Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part III: “Authority and the Word of God”

This lecture was given at Holy Trinity Brompton Church on May 11, 1995, by bishop Lesslie Newbigin:

On the whole, we tend to regard authority as a bad thing. This is because our culture was born out of a revolt against freedom. This is sacred to us. We are children of “The Age of Reason,” or the Enlightenment, which declared freedom from external authority. True authority, as it goes, must be internal, not external — found through freedom of thought and of consciousness, and the responsibility that each of has to find out the truth for ourselves.

I. But of course, freedom of thought (internal) cannot be the last word. Authority has to be both external and internal. For Christians, the external side of authority is of course the Bible. For Catholics, it’s the Bible and Tradition. And for Anglicans, there’s a tradition that says it’s the Bible, the Tradition and reason. More on this later.

1. For Catholics: The Bible, or at least the New Testament, is subsequent to the church. There was no New Testament yet at the beginning of the Church.

  • This concept of tradition is closely related to idea of apostolic succession. But of course the apostles are not coming up with their own ideas. They are handing down what was given to them by word of mouth. The gospels were traditions treasured in the different churches in the earliest centuries by those who had actually heard and seen Jesus’ words and deeds!
  • But the relationship between the book and the community is a two-way relationship. Both of them create each other. They are reciprocally related.
    o The first apostles were always careful to say that what they were saying was the true interpretation of the Scriptures — namely, the Old Testament — and that the coming of Jesus has now made it possible for the first time to understand the true meaning of the Prophets and the Law.
    o The heart of the tradition is that, according to the Scriptures, these things which we’ve seen and heard and are telling you about, actually happened.
  • The final fixing of the canon of the New Testament was indeed decision of the Church. There were some books about which there was long debate and doubt. Some were included only with great hesitation. 2nd Peter barely made it in, for example, while the Gospel of Thomas was excluded.
    o In one sense, the fixing of the text is the work of the church, but on the other hand, by that very process, the church recognized that it was not free to choose whatever it wanted. There was a tradition and original message to which they were trying to be faithful.

II. What then does it mean for us to speak of the Bible as the Word of God?

The Word of God is used in three respects in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus Christ
  2. preaching
  3. the written Scriptures

1. The fundamental use is with reference to Jesus himself. The is the Word made flesh, presented as a human life. We cannot stress this point too much.

  • Thinking back to the previous lecture on “How do we Know,” this should be compared to the vision of truth which was given to us by Descartes. Descartes, remember, saw the human mind as a disembodied “I”, and therefore took as the model of truth, what was called an objective view of subjectivity — that that reality is outside of the mind, as if the “I” could be totally objective, and the subject can be uninvolved.

In absolute contrast to that, in Jesus we have a man in a particular time and place, is called truth — in his bodily reality, he is the Word of God. So the Word of God is not detached or mental. It is Jesus himself.

2. Secondly, there is the Word as preached, which is also active and alive.

3. And thirdly, the Word is written.

  • All the writings have been Scripture from the very beginning. It is not the case that they “became” Scripture after being canonized. They are the record of God’s actual involvement in the life of the World! There is no pre-scriptural phase. The record of the testimony of the prophets and apostles.

III. But Newbigin adds a fourth: The Bible inside, and now outside the church:

  • The Bible was heard, not read, for the first 1400 years. It was known through the liturgy of the Church. It was part of the testimony of the church about Jesus Christ.
  • The printing press changed everything, because someone could then read the Bible outside the context of a worshiping community. It was still in Christendom, true, but it was liberated from the control of the church — a control of which had become in many ways, obscuring.

With the great intellectual conversion of Europe, however — Enlightenment — the Bible begins to be read as one of the many books in the world, rather than as Scripture, and rather than within the tradition. It’s read within another tradition — the tradition of modern science.

  • In the modern period, this classical Greek philosophical idea became popular again: Eternal truths are transcendent of history, beyond, beyond time. In other words, accidental happenings of history cannot prove eternal truths. Newton’s cosmology, if you like, is one of the eternal truths of reason. It’s timeless and not based on any historical happening.
    o But the Bible is a story of happenings in history, and therefore the Bible may illustrate some eternal truths. But the Bible cannot be the source of our knowledge of truth, because, once again, remember Descartes — truth is something known as the objective reality of the mind, which contemplates the world from outside.

IV. How was the Church to respond to that situation?

Broadly speaking, there are two alternatives: Liberal and Fundamentalist.

  • Newbigin doesn’t like the labels, because they become ways of justifying not listening to the other person’s view, but they are still helpful and necessary.

The liberal response (a very evangelical one, in fact): The question was, “How do we get the modern world to listen to the Bible?” How can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?

  • The Father of the whole Liberal Protestant movement was Friedrich Schleiermacher, who said that deeper than all the findings of science and metaphysics, there is something fundamental in human nature, which tells that we are all ultimately dependent on God. We are not our own sovereigns. There is a sense of absolute dependence on a greater reality. This was the standing ground from which he thought he could convince the rationalists of his time that the Bible has something to say. This brought into our world the word “experience” as an equation with all religion — not just Christianity. So the Bible is valued as a marvelous treasury of religious experience.
    o But if you begin to ask the question of the truth of the Bible from the point of view of the Enlightened modern world, then you begin to ask questions from what is called the “historical-critical view” of the Bible. This view used a method based upon a whole set of assumptions of what is possible. And on the basis of these assumptions, drawn from another source — not the Bible — you decide how much and what can be accepted.
  • But also, and this is a very positive fruit, there is a very serious effort to disentangle the sources that have brought together to make the Bible as we have it now, to examine the various oral and written traditions.

Perhaps it is only now that we can see though, that the question, “how can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?” was the wrong question. The question that we have to put to the world instead is, “how can the world make any sense at all without the gospel?”

Fundamentalist: Also shaped by the Enlightenment (it’s impossible not to be!)

  • If the Bible is the Word of God, then it must have that kind of objective certainty that Descartes has taught us to regard as the criteria of truth. And it must therefore be affirmed that the Bible is verbally inerrant in every statement, and it must have that kind of objective certainty, which Descartes regarded as the only real knowledge.
    o But this means that we are imposing on the Scriptures a concept of truth which is foreign to the Scriptures. This does violence to the Scriptures. If we want to know what the Word of God is, we must not begin by deciding what we think it is or must be, and then imposing that on the Scriptures; we have to find out from the Scriptures themselves what the Word of God is and how God speaks to us.

The fundamental mistake here is that it forgot the great insight of the Reformation — that our knowledge of God is by grace through faith. This is not what Descartes was advocating.

V. Now we can come back and look at the Anglican Triad: Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

But reason is not an independent source of information about what is the case. Reason is the faculty by which we make sense of the data that are given, of the material that we have, and all reasoning/rational discourse has two characters:

1) it has to take something for granted, something given

  • The Christian use of reason is that exercise which takes as the given the fact of the Gospel, which takes the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the starting point, dogma.

2) it is always operative within a tradition/language

  • within the tradition of Christian believing which has developed from that beginning.
  • But if reason is invoked in the tradition of the Enlightenment, and takes the facts that are available for empirical observation by modern science, it just means that two different traditions are being brought into play. One is used to critique another. It is the independent exercise of reason (e.g., Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason).

VI. So we have two models of Authority:

1. Islam: where the Bible is understood to be the actual verbatum dictation by God in the Arabic language to be accepted, whether you understand it or not, simply as God’s revelation of the truth.

  • And since all translation means interpretation, and since human understanding is always fallible, it is therefore an article of faith in Islam that the Quran cannot be translated. In order to hear God’s Word, therefore, you must learn Arabic. It is a purely external authority.

2. By contrast, we look at Jesus: The parallel is not Quran and Bible but Quran and Jesus — because it is Jesus who is the Word of God, in the primary and fundamental sense.

  • Jesus did not write a book. He gathered a company of disciples, and he called them friends, making the things of God known to him. Jesus in the Gospels shows us an apprenticeship to a tradition.
    o Apprenticeship means much more than reading a book. This is why we have different accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds in the four Gospels. We don’t know exactly what Jesus said or did. From Descartes’ point of view, we have no reliable certainty. And that is a charge that is brought against us by Muslims. That we have four gospels is used by them to prove that we have last the original Gospel.

But this is not something to regret. It is fundamental to our faith — that this is the way that God has made his revelation to us.

And now, finally we come to “The Work of the Holy Spirit”: It is only if we understand the Christian teaching about the Holy Spirit that we have can overcome this dichotomy between objective and subjective which has so paralyzed the thinking of our modern world.

  1. The work of the Spirit in communicating the Word of God through the mouth of the Prophets
  2. The Great Event of Pentecost, enabling the Apostles to communicate the Word of God in Jesus to their contemporaries.
  3. The great passage in St. John: Jesus’ words – the Spirit of Truth, when it comes, will guide you into the truth as a whole, taking what is mine — all that is the Father’s — and showing it to you.

o We see the disciples beginning to learning and go beyond what Jesus told them, guided by the Holy Spirit. The test of the Holy Spirit leads to the confession that Jesus is Lord. The Spirit illuminates the world in the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

  • Does this make us sectarian? No, the Spirit’s work is much wider than this talk about Jesus. “All that the Father has is mine.” Everything that exists belongs to Jesus, and it is the work of the Spirit through the church down the ages in new continents and cultures, to illuminate the world in the light of Jesus Christ — so that all the truth, in its fullness, is seen to be present in Jesus Christ.

This object/subjective divide is healed because:

  1. Objective/Particular: There is the objective given of Jesus Christ who belongs to a particular moment in history and a particular culture.
  2. Subjective/Universal: And there is at the same time this working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts which enables Jesus to illuminate the whole of our experience as we move on through the history of the world and across all nations and cultures.

The Easter Orthodox Church puts it this way: the Word and the Spirit are the two hands of the father. This is one place where the doctrine of the Trinity is not a puzzle but the solution to the puzzle: the divide between subjective and objective.

VII. Finally, how then in practice do we read the Bible?

  1. that we recognize, as we read the Scriptures, we are apprentices in a tradition with much to learn. It is not that we should take it as the Muslims do the Quran. We open our hearts and minds to what is given here and seek in our total daily life to grasp more fully what it means. It is both an external and internal authority. And we must allow it to shape our practice.
  2. We must do this in the context of actual discipleship, that is, worship and obedience. There is no apprenticeship by just reading. The Bible has been taken out of the Church and lodged in the University. The Universities may help us, but the real understanding of the Bible can only be in Church in the context of the tradition, worship and obedience.
  3. We have to use our reason in reading of the Bible, but a reason based on the tradition of the Bible itself — not some other tradition.

Discrepancies in Scripture: Obviously, when we read the Bible, the are some great tensions.

  • Put the book of Joshua, for example, alongside the sermon on the Mount, and you have a mind-blowing contradiction.
  • Many places, like St. Paul vs. James, on justification by faith, or Romans 13 vs. Revelation 13: in Romans, the state is the power ordained by God, and in Revelation it is the beast out of the abyss.

How do we deal with these?

  1. First of all, the ultimate clue is in Jesus himself. More on this below.
  2. Secondly, we recognize in the Bible we have the story of God leading a people to a deeper understanding of his nature, so we have to read the former(the people) in the light of the later (God’s nature). When Jesus says, “You have heard it said… but I say unto you,” there is not an absolute discontinuity, but Jesus is bringing an old commandment to its full strength and deeper understanding in his own teaching.
  3. Thirdly, that means we have to read every text in the context of the Gospel itself! The Gospel is the clue for our understanding of Scripture. This also means that we read every text in its cultural context.

A simple illustration of this would be, for instance, St. Paul’s acceptance of slavery:

  • Can we therefore not trust Paul? But of course, slavery was an integral part of that society, and you cannot jump out of your society. Similarly, usury is an integral part of our society, and very few Christians are going around condemning it, even though it is condemned all throughout the Bible. We still practice it, because we cannot jump out of our society. So when, in Philemon, Paul has an encounter with a slave, he sends him back to his master rather than encouraging him to flee as a runaway — but with a new identity, as a representative of the Apostles, so that he has introduced into the institution of slavery something which must eventually completely transform it.

By reading Scripture in light of its cultural context, then, we can see where Scripture is pointing in contrast to its culture, rather than by simply trying to place is straight into our context.

But the ultimate tension in the Bible is the tension between the holy wrath of God and the holy love of God — a tension which lies at the very heart of the being of God. And that is a tension which in this life we will never fully overcome. We have to take both with the greatest seriousness. As human beings, we cannot hold this tension.

But it is in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, and in the cross, which is both the judgment of the world and the salvation of the world, that the clue lies, by which we can hold this tremendous tension within the Scriptures.

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