooting out, tearing down, building and planting of kingdoms; the prophet is the one through whom God will accomplish these things (Jeremiah 1:10). The prophet is given an authority that dwarfs that of kings. The prophet is given the authority of God’s words in his mouth.

3. There is a development in the scope of judgment. The priest has a very limited realm of activity, being mostly concerned with the sanctuary. He is God’s chef, who prepares God’s food for Him. He guards God’s house and must also guard the people of God by upholding and protecting the boundaries established in the Torah. The king has an expanded realm of activity. His activity extends throughout the nation. He must also interact with foreign nations. The prophet is set above nations and kingdoms. His judgment extends throughout the whole world. The prophet is also more powerful than both the priest and the king; he can tear down and build up kingdoms with his words alone.

We can observe that whilst the death of the High Priest dealt with the pollution of the land (Numbers 35:9-34), the priest could not die for the people in the same way as the king could. The king could die for those who were under him, for the nation. As Jordan observes, the priest doesn’t have a people to die for. The death of the prophet could be an event of even greater significance. The prophet can die as one who bears a whole world order. Jesus died as prophet, king and priest and the significance of His death must be understood on all of these levels. Not only was His death one for the people under Him as the Messiah, it was also, as the death of the prophetic Servant, a death in which the whole old creation order was implicated.

As a footnote to this discussion of the scope of judgment, I have often wondered whether we need to see a development in the character of the moral world faced by the people of God as they move through these various stages. During the priestly era there is very clear relationship between what the people of God do and the blessings and the curses that they experience (e.g. Deuteronomy 28). This is similar to the manner in which we experienced justice in the protected environment of childhood. As the scope of judgment increases, so does our exposure to a more complicated moral universe.

When the protective environment of childhood is removed, we are faced with a far more complex moral world. This is the sort of world that one sees in the wisdom literature. As soon as God removes the ‘hedge’ from Job, he faces assault from Satan that undermines any clear correspondence between obedience and blessing. In Ecclesiastes we see Solomon wrestling with such a world. Things don’t always make sense and so we must live by faith.

The world of the prophet seems to be even more complex. The prophets are particularly associated with martyrdom. Their sufferings are extreme and the moral universe often seems to have been turned on its head. The prophet is put into more direct conflict with the forces of evil and does not experience the same degree of protection as the priest or the king. God equips him for the battle, but the result is not always a happy one. I sometimes wonder whether this is a factor that could be taken into greater account in our understanding of biblical theodicies.

4. There is a development in hermeneutics. The priest has very little room given to him for interpretation. Priestly hermeneutics are very literal and grammatical-historical. The Law must be followed exactly and to the letter. There is little invitation to interpretative maximalism. The king, however, is called to a deeper form of hermeneutics. The king must be one who understands riddles. The king has ‘sapiential hermeneutics’ and moves beyond the ‘plain sense’ to new applications of the Law and understanding of levels of meaning that are far richer than those accessed by grammatical-historical hermeneutics. The king’s mind is attuned to the text in a manner that enables him to see deeper patterns emerging.

Prophetic interpretation is of another character. Prophetic interpretation is a more creative form of interpretation. Prophetic interpretation is not too dissimilar from the sort of interpretation that a Shakespearian actor might engage in. The actor brings himself and his world to the role that he plays, relating them together and creating something new in the process. There is a marriage of man and message in the word of the prophet. The prophet embodies the message that he bears inside him.

The priest must primarily listen to the Word coming from outside of him. The king, whose understanding has been formed and mind has been shaped by the Law, must bring the Law to bear in new situations. The prophet has a far closer relationship to the Word. Not only has his mind been formed by the Law, but he has taken the Law itself into himself. The Word of God is within the prophet and burns to be let out. The prophet eats God’s Word.

The form of hermeneutics that we see the apostles engaged in in the NT is a form of ‘prophetic hermeneutics’. They interpret the OT text in a way that goes far beyond grammatical-historical exegesis. I would argue that it also goes beyond ‘sapiential hermeneutics’. The apostles were engaged in ‘prophetic hermeneutics’, creatively relating the Word of God to life of the Church. The meaning of the text is not to be regarded as some closed entity to be discovered by the diligent exegete, but as something that takes place as the text is brought into contact with our world by the Scripture-formed and Spirit-inspired imagination. Such an approach does not give us a hermeneutical ‘blank cheque’. The text invites creative interpretation, but it does not give us a formless freedom, a freedom without controls or limitations.

I will explore these issues in more depth in my next post.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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6 Responses to The Authority of Scripture: From Priests to Prophets

  1. Pingback: » Thinking About the Bible Outside the Fundamentalist Box (Updated)

  2. Eric Lee says:

    I’m mostly ignorant on these matters, but would you consider this account of the bible as fostering the growth of the human a kind of Irenaean account of the Holy Scriptures?

    Great post, thank you.



  3. Al says:

    I guess that you could see it that way. I have not studied Irenaeus closely enough for myself to really bring the approach above into real dialogue with his.

  4. Alastair,

    Great post though I’m sorry that my post on inerrancy caused you to ‘inwardly sigh’. Just thought you may wish to update the URL reference you made so that it goes to the right place. Try:

  5. Pingback: Biblical Authority Link | Based on a True Story

  6. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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