The Last Word
N. T. Wright. The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco (= Scripture and the Authority of God [London: SPCK], 2005). xiv + 146 pp. $19.95. ISBN 0-06-081609-0.
Bishop Tom Wright continues to churn out valuable reading material at a remarkable number of levels with astonishing speed. Here is a short work, readily digestible by any college-educated lay person, that will prove particularly important within the worldwide Anglican communion, in light of its many current debates, not least those about homosexuality (though the topic never appears by name in this volume). Readers from other communions should gladly eavesdrop, too.
The question unifying the material in this study is that of the Bibleï¿½s authority. How should believers use the Bible to be true to the historic Christian conviction that it is a divine as well as a human book and thus uniquely authoritative for Christian living and belief? Wrightï¿½s introduction rapidly surveys key uses of the Bible in the history of the church and in contemporary culture, concluding that the current debate often remains far too shallow in nature. One side declares, ï¿½The Bible says,ï¿½ without realizing that their reading of it already presupposes one of several possibly legitimate interpretations. The other side retorts, ï¿½But we read the Bible in context,ï¿½ failing to observe that they fall victim to the identical reductionism. What is the way forward?
Wright begins the body of his book by insisting that ï¿½the authority of Scriptureï¿½ is shorthand for Godï¿½s authority exercised through Scripture. This should not be confused with the famous neo-orthodox belief that the Bible becomes Godï¿½s word only when he speaks to people through it. Rather, it reflects the conviction that we will understand the nature of the Bibleï¿½s authority only when we observe the way God himself uses it to accomplish his work in the world.
Not surprisingly, this leads us to story, to narrative. One may observe at cross-sections of Christian history an emphasis on the Bible as protest literature, as bringing men and women to salvation in Christ, as revealing propositional truth, and as inspiring personal devotion. All of these uses have their proper role, but even all of them put together do not capture the full purposes of God in Scripture. Only when one understands the full narrative of Godï¿½s purposes for his creation disclosed from Genesis to Revelation can we begin to understand any portion of the Bible rightly.
Before jumping to his solutions, Wright sketches the use of the Bible in ancient Israel, in the life of Jesus, in the apostolic age, and in the pre- and post-Enlightenment eras of church history. For Israel, Scripture constituted the story that explained Jewish experience, where it had come from, where it was and where it was heading. Peridocially, within that narrative framework, appeared moral guidance in various genres, designed to elicit obedience among Godï¿½s people and to hasten the proper ending to Godï¿½s story of his dealings with his people.
Into this narrative comes Jesus of Nazareth who claims to be the fulfillment of Jewish hopes, the one who will usher in the climax of the Mosaic covenant. He does not thereby dispense with Scriptureï¿½s authority; indeed he affirms it, but not apart from understanding how it is fulfilled in him. The first-century church continues this approach, recognizing continuity as well as discontinuity with the Hebrew Scriptures and the new covenant arrangements God has made with Jesusï¿½ followers as the new Israel. Godï¿½s word, initially spoken by his messengers and eventually (at least some of it) written down, plays a central and formative role in the establishment of the new community, not least in its dialogical relationship with human cultures.
In the first sixteen centuries, the church went through various phases in its use of Scripture. The early challenges of Gnosticism and anti-Semitism were met with an appeal to Scripture itself, along with early tradition, and with good exegesis. But as the Jewish roots of Christian faith were increasingly lost sight of, allegorical and eventually the fourfold medieval exegesis replaced an understanding of texts in the contexts of their historic narratives. Catholic exegesis degenerated at some points in the Middle Ages to nothing more than a repetition of certain authorized traditions or ï¿½glossesï¿½ on the texts.
Enter the Reformers with their call for a return to a literal interpretation of Scripture. But unlike some today who claim to be their legitimate heirs, the Reformers meant by the expression sensus literalis the meaning(s) that the biblical authors intended. Figurative speech or poetic genres were of course (!) to be interpreted according to the literary forms in which they were encased. But the Reformation spawned its own, often conflicting traditions, which at times proved no freer from the legacies of their founders than was the Catholic tradition from its centuries of accepted teachings and papal pronouncements.
The Enlightenment challenged Catholic and Protestant traditions alike with its appeal to ï¿½reasonï¿½ in the form of rationalism to undermine the authority of Scripture. Ironically, modernism captured the methodologies of liberal and conservative alike as each appealed to historically and philosophically ï¿½objectiveï¿½ approaches and criteria to commend their wildly divergent perspectives on the nature of humanity and its plight and thus on where history was headed. Postmodernity has now swung the pendulum too far in the direction of subjectivity, ignoring the necessary mediating perspective of critical realism. Personal experience is important, but neither as that which can produce only detached impersonal exegesis (as in classic modernism) nor as that which takes precedence over Scripture (as in key strands of postmodernism), but as the inevitable contexts in which all persons finds themselves and of which they must be aware so that those contexts neither overly distort their interpretations of the Bible, on the one hand, nor lead to exegesis that stops short of application on the other.
The bookï¿½s penultimate chapter proves the most pointed and provocative of all. Challenging both right- and left-wings with some of their ï¿½sacred cows,ï¿½ Wright lists numerous ï¿½misreadings of Scriptureï¿½ that have occurred when people fail to understand their historical and social locations as believers, and which have become shibboleths for acceptance into large segments of conservatism or liberalism. Among right-wing misreadings, he believes, are the secret rapture theory of pretribulationists, the prosperity gospel, racism and the support of slavery, the belief that the current state of Israel is the fulfillment of prophecy, a failure to distinguish between Old and New Testaments and support for the death penalty. Among left-wing misreadings are the views that science has disproved the Bible, cultural relativism, radical inclusivism, rationalist historical revisionism, claims of arbitrary use of the Old Testament by the New, interpreting religious texts in merely political terms, and labeling early church history as just the biased product of the winners in early ecclesiastical politics.
Finally, Wright proposes his solution: understand the Bible as a five-act drama about creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, and the church, and be sure you know which act you are reading in any given portion of Scripture and which act you are living in (i.e., the fifth). While tradition and reason should never supplant the primacy of Scripture, they influence every interpreter without fail, so they should be allowed to do so consciously. A fivefold strategy for honoring the authority of Scripture results: (1) it should be read in all of its original historical, grammatical and literary contexts; (2) it should be read in dialogue with the traditions of Christian history, not least in the great creeds and liturgies of the church; (3) it should be read personally and privately, (4) it should be studied corporately in small groups and in church worship through accredited and trained church leaders; and (5) it should be examined in light of the very best and most accurate scholarship, now more accessible in greater quantity to more people in the Christian church at countless levels than ever in the history of Christianity. An appendix gives Wrightï¿½s select list of some key resources for brand-new Christians and veterans, from the introductory to the scholarly, which support these goals.
In this age of the mass popularity of The Da Vinci Code, it should probably not surprise anyone that the cover art of this book is part of a painting of the Last Supper (but not by Da Vinci) and that the bookï¿½s subtitle promises a ï¿½newï¿½ understanding of Scriptureï¿½s authority. Of course, that also guarantees that strict conservatives will immediately be suspicious: after 2000 years could any truly new approach to Scripture stand any chance of being valid? As it turns out, there is little, if anything, that is new here. The survey of the various approaches to Scripture throughout church history that occupies a good two-thirds of the volume is a delightful digest of the stories told more tediously in most hermeneutics textbooks. The stress on reading the Bible in the context of its overall story line is likewise a tried and true method of teaching Bible (even if often forgotten or neglected)--in childrenï¿½s Sunday School, with newly evangelized tribes on the mission field, and to pagan Westerners with no background in church or Christian teaching whatsoever. We should not lose sight of it as we ï¿½matureï¿½ in the faith! The fivefold periodization of salvation history ironically comes closer to classic dispensationalism (with its seven periods) than to most evangelical thought that attends only to the similarities and differences between two erasï¿½those of the Old and New Testamentsï¿½even as Wright dismisses dispensationalism summarily early, perhaps because he does not really know it firsthand as those who have lived for years within or near the movement do.
As for moving ï¿½beyond the Bible wars,ï¿½ that has happened without Wright anyway, at least in the United States. At their zenith in the 1970s and 1980s, one reads and hears vastly less about them today. One could argue that in the 1990s, the ï¿½worship warsï¿½ replaced them, and that since the turn of the millennium, ï¿½the postmodern warsï¿½ have taken their turn in the limelight. Still, the debates over the meaning and appropriateness of terms such as inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy raised issues that no Christian generation can long afford to ignore, even if the terminology in which the issues are couched may change. Can the Bible be trusted in its accounts of what it appears to believe were historical events, even after all due allowance has been made for interpretation according to literary genre, the partial knowledge and ideological perspectives of the author, and the like? Do we turn to Scripture only to learn what to believe theologically and how to live ethically, or can we learn other kinds of truths as well? Are the biblical books qualitatively different from all others because they are God-breathed (and just what does that claim from 2 Timothy 3:16 mean)? Wright has done the church a tremendous service by focusing on the remaining and larger portion of that verse, and the next oneï¿½on the relevance and usefulness of Scripture for accomplishing Godï¿½s work through his people in his worldï¿½a focus that was often absent from the older ï¿½Bible wars.ï¿½ But he leaves to one side the questions that those ï¿½warsï¿½ did address, questions that are likewise crucial and which, if not equally well dealt with via the lucidity and creativity of someone like Bishop Wright, will come back to haunt a new generation of Christians all over again.