Timeless Truths?

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In his essay on how the Bible can be authoritative, N.T. Wright takes issue with the concept of “timeless truths.” He allows that there is a sense in which the Bible is a repository of timeless truths, but he is generally at war with the concept. “All three methods I have outlined involve a certain procedure which ultimately seems to be illegitimate: that one attempts, as it were, to boil off certain timeless truths, models, or challenges into a sort of ethereal realm which is not anything immediately to do with space-time reality in order then to carry them across from the first century to any other given century and re-liquefy them (I hope I’m getting my physics right at this point), making them relevant to a new situation. Once again, it is not really the Bible that is being regarded as the ‘real’ authority. It is something else” (p. 5).

A bit later he says, “This is how God brought his authority to bear on Israel: not by revealing to them a set of timeless truths, but by delegating his authority to obedient men through whose words he brought judgement and salvation to Israel and the world” (p. 8).

The problem for Wright is not that he says “timeless truths” are perhaps okay in a very limited way. (I think he is right, and would like to see him amplify the sense in which he thinks this is true.) But so-called timeless truths are everywhere, inescapably everywhere. Wright himself assumes them when he talks about the timeless truth of “obedient men.” Abraham was an obedient man, and Moses was, and Samuel was, as was David. Timeless truths stretch across the centuries. Obedience to God is a good thing, from Adam on down.

The only people who abstract the truths of Scripture and put them under a glass case, putting them in a place where they need not be obeyed, are rebellious, disobedient people. James warns us against being hearers of the Word only and not doers. John warns against the same problem. Religious hypocrisy (mouthing timeless truths while industriously sinning away) is a problem that is old as dirt. The problem with timeless truths is when people substitute knowledge of the propositional content of Scripture for obedience. But knowledge puffs up, while love builds up.

The translation process that Wright describes above is exactly what we are called to do. When we apply the principle, we are obeying the Scripture, not our own method for understanding Scripture. The Old Testament required a parapet around the roofs of houses. We don’t require that because we don’t spend any time up there. But extracting the principle (timeless truth) that we are responsible to not be negligent in any way that threatens the safety or well-being of others, we should require deck rails for second story decks. I don’t really understand why this should be a trouble.

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