Wednesday, November 3, 2010

N. T. Wright on Biblical Inspiration & Authority, Autonomy & the Anglican Covenant

Canon Ian Ellis recently interviewed Bishop N. T. Wright for the The Church of Ireland Gazette. The interview covers a wide range of topics, including Biblical inspiration and authority, as well as autonomy and the Anglican Covenant.

Here's what Bishop Wright said in response to the question, "Is there a right and a wrong way to read scripture, and who decides which is which?"

It's a very good question. ... I think the text itself in any work decides what the right way to read it is, whether it's a newspaper report, or a Jane Austen novel, or a Shakespeare play. There is no one right way, but there are ways which converge upon and find meaning in the text. And when the text comes up in three dimensions and starts to throb and come alive, then you have a sense you're on to something here. But this is a big question about, really about how we read any text, and the Bible in that sense is no different except that for 2,000 years the Christian Church has believed that these books are actually - how do you describe it - given to us by God for the use of the Church. And so paying attention to them involves the same full human attention that you give to a Shakespeare play or whatever, with a whole other dimension as well. And that's a very complicated and exciting thing. And we'll never get to the bottom of it. There's no easy little rule of thumb. ... One of the great critics from two to three hundred years ago said, "Devote yourself wholly to the text and apply the text wholly to yourself." I don't think you can get better than that.

So how does Bishop Wright understand "inspiration"?

The word "inspiration" has come to be understood in a variety of ways because it, like many theological, technical terms, it's a shorthand for a story which we tell about God, about humans, about the world. And "inspiration" is a way of scrunching that story together into one word that then depending on who you think God is and how you think God relates to human beings, "inspiration" means different things. If you have a distant God with rather passive human beings down below, inspiration would just be God using human beings as typewriters. Now that's not the view of God and of humans in the Bible itself, so the Bible itself will turn against you if you start saying that. And somehow the other thing that gets missed out there, you see, at the end of Matthew's gospel Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." He doesn't say, "All authority has been given to the books you chaps are going to go and write." So somehow scripture itself reminds us that Jesus is the one still who has authority, and that if scripture has authority it's somehow delegated from him. And so you have to tell quite a complicated story about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and these books. Now, the word "inspiration" remains a great shorthand for that, but it's that that it's a shorthand for rather than some other theory.

After noting that it is a major issue facing the Anglican Communion, Canon Ellis asks Wright about the authority of scripture and how it is to be applied. Here's what Wright says in reply:

When I say it's more complicated than we normally think, it's not because I'm trying to be obfuscatory or just make life difficult. It's because you can't just say, "Let's pull it off the shelf," plunk, open at random, and then here's a word for today because you might find that [according to] Leviticus you're not supposed to have garments of two different kinds of stuff, and I haven't actually checked the labels on these shirt and trousers I'm wearing to see if that's so, but most Christians have actually felt that that was not appropriate for us today. But do we have a theory as to why that's not appropriate, but when Leviticus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves why that is still appropriate? So how do we decide how we read the Bible? And so I and others have explored this in great detail. And actually I think it's a very exciting thing to explore because the Bible is not just a commentary upon what it means to be a Christian from the side, as it were. The Bible is part of the lifeblood of being a Christian. And so authority isn't just something that you go and look up like a legal document and then bang people over the head with it. It's something that happens as the whole Church humbly listens to God, to one another, as we together read scripture. ...

And the other thing is when we talk about authority we often think in terms of, you know, the local council, or the government, or the U.N., or, what authority do they have. But actually the Bible gives us other contexts as well like a parent with a family, or whatever it may be. What sort of authority does a parent have with a family? It's not quite the same as the authority that the local mayor or district council have, or whatever. And so we need to think about the God who has authority and hence how we redefine authority in terms of who God is.

Canon Ellis responds by saying, "This issue is at the heart of the Anglican Communion's problems at the moment, isn't it?" To which Wright responds by moving from debates over Biblical authority to debates over autonomy:

I don't know about the word "heart." It's one of the key strands, it's one of the key strands as to how we read scripture, what we do about it, and that's why I wrote that book, because I was on the International Doctrine Commission in the early years of this century ... and we were wrestling with these issues. And the book Scripture and the Authority of God [published in the U.S. as The Last Word] grew out of that. And I actually dedicated it to Robin Eames, one of your own, who was the chair of that commission, and also to Stephen Sykes, who had chaired another similar commission. And it was an attempt to speak into precisely these sets of debates.

But there are other debates which are to do with structure and nationhood and locality ... [Canon Ellis breaks in with "autonomy"] ... autonomy. And what autonomy means. And it's very clear when you analyze the notion of autonomy, autonomy doesn't mean individual areas randomly doing their own thing. Autonomy is always used in the sense of people within a larger structure but having autonomy in certain respects. If they have complete autonomy to do whatever they want, they are no longer part of the larger body, by definition, I mean that's just simply analytically true.

Later in the interview, Canon Ellis asks Wright where he sees the idea of the Anglican Covenant going. Will it ultimately come to pass?

I think so because I don't think really there's any alterantive, and I think this is what the Archbishop of Canterbury has been stressing all along, that we might have preferred not to go this route, but actually we simply cannot afford - and I mean afford - to have the kind of unstructured mess that we've had. What the Covenant does is it doesn't foreclose on particular issues, it provides a framework within which you can have the discussion in a way which tries to keep all parties at the table. Obviously if a party decides to walk away from the table that's their business, but without some sort of a structured framework, what happens is, as always, that the loudest voices tend to win, or at least to drown out the other ones. And I have seen that happen and it's not a pretty sight.

But what if the Church of England doesn't adopt the Covenant?

Well, I mean, that is always a possibility, and if that happened then I suppose the thing would be dead in the water. But that's a notional possibility which I don't actually see as realistic. I think both Archbishops, and I think - I can't speak for them now, because I'm not part of it, but the majority certainly in the House of Bishops were quite clear that however much we might be anxious about it in some respects, something like this had to be done, has to be done. And of course, it is a long-term strategy. It's not a quick fix. It's not a let's invent it today and then apply it tomorrow and then the whole garden will be lovely. ...

The illustration I've used is ... if you imagine a bunch of students who are all friends, they decide to share a house in their second or third year, and it's going to be great, we're going to get on splendidly, etc., etc. And after a few weeks there are difficulties because one is always leaving cigarette ends in the kitchen, and another one never washes the bath out, another one's playing loud music at two in the morning. And eventually they're getting on each other's nerves and they say, "Look, we're going to have to have some ground rules here." And somebody says, "Rules? What are rules for? This isn't the army." And the answer is, "No, if we're going to live together we have to have some basics." So they say, "Okay, no music after midnight, no smoking cigarettes in the kitchen, whatever it is. And, you know, they would much rather not have had to do this. But in order to live together .... It's actually part of growing up, that you have to say, "Okay, let's sort this out." Of course, then you have the difficulty what happens when you just made that agreement and then somebody goes and does it again. And that's the real difficulty."

Listen to it all.

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