Theologians debate authority, interpretation of Scripture

Published January 1, 2000

The Bible is primarily a story, or collection of stories, and it ought to play a decisive role in shaping the lives of Christians, agreed Marcus Borg and Tom Wright, during seminars in Vancouver on the authority and interpretation of Scripture. Beyond that, there was plenty of disagreement.

Prof. Borg, a member of the liberal Jesus Seminar, and Canon Wright, the evangelical canon-elect of Westminster Abbey, have held several public dialogues to discuss their understandings of the historical Jesus; last year, they also co-authored a book, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. But November’s meeting, hosted by the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster, marked the first time the two directly addressed the question of Scripture.

Prof. Borg described the Bible as a lens through which we see God, and as a sacrament through which God speaks to us. He urged Christians to move beyond critical thinking to “post-critical naivete,” that is, to believe in the metaphorical truth of biblical stories without insisting on their factuality.

Canon Wright argued that the notion of authority itself needed to be redefined around the Bible, which he compared to an unfinished five-act play. The first four acts creation, the fall, the history of Israel and the life of Jesus have been recorded in the Scriptures, he said, and Christians must improvise the fifth act while remaining true to the spirit of the previous four. “You do not repeat the same speeches, but you must speak and act strictly in character,” he said.

Canon Wright questioned the “either/or” distinction made by Prof. Borg and argued that the laws in the Torah were both the laws of Israel and the laws of God; however, he agreed that the laws may be temporally bound. If a passage from Deuteronomy is read in church, Canon Wright said, “you should really say at the end, ‘This was the word of the Lord.'”

Both speakers were asked to explain how their different approaches to Scripture affected their readings of specific texts. Canon Wright said the parable of the prodigal son fits into the larger narrative of Jesus and his actions, which provoked people who observed his ministry to ask him questions about it; by extension, he said, Christians ought to do things that would cause people to ask questions.

Prof. Borg focused on texts he preferred to “set aside.” He asserted that John 14:6 in which Jesus claims to be the only way to God says more about the theology of the author than it does about Jesus. He also argued against passages that forbid divorce and remarriage, saying the economic consequences of divorce are not what they used to be, and thus, divorce and remarriage can be “one of the gifts of God.”

The men debated the role of experience, reason and tradition in interpreting Scripture. “Tradition is a way of saying the Holy Spirit has not been silent since Pentecost,” said Canon Wright. He added that the Bible tells believers when they are “out of line,” and he asked Prof. Borg where the “other stuff” comes from that enables him to set aside portions of the Bible that don’t square with “post-modern relativism.”

Prof. Borg said the traditional Anglican formula that Scripture should be interpreted according to tradition in the light of reason needs to allow for experience.

Four hundred people attended the sold-out event and another 300 were reportedly turned away. Peter Chattaway is an associate editor at BC Christian News.


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