December 5, 2020

N.T. Wright: Authority and the Public Reading of Scripture


As part of my study during these weeks when we are discussing the nature and purpose of the Bible, I have been reading N.T. Wright’s illuminating book, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today.

I particularly like his point that there is need to clarify what we mean when we speak about the Bible’s “authority.” Affirming that authority rightly belongs to God in the context of his Kingdom rule, Wright says we must have a more dynamic understanding of the term: the Bible only has authority in the sense that God exercises his sovereign rule through it.

Thus, Wright says, Scripture’s authority does not lie in its status as a “court of final appeal” or as a compendium of doctrine, as rules for living or a devotional manual. Rather, the “authority of Scripture” must be understood within the context of God’s Kingdom and God’s mission to the world. Scripture is a primary means by which God acts in and through his people to bring healing and redemption to all creation. Note this emphasis in Jesus’ so-called “great commission” —

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

While Jesus doesn’t specifically mention “Scripture” here, (1) he locates authority in himself, and (2) that authority is exercised through the church as they “make disciples” all over the world and “teach” those disciples to obey the words of Jesus. These disciple-making and teaching practices infer words (some of which are the words of Jesus himself) that are recognized as teachings representing Jesus’ authority, which is transmitted in the process of fulfilling the mission.

Christians properly apply this definition of authority when we allow Scripture to (1) lead us into worship of the God who speaks to us, (2) reorder our lives so that we take our part as his Spirit-empowered people in mission to the world.

• • •

In that context, N.T. Wright suggests that the first and most important place the church hears Scripture is in worship.

Below, Wright speaks about how “a liturgically-grounded reading of Scripture” is a key practice in having God exercise his authority in and through the church for the sake of the world.

The primary place where the church hears scripture is during corporate worship. (I shall come to individual reading presently, but I believe corporate worship to be primary.) This is itself a practice in direct descent from the public reading of the law by Ezra, Jesus’ own reading of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, the reading of Paul’s letters in the assembled church, and so on. However different we may be personally, contextually, culturally, and so on, when we read scripture we do so in communion with other Christians across space and time. This means, for instance, that we must work at making sure we read scripture properly in public, with appropriate systems for choosing what to read and appropriate training to make sure those who read do so to best effect. If scripture is to be a dynamic force within the church, it is vital that the public reading of scripture does not degenerate into what might be called “aural wallpaper,” a pleasing and somewhat religious noise which murmurs along in the background while the mind is occupied elsewhere.

It also means that in our public worship, in whatever tradition, we need to make sure the reading of scripture takes a central place. In my own tradition, that of the Anglican Communion, the regular offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are, in all kinds of ways, “showcases for scripture.” That is, they do with scripture (by means of prayer, music, and response) what a well-organized exhibition does with a great work of art: they prepare us for it, they enable us to appreciate it fully, and they give us an opportunity to meditate further on it. The public reading of scripture is not designed merely to teach the people its content, though that should be a welcome spin-off. . . .

More, in public worship where the reading of scripture is given its proper place, the authority of God places a direct challenge to the authority of the powers that be, not least those who use the media, in shaping the mind and life of the community. But the primary purpose of the readings is to be itself an act of worship, celebrating God’s story, power, and wisdom and, above all, God’s son. That is the kind of worship through which the church is renewed in God’s image, and so transformed and directed in its mission. Scripture is the key means through which the living God directs and strengthens his people in and for that work. That, I have argued throughout this book, is what the shorthand phrase “the authority of scripture” is really all about.

N.T. Wright goes on to urge that the practice should involve readings that tell the entire story of the Old and New Testaments and not truncate the readings. Nor should the length of the readings be pruned so that contexts are eliminated. The sermon should be closely tied to the readings, drawing out fresh insights that arise from comparing the various texts and pointing out connections that reinforce the big story of Scripture. Finally, he notes that the biblical words spoken during the Eucharist continually bring us back to the gospel, forming us as individuals and faith communities in the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.


  1. On the subject of Christian oral tradition, the author and poet Kathleen Norris wrote something interesting about hearing sacred Scripture read aloud at a Benedictine monastery,

    “Listening to the Bible read aloud is not only an invaluable immersion in religion as an oral tradition, it allows even the scripture scholars of a monastic community to hear with fresh ears. A human voice is speaking, that of an apostle, or a prophet, and the concerns critical to biblical interpretation—authorship of texts, interpolation of material, redaction of manuscript sources—recede into the background.”

    (excerpt is from her book ‘The Cloister Walk’)

    I am fond of listening to the prayers of the Church read aloud. I was surprised and fascinated to hear a recording of how ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ would have sounded read aloud about a thousand years ago in the language of Anglo-Saxon England.

    one thing I learned as a teacher was that many people are AUDITORY learners, and they can read something and get something out of it, yes, but when they HEAR it read, another process is activated in their ability to take in the information at a different level . . . so the oral tradition still does have a practical and productive place in our ‘modern’ Christian world in service to those who best take in material when they physically HEAR it read aloud.

    some thoughts 🙂

    • Great link, Christiane, to The Lord’s Prayer! Sounds like they were a bunch of Germans. It’s a wonder they could understand each other. Interesting related links too which I’ll be poking around in.

  2. My own Episcopal Church routinely edits texts deemed troublesome (texts of terror?) from the public reading of scripture, so that sentences and paragraphs are regularly omitted and never read in church; I’m not sure if this is also done in other Anglican provinces, but I suspect it is. I believe the ELCA does the same thing. How does this square with Wright’s words about the authority of scripture, and his ideas about the public reading of scripture in worship being the primary place where the Church hears (or doesn’t hear, in this case) scripture.

    • ?

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “I believe the ELCA does the same thing”

      Do you mean removal of bits of texts that are in the common lectionary? I would need specific examples, but I have never heard of this being done as a churchwide thing. An individual congregation might do this, I suppose. Or do you mean the common lectionary itself? I have never gone through the common lectionary to look at where the excerpts begin and end and any bits elided. It would be an interesting exercise.

      This also depends on what you consider “troublesome.” There certainly are texts included that some might find troublesome. I am always interested to hear how the pastor will address these in the sermon.

    • In the Evangelical church that I attend, the passage that is to be preached that Sunday is read aloud by the congregation before the message is given. All subsequent verses are read straight from the Bible, we use NASB. There is no editing of the texts in my church or any of the Evangelical churches that I have been in for 30 years. Of course, many of the interpretations of said passages are out there. But that’s the problem with the kind of charismatic churches that I have attended for over 30 years. My pastor says potato, and the pastor across the street says potatoe, (sorry Dan Q.). It’s one of the reasons that I have been occasionally visiting a liturgical church. The connection and accountability to the historic Church is something that my current church life is unfamiliar with.

    • I have run into this too, Robert. In my experience, it’s usually the parts of psalms asking God to smite our enemies that get cut out. Not sure if it’s the RCL itself or the pastor/priest/vicar/parson making the decision.

      • It dawned on me a couple weeks ago, as I was reading one of the Psalms outloud in class, that David’s words weren’t much different than what we hear from Islamic terrorists. “Kill ’em all.”

        That’s tough to reconcile. The only peace I get in reading some of David’s words is that he usually turns back toward God’s grace and mercy at some point. Not sure the terrorists do that.

        • petrushka1611 says

          This. :/

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          It dawned on me a couple weeks ago, as I was reading one of the Psalms outloud in class, that David’s words weren’t much different than what we hear from Islamic terrorists. “Kill ‘em all.”

          Welcome to the world of Iron Age Semitic Tribal Warfare.
          Whether ancient Jewish or contemporary Uber-Islamic.

          • It’s the beauty of Jesus’ message. “No more tribalism!”

            That’s part of the reason I cringe at the idea of “being Chosen” and “part of the Elect.”

        • “Kill ‘em all. . . . That’s tough to reconcile.”

          One option is not to try.

          In “Reflections on the Psalms,” C.S. Lewis states at this juncture that he is not what some term a ‘fundamentalist,’ and that we are not required to agree with every emotion or idea the psalmist expresses.

          • A couple years back, I began the practice of reading a Psalm to open the adult Sunday school class I lead. A few things have become very clear to me over time:

            1) David loved being melodramatic.
            2) David had some serious angst issues.
            3) David had his “Islamic terrorist” moments (this is a recent revelation to me).
            4) His melodrama, angst and “kill ’em all” feelings aren’t unique to him, and weren’t necessarily unwarranted.
            5) He used some wonderful, WONDERFUL metaphors.
            6) He was a poet.
            7) He was flawed.
            8) He loved his God and Lord, and always turned to Him through it all.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Which can be summed up in:

            9) He was a man.

        • I think that is why it is important to realise that the psalms are not so much a revelation from God as a response to God by the Psalmist.

          They are written as a response from life being lived in the trenches. So of course David and the other writers are angry at their enemies. To me that is why we can pray some of the Psalms as the hebrews did (and do) before us

      • Yes, that’s what we Episcopalian leave out in our public readings. I’m glad we do leave it out.

        I and many others see the Bible as a record of man’s (humans’) understanding of God, not a text with all writings equally applicable to to us. I try to look at the words of the Bible in the light of Jesus’ teachings.

        Jesus said, “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.”

        Psalm 137 contains the beautiful opening lyrics: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Zion.On the willows there we hung our harps….How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?”

        But it ends, “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you With the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock.”

        Which do we follow?

        • Interesting. I’ve found that as I’m reading one of David’s Psalms – which usually overflow with praise and gratitude toward God’s power and salvation – it’s very, very tempting to leave out the sudden “kill ’em all” verses. Those passages can be quite jarring, but they’re in there, and it seems disingenuous to leave them out and pretend he didn’t say them.

          • Of course, leaving them in there might spur the fundamentalist Christians in our midst to take up arms and begin going on their own form of jihad.

          • I’m in favor of retaining the “texts of terror” passages in public and private reading of the Bible, not because I think they reveal truth about God, but because it’s dishonest to omit them. There is ugliness in our religious heritage, and there continues to be ugliness in us. These texts should help us remember that.

    • Isn’t this standard for the Revised Common Lectionary? I believe Wright made a remark about this once saying that if something is omitted from the reading you can bet it has something to do with judgement.

      • It is indeed standard for the RCL. My current parish uses the older one-year Eucharistic Lectionary at Mass, but when I was at RCL-using parishes, that drove me nuts (the one-year has a few issues of its own, but they’re different ones).

        Wright talks about the Anglican Daily Office services as great showcases for Scripture, and that’s true. However, every time the Daily Office Lectionary is revised less-and-less of Scripture gets covered in the course of the year (or two years, depending on which BCP you have). I find that to be pretty shameful, considering the purpose for Cranmer et al creating the Daily Office and its lectionaries was for the entirety of Scripture (or at least the greater part thereof) to be read to the people in the course of the year. My wife and I do our morning devotions out of the 1928 BCP, and we both are often frustrated at the way it divides and/or omit parts from the text.

        • This year I am using the lectionary from the 1962 BCP of the Anglican Church of Canada. Since I almost always combine morning and evening readings that means a fair chunk of Scripture gets read in one sitting. Hardly burdensome but far more than the RCL. The Sunday readings are on a two-year cycle but the rest repeats yearly. Yes, some parts are left out but I think more often for reasons of propriety (I’ll let you guess) in public reading and to avoid repetitiveness (Kings/Chronicles) than anything else. But I can’t read the minds of the compilers. Often I just read the sections that are left out anyway.

  3. In rejecting traditional liturgy and pushing for more individual engagement with scripture (not a bad thing in itself, of course), much of the Pentecostal and charismatic church has, in my opinion, downgraded scripture and sidelined if not eliminated its role in community formation and spiritual formation.

  4. Matt B Redmond says

    This is one of those points of thought that is new but pushes into thoughts I’ve lived with a long time. On Tuesday I went to a funeral at an Anglican (Church of Rwanda) and it was the best service of any kind I’d ever been a part of. It seemed to be the expressions of a home – a land – I’d never set foot in.

    The service was full to overflowing of the public reading of Scripture.

  5. Asinus Spinas Masticans says

    Maybe you will cover this in a future post, but the best way of communicating Scripture is singing it.

    • Muley
      Have you gone incognito?

    • Beautiful selections. One can see the foundation of shape note singing in one of the pieces.
      Thank you for citing these modes of scripture reading.

    • The singing of the Psalms and biblical Canticles has been quite a boon to my walk with the Lord. In the resource I use, they include a method for chanting the lessons as well, but I haven’t learned them yet. The traditional Western method for chanting the lessons is pretty monotone (with the exception of the endings). My rector tells me that singing the lessons makes for a pretty tedious service.

      But the Psalms… definitely meant to be sung 🙂

  6. David Cornwell says

    I’ve mentioned this before, so hope it has not become boring.

    The church where I hold my membership pretty much follows the lectionary in the readings and also the pastor’s sermons. One Wednesday evening for most of the year he conducts a bible study based on the passage he will be using the following Sunday. The membership of our church consists of people with all kinds of backgrounds i.e. former Methodist, Baptist (south & north), Catholic, Nazarene, Salvation Army, to name a few. In the class we first read the passage aloud, maybe from two different versions. Sometimes after the reading we just sit in silence for a moment or two. And then on a whiteboard he begins to list ideas and thoughts that come to us about the passage. This can come from any relevant source. The context is always important. Twenty or more persons are in attendance at various times.

    Now this is in a church that describes itself as liberal, especially in a sociopolitical context. However it is here that I’ve found more reverence for scripture than most churches I’ve attended. I’ve recently had some issues with the church, but this is not one of them.

    This coming Sunday I’m scheduled to read the scripture to the church. To me this is a sacred task.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “Now this is in a church that describes itself as liberal, especially in a sociopolitical context.”

      At the risk of coming across as snarky, this is unsurprising, at least in the Protestant context. A Protestant church using the traditional liturgy, and therefore engaging in the public reading of scripture, is likely to be socially and politically liberal (not to be confused with ‘liberal theology’). A church not using the traditional liturgy is likely to have little or no public reading of scripture.

      • That’s so fascinating to me. What causes that? Does the natural immersion of Scripture in the lives of the congregation automatically lead to taking a more liberal approach to society? Does focus on Jesus do that? Or the Psalms? Or just all Scripture?

        No idea, but dang is that interesting…

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Or have the proof-text-only types pinched themselves off into their own little echo chamber?

        • AsinusSpinasMasticans says

          Not all the smells-and-bells crowd have gone lib-rul.

          I obviously took a different path out of the Wilderness than most here. The Orthodox Church is far more conservative than the most razorbacky, Wildroot Cream Oil-using, tie clip-wearing GARBC Baptist out there.

        • @ StuartB,

          “Does the natural immersion of Scripture in the lives of the congregation automatically lead to taking a more liberal approach to society?”

          In my experience, it’s not so much the congregations that are liberal, but the leadership. The congregations tend to be a mixed bag politically, but the leadership leans liberal/progressive by a wide margin.

      • In the various evangelical churches I have been in over 31 years there has always been a public reading of scripture.

        • Well, sure, but of the “turn in your bible to a verse, leave your finger there, turn in your bible to another verse, now hold on, go to this verse, leave another finger”…etc.

          Or it’s the “please stand for the reading of God’s word” that lasts 2 minutes.

          • No standing, but something along the lines of:

            “Our reading this morning is coming from … chapter … and verses … to …”

          • The definition of “reverence” for Scripture is in itself a debated concept. Many evangelicals would probably claim that their approach toward Scripture is more reverent than mainline approaches, while many mainliners would claim the opposite. They may both engage in public reading of Scripture, but public reading in and of itself does not necessarily create reverence.

            As far as public reading itself goes, a great many evangelical churches practice it faithfully, although in my experience their selections tend to focus around the topic that the pastor wants to preach on, rather than the preaching being centered around a lectionary. I could be wrong about this, but, as has been pointed out earlier, I think that some charismatic churches might have more of a tendency to omit public scripture reading, while Baptist/Calvinist forms of evangelicalism tend to make it an integral part of their worship services. I remember going to one charismatic church where the worship service went straight from singing to the “sermon” (which was really a personal testimony from a family in the congregation) to the altar call. This rankled me greatly.

          • So its not that the public reading of scripture is sufficient but its that amount of time that its spoken
            .I don’t think its Scriptural Price of Right. Whoever comes closest to correct time of public reading but not goes over wins a golden Bible?

          • The difference in these two methods (proclaiming scripture versus preaching on the pastor’s chosen topic) is two-fold. First, in most liturgical churches, reading are in the lectionary, not derived from the most recent musings of the pastor. All of the meaningful stories, themes, and ideas are proclaimed over time. (Takes three years in the Catholic Church.)

            Secondly, and as important, is NOT the focus on “time” spent on the scripture reading, but, rather, whether or not the “whole story” presented in scripture is proclaimed in enough detail and length to set the scene and incorporate all meaningful pieces of the story. This can take much time, or little time, depending on the specific bit of scripture “on the menu”.

            As Michael pointed out, otherwise you have the pastor talking about his/her favorite bits, and/or deciding on what the people need (or want?) to hear, and sticking to those subjects as supported by proof texts from all over the map.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          You made me look…

          The first time I attended an Evangelical service as an adult, I came out of it wondering when the worship service would begin. I knew better than to expect the eucharist, but I was surprised by the absence of scripture readings.

          Just now, I pulled up the the website of the local mega, an Independent Baptist church, and watched the service from last Sunday evening. It began with a series of hymns alternating with multiple sessions of announcements. Announcements are always awkward: not part of worship, yet necessary. There is no perfect solution, but getting them out of the way as quickly as possible is a good idea. Dragging them out like a batter stepping in and out of the batter’s box is not. Then there were two surprisingly perfunctory baptisms, followed by an announcement of (I’m not making this up) how many people were on the church bus that week. Then there was an announcement about how some of them had gone into the city the previous week and proselytized on a street corner, with 93 people being saved. Am I too cynical if I suspect massive spin? Then we get to the main event of the sermon. Finally we get some scripture reading. The people were asked to get out their Bibles, told where to open them to, and had a grand total of three verses read to them (Romans 14:17-19, for those scoring at home). This was followed by rambling, rather incoherent sermon on the topic of peace. This including a shout out for bombing Syria, and preferably sending in ground troops, in order to make clear that Paul was writing about Jesus peace, not hippie peace. But really, the sermon had little to do with the text, other than riffing off the one word. And that was it.

          So yes, strictly speaking this was a public reading of scripture. It is pretty much entirely unlike what you will find in a liturgical church. I would say it is extremely disrespectful of scripture. It doesn’t allow Paul to form a thought, with the exposition having a beginning, a middle, and an end. It doesn’t allow Paul to have a point to make: at least not one requiring more space than a bumper sticker to express. It is about what the pastor wants to talk about, not what Paul wanted to talk about.

          • That’s a devastating description, Richard.

          • Devastating, but fairly accurate description of what I’ve witnessed goes on in these churches (spent 12 years in one). Almost always, the sermon was part of a series ostensibly about some biblical theme — e.g. “a deep walk through Romans.” But once the scripture for the day was referenced, the sermon itself just went off on a long ramble that was tangentially related at best, and served to yet again espouse one of the speaker’s pet themes—e.g., “MEN! Stop watching that Internet porn! I know you all do it!” I always felt like the speaker was pulling a bait-and-switch. I think this is fairly common.

          • SCBluCatlady says

            Richard’s account of his experience reads like he could have been attending the chapel service of the (Baptist) Christian school where I finished high school. Yep. so very familiar! These baptists like to claim how their worship is Bible and Scripture *centered* but is it really? Nope, not if your experience is like mine or Richard’s. Fortunately, the parish where I am currently (Diocese of SC) has three lessons read out loud every sunday. We no longer use the RCL but have returned to the BCP lectionary. The RCL has quite a number of verses that are *edited* out. The BCP lectionary is not quite as draconian in the edits. We also have sermons that are about one of the lessons not just what some preacher happens to think about on the spot which does lead to sermons that ramble on about nothing. We had a great sermon this past Sunday which tied together all three lessons. Quite a wonderful time of preaching God’s Word!

  7. David Cornwell says

    Should be “On Wednesday evening”…

  8. Matt B Redmond says

    I have always considered/acted as if the preaching of the word was the more sacred act. But perhaps, the reading of the Scriptures is.

    • Matt,
      You’re probably on to something. And as a point of semantics, our lectors are instructed that scripture is never “read.” It is “proclaimed.” May sound like a nit, but it draws our attention to the importance of what we are about to deliver to the faithful.

      • Matt B Redmond says

        That’s certainly the impression I walked away with the other night – “proclaimed.” Not merely read.

      • flatrocker,

        I don’t think you’re nitpicking. This seems related to something I took away from a Bible class one Sunday morning. I had mentioned that Jesus was quoting Psalm 22 as he was dying on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Another man corrected me and insisted that no, Jesus was not merely “quoting” the Psalm, he was fulfilling it, that the Psalm was written for him, that he was in effect authoring or initiating the Psalm at that moment.

        Could be one of the most important things I’ve gotten out of Sunday school. Puts the centrality of the cross into perspective.

        • Couple of thoughts here. Yes, the psalm is considered Messianic, but it is also the story of David.

          Ever wondered why our Bibles have the Aramaic text? Did you realize that Jesus (and David) use the singular form of address to God? This would have been completely missed if we had only been provided with the Greek text (as Greek does not use both singular and plural forms to reference God). Eloi versus Elohiym.

          • You mean, why the Aramaic in Mark’s gospel, as well as the Greek? No, I hadn’t. But I like it. And I hadn’t wondered why it’s singular either, or even noticed until you mentioned it.

            I assume that Psalm 22 has the Hebrew “Eli” instead of the Aramaic “Eloi” that Jesus used. That’s possessive singular too, “My God,” as in the Aramaic and Greek. But could the Psalm (or Jesus) have used a possessive plural just as well, thus personalizing the relationship to God in that form?

            I haven’t studied Hebrew, only learned a bunch of words here and there and know to add the letter “i” to make a possessive or an “–im” to make a plural—something like adding an “o” to make a word Spanish. 🙂

    • Also extremely fascinating…

  9. Nice photo header, Ch. Mike. Which church is it?


    • Oh, wow. I just noticed that. You mean it’s not an icon, it’s a whole building?


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        It’s an Eastern-rite Church. If you look through the three arches into the main sanctuary, you can see the icon-flanked altar. Behind the altar there should be whatever they call a rood screen in Greek with three doors echoing the three arches.

        • HUG,

          Through the central arch you can see the iconostasis (icon screen) – which is indeed analogous to a rood-screen – and the center doors of that lead into the altar area. In front of the iconostasis is the nave of the church building; this one has pews, but not all do. Above the altar area in the apse is the icon of the Theotokos More Spacious than the Heavens (because Mary “contained the uncontainable”), which is actually a theological declaration that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (1Jn). The Christ Child portrayed iconically in her womb is mostly hidden behind the cross atop the arch at the center of the iconostasis, although you can get the sense of it if you click on the photo to enlarge.

          I think the Eastern/Western Rite designation is confusing – most people have no idea what that means. Much easier to say that this is either an Eastern/Byzantine Catholic or an Orthodox church building.


      • I thought it was just a banner, too!

      • The top portion is an icon – quite large, since it spans the whole wall that separates the narthex from the nave.

        The whole architectural layout of a traditional Byzantine church building is an icon that speaks of the union of Heaven and Earth, the Uncreated with the created – especially if it has a dome.


    • Asinus Spinas Masticans says

      St. Joseph’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, Houston TX