Improvising Within Biblical Authority

Anne Shirley with my oldest daughter

On my family vacation last summer, we visited Avonlea Village of Green of Gables in Prince Edward Island. My girls loved Anne of Green Gables, and so we knew that we had to insert it into our trip to the Canadian East Coast. It was a fun day at Avonlea. What fascinated me was how the actors stayed in character throughout. When we got there first thing in the morning, we met Anne Shirley waiting at the “train station” for Matthew Cuthbert to pick her up. And my second daughter was very soon getting teased by Charlie Sloane, the village brat. The Charlie Sloane actor probably worked the hardest in keeping character all day long – teasing tourists, menacing the other characters, as this video shows. Although there were times in the day where they played out famous scenes from the novel, the actors improvised in their interactions with the visitors. They had to be creative but consistent with their characters and the plot of the novel. I find this to be a good analogy to how Christians need to live out of the Bible’s authority.

I have blogged a mini-series of sorts on the topic of Scripture, from the Bible as a GPS or Map, to the Reformation’s theme of Scripture Alone, to Scripture’s Dialogue with Life & Learning, and I am following that trend here. In a 1989 lecture, the theologian N. T. Wright suggested first of all that the Bible’s authority must be seen in light of God’s authority. And this authority is not coercive or manipulative, it’s not the kind of power that is about controlling people, and putting people into (intellectual, emotional or moral) boxes. Rather, when we read the Bible as a whole, we find that it depicts God’s authority as designed “to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human.” Secondly, Wright suggests that God’s authority, as depicted by Scripture, is always exercised “through human agents anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit.”

From these two points, Wright argues that biblical authority is of the same kind. Scripture’s authority is not like a rule book or an instruction manual that locks us in and orders us around. Its authority is akin to God’s authority – to liberate us and the world from the evils of our own doing and, in the process, to make us more fully human. And even as Christians are individually and collectively being transformed in this way by Scripture, they are also to work at transforming the world in the same way.

Then, Wright suggests his now famous analogy of how the Bible acts as an authority for Christians:

Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost.  The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged.  Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own.  Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

Consider the result.  The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand.  That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution.  This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again.  It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.

Hence, the Bible’s worldview story from Creation to New Creation acts as an authoritative overall plot from which we can act out and live out of. Wright continues to expand this analogy:

Among the detailed moves available within this model … is the possibility of seeing the five acts as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus.  The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Car 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end.  The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act.  Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material.  Such an appeal—and such an offering!—would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the ways in which it would be (of course) inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from earlier sections.

This brings me back to my description of Avonlea and its actors. Rather than seeing Scripture as constraining rule book, it is rather a script from which we are to improvise in our daily lives, as we work to “stay in character” as Christians, staying consistent with the scriptural plot and themes, yet innovating as we interact and dialogue with our world and our neighbors, always aiming towards the goal and the hope of a renewed world with its renewed world order. As you can see, this overall view of biblical authority connects nicely with what I have blogged previously about the Bible as a map, the focus and limitations of its authority, and the ways it can dialogue meaningfully with issues of our day.

I love Wright’s Shakespearean metaphor, and my experience at Avonlea made it “real” for me. Like those actors, I need to immerse myself into the Biblical worldview script, so much so, that its themes of grace, love, justice, reconciliation, and renewal are second nature to me, that I can improvise on the spot, in relating to the unpredictable events of everyday life and my everyday relationships. Yet my improvisations need to be “in character” – they need to be consistent with the biblical narrative, and to where the story is heading.

Do you find this view of biblical authority helpful?

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
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One Response to Improvising Within Biblical Authority

  1. Pingback: Improvising Within Biblical Authority | Christianity in Education | Scoop.it

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