Monday, September 04, 2006

The Authority of Scripture

I've just begun reading N.T. Wright's The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. So far I've taken away from it two basic ideas:
  1. The phrase "the authority of scripture" must be understood as shorthand for "the authority of God exercised through scripture."

  2. A properly developed understanding of the authority of scripture must be based in scripture.
Because Wright intended this as a short book, he does not go through his usual meticulous effort of showing the work he did to arrive at his conclusions. It seems to me, therefore, that it might be an interesting exercise for me, in the sort of sloppy and off-hand way befitting a blog, to think through the Biblical texts a bit and reflect on what I see there with regard to how God's authority is exercised, and particularly with regard to scripture. I ask the reader to kindly participate in this experiment by questioning my evaluations and offering additional perspective.

With that I'll begin...

God's Authority in Genesis 1-11

I am of the school that sees Genesis 1-11 as a sort of overture to the rest of the Bible, and my view of these chapters will be colored accordingly. I see these stories as more or less idealized settings intended to isolate certain aspects of the God-human relationship.

If I were a scholar I suppose I might separately investigate the views presented by J,E,D, and P and so on, but instead I'm a blog writer so I'll cavalierly lump them all together. But I digress....

Genesis 1 presents a perfect view of God's authority. God said, "Let there be light" and there was light. In chapter 2, a sublty is introduced, namely creation's dependence on God, "no herb of the field had yet sprung up—-for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth." So what happens happens by God's word, and nothing happens without God's word.

Here also we get a first image of God's authority exercised with respect to man. God's authority is exercised in the form of a command given to the man. Reading this through the lens of Israel's later worldview, I'm inclined to view this as God giving torah to the man, not strictly a command but rather teaching (still an insufficient word to replace torah). And when the man and the woman disregard this torah, God exercises authority through consequences. In chapter 4, Cain also receives a kind of torah from God (verses 6 and 7). Cain disregards the torah and God resorts to consequences.

With less thorough examination, I'll conclude that in chapter's 5 through 11 God continues to exercise authority over creation rather indirectly through what happens to the people. I'm not quite ready to start building a four-legged stool by saying that these people find God's authority through experience. Rather God's authority is exercised more or less independently of the people's perception of it. For instance, God wants the people to fill the earth (9:1). When the people in Babel build their tower "so that we do not get scattered all over the world" (11:4) God acts directly to cause their scattering.

This last conclusion may seem irrelevant to understanding how we can perceive and respond to God's authority, but perhaps that's the wrong way to approach the question. What I'm really seeking is an understanding of how God's authority is actually exercised and what the role of scripture might be within that.

Obviously, we have no scripture yet present to the people of Genesis 1-11, but I'm noting the torah given to Adam and Cain as a potential model for God exercising authority through scripture.

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