In my last post, I looked at Dunn’s concept of the word of God interpreted by the Spirit and asked how the messiness of that works out in experience. Fortunately, Dunn answers some of these questions in the second half of the book.
He spends two chapters clarifying some important questions about scripture. Firstly, he asks at what point the NT scriptures came to be recognised as authoritative. After all, they were put together in history, as part of a historical process, so at what point did these fragments become ‘scripture’? Dunn’s response is that they were authoritative the whole way along – that was the point of how the canon was put together. The texts we now know as the New Testament were the ones recognised and being used in the church already. So in Dunn’s view, there’s no need to worry about redaction or trying to find the root kerygma (yes, I know it gets a bit technical at this point) because whatever went in was viewed authoritative. So we can have confidence in the final composition of scripture and use that.
Having hit at some of his more liberal colleagues, Dunn then sets his sights of those he terms ‘fundamentalists’, those he says, who are driven by a desire for certainty in every letter of the Bible. “Human words that bring God’s word to expression” (p.150) have limitations – of culture, history and language. What seems ‘inaccurate’ to us may have been a perfectly acceptable form of history in its time. “To make faith dependent on matters of little or minor consequence for the biblical writers themselves is to exalt a particular understanding of faith above scripture and to destroy faith itself… They make the word of God subservient to a narrow human logic” (p.150) and, in that sense are idolatrous. We can have confidence in the Bible to teach its distinctive message, but an all-or-nothing approach “so often condemns the one who has been so taught to nothing” (p.151)
I found these two clarifications helpful. Dunn has no desire to extricate some parts of the Bible as unauthoritative; rather, he wants us to view the Bible on its own terms. It is out of this high respect for the Bible that Dunn’s emphasis on the Spirit comes. He is concerned that many will miss the power of God’s word by viewing it as static, a word only to ‘back then’:
Scripture has potential to evoke a range of meaning and reaction, as the different translations and disagreements among commentators have long made clear. So long as scripture evokes a faith response (but there are other responses) and so long as faith reads/hears scripture with relevance and profit, it will retain its character as living tradition. p.195
As I suspected, Dunn’s measure for the correct use of Scripture is its fruit. But he also sees Scripture itself as the yardstick:
Since the text is the starting point and point of reference common to all engaged in such faithful reading, the content and structure of the text will provide the limit within which the range of meaning can be read / heard. p.195
This is still messy, on one hand leaving room for the prophetic, on the other limiting any ‘prophecy’ by its fruit and the constraints of the original meaning of the text. But I suspect, as Dunn says, that guards against idolatry. My next question then, is how we think about this in terms of fruit: what are the implications of a doctrine of scripture for evangelism? Stay tuned!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.