How can people obey the scriptures?

by
29 April 2009

Christians need to be ruled by the words and works of Jesus, says Oliver O’Donovan

“Called to difficult discernments”: Professor Oliver O’Donovan

“Called to difficult discernments”: Professor Oliver O’Donovan

The authority of scripture is emer­ging once again as a topic for theo­logical reflection after a long eclipse. One small but interesting straw in the wind, blowing from a direction where the most old-fashioned views on scripture are commonly supposed to prevail, is the Jerusalem Declaration, issued last June by the GAFCON conference. It included the following brief clause:

“We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the Church’s historic and con­sensual reading.”

The last of the five verbs — we are to obey the scriptures — brings most sharply to our notice what all the other verbs suppose, that the author­ity of scripture is a ground of prac­tical reason. It has obedience in view from beginning to end, and obedi­ence is a way of acting.

Precisely for this reason there is an element of indeterminacy in what the authority of scripture requires of us. In a wholly determined world, there would be no obedience. For there would be no need for thought about how to act consistently with what we have heard. If we were excused the work of thought, we should be ex­cused obedience, too.

Thought “how to” does not merely replicate what we have been told: it devises action, and forms it, conceiv­ing of an act that will respect the norm within the material conditions we find ourselves in.

That the norm can gain a purchase on our action is the supposition of all such thought. Acts are ordered in a basic repertoire of kinds and types, and of these kinds and types of act, scripture has a great deal of norm­ative weight to tell us. We shall be obedient to scripture to the extent that we have learned and acted upon what scripture has said of them.

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But scripture does not provide us with the concrete act itself, which we must perform right now. Devising that act is precisely what practical thought does, and devising it faithfully to the norm is what obedience is all about.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Hulsean Sermon this year (News, 30 January), spoke of revelation: “If it is revealed religion we want to think about, it is to do with an agency, a freedom.” And it is because God freely summons us to obedient freedom, that “there will always be more ques­tions put to us by what we encounter.”

How could there not be questions put to us if authority is genuinely a practical, not merely a speculative, category, and if obedience is the final term of revelation, not merely assent?

Obedience is never predeter­mined, it has always to be thought through and sought after. If, then, we are to take seriously the Jerusalem Declaration’s call for obedience to scripture, we shall need to take seriously the Archbishop’s call to engage with the “further questions” that arise as we seek to obey the norms the text communicates. There is no way of doing the one without doing the other.

There are “further questions” because there are “further works” to do. The encounter with scripture is an encounter with what God has done in liberating us to work the works of God, as St John’s Gospel puts it, to work them here in our time and place, far removed as this may seem from the works of which we read in the Gospel text.

The distance is not only of time and place, but of kind, too. “Whoever has faith in me will do what I do himself; and will do greater things than these, because I go to the Father.” Disciples shall do more than simply replicate what Jesus did.

It is the works of God we are talk­ing about, the tireless, unceasing activity of him who has made heaven and earth and sustains them by his power. There are mistaken ways of hearing that promise. We clothe it to our peril in the garb of some mega-narrative of progress which comforts us with the thought that we are ad­vanced where Jesus and the apostles were naïve; we are developed where they were primitive; and so on. The promise cannot be detached from its other half: “Whoever has faith in me will do what I do.”

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These further works, these ex­tended adventures, are measured by a norm, which is the works and words of Jesus, the perfected law that lies at the heart of scripture.

That man of the first-century Middle East has gone to the Father: he rules at God’s right hand; he judges the ambiguous proposals of science, literature, culture, politics, economics — yes, and sexuality, too; and we must be ruled and judged by his words and works, even while our works go beyond his.

What we are called to in the difficult discernments of our age, many of them without precedent, is an act of two-way interpretation, reading the text for our time, but also reading our time from the text. We shall find what we need as we read, and shall not need to look elsewhere. But what we find there will equip us to see and to say things that, in God’s masterful government of history, precisely our time, and no other, has been given to see and to say.

The Revd Dr Oliver O’Donovan is Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh.

This is an edited extract from a lecture given at the launch of his book A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the gay controversy (SCM Press) at St Mary’s, Islington, London, on Monday. The full text can be read below.

This is a Fulcrum Lecture, and can also be read in full at http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/

This is an edited extract from a lecture given at the launch of his book A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the gay controversy (SCM Press) at St Mary’s, Islington, London, on Monday. The full text can be read below.

This is a Fulcrum Lecture, and can also be read in full at http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/

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