What is Scripture?
Concerning the growing debate about the nature and authority of Scripture
It is exciting to see that, even in England, a debate is finally beginning concerning the nature and authority of Scripture.
For too long, we have been told by some evangelical scholars that such a debate would be unhelpful or divisive. Given that Scripture and its authority has always been one of the defining elements of what it is to be an evangelical, the debate is vital. It is especially time for those who believe the Scriptures to be utterly true and without error in all that it affirms, to speak out or they will see their position sidelined by a different consensus evangelicalism.
I have been specially pleased to see Dr. Alister McGrath, Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, beginning to take on the debate in some of his recent writings. He has referred to it as an 'important and potentially difficult debate' emerging within evangelicalism (A Passion for Truth, IVP, 1996, page 101; also Evangelical Anglicans, SPCK, 1993, page 33). N.T. Wright, J. Goldingay and others have also recently addressed the subject of the nature of Scripture in various ways. That this is beginning to happen is good and yet at least some of what is being said concerns me deeply. Here I raise just a few concerns in relation to McGrath's recent writings, although he reflects a position beginning to be adopted by a number of evangelical scholars.
McGrath's excellent recent book, A Passion for Truth, offers a careful and sustained defence of evangelicalism's right to hold its head high in the academic community and argues for its intellectual coherence. His second chapter is on Scripture. Much of what is said I would regard as traditionally 'evangelical', yet the chapter leaves me dissatisfied at several rather important points.
First, his view of Scripture leads to a lack of emphasis on the Bible as God speaking to his people. McGrath opens his discussion of biblical authority by describing the 'intimate connection' between 'the word of God incarnate and the word of God in Scripture'. The authority of Scripture is located primarily in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Now, I would clearly affirm that all Scripture points to Christ and receives its fulfilment in Christ, but I am dissatisfied with what seems to be a modern restatement of a Barthian position. McGrath's emphasis on the Bible as a 'witness' to Jesus has the effect, intended or not, of devaluing Scripture as God's Word. Scripture is surely far more than 'a channel through which God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is encountered' (page 54).
It is indeed right to differentiate Christ and Scripture, we worship the One and not the other. However, the emphasis on the authority of Scripture being so firmly located in Jesus fails to do justice to its claim to be God's Word spoken. Time and again the Old Testament tells us that 'God spoke' or that God spoke through his prophets. In many places, the New Testament regards the Old Testament as God's 'word' or his 'writing'. Traditional evangelicalism, as I have understood it, has taught that the primary biblical claim to authority lies in its assertion to be the word or words of God who has spoken. Subsequently, the individual (and indeed the church) becomes convinced that the words of Scripture are God's words when the Holy Spirit speaks in and through them to the inner being, convincing people of their truth and origin.
Secondly, it seems to me that there is too great an acceptance of the post-modern criticism of evangelical biblical and theological studies. What may be a fair reaction to an over-emphasis on propositional revelation has led to an almost relentless and rather unfair criticism of Warfield, the Princeton school and modern evangelical writers such as Carl Henry (e.g. Passion, pp. 168-172). Certainly the Bible is less than fully described if it is reduced to only a set of propositions from God, a series of 'facts' or 'truths' about God. It is much more. It is a Spirit-inspired description of real people living in history, and it is an appeal for people to follow God's way through Jesus. It is a book of salvation for some and of judgment for others. The Psalms contain many propositions but must also be seen as expressions of worship and praise, of emotions and response to God. When rightly understood with the help of the Holy Spirit, the Bible does not just tell about God, but helps bring people to know God. Nevertheless, there is a great over-reaction here. God speaks propositionally in many places in Scripture.
McGrath's indebtedness to post-modern literary thought is seen in his emphasis on Scripture as predominantly 'narrative' (pp.107-114). He refers to 'the primacy of the narrative genre in Scripture' (p. 105), a view espoused in detail by N.T. Wright in his work The New Testament and the People of God (SPCK, 1992). I have an increasing number of questions about this approach. For example, I believe in the end it leaves Scripture trapped in its own history and narrative. Our job is simply now, it seems, to take the story and to work it out for ourselves. This sounds very 'post-modern', yet it can easily avoid basic questions such as how narrative alone can be truly 'sharper than a two-edged sword'; where the 'truth' lies in the story; whether we can accept the narrative as historically accurate; whether it is important even to ask that question, and so on.
Taking this a little further, much of the Bible is not actually in narrative 'genre'. But even if the word 'narrative' has a much broader definition, it seems thoroughly inadequate to cope with, say, the law of Leviticus (even granted that it was given in a historical context to real people in a real desert). Neither does the word adequately encompass the ethical commands and exhortations of the apostolic epistles, nor is it a suitable description for wisdom literature.
Question of truth
Thirdly, and closely linked to the previous point, it is strange to me that in various of McGrath's discussions of the authority of Scripture the question of 'truth' hardly appears. In any modern evangelical debate on questions of authority and hermeneutics, the question of God's truth in Scripture is pivotal. In Evangelical Anglicans (page 33), McGrath cites an example of how many modern evangelical biblical scholars are now able 'to distinguish issues of hermeneutics and authority'. He continues: 'For example, is the authority of 2 Peter ultimately dependent upon Petrine authorship?'. While I agree that this is an issue of hermeneutics, it is also an issue of the doctrine of the clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture, and then also a question of truth. If 2 Peter 1.1 affirms that Peter wrote this epistle and its pseudonymity is not self-evident, which it is not (the hermeneutical question), then it is a matter of commitment to the 'clear' claim of God's word and hence must also be discussed in terms of its truth. This is not a pre-commitment to a particular interpretation of a passage, it is simply a prior commitment to the Bible as God's Word and therefore to its being truthful in all it affirms.
Traditional evangelicals like myself would want to affirm that the Bible must be 'true' because it is God's Word. In saying this, we argue that God, by his Spirit, has so overseen the writing of his Word that human authorship and personality is still clearly visible and yet what we have before us is utterly true and without error in all that it affirms. I am not suggesting that words like 'infallible' or 'inerrant' somehow become the password to a society of the truly orthodox! Nevertheless, traditional evangelicals and their forebears have always believed that when Scripture speaks on any subject, it can be trusted because it is God speaking. I do not worry about which words we use to describe this view of the truth of Scripture. Far more significant to me is that people like McGrath and N.T. Wright are so rarely able to say: 'God said ...' followed by the repetition of some truth from Scripture, whether narrative or proposition! Today's world, with all its post-modern uncertainties, needs to hear that God has spoken and spoken truthfully.
I have touched superficially on just a few of my current concerns in the way the debate on Scripture is progressing. My greatest concern is to maintain the utter trustworthiness and truth of all that the Bible affirms, for the Bible is God's Word and God does not lie (Titus 1.2). We do not worship the Bible, but to honour God's Word is to honour the one who speaks. The Bible is not a 'container for the Word of God', but is the living Word of God in and through which he pierces us, speaks love and peace to us, moves us to tears, to repentance and to action. Here, and here alone, God speaks to us about the climax of his self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
In 1984, Francis Schaeffer, afraid for the future of evangelicalism, argued that 'a full view of Scripture' had to be seen as the watershed for true evangelicalism (The Great Evangelical Disaster, Kingsway, page 64). Unless I am mistaken, for people like Schaeffer, Packer, Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others, a 'full view of Scripture' meant that the Bible was regarded as 'God's Word' and therefore infallible and without error. The doctrine of Scripture as infallible was derived from Scripture's own attestation of its provenance (from God) and its own teaching that God does not lie. In other words, God chose to speak to us in Scripture and because of who he is, his communication is to be honoured as trustworthy and true even in the detail.
Paul Gardner received a PhD from Cambridge for work on 1 Corinthians. He taught the New Testament at Oak Hill Theological College for seven years. He was minister in an Anglican church in Hartford, Cheshire for six years and he is now Rural Dean of Middlewich.