The Authority of Scripture: The Authorizing Text

The Four Evangelists, from the Book of Kells
In my previous post I gave a brief sketch of James Jordan’s priest-king-prophet progression. If you have not already read that post, I would strongly recommend that you do so before moving on. Although most of this post can stand by itself, relating it to the priest-king-prophet progression can be quite illuminating.

Within my previous post I argued that within Scripture we see a movement from ethics as primarily a matter of obedience, to ethics as primarily a matter of wisdom, to ethics as an act of the inspired imagination. Alongside this there is a development in the manner in which the authority of God’s Word addresses us, from service under its authority, to rule under its authority to rule with its authority. The text gradually moves from being a text that places us under its authority to being a text that authorizes us to act with its authority.

With this comes an expansion in the scope of judgment. The priest is a servant in the house, who is told exactly what he must do. The scope of his activity is largely limited to the sanctuary. The king is a vicegerent who rules under the authority of God over the whole nation. The prophet is one who rules with God, sitting on the divine council. He has been given authority over the whole world order (Jeremiah 1:9-10). His words alone can bring down kingdoms. The authority of the prophet and the deep connection between man and message can also be seen in the apostolic ministry. As a minister of the Spirit, Paul could regard himself as the living embodiment of the covenant faithfulness of God.

The final aspect of the priest-king-prophet development that I drew attention to was a development in hermeneutics. Priestly hermeneutics are largely confined to the ‘plain sense’ of the text. The priest’s interpretation of the Law is not to be very imaginative or creative. He is simply to repeat what God has said. Royal or ‘sapiential’ hermeneutics move beyond such priestly hermeneutics. The king has been trained by his reading of the Law and has grown attuned to it. He is no longer told exactly what he must do, but must use wisdom to apply the Law in new situations. The king must have the wisdom to understand riddles and recognize deeper patterns within the Scriptures. The king sees beyond the ‘plain sense’.

Prophetic hermeneutics are different again. The prophet has the Word of God within him and his interpretation of the Word is always strongly marked by his own character. As we read the books of the prophets we can observe the strong connection between the men and their messages. Prophetic hermeneutics is a form of creative and imaginative hermeneutics. When the apostles interpreted the OT they interpreted it in a creative and imaginative fashion and related it to the life of the Church. They interpreted the OT Scriptures from out of the life of the Church, which has the Word of God dwelling within it. They did not act as grammatical-historical exegetes.

They interpreted the text in a manner similar to the manner in which a tree can be regarded as the ‘interpretation’ of its seed or the manner in which I can be regarded as the ‘interpretation’ of my DNA. Whilst the grammatical-historical exegete might continually seek to return to the seed, the prophetic interpreter realizes that the process of interpretation, in its deepest form, is a creative one, which moves beyond the original ‘plain sense’ to explore the hermeneutical potential that the text opens up.

Within this post I will move on to explore a helpful illustration in terms of which we can understand the manner in which the authority of Scripture relates to us.

An Illustration
Whilst recognizing the diversity of the biblical text, a number have suggested that the Bible is best understood as being fundamentally narrative in character. Material that is not directly narrative in character (e.g. the Decalogue) gains its intelligibility from within the framework created by the narrative.

Once we have a grasp of the narrative we will appreciate, for example, that the Decalogue is not a set of moral laws that can be abstracted from the historical situation into which it was given and applied directly to us without any regard to the place that we now occupy within the ongoing narrative. In the light of the narrative it becomes plain that the Decalogue was designed to serve a specific role within a particular phase of the pedagogy of the people of God. Whilst the Decalogue still has its relevance for us today, it does not have the same type of relevance to us as it did to those who first received it.

Unfortunately, people have tended to abstract the Decalogue from its position within covenant history and treat it as some entity that transcends any historical position. Whilst the Decalogue undoubtedly is relevant throughout history, its relevance is one that is continually conditioned by history. The relevance of the Decalogue at one point in history is not necessarily the same as its relevance at another point in history. The Decalogue can be compared to the ‘do this; don’t do that’ rules that our parents gave us when we were children. Now that we have grown up we are no longer under these rules, even though the standards of behaviour still apply. The rules still have relevance for the way in which we live our lives, but their relevance is not as direct as it once was. We are no longer under the Decalogue, just as we are no longer under the rules that our parents gave us as children. There are still standards of right and wrong, but the manner in which these standards relate to our lives has changed.

Understanding the Scriptures as being fundamentally narrative in character can make the character of its authority problematic. The authority of a rule book, an encyclopaedia, a how-to manual or a book containing doctrinal propositions is far easier for modern Christians to conceive of. As I argued in my Gutenberg post, the Bible that the printing press gives us makes such a way of conceiving of the Scriptures even harder to escape.

For the modern Christian an ‘authoritative story’ is most likely one that is factually accurate or ‘inerrant’. The idea that a story can be authoritative in a deeper way than this (not to deny that the Scriptures are inerrant) seems strange to the modern mind, which does not generally grasp the power of stories. In a forthcoming post I will give closer attention to the many ways in which a story can be authoritative; in this post I will simply present a helpful illustration.

N.T. Wright has sought to illustrate the character of Scripture and its authority in terms of a five act Shakespearian play, the fifth act of which is incomplete. Trained Shakespearian actors are to immerse themselves in the earlier acts of the play and improvise a fitting fifth act. Their improvisation would be informed at every stage by the previous acts, but it would not merely be a repetition of the preceding acts. I believe that such an analogy is illuminating in a number of respects.

It serves to illustrate the manner in which the authority of the text is primarily something to be mediated by trained characters. The authority of Scripture is not primarily something imposed upon us from without. Rather, the Scriptures are to form us to be the type of people who engage the text with a faithful creativity. We are to internalize the form of the Scriptures and know how to act in situations where there are no black and white rules to guide us. Acting in accordance with biblical authority is more a matter of skill, mature character and informed imagination than of obedience to direct commandments. This does not mean that there is no such thing as the authority of Scripture, but that its relationship to our lives is far more complex and less direct than many suppose it to be.

The Character of Interpretation
Such a model of biblical authority has important implications for the manner in which we understand the relationship between the text and the world that we inhabit. The interpreter of the biblical narrative is not to interpret the text from ‘outside’ as it were. Rather, the interpreter is called to inhabit the text. The narrative is ‘open’ and invites us into it. It might be added that it is far easier to think in terms of ‘inhabiting’ the Scriptures if they are conceived of as a liturgical text than if they are conceived of as a printed, bound, privately-owned and mass-produced Bible.

It is all too easy to assume that the Scriptures are primarily the object of exegesis. However, as Douglas Knight observes, the Scriptures are first the subject of exegesis: ‘Exegesis of Scripture is subsidiary to Scripture’s work of reading the world.’

George Lindbeck’s thoughts on the ‘direction of interpretation’ are also apropos to this debate. The chief reservation that I have with Lindbeck’s approach is a possible naivety regarding the inevitability of our bringing the forestructures of our initial world to the text. The approach of such as Gadamer (‘fusion of horizons’) may be a helpful counterbalance here.

Knight describes this process as one of bringing worlds into confrontation, a dynamic conversation. The danger will always be that of thinking ourselves to be alone with the text and refusing to engage in a broader conversation, across generations and disciplines. Knight claims that modern exegesis’s supposed autonomy from doctrine and philosophy is part and parcel of a view of truth that sees the particularity of non-voluntaristic community as a threat to the universality of Truth.

The event of interpretation is not a one-way affair. As the Bible interprets us, so we interpret the Bible. Wright’s analogy sheds light on this. Producing a play is a creative act of interpretation. In this respect it is quite unlike that which the objective grammatical-historical exegete is trying to achieve. We bring a text to a new situation and are called to relate the two together in some sort of imaginative manner. The ‘interpretation’ of the text involves a generative ‘fusion of horizons’. Our ‘interpretation’ of the text is inseparable from the way that we relate it to our present situation.

Within such a model there is no one ‘right’ interpretation of the text, although there are good and bad interpretations of the text. Faithful interpretations of the text will differ from situation to situation.

Let me go further. If the task of the creative interpreter is to bring two worlds into confrontation, producing something new in the process, the right interpretation in one situation can be precisely the wrong one in another. The interpretation of the Scriptures in the worship of the Church in 16th century Geneva will not be the right interpretation in the context of 21st century Latin America. Biblical worship in one situation may not be biblical worship in another. Biblical politics in one situation may be unbiblical politics in another.

The meaning of the text cannot be seen as something detached from the context in which it speaks. The meaning of the Scriptures is not some transcendent, static and timeless entity, but is to be found in its various uses. We understand the meaning of the Scripture to the extent that we understand how to ‘go on’ when it addresses our situation — to the extent that we respond appropriately. The appropriate response will differ from situation to situation. New meaning is generated when the Scriptures address situations other than those which they first addressed. Grasping the meaning of the Scriptures in our situation is a matter of honed sensibilities, rather than explicit rules.

Does this make the interpretation of the Scripture a free for all, with no way of distinguishing between good and bad interpretations? No, it doesn’t. The text provides many controls upon our interpretation and constraints on our hermeneutical freedom. Returning to an illustration that I used earlier, our interpretation of the Scriptures is related to the Scriptures themselves in much the same way as the tree is related to its seed. The tree organically works out the ‘information’ of the seed in relationship to the particular environment in which it finds itself.

Some will object that I am confusing ‘meaning’ with ‘application’ or ‘significance’. I do not believe that any tidy distinction can be drawn. The text’s meaning is always found in the relationship that it sustains with the world that it addresses. The character of this relationship will constantly change. Neither the text nor its audience is autonomous. Both are involved and affirmed in the act of interpretation. Neither the text nor its audience must impose itself upon the other or subdue the other to itself.

I sometimes wonder to what degree the technology of the printed book has shaped our understanding of meaning. By removing the text from a real, existential present the text becomes an autonomous entity with its own self-contained, timeless meaning. It is alienated from any particular audience. Prior to the invention of the printing press the meaning of the text was far more likely to be understood as a function of the text within the particular habitat within which it existed. The meaning of the text is found in the way in which it modifies a pre-existing situation. Once the text is divorced from any environment and made into a timeless text it becomes something different entirely. The rejection of typological and liturgical forms of hermeneutics in favour of a purely grammatical-historical approach is part and parcel of this shift in the way that we perceive the text and its meaning.

Whilst some might argue that grammatical-historical exegesis treats the text as belonging within a particular environment, it often tends to do so in a manner that detaches the Scriptures from our environment. The meaning of the text is regarded as circumscribed by the original context. Rather than affirming the time-bound character of meaning, it seeks to escape it. Whilst grammatical-historical exegesis is important and has its place in our study of Scripture, all too often it is an attempt to circumvent temporality and exalt the ‘original meaning’ of the text or ‘authorial intention’ into some timeless, unchanging realm, rather than seeing it as the first stage of a process of growth that continues to this day.

I am arguing that the meaning of the Scriptures is something that unfolds as the text moves through and transforms many different environments. Purely grammatical-historical exegesis treats the Scriptures merely as a ‘closed’ text, when the Scriptures are a profoundly ‘open’ text, something that I will proceed to explore.

The Bible as an ‘Open Text’
Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of Wright’s illustration is its presentation of Scripture as an ‘open text’. The Scriptures are not to be conceived of as a finished and closed story, but as something that we must live within and bring to completion. The story of Scripture is one in which the Church finds itself. This ought to powerfully shape our understanding of what it means to interpret the Scriptures. We interpret the Scriptures from within the world of the Scriptures, not as people objectively examining a closed text from without and seeking parallels with our own experience.

The ‘open text’ (using the terminology in the sense that it is used in Umberto Eco’s works on the subject) is one that invites the creative participation of interpreters to complete a work that is essential unfinished. The ‘open text’ exploits ambiguity, whilst providing a ‘germ of formativity’ that circumscribes its hermeneutical potential. The ‘open text’ creates model readers, gradually directing and moulding their sensibilities. The invitation of the ‘open text’ can only truly be enjoyed by ‘open readers’, readers who delay critical judgment and seek to cultivate receptivity to the text.

The Scriptures, within the new covenant, are a perfect example of such an ‘open text’. The Scriptures create their own open and receptive readership (the Church) who explore the hermeneutical potential of the text in continuous ‘performances’, authorized by the text itself. The meaning of the text is developed in the creative, imaginative and faithful interpretation and improvisation of the Church.

The Church’s ability to improvise increases as time goes on. In the ‘priestly’ stage of the divine drama the people of God had to follow the script to the letter. In the ‘kingly’ stage the people of God were given roles that they could improvise within. In the ‘prophetic’ stage the Church can creatively write sections of the narrative and invent new roles and scenes. This is what happens in the Church’s mission. The Church writes new cultures into the great drama of God. Unlike in the case of Israel, the role to be played by these cultures is not clearly defined by the Scriptures. However, imaginations formed by the Scriptures are able to think of ways in which they can be written in as participants within the greater narrative.

Our increased ability to improvise and write new roles comes with God’s revelation of the shape of the whole plot. In the OT the people of God did not have much of an idea where the story in which they played a part was going. This can be seen in the wisdom literature, for example. The writers of the wisdom literature have a sense of the role that man has been given but are perplexed by the anomalies and the surd quality of much of human experience (Ecclesiastes is a good example here). The plans of God remain hidden and the people of God struggle to understand the suffering, distress and frustration of their efforts that they experience. Only later on does the idea of eschatological resolution take more prominence, as the shape of the entire plot comes into view.

It was only within the prophetic era that the shape of God’s larger purposes began to emerge. In the new covenant, the content of God’s eternal purpose has been made known in Jesus Christ. Now that God’s large purpose has been revealed we can play a far greater creative role by the power of the Spirit. Now that we see the contours of the big picture, we can imaginatively develop our own parts of the picture in terms of it.

Interpretation as an Act of Love
The act of interpreting the Scriptures is an act of love. The interpreter must open him or herself up to the Scriptures and be receptive. As the interpreter adopts such a posture he or she will find that the text opens itself up and invites increasingly creative interpretation. There is a great difference between this and any approach that treats the text in a violent manner, by forcing interpretations on it as a means of gaining power over it. The right to creative interpretation is only given to those who have long been trained to hear the text rightly and have their characters formed by it.

The meaning of the text is found in the relationship that it bears to the particular audience that it addresses. Consequently, a purely ‘objective’ reading is neither possible nor desirable. True interpretation must bring the audience and the text into right relationship with each other. Moral transformation is essential for proper interpretation of the Scriptures. If we are not morally transformed we will not have the necessary openness to the text. The Scriptures can only be rightly read from within the Church. Only within the Church can the hermeneutics of love operate. Those outside of the Church have no right to interpret the Scriptures. Their hermeneutics will always be hermeneutics of violence.

I am cautious of speaking about the appropriate meaning of a text being partially ‘created’ by its audience or interpretative community; such language can suggest that the ‘creativity’ of the audience is an autonomous one, unconstrained by the text itself. The text is not a wax nose, but provides its interpretative community with the material with which it must create and limitations of form within which it can create. The creative interpreter is not engaged in a form of creation ex nihilo.

Such language also runs the risk of presenting the act of interpretation as running in one direction. We are only equipped to interpret the Scriptures as we open ourselves up to the Scriptures to allow them to interpret us. The Church’s creative interpretation of the Scriptures is not akin to a child playing with building blocks. The Scriptures do not need our interpretation to bring them to life. The Scriptures are living and powerful and are not to be thought of as a lifeless entity that we act upon.

Creative interpretation may be better compared to a form of improvisational dance. Scripture is the Church’s partner and leads in the dance of interpretation. In the early stages (under the Law) the Scripture was concerned to teach the people of God the basic steps. During this period the people of God had to follow exact directions, and pay careful attention to the proper location of all of its limbs at any given moment. In the stage of wisdom, the proper movements have been memorized and the dance can be far freer. The people of God begin to sense where the Scripture is leading, even when it has not studied the particular steps in detail. There is a deeper harmony and connection between the two partners in the dance.

In the stage of creative and prophetic interpretation the partners in the dance feel confident enough in the connection that exists between them to move into far more fluid and improvisational choreographic forms. Movement into this stage brings a far greater level of freedom in the Church’s relationship with the Scripture. However, the Scriptures are still leading the Church in the dance and may firmly resist moving in particular directions.

For example, I believe that, whilst creative interpretation of Scripture is needed in our response to the contemporary questions raised by homosexuality and women priests, Scripture will not permit us to move to support such positions. The fact that we would consider moving in such directions might be a good sign that the connection that we thought that possessed with the Scripture is not as strong as we might have supposed. On such occasions we may find that we need to return to some of the basic dance steps that we have forgotten.

Seeing the Scriptures as an open text can help us to move beyond the idea of the authority of Scripture as something that merely stands over against us. We are better off looking at the Scripture as an authorizing text. Once again, this can be understood in the light of the priest-king-prophet progression. The text authorizes us to explore its own hermeneutical potential and ‘openness’. Through the passage of covenant history the text of Scripture is something that becomes increasingly ‘open’ in character.

The Scriptures are the means by which God exercises His authority. However, in the new covenant this authority is an authority that we are given to exercise as co-workers with God. The Great Artist has created us to be His apprentices who help Him to complete His masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10). The Church has the authority to bind and to loose. When we read the Scriptures we ought to recognize their authority as our authority and vice versa. The Sprit-anointed Church has two forms of authorized speech — prayer and Scripture. We are given the authority to speak to God as men (the privilege of prayer is one that particularly belongs to the prophet, as it is he who sits in the divine council) and the authority to speak to men as the mouthpieces of God.

As I have already stated, the authority that we have been given is not a blank cheque. It is quite possible for us to act outside of our authority as the Church, when we bind men in unscriptural ways, for example. We have been authorized to take part in God’s building project. The foundation has been laid in Christ and we must build in accordance with this foundation and continually take our measurements from the cornerstone. Despite the creative freedom that we have in our building we must always build as those whose work will one day be tested (1 Corinthians 3:9-17).

Relating the Scriptures to Our World
Lesslie Newbigin, writing in a slightly different context, provides some helpful perspectives that can be related to the idea of the Scriptures as an open text. He argues that the Church (or the Scriptures, in our case) and the world are to exist in a faithful dialogue that transforms both. As the dialogue takes place both are transformed. The Church is the firstfruits of this transformation and the locus of the transformative dialogue. This dialogue is the means by which the cultural riches that properly belong to Christ are brought to Him.

Understood as a generative text, the Scripture can be seen as part of God’s continuing work of salvation within the world. Within this picture the authority of Scripture is not something imposed upon culture from without, but a leaven that works from within. We are the authorized participants in the dialogue and use the authoritative text of the Scriptures as the means by which to read our world, in all of its particularity, into the authority of Christ.

The Open Text versus the Metanarrative
Mark Searle has drawn attention to the manner in which the use of Scripture in the Church’s liturgy can degenerate into a closed reality construct that alienates people from their experience. The modern metanarrative is a perfect example of a closed reality construct. It is a means of power and domination. The Scriptures work in a very different way. Although we must begin by submitting ourselves to their authority, we will find that they progressively liberate us and empower us as we do so. In this respect it is similar to the freedom of the accomplished musician, which comes after he has first submitted himself to his instrument.

It is also important to recognize that the Bible always remains an open text. To foreclose the text would be to attack its very character and bring the people of God into bondage (as it is the openness of the text that has set us free). Whilst the modern ‘metanarrative’ is a means of domination and suppression, the biblical narrative is radically different in character, chiefly due to its ‘openness’. I have discussed this at length here and here.

The Scriptures do not impose a closed reality construct upon us, but progressively empower us to read the reality of our lives into the text in a way that retains the integrity of both. The story of the Scriptures is one that includes the ‘other’ apart from domination. The ‘other’ is read into the story as an act of love, by calling him ‘neighbour’.

Much, much more could be said, but I will leave it at this point. In my next post I hope to explore something of the connection between the Word made text and the Word made flesh.

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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4 Responses to The Authority of Scripture: The Authorizing Text

  1. Anonymous says:

    Alastair, these are very helpful posts. I think you should consider putting all your posts on scripture and interpretation together, publish it in booklet form, and sell it to your blog readers!

  2. Al says:

    Actually, Anonymous, I am seriously thinking about writing a book/booklet on the subject in my free time this summer. It would probably be written at a more popular level and would include a lot of things that I haven’t dealt with in these posts so far, along with practical thoughts on possible ways to implement such a vision of the Bible. I have purposefully left a number of things out of these posts with this possibility in mind.

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

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