The second “movement” is one of the most dangerous things I have read in a long time — the subject: biblical authority and hermeneutics. I believe that Rob really misses the mark on this very important topic. Because many of the problems are subtle, many will read this review and think, “That’s no big deal!” Others will understand the gravity of what he is trying to communicate.
Rob repeatedly gives reference (in the endnotes) to a particular document entitled, “How Can the Bible be Authoritative?”, which was written by NT Wright (also an advocate and researcher for the so called “new perspective” on Paul). The transcript is available here. Rob says concerning this document that it is the
“best thing I have ever read about the Bible” (184)
The article in question (along with an interesting view of Matthew 16:19 as it relates to present day believers) really drives Rob’s entire premise.
First we will deal with the article — second: Matthew 16:19.
ONE — NT Wright’s position on biblical authority is basically hybrid — a position between sola scriptura and the Catholic model. This makes sense for both Wright (he himself is an Anglican) and emergent types like Bell since they often try to bridge the gap between Catholic and Protestant theology, even some times rubbing shoulders with the most liberal of Catholics who even deny the exclusivity of the claims of Jesus Christ.
Wright argues concerning the doctrine of biblical authority,
One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible. For the most part the Bible itself is much more concerned with doing a whole range of other things rather than talking about itself. There are, of course, key passages, especially at transition moments like 2 Timothy or 2 Peter, where the writers are concerned that the church of the next generation should be properly founded and based. At precisely such points we find statements emerging about the place of scripture within the life of the church. But such a doctrine usually has to be inferred. It may well be possible to infer it, but it is not (for instance) what Isaiah or Paul are talking about. Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels. He isn’t constantly saying, ‘What about scripture? What about scripture?’ It is there sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it (emphasis mine).
So since the doctrine of Scripture’s authority is not mentioned as frequently as other topics in the Bible, then it must not be essential or even important? Keep in mind that this is, by Rob’s own words is, “the best thing I have ever read about the Bible.”
After reading Wright’s article and then Rob’s chapter, it became apparent to me that Rob’s view of Scripture has been heavily influenced by Bishop Wright.
As a side note, again in this chapter, Rob gives recognition to liberal scholar, Marcus Borg. He references a Borgian concept, “more-than-literal truth of the Bible.” See endnote on page 184 (for more info on the theological connection between Bell and Borg, see Pastor Ken Silva’s AM piece on the issue).
TWO — Rob’s understanding of biblical authority, coupled with his view on Matthew 16:19 and its parallel passages results in a position which is hostile to a normal (or literal) hermeneutic of Scripture.
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Rob says concerning this verse,
He is giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible.
It often seems that Rob arrives at new conclusions on the teachings of Jesus in the gospels because of his research into early Judaism. However, Dr. Ben Witherington points out in this post that Rob relies on sources written after 70 AD. Ben writes,
The mistake of using the later rabbinic grid to interpret Jesus leads to mistakes in interpreting Jesus’ words. For example when Jesus speaks about binding and loosing, he is not referring to forbidding and allowing certain ways of interpreting OT verses. To bind refers to making a ruling that is binding, not forbidding it. To loose means to free someone from obligation to keep a particular rule.
As I said above, Rob almost makes fun of the notion that the Bible carries a literal sense which can be understood by anybody. For example, he writes,
But let’s be honest. When you hear people say they are just going to tell you what the Bible means, it is not true. They are telling you what they think it means. They are giving their opinions about the Bible. It sounds nice to say, “I’m not giving you my opinion; I’m just telling you what it means.” The problem is, it is not true (54).
Rob has taken the authority away from any sort of literal sense of the Bible and has placed it upon a community (again reflecting the influence of NT Wright).
In fact, binding and loosing can only be done in community with others who are equally as passionate about being true to the words of God…Community, community, community. Together, with others, wrestling and searching and engaging the Bible as a group of people hungry to know God in order to follow God.
To Rob, the authority is no longer placed on the Scripture, but rather on the community and its passion. Authority must lie somewhere — I’d rather leave it in the Scriptures as interpreted literally.
***Note on the literal sense of interpretation: It should be understood by the reader that a normal hermeneutic allows for the proper understanding of analogies, hyperbole, and other literary devices as they appear in different biblical genre.