For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
-Ephesians 2:10 (New Living Translation)
I have grown up and come to faith - not necessarily in that order - in a fellowship of Christians that claims to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” and to “call Bible things by Bible names.” The Restoration Movement, as that fellowship is called, has from its beginning been concerned about restoring New Testament Christianity as a basis for Christian unity. Our philosophy, oversimplified, has been, “Let’s just do what the Bible says, and then we’ll all agree.”
There’s something attractive about that. And, by the way, I think the goal of restoring New Testament Christianity is still a good one - as long as we’re clear on what we mean by that. The thing is, Christians have disagreed since - well, since before there was a Bible - about what it means to “just do what the Bible says.” Sometimes it’s been because someone was clearly wrong. Sometimes it’s just been because “what the Bible says” wasn’t entirely clear. While “just do what the Bible says” sounds good in theory, in practice people who love the Lord and want to please him have always disagreed about what the Bible says.
Rachel Held Evans, in a recent post entitled, "In Search of a Better Conversation About Biblical Womanhood," makes a point that sounds somewhat startling. She cautions:
“[B]ehind every claim to a biblical lifestyle or ideology lies a complex set of assumptions regarding interpretation and application.
When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick in front of another loaded word (like “womanhood,” “politics,” “economics,” and “marriage”) more often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.”
As someone who has used the Bible as an adjective to make claims about a “biblical lifestyle or ideology,” I have to admit that Evans’ post has bothered me a little. My discomfort has revolved around a question kind of like this: “If we can’t use “biblical” as an adjective, then how can we hope to use the Bible as our authority? And if we don’t use it as our authority, then where does our identity come from?” I mean, I certainly understand that “biblical” can be misused, and even that it is misused, with some frequency. That’s Evans’ concern, and I do sympathize.
But, still, the question remains: “How does the Bible have authority?” Surely in that it’s the word of God, but that only helps to a degree. In some places, for instance, the Bible says, very clearly, “You shall...” or “You shall not...”, and yet we don’t necessarily find those pronouncements to be binding on us. On the other hand, most Christians hold beliefs or follow practices that can only be inferred from the Bible. (See what you can find on the Trinity in your concordance, for example.)
Or take the fact that much of the Bible is in the form of stories. How does a millenia-old story about the nation of Israel, or Jesus casting out a demon, for that matter, have authority for me, right now, today?
Obviously, saying that the Bible is our authority for everything we do is a little more complicated than it might seem at first glance.
N.T. Wright, in his book The New Testament and the People of God, suggests a hypothetical scenario as a way of getting a handle on biblical (excuse me, Rachel) authority. He imagines that a new play written by William Shakespeare has been discovered. But it’s incomplete: its fifth act has been lost. The first four acts tell such a compelling story, with such amazing characterization, that it’s clear that this play is a masterpiece and ought to be staged. But what do you do about that lost fifth act?
You can’t just pick someone to write a new fifth act - that might do violence to Shakespeare’s play. What you might choose to do instead, Wright suggests, is to give the parts in the play to the best, most highly-trained, most experienced Shakespearian actors. You have them immerse themselves completely in the first four acts of the play, in the characters they portray, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare. And then, you trust them to work out the fifth act for themselves.
Wright suggests that the Bible has authority for us in more or less the same way that Shakespeare’s first four acts would have authority for those actors. And for the same purposes. You wouldn’t suddenly resurrect a character in that new fifth act that died in Act III, of course. You wouldn’t have Act V set in the Old West. You wouldn’t turn the play into a tragedy if Acts I - IV obviously showed it to be a comedy. Any group of Shakespearian actors might develop a somewhat different Act V from any other group - but they would still find authority in Acts I - IV.
While, like most metaphors, this one can’t be pushed too far, surely biblical authority should work something like this. All believers would recognize, I think, that God hasn’t left us a script to simply memorize. We know the story he’s written in Acts I - IV: Creation, Fall, the Call of Israel, Jesus. We have some solid clues as to the end of the story. But the Bible itself invites us to participate in the story. We’re left to write our own scenes. We want to be careful to immerse ourselves in the story up to now. We want the scenes we write to be consistent with the Author’s story so far, and with the hints to the ending that he’s left us. But, in the end, we’re called to take our own places and speak our own words.
“We’re God’s masterpiece,” Paul tells us. Long ago, back in Acts I-IV, God intended that we would take the stage. He intended that we’d speak, and act, and that our words and acts would fit beautifully into the story that began with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
So the impulse to immerse ourselves in the Bible is right. So is the desire to find authority for what we do and say there. But not the impulse to twist God’s story to fit our own inclinations. That impulse must be resisted, replaced with the joy and thrill of being actors in the story he has written, and upon which he himself will bring down the curtain one day. Then there’ll be a cast party like no other.
You might even say it’ll be of biblical proportions.