Theology’s Biblical Dilemma

I intended this post to be a sequel of sorts to my previous post on Karl Barth and N.T. Wright, this time focusing on their thinking on Scripture. It may prove a bit easier, however, to skip the formal differences and head right into a case study – namely, bringing the two into conversation on the topic of Biblical authority and revelation to see if, together, a view of Scripture can be maintained that respects the actual dynamics of Scripture without relegating it to the status of a lesser revelation than Jesus, as is a common fad right now. The dilemma is this: how can both the Bible and Jesus be affirmed as divine revelation without one taking precedence in quality over the other? If Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, then logically, Scripture’s status is diminished, and if this is the case, how can Scripture be authoritative in any real sense?.

Both Wright and Barth see the authority of Scripture as being fundamentally mediated. Wright is explicit on this matter and frames his understanding of the authority of Scripture as the ‘authority of the triune God exercised through Scripture’.

‘…we recognize that it (the authority of Scripture) can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture’s authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possesses and that which Jesus possesses as the risen Lord and Son of God, the Immanuel.’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’, p. 23)

He fleshes this out further by locating Scripture not within the context of God’s saving action (the more technical term being ‘the economy of salvation’) in history, but instead locating it within God’s redeeming action for the world (or universe, cosmos, whatever term you prefer) as a whole:

‘”The authority of Scripture” is thus a sub-branch of several other theological topics: the mission of the church, the work of the Spirit, the ultimate future hope and the way it is anticipated in the present, and of course the nature of the church.’ (p. 27-28)

Wright thus secures the role of Scripture and its authority within the whole of God’s redemptive actions, which are fundamentally trinitarian in nature. This is further fleshed out by placing the ‘word of God’ within the life and mission of the church. The word of God in this sense is the story of Israel and God, the climax of which is the story of Jesus. Jesus is, then, in a sense the true story of Israel as well as its fulfillment. Wright further notes that this story carries power – God’s power to save – as the means by which the Spirit worked in the life of the church:

‘Here we have the roots of a fully Christian theology of Scriptural authority: planted firmly in the soil of the missionary community, confronting the powers of the world with the news of the Kingdom of God, refreshed and invigorated by the Spirit, growing particularly through the preaching and teaching of the apostles, and bearing fruit in the transformation of human lives as the start of God’s project to put the whole cosmos to rights. God accomplished all these things, so the early church believed, through the “word”: the story of Israel now told as reaching its climax in Jesus, God’s call to Israel now transmuted into God’s call to his renewed people.’ (p. 50)

We see that for Wright, the concept of Biblical authority cannot be divorced from either the triune God, the place of Scripture within God’s redemptive action, or the life of the church. The Scriptures form the narrative which, fulfilled in Jesus raised by the Spirit, shape and form the church. Put simply, the Biblical story is fulfilled by Jesus, whose story is Israel’s story, which the church is called to live out. There can be no separation of revelation here: everything is here connected, and there is no greater or lesser revelation. For Wright, a simple ‘Scripture is a lesser revelation, Jesus is the ultimate revelation’, won’t do.

Karl Barth’s theology of revelation is well-known (for a brilliant summary head here) and so I won’t recapitulate it too much here – instead I’ll focus specifically on how his notion of revelation cashes out in terms of Biblical authority. Barth, like Wright, argues for a concept of authority that is both mediated and delegated and finds its place in the life of the church. Both seek to avoid a ‘magic book’ concept of authority. Like Wright, Barth does not distinguish between greater and lesser kinds of revelation, because, like Wright, he grounds the status of revelation with the triune God. Kevin Diller expounds this point at length in ‘Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma‘, where he treats Christian Smith’s appropriation of Barth in his book ‘The Bible Made Impossible‘:

‘Barth never seperates or stratifies revelation into kinds. There is no such thing in his thinking as a division between a more real, truthful and authentic revelation on the one hand and a less real, truthful and authentic revelation on the other. Barth is emphatic about this. Revelation is always and only God’s transforming self-disclosure in the gift of faith. We can distinguish aspects to God’s revealing action, but they correspond to the Trinity and are therefore distinguishable but inseperable…it is indeed impossible on Barth’s view of revelation to suggest that revelation in Christ is any different from revelation in Scripture.’ (p. 267-268)

Here we have a potential point of convergence: by grounding revelation and Scripture in the truine God, both Wright and Barth secure a high place for both without resorting to a ‘magical book’ view of authority, inspiration, or whatever. By grounding Scripture and authority in Israel’s story, made true and fulfilled in the life and story of Jesus, the embodiment of God and his redeeming action, raised by the Spirit, Wright can articulate a view of authority that avoids the problems of lesser/greater revelation when it comes to Scripture and Jesus. Barth, by placing revelation firmly within the context of God’s self-revelation and trinitarian life, can affirm the same – that while distinctions in form can indeed be made, there are no distinctions quality when it comes to revelation. While avoiding a ‘magical book’ view of the Bible and a static, overly-propositionalist view of revelation, Wright and Barth are both able to place Scripture in its proper context within God’s triune life and the life of the church and thereby give a solid answer to theology’s biblical dilemma.

There are issues, here, however, for these two ideas which take us somewhat abroad from the immediate topic of the post. For Wright, it can be asked if his scheme really does avoid the pitfall over greater/lesser revelation. Given that Jesus fulfilled the story of Israel, can it truly be said to have a non-lesser status? For Barth, if God’s revelation isn’t in the text but only made known to us by faith, exactly how does that cash out in terms of actual exegesis? If revelation isn’t in the text, does one simply wait to be struck by the Spirit? How would one really know if the Spirit moved/spoke/acted on them? These are two immediate issues that crop up and should be carefully thought through – but the potential for a unified answer from Wright and Barth on the question of Scripture, authority and revelation is certainly worth doing the theological work.

3 thoughts on “Theology’s Biblical Dilemma

  1. Cal July 20, 2015 / 5:56 pm

    The problem is that we moderns are very hesitant to push against a ‘magic-book-that-dropped-from-the-sky’ theory AND bite the bullet and accept the historicity, against scientific, cosmological, and historical criticisms.

    Augustine, wading into the Antiochene and Alexandrian debate, tried to overturn both. Why does a theological/allegorical reading mediate against a historical reading, and vice versa? This is a place where I see Barth too captive to the ingenuity of his age and culture (despite his reviling of liberal theology).

    Providence, in the Enlightenment, was moved out of faith in Jesus Christ to an empirical observation. This was done to maintain deity, and toss out the Bible (and in reality Christ). But as more data piled up, it became harder and harder to say God has a will and plan for this world that is apparent in what is taking place. In reality, it is only possible to know that in a world filled with suffering and horror, Christ is the only anchor for belief that this world is meant for anything more.

    Perhaps in the same way, biblical authority needs the same jolt. We trust the Scriptures because Jesus has said so, and we trust in Him. The authority remains mediated (rightfully so), but is authoritative and infallible. This I think Wright does best.

    But what now? How do we read this infallible and authoritative Writ? Leithart put up an article today that sows the seeds for an answer: maybe the Bible itself contains the means for reading, which have been etched out through history in tradition and catholic unity. Maybe we need less lampooning of ‘fundamentalism’s’ insistence on biblicism, and reclaim a responsible sort.



    • whitefrozen July 20, 2015 / 6:29 pm

      I agree that Wright here has the better model of biblical authority, but it sounds like you’re pushing a bit more in a fideist direction than Wright.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s