Thursday, February 11, 2010

Good Books For Lent, Part I: The Last Word

The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God--Getting Beyond the Bible Wars
By N.T. Wright (HarperOne, 2005)

In this brief and helpful book, New Testament scholar (Cambridge, Oxford) and Anglican bishop (Durham, England) N.T. Wright sets out to get past the confusions and polarizations which now surround the phrase "the authority of Scripture". He argues that these confusions and polarizations are largely the product of cultural paradigms which now determine much Christian interpretation. Much of "conservative" Christianity, ironically, operates out of the modernist paradigm which holds that the truth of Scripture is primarily a matter of correct facts, information, doctrine and ethical rules. In this paradigm, Scripture is a doctrinal and ethical textbook to which we refer for answers to questions. Much of "liberal" Christianity, on the other hand, operates out of the postmodern paradigm which is suspicious of all authorities and wishes to configure all of reality into a set of potential resources which can be used by the self to aid in the ongoing project of self-identification. For "liberal" Christianity, then, Scripture is not an objective authority but a resource to help people on their own "spiritual journey". Both the modern and postmodern paradigms have numerous variations but we have reached the point where the polarizations are so great that neither paradigm really understands, or really listens to, the other. The tragedy, for Wright, is that both these paradigms are essentially wrong and not very biblical. Each represents the triumph of culture over the Church, a triumph in which the Church is seriously disabled.
Wright proposes a fresh way of thinking about what the authority of Scripture means: "the phrase 'authority of Scripture' can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for 'the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture'." The "authority of Scripture" does not consist primarily in the fact that it proposes the right doctrines to be believed and the right ethical rules to live by nor does it consist primarily in the fact that it provides individual spiritual guidance, affirming what people have already decided is true. Rather, we must see Scripture as part of the economy of salvation, one of the means that God has provided for his purposes to be fulfilled. Through Scripture, God enacts and realizes his Kingdom among his people and in his world. Scripture is authoritative because through it the power of God comes sweeping into creation to heal, transform, forgive, reconcile and sanctify. This, Wright contends, is precisely what Paul means when he speaks of the Gospel as "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). The Gospel is not merely believed (accepted as a true religious idea) but enacted.
The bulk of the book (chapters 2 through 7) provides a sketch of how Scripture has been understood to be authoritative from ancient Israel up to modern (and postmodern) times. This sketch helps the reader to see just how tradition shaped even the most "biblical" of Christianities are. One of the theses of this sketch is that over time Christian interpretation steadily lost sight of the narrative dimension of Scripture, the fact that it provides the narrative or story within which the Church understands her very existence and purpose. The loss of Scripture's narrative dimension meant that in post-Reformation Christianity it increasingly became a source to be mined for proof texts to support certain confessional emphases while in modern Christianity it came under increasing attack by rationalism and by scholars who considered Scripture to be inadequate because it was "pre-scientific". What remained was Scripture as devotional literature. In this process whole aspects of Scripture were simply screened out, particularly the emphasis (at the heart of Jesus' ministry!) on the kingdom of God or God's power to transform the world and re-order human life. The way for the current polarities was opened up: on one hand a "conservative" Christianity which focuses on individual salvation and piety apart from politics and economics and (sometimes) even from history and on the other hand a "liberal" Christianity which focuses on politics and economics but appears to be unaware of the power of God. The final result of all this is, for Wright, that the Church is now trapped in a series of unedifying, dead-end and debilitating "Bible wars" in which the controlling question for interpretation is whether Scripture is to be interpreted "literally" or "metaphorically". For Wright, this is the way of death. For the Church in North America the situation is even worse since to this poisonous mix we have added the "creation--evolution debate," with some Christians expecting Scripture to solve the problem and other Christians having long ago given the world over to "science".
In the final chapter of the book, Wright offers an alternative way of understanding "the authority of Scripture". An extended quotation will give an adequate idea of what he wishes to do: "We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be. 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, the good news that in Jesus Christ the living God has defeated the powers of evil and begun the work of new creation." Scripture is a means of grace, a means through which God works to shape the hearts and minds of his people, fit them for their mission in the world and so enact his kingdom.

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