I don’t want to make this too much a Q&A type blog, but when good questions come up in the comments, it seems a shame to waste them. This one from Mitchell Powell gets at a problem which is often reckoned to be the Achilles heel of narrative-historical approaches to the New Testament, though perhaps from a different angle to usual.
So I suppose what I am asking is this: if you repeatedly challenge doctrinal conceptions (e.g. hell, penal substitution fixation, etc.) on the basis of the New Testament, it would seem you consider the church in some sense to be bound to what the New Testament teaches. To what degree is this so? In what sense, if any, do you believe that “Scripture cannot be broken”?
What I find interesting here is that to Mitchell’s way of thinking the narrative-historical approach carries the implication that the church is subject to the authority of scripture. To my mind that is a rather astute observation, and ironic, given the common assumption that narrative-historical readings, simply because they are historical, have nothing to say to the church today.
The first point to make is that I think we need to get away from models of biblical authority that can be reduced to a policy of being “bound to what the New Testament teaches” or even to Jesus’ assertion that “Scripture cannot be broken”.
Jesus’ insistence that the scripture cannot be “relaxed” (luthēnai: John 10:35) is found in the context of a controversy with the Jews, who thought that he was claiming to be God. It served his polemical purpose to point out to them that it is written in their Law (though it is actually Psalm 82) that those to whom the word of God came were “gods”. What Jesus himself appeals to in this argument, however, is not the Law but his “many good works”, which should have been compelling evidence for the Jews that he was doing the work of the Father.
We have a similar argument in Matthew 5:19:
Therefore whoever relaxes (lusē) one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
The Law will remain in force for Israel “until all is accomplished” (5:18), which I take to mean until the end of the present age of second temple Judaism. But in any case, Jesus does more than confirm the continuing validity of the Law during this period of eschatological crisis. He insists that righteousness must be expressed internally as well as externally: “You have heard it said…. But I say to you….”
What I would draw from this is that there were—and may still be—good reasons for insisting that “Scripture cannot be broken”, but that this should not be how we primarily frame or construct biblical authority. For Jesus it is not the Law that comes first but the narrative—specifically the eschatological narrative about judgment and restoration.
I think we should take a leaf from his book. The church, insofar as it thinks of itself as “evangelical”, ought to relate to the New Testament primarily as narrative—as the definitive account of what happened, or would happen, to our “ancestors”, as family of Abraham, in the historical period envisaged, which, in my view, is the period from the birth of Jesus to the defeat of pagan imperial Rome and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations. The Bible is authoritative because it tells the story of how the God of Abraham came to be God of the nations, with implications for the whole of creation.
Once we get this historically plausible and biblically defensible narrative in place, impressed on our minds, embedded in our collective subconscious, it will be relatively easy to work out the details of what to believe and how to behave. But the simple point I would make here is that we are “bound” to the New Testament not as a body of authoritative rules, instructions, propositions, guidelines, doctrines, beliefs, etc., but as a trustworthy narrative of who we are and why we are.