“To affirm the ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions.” [N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture, 91]
Excerpt from N.T. Wright’s article “The Bible and Tomorrow’s World” delivered at The Lambeth Conference, 30 July 2008:
“The confrontation between Christian faith and contemporary culture, between (if you like) Jerusalem and Athens, is as old as the gospel itself. It is rooted in turn in the confrontation between the Old Testament people of God and the surrounding cultures of Egypt, Canaan, Assyrian, Babylon and then, later, Persia, Greece, Syria and eventually Rome. Indeed, cultural confrontation and the complex negotiations it generated are woven into the very fabric of scripture itself. Jonathan Sacks, who we so revelled in listening to last night, wrote an article the other day about the way in which languages without vowels, such as Hebrew, tend to go from right to left, driven by right-brain intuition, whereas languages with vowels, such as Greek, tend to go from left to right, as the left-brain passion for getting things worked out accurately drives from that side. I asked him at dinner whether he’d had any feedback on the article, and he said rather disappointedly that he hadn’t; but he drew the moral, which I now develop, that part of the power of the early Christian faith was to take a right-brain religion such as Judaism and express it within a left-brain language like Greek. (Of course, you could argue that the Rabbis made up for lost left-brain time with the Mishnah and Talmud, but that would be another story.) From the very beginning Christianity was engaged with its many surrounding cultures, and no one model – Niebuhr, you recall, explored five in his classic book Christ and Culture – will catch all the nuances we might wish. Even in a short address such as Paul’s on the Areopagus we can see all kinds of different things going on. Paul is in head-on collision with the great temples all around him, and the endless stream of sacrifices being offered at them, yet he can begin from the Altar to the Unknown God and work up from there, quoting Greek poets on the way. And, reading between the lines, we can see how the message he brought could say both Yes and No to the Stoic, the Epicurean and the Academic. The Stoic supposes that all is predetermined, that divinity is simply suffused within the world and working its purpose out. Well, says Paul, you are right that God is not far from any of us, but wrong to suppose that God and the world are the same thing. The Epicurean supposes that God, or the gods, are a long way away, and that the best thing to do is make such shift as we can in this world. Well, says Paul, you are right that God and the world are not the same thing, but you are wrong to suppose that God is not interested in the world, and us human creatures. The Academic sits on the fence: there isn’t really enough evidence to be sure about the gods, so it’s best to keep the old state religion going just in case (a position not unfamiliar, alas, to some Anglicans).Well, says Paul, you are right that there hasn’t really been quite enough evidence to be sure of anything; but now all that has changed, because there is a man called Jesus whom God raised from the dead, and he is going to sort everything out from top to bottom.
Now of course the point of all that is not simply an interesting set of skirmishes about different ideas. The point is that these ideas had legs, and went about in the ancient world making things happen. They altered the way you saw things, the way you did things, the goals you set yourself and the ways you ordered your world and society. From the beginning no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my culture, so I must adapt the gospel to fit within it’, just as no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my surrounding culture, so I must oppose it tooth and nail’. Christians are neither chameleons, changing colour to suit their surroundings, nor rhinoceroses, ready to charge at anything in sight. There is no straightforward transference between any item of ordinary culture and the gospel, since all has been distorted by evil; but likewise there is nothing so twisted that it cannot be redeemed, and nothing evil in itself. The Christian is thus committed, precisely as a careful reader of scripture, to a nuanced reading of culture and a nuanced understanding of the response of the gospel to different elements of culture. You can see this in Philippians, where Paul is clear that as a Christian you must live your public life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and that whatever is pure, lovely and of good report must be celebrated – but also that Jesus is Lord while Caesar isn’t, and that we are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. There are no short cuts here, no easy answers. Prayer, scripture and complex negotiation are the order of the day.”