The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God–Getting Beyond the Bible Wars is a 2005 book by N. T. Wright dealing with the authority of scripture. I read this on my new Kindle, and found myself wearing out the bookmark feature — dog-earing nearly every page. Wright begins by making an important distinction —
When we take the phrase “the authority of scripture” out of its suitcase, then, we recognize that it can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture’s authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possess … . It must mean, if it means anything Christian, “the authority of God exercised through scripture.”
(italics in original and in each quotation following). You see, if we give authority to the scriptures themselves, then we make them into an idol. We find ourselves worshipping the wrong thing. Rather, it’s God speaking to us through his scriptures — the authority is in God. Only persons have authority.
Moreover, that means we must consider “authority” in its biblical sense, not the sense of Anglo-American law.
Scripture’s own preferred way of referring to such matters … is within the more dynamic concept of God’s sovereignty, or Kingdom. It is not, that is, the kind “authority” which consists solely in a final court of appeal, or a commanding officer giving orders for the day, or a list of rules pinned upon the wall of the cycling club. This emerges clearly in the gospels, where Jesus’s “authority” consists both in healing power and in a different kind of teaching, all of which the gospel writers — and Jesus himself — understood as part of the breaking-in of God’s Kingdom. …
The biblical writers live with the tension of believing both that in one sense God has always been sovereign over the world and that in another sense this sovereignty, this saving rule, is something which must break afresh into the world of corruption, decay and death, and the human rebellion, idolatry and sin which are so closely linked with it.
“Authority” is thus all about the in-breaking of God’s kingdom — an ongoing process being experienced even today by the individual Christian and the church.
God’s authority, if we are to locate it at this point, is his sovereign power accomplishing this renewal of all creation. Specific authority over human beings, notably the church, must be seen as part of that larger whole.
It’s not that God lacks authority over people, but that we often overlook that God’s authority, exercised through the word, is exercised for a purpose as part of a larger narrative. It’s not just that the Bible has authority, but that God exercises his authority through the Bible in fulfillment of his redemptive purposes.
The Bible is much, much more than a rule book. And it’s more than a series of messages from the Great Beyond. It’s much more than a devotion manual.
“[T]he authority of scripture,” when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community. … [W]e discover what the shape and the inner life of the church ought to be only when we look first at the church’s mission, and that we discover what the church’s mission is only when we look first at God’s purpose for the entire world, as indicated in, for instance, Genesis 1 – 2, Genesis 12, Isaiah 40 – 55, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, Ephesians 1 and Revelation 21 – 22. …
This means that “the authority of scripture” is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel, the good news that in Jesus Christ the Living God has defeated the powers of evil and begun the work of new creation. …
“The authority of scripture” refers not least to God’s work through scripture to reveal Jesus, to speak in life-changing power to the hearts and minds of individuals, and to transform them by the Spirit’s healing love. …
“The authority of scripture” thus makes the sense it does within the work of God’s Kingdom, at every level from the cosmic and political through to the personal. Only when that all-inclusive authority is put in first place might we discover what the phrase could mean in terms of the ordering of the church’s own life to enable it to be the agent of God’s mission, and in terms of its challenge to every Christian to live under the authority of God in all departments of life.
Wright then explains how the church is to work within the authority of the scriptures —
The notion of “improvising” is important, but sometimes misunderstood. As all musicians know, improvisation does not at all mean a free-for-all where “anything goes,” but precisely a disciplined and careful listening to all the other voices around us, and a constant attention to the themes, rhythms and harmonies of the complete performance so far, the performance which we are now called to continue. At the same time, of course, it invites us, while being fully obedient to the music so far, and fully attentive to the voices around us, to explore fresh expression, provided they will eventually lead to that ultimate resolution which appears in the New Testament as the goal, the full and complete new creation which was gloriously anticipated in Jesus’s resurrection. … All Christian, all churches, are free to improvise their own variations designed to take the music forward. No Christian, no church, is free to play out of tune.
It’s a good book.
If you decide to teach from it, I suggest you bring along something that plays YouTube videos. There’s a lesson or two in watching how the experts improvise.
You see, there are many you see the scriptures like the score for a symphony. We’ll play beautiful music for God, but he’s told us exactly what instruments, what notes, and at what times and for how long we are to play. It’s all about following the instructions. And if there are no instructions, well, those are rests.
Wright says, no, God has given us the theme, the key, and the chord structure, but he’s left much of the sheet music blank so can improvise within his structure. We can’t play off key, we have to play together, we have to harmonize, but we don’t have to all be the same. Indeed, there’s no harmony at all when we’re all have to be the same.