The first two chapters in N. T. Wright’s book Surprised by Scripture address questions concerning science and Christian faith. The primary focus in the second was on Adam (It’s About God and God’s Kingdom), but the essay started with a discussion of the authority of scripture and the importance of being immersed in the story told in scripture. We need to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and become immersed in the whole sweep of scripture. When we are immersed in the sweep of scripture we learn how to deal with the inevitable challenges that each new generation faces as they embrace the Christian faith. Today one of the significant challenges comes from science and the impact this has on the way we understand Christian faith. Is the earth young or old? Does it matter how old we think the earth is? Is evolution a threat or a challenge? A threat is bad, a challenge can be good as it causes us to think more deeply about our faith.
First, the authority of scripture. In his essay on Adam Wright outlines his understanding of the authority of scripture (described more completely in his book Scripture and the Authority of God).
In the Bible all authority belongs to God and is then delegated to Jesus. … The phrase authority of scripture can only, at its best, be a shorthand for the authority of God in Jesus, mediated through scripture. … [A]s centuries of history demonstrate, the Bible is the God-given means through which we know who Jesus is. Take the Bible away, diminish it or water it down, and you are free to invent a Jesus just a little bit different from the Jesus who is hidden in the Old Testament and revealed in the New. We live under scripture because that is the way we live under the authority of God that has been vested in Jesus the Messiah, the Lord. (p. 28)
But the point of scripture isn’t a myriad of facts and details that must be believed. The point is in the story of God establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven. It is about God and God’s kingdom.
This is the big story that we must learn how to tell. It isn’t just about how to get saved, with some cosmology bolted on the side. This is an organic story about God and the world. God’s authority is exercised not to give his people lots of true information, not even true information about how they get saved (though that comes en route). God’s authority, vested in Jesus the Messiah, is about God reclaiming his proper lordship over all creation. And the way God planned to rule over his creation from the start was through obedient humanity. The Bible’s witness to Jesus declares that he, the obedient Man, has done this. But the Bible is then the God-given equipment through which the followers of Jesus are themselves equipped to be obedient stewards, the royal priesthood, bringing that saving rule of God in Christ to the world. (p. 28-29)
Powerful stuff … and dead on target. This is the message we need to preach. The Bible serves its God-given purpose through the fresh wrestling of each generation with the text and the story. The authority of the Bible is dynamic not static, as though it were possible for one generation to answer all questions for all time. “The Bible seems designed to challenge and provoke each generation to do its own fresh business, to struggle and wrestle with the text,” (p. 29) and “each generation must do its own fresh historically grounded reading, because each generation needs to grow up not simply look up the right answers and remain in an infantile condition.” (p. 30) This is a process to embrace, not a process to fear. We listen to tradition, but tradition doesn’t rule. This is why it is important to read the bible, in community and in conversation.
When does it really matter? Wright makes another point as well. “All too often the word biblical has been shrunk, so that it now means only “according to our tradition, which we assume to be biblical.”“( p. 31) Sometimes tradition represents a walk away from the message of scripture, sometimes tradition is neutral, and sometimes it keeps us on the message of scripture. Wisdom and maturity come from wrestling with tradition as we are formed by scripture.
When tradition or favored interpretation takes us away from the central message of scripture it needs to be confronted and corrected. But this isn’t always the case. Wright asks the question about the young-earth position: Is this a disputable matter over which we should not quarrel? (Romans 14, 1 Cor. 8) Should I, as a Christian and a scientist, view the young earth position as an allowable if regrettable alternative?
If the only reason for objecting to the position is image, “the pragmatic reason that it makes it hard for us to be Christians because the wider world looks at those folks and thinks we must be like that too,” (p. 31) then some gentle correction may be in order – but it isn’t a critical matter. Of course this goes beyond personal discomfort to the issue of evangelism. If people in our context won’t even consider Christianity because the young earth position is simply untenable, then the correction should, perhaps, be more forceful.
But there is a time when confrontation and correction is clearly called for. “Yes, of course, any confrontation must be done in courtesy and civility, charity and gentleness – though if the truth is a stake, look at how Paul confronted Peter at Antioch.” (p. 31) Paul’s complaint here wasn’t about appearance and witness, but about a central part of the Christian gospel message. In Christ there is not Jew nor Gentile.
Creationism, and young vs old earth. Perhaps young-earth creationism falls into the category where correction is called for because it represents a more serious distortion of the Christian message. Wright reflects on this …
Or is it – as I suggest it ought to be – because we have glimpsed a positive point that urgently needs to be made and that young-earth literalism is simply screening out? That’s the danger of false teaching: it isn’t just that you are making a mess; you are using that mess to cover up something that ought to be brought urgently to light. (p. 31)
Perhaps science has exposed a flaw in tradition that needed to be brought to light. It isn’t that it matters if you think the earth is young or old. It is the importance that is attached to this position and the way the argument is framed. Perhaps the way the young earth position is often advocated, the approach taken to the authority of scripture and the framing of God’s work in his world, distorts an important part of the Christian message.
If this is true then, it is an issue that needs to be confronted on biblical grounds, not scientific grounds. And it requires familiarity with the entire sweep of scripture. Creation, fall, redemption, consummation is a truncation of the gospel that leaves out incredibly important parts. It tends to treat most of the Old Testament and most of the New Testament as expendable extras. We shouldn’t reduce the story to Genesis 1-3, John 3:16, Matthew 26-28, and Revelation 22, with Romans as a theological exposition, and wrap it up with a neat ribbon and bow. When we look at the whole sweep of scripture, the young-earth view and Adam as a historical person are not essential. This is the point of the last post (It’s About God and God’s Kingdom).
The young-earth literalism is a serious problem when it distorts and defines scripture rather than letting scripture speak for itself. It is a problem when everything needs to fit into a nice externally defined mode for the “authority of scripture,” when everything needs to be shoe-horned into this predetermined mold. There is a positive point we need to make about the authority of scripture and young-earth literalism can distort this point.
The conversation between young-earth, old-earth, intelligent design, and evolutionary creation positions is useful when it helps us dig down into the sweep of scripture, to identify the real points of conflict with our surrounding culture, and focus on the gospel message of Jesus Christ. We need to stand against naturalism and secular humanism as a worldview. But the story isn’t about how we escape this world in the end. It is about God and God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. “If we can study Genesis and human origins without hearing the call to be an image-bearing human being renewed in Jesus, we are massively missing the point.” (p. 39)
I don’t really care if someone holds a young-earth position. Many wonderful Christians past and present have held such a position. I do care when the position is being clung to because it is part of a faulty view of the gospel story or when it prevents others from hearing the gospel story.
What do we mean by the authority of scripture?
How should this shape our approach to scripture?
When is it important to confront false teaching, and how should we go about it?
How are we to know when we are guilty of false teaching?
If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.