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Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture


N. T. Wright

HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, 146 pp.  ISBN 0-06-081609-0


Wright is Bishop of Durham, England, a biblical scholar, teacher and writer.  This is a theology book and I was surprised to find it on the shelves in the Brownsburg Public Library.  It is written more-or-less in layman’s language, but it is condensed and difficult to encapsulate in notes.  What does it mean to treat the Bible as the authoritative word of God?  Wright attempts to show that neither a liberal nor a fundamentalist reading of Scripture is sufficient.  What is needed is a fresh, Kingdom-oriented, historically rooted exegesis. 


“Taken as a whole, the church clearly can’t live without the Bible, but it doesn’t seem to have much idea of how to live with it. (ix)  “I have tried, in particular, to face head on the question of how we can speak of the bible being in some sense ‘authoritative’ when the Bible itself declares that all authority belongs to the one true God, and that this is now embodied in Jesus himself.”  (Mt 28:18) (xi)



“The continuing and much-discussed interplay between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ culture has created a mood of uncertainty with Western society at least.”  Three challenges include 1) “the big, older stories of who we are and what we’re here for,” 2) the notion of truth, and 3) the problem of personal identity.  7-9)


The Bible tells a single overarching story and, “like all metanarratives, it is instantly suspected of being told in order to advance someone’s interest.”  (7)  The Enlightenment tried to reduce everything to “fact.”  “Now postmodernity has pushed us in the other direction: toward supposing that all ‘truth,’ …can be reduced to power-claims…”  “All statements about ‘the way things are’ turn into variations on ‘the way I see them,’ or even ‘the way it suits me to see them.’” (8) 


“Enlightenment failed to deliver the goods.  People not only didn’t stop fighting one another, but…’rational’ solutions to perceived problems included…the Gulag and the Holocaust.”  “And this, and much besides, goes to make up the fertile soil within which postmodernity has germinated and grown…” (13)  All this influences the way people read the Bible and talk about it.  


When faced with questions related to culture, politics, philosophy, theology and ethics, we need a fresh word from God.  “…Scripture itself holds out the continuing promise that God’s word will remain living, active, powerful and fruitful….”  “…Through a fresh reading and teaching of scripture, our present culture and all that goes with it will be addressed and challenged by new and God-given viewpoints, not simply allowed to neuter them by squashing them into that culture’s own mold.” (18-19)


Three underlying questions:

1.  “In what sense is the Bible authoritative in the first place?

2.  How can the Bible be appropriately understood and interpreted?

3.  How can its authority, assuming such appropriate interpretation, be brought to bear on the church itself, let alone on the world?” (19)

These questions are a lot deeper than some realize.  (21)


Chapter 1.  By Whose Authority?

Central claim of the book: “‘Authority of Scripture’ is a shorthand for ‘God’s authority exercised through Scripture.” (23)  Scripture points to the final and true authority of God himself, “now delegated to Jesus Christ.” (24)  The question then becomes: “What might we mean by the authority of God, or of Jesus?  What role does scripture have within that?”  “…how does this ‘authority’ actually work?” (25)


Most of Scripture and Scripture as a whole is story.  How is a story authoritative? (26)  Scripture is set within the larger context of the authority of God himself. (28)  “God’s authority…is his sovereign power accomplishing this renewal of all creation.” (29)  Scripture takes an active part in that ongoing purpose.  “Scripture is there to be a means of God’s action in and through us….” (30)


The Bible includes God’s self-revelation as the world’s lover and judge and his self-revelation “is always to be understood within the category of God’s mission to the world, God’s saving sovereignty let loose through Jesus and the Spirit and aimed at the healing and renewal of all creation.” (31-2)


Chapter 2.  Israel and God’s Kingdom-People

“[God’s] two purposes (rescuing his people, completing creation) are intimately connected, as is seen in a thousand passages from Genesis to Revelation.” (35)


Israel’s sacred writings were the place where, and the means by which, Israel discovered again and again who the true God was, and how his Kingdom-purposes were being taken forward.” (36)  “Through scripture, God was equipping his people to serve his purposes.” (37)


“‘Inspiration’ is a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were the books God intended his people to have.” (37)  “Scripture was never simply about the imparting of information….”  “It was written to shape and direct the life of God’s people.”  “It formed the controlling story….”  “It formed the call to a present obedience….” (39-41)


Chapter 3.  Scripture and Jesus

“…at the heart of his work lay the sense of bringing the story of scripture to its climax, and thereby offering to God the obedience though which the Kingdom would be accomplished.” (42)  “Who he was and is, and what he accomplished, are to be understood in the light of what scripture had said.”  “…Jesus was the living embodiment of Israel’s God, the God whose Spirit had inspired the scriptures in the first place. (43)


Chapter 4.  The “Word of God” in the Apostolic Church

“The earliest apostolic preaching was…the story of Jesus understood as the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant narrative, and thus the…good news or ‘gospel’—the creative force which called the church into being and shaped its mission and life.”  (47)


Before the New Testament early Christianity understood that ‘the word of God’ was the story of Jesus, the climax of the story of God and Israel, the same as we see in the four gospels.  (48)  “The word’ was not just information about the Kingdom and its effects….  It was the way God’s Kingdom, accomplished in Jesus, was making its way in the world….” (49)  “The church was thus from the very beginning characterized precisely as the transformed people of God….” (50) 


“Many of the accusations…of flat contradiction arise not from historical study proper but from the imposition on the texts of categories from much later Western thought….” (52)  The early Christians recognized “that some parts of the scriptures were no longer relevant for their ongoing life—not, we must stress, because those parts were bad, or not God-given, or less inspired, but because they belonged with earlier parts of the story which had now reached its climax.  This is the key insight which enables us to understand how the early Christians understood the Old Testament and how the New Testament writers used it.” (53)


“…because God was fulfilling the covenant promises to Abraham by creating a single multi-ethnic family, those regulations in the Mosaic law which explicitly marked out Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors were now to be set aside…because they had been given for a temporary purpose which was not complete.”  “Continuity is seen, for example, in the early Christian insistence on the world as God’s good creation; on God’s sovereign duty and promise to deal with evil; on the covenant with Abraham as the framework by which God would achieve this universal aim; and on the call to holiness….” (54-5) 


“Precisely because of the emphasis on the unique accomplishment of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament could not continue to have exactly the same role with the Christian community that it had had before.” (56)  “The New Testament understands itself as the new covenant charter, the book that forms the basis for the new telling of the story through which Christians are formed, reformed and transformed so as to be God’s people for God’s world.” (59)


Chapter 5.  The First Sixteen Centuries

“The Reformers’ sola scriptura slogan was part of their protest against perceived medieval corruptions.” (71)  “…nothing beyond scripture is to be taught as needing to be believed in order for one to be saved.  On the other hand…the great truths taught in scripture are indeed the way of salvation….” (72)


The Reformers insisted on the ‘literal’ sense of scripture.  “The ‘literal’ sense actually means ‘the sense of the letter’ and if the ‘letter’—the actual words used by the original authors or editors—is metaphorical, so be it.” “For them, the ‘literal’ sense was the sense that the first writers intended….” (73)  


The Catholic position is that scripture and tradition “flow from the same divine wellspring, merge into a unity and move toward the same goal.”  The Protestant position is that scripture is the test of which traditions are genuine and true interpretations of scripture.  (75) 


Chapter 6.  The Challenge of the Enlightenment

“The Enlightenment…was, in fact, for the most part an explicitly anti-Christian movement.”  “In particular, the Enlightenment insisted on ‘reason’ as the central capacity of human beings, enabling us to think and act correctly; it therefore regarded human beings as by nature rational and good.  Reason was to be the arbiter of which religious and theological claims could be sustained.” (83) 


Several historians from the Enlightenment deliberately tried to undermine central Christian claims on the basis of history, science, and morality.  The ‘authority of scripture’ was virtually ruled out.  “All history, declared Voltaire, had been a progressive struggle toward this new, reason-based culture.  Indeed, the idea of progress is one of the Enlightenment’s most enduring legacies.”  “The world has entered a new era, declared the philosophers, and now everything is different.”  “This meant that the Enlightenment was offering its own rival eschatology, a secular analogue to the biblical picture of God’s Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus.” (86-7) 


“The real problem of evil, it proposed, is that people are not thinking and acting rationally….”  “The political agenda…was of course a vital part of the Enlightenment project: kick ‘God’ upstairs, make religion a matter of private piety, and then you can organize the world to your own advantage.  That has been the leitmotif of the Western world ever since, the new philosophy which has so far sustained several great empires, launched huge and horribly flawed totalitarian projects, and left the contemporary world thoroughly confused.”  (89)


The last two hundred years of biblical scholarship has not been neutral or objective.  It is always in complex dialogue with culture.  (89)  [However,] “To affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’” (91)  “The protest of… fundamentalism against the ‘liberalism’ of so-called modernist biblical scholarship…is simply a battle between one kind of Enlightenment vision and another.” (92)


“…many of the problems or ‘contradictions’ discovered by modernist critical study were the result of projecting alien worldviews onto the text.” (95)  [We must] “get down to the task we should never have abandoned, that of continually trying to understand and live by our foundation texts even better than our predecessors.  Again, that is precisely what living by the authority of scripture looks like in practice.” (96)


Postmodernity’s Appropriate Challenge to Modernity:  “We have seen all kinds of fresh readings of biblical texts—feminist, post-Holocaust, ethnic, post-colonial, and so forth—all of which have discovered passages which have been used, and which some have suggested were intended to be used, as ‘texts of terror,’ that is, weapons of oppression or worse.”  “In some cases they render whole books unusable because those writings are deemed guilty of what the postmodern Western world regards, in its new and highly self-righteous judgmentalism, as unforgivable ideological sins.” (97) 


“All we can do with the Bible, if postmodernity is left in charge, is to play with such texts as give us pleasure, and issue warnings against those that give pain to ourselves or to others who attract our (usually selective) sympathy.  This is where a good deal of the Western church now finds itself.” (98)  This leaves us “with a fine irony: an ideology which declares that all ideologies are power-plays, yet which sustains its own position by ruling out all challenges a priori.” (98)


Scripture, tradition and reason are not equally authoritative.  They are “not like three different bookshelves, each of which can be ransacked for answer to key questions.  Rather, scripture is the bookshelf; tradition is the memory of what people in the house have read and understood…from that shelf; and reason is the set of spectacles that people war in order to make sense of what they read….”  “‘Experience’ is something different again, referring to the effect on readers of what they read, and/or the worldview, the life experience, the political circumstances, and so on, within which that reading takes place.” (102)


Experience is not authoritative.  “The ‘experience’ of Christians, and of churches, is itself that over which and in the context of which the reading of scripture exercises its authority.  It is precisely because ‘experience’ is fluid and puzzling, and because all human beings including devout Christians are prey to serious and multilayered self deception, including in their traditions and their reasoning… that ‘authority’ is needed in the first place.” (102-3)


Chapter 7.  Misreadings of Scripture

Wright gives a number of examples of how scripture is misread by the “Right” and the “Left.” 


“Genuine historical scholarship is still the appropriate tool with which to work at discovering more fully what precisely the biblical authors intended to say.  We really do have access to the past; granted, we see it through our own eyes, and our eyes are culturally conditioned to notice some things and not others.  But they really do notice things, and provided we keep open the conversation with other people who look from other perspectives, we have a real, and not illusory, chance of digging out more or less what really happened.”  “Real history is possible; real historians do it all the time.” (112)


Chapter 8.  How to Get Back on Track

We need an integrated view of scripture that highlights the role of the Spirit, keeps its central focus on the goal of God’s Kingdom, and envisages the church as characterized by prayerful listening to, wrestling with, obedience to, and proclamation of scripture. (114)


“…we discover what the shape and the inner life of the church ought to be only when we look first at the church’s mission, and…we discover what the church’s mission is only when we look first at God’s purpose for the entire world, as indicated in, for instance, Genesis 1-2, Genesis 12, Isaiah 40-55, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, Ephesians 1 and Revelation 21-22.” (114-15) 


“This means that ‘the authority of scripture’ is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel….”  “It is with the Bible in its hand, its head and its heart…that the church can go to work in the world….”  (115)


“Within this, scripture has a more particular role in relation to the gospel’s challenge to individual human beings.”  “The power of God which acts through the gospel message to accomplish this end is regularly unleashed, as we saw, through the combination of the power of the Spirit and the spoken or written word; and, throughout the history of the Christian mission that word is normally the word of scripture, read, preached, explained and applied.” (116)


“Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the church has read and lived scripture in the past.” (117)  “Tradition should be allowed to be itself; that is, the living voice of the very human church as it struggles with scripture, sometimes misunderstanding it and sometimes gloriously getting it right.”  “Traditions tell us where we have come from.  Scripture itself is a better guide as to where we should now be going.” (119)


“Likewise, reason will mean giving up merely arbitrary or whimsical readings of texts, and paying attention to lexical, contextual, and historical considerations.”  “It will mean giving attention to our own contexts, and the biases thereby introduced.” (119)  “‘Reason’ will mean giving attention to, and celebrating, the many and massive discoveries in biology, archaeology, physics, astronomy, and so on, which shed great light on God’s world and the human condition.  This does not, of course, mean giving into the pressure which comes from atheistic or rationalistic science.  We must never forget that science, by definition, studies the repeatable, whereas history, by definition, studies the unrepeatable.” (120)


“We must recognize the vital importance of genre, setting, literary style, and so on….  Still more important, we must understand the crucial distinction between the Old and the New Testaments….”  “…the Bible itself offers a model for its own reading, which involves knowing where we are within the overall drama and what is appropriate within each act.  The acts are: creation, ‘fall,’ Israel, Jesus, and the church; they constitute the differentiated stages in the divine drama which scripture itself offers.” (121)


“…it is vital that we understand scripture, and our relation to it, in terms of some kind of overarching narrative which makes sense of the texts.” (122)  “We must act in the appropriate manner for this moment in the story….” (123)  “When we read Genesis 1-2, we read it as the first act in a play of which we live in the fifth.”  “To live in the fifth act is thus to presuppose all of the above, and to be conscious of living as the people through whom the narrative in question is now moving toward its final destination.” (124) 


“The New Testament is the foundation charter of the fifth act.”  “We who call ourselves Christians must be totally committed to telling the story of Jesus both as the climax of Israel’s story and as the foundation of our own.  We recognize ourselves as the direct successors of the churches of Corinth, Ephesus and the rest, and we need to pay attention to what was said to them as though it was said to us.” (125)


“The fifth act goes on, but its first scene is non-negotiable, and remains the standard by which the various improvisations of subsequent scenes are to be judged.”  “Our task is to discover, through the Spirit and prayer, the appropriate ways of improvising the script between the foundation events and charter, on the one hand, and the complete coming of the Kingdom on the other.  Once we grasp this framework, other things begin to fall into place.” (126) 


“All the actors, and all the traveling companies of which they are part (i.e., different churches) are free to improvise their own fresh scenes.  No actor, no company, is free to improvise scenes from another play, or one with a different ending.  If only we could grasp that, we would be on the way to healthy and mutually respectful living under the authority of scripture.” (127)


“We can be sure our understanding and ‘improvisations’ facilitate the Spirit’s working in and through us “by a reading of scripture that is (a) totally contextual, (b) liturgically grounded, (c) privately studied, (d) refreshed by appropriate scholarship, and (3) taught by the church’s accredited leaders.” (127)


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