The Last Word by N.T. Wright
N. T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham (Anglican Church), prolific author and biblical scholar, and is best known to many as the unofficial liaison between the New Perspective on Paul and evangelicalism. This work does not deal specifically with the NPP, rather Wright is trying to foster an understanding of Scripture which allows for and even nurtures such views. Wright is proposing what he calls a “new understanding of the authority of Scripture.” Exactly what is this new understanding?
Let’s begin with the positive. By definition, Wright states “that the authority of Scripture must mean…‘the authority of God exercised through Scripture’” (p. 25). With this stripped-down definition we can agree. God’s authority is bigger than Scripture—it includes all that He is and does. Still Scripture is God’s written word and carries the full authority of Himself in all it proclaims.
The Last Word provides much in the way of historical insights. Here we find some of the past abuses of Scripture: allegorical hermeneutics (pp. 65-70), Gnostic teachings (pp. 60-65), elevation of tradition by Rome (p. 75), the influence of the Enlightenment (pp. 82-92), postmodern and deconstruction challenges to truth (pp. 96-100), modern day promotion of experience as an arbitrator of truth (pp. 100-105) and morphing the Bible into either a rule book or a mystical instrument (p. 64). Wright also offers some helpful examples of misreading Scripture from both the right and the left (pp. 106-111) (although I found it amusing that he placed the pretribulational rapture view in the same category as the prosperity gospel and in support of slavery and racism).
But all is not well in Wright’s understanding of Scripture. He warns us as early as the subtitle that his is a “new understanding.” This new understanding not only differs from the above-mentioned understandings of Scripture but with the Reformers as well. He likes the Reformation’s emphasis on the literal sense (approaching the Bible by attempting to discern what the first writers intended) (p. 73). But the Reformers erred, according to Wright, because they did not understand the “narrative view” of Scripture (p. 76). During the Reformation era Scripture was “seen as a repository of true doctrine and ethics, and indeed the supreme ‘authority’….” Under the narrative view Scripture is seen as the “great narrative, the overarching story of God and the world” (p. 20). The narrative view is unpacked later (pp. 121-127) and to a point has much to commend it (but see below). As a humorous side note, Wright, who earlier debunks Dispensationalism as fanciful speculations (p. 54), develops his narrative view around five dispensations—which he “wisely” calls stages.
While there is much of value in what Wright is saying, he does not go far enough. He begins his assault by asking, “How can a story be authoritative” (p. 26, see p. XI)? Next, he undermines the quest for objective truth by associating it with both modernity and Fundamentalism (his favorite object of scorn) (pp. 9-10). And, since reading the Bible in search of objective truth is taboo, how should it be approached (through a narrative grid)? “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” (p. 115).
Pretty nebulous stuff, but this is the best that Wright can do since he believes we can know precious little from Scripture with any degree of certainty (pp. 90-91). As a matter of fact, Scripture does not even have to be historically accurate for us to live under its authority (pp. 95-96).
When the dust has settled, Wright’s definition of authority is indeed new. “God’s authority, if we are to locate it at this point, is His sovereign power accomplishing this renewal of all creation…. God’s purpose is not just to save human beings, but to renew the whole world” (p. 29). And God’s revelation is not localized in Scripture but is on-going: “God is continually revealing Himself to and within the world He has made” (p. 31).
While Wright’s “new understanding” of the authority of Scripture is an upgrade from some in his camp, it nevertheless falls short of the mark. To Wright, Scripture is the big story of God’s work in the universe (narrative view of Scripture). It is not necessarily an infallible or inerrant story nor can it be understood with certainty. We should not approach it in a search for objective truth, for that is not its purpose. Rather, the Bible is simply one of the tools that God is using to save the planet. We need to use Scripture as an aid to help us find our own place in this project. We may not be able to nail down truth or be certain of our theology which will change as time goes by, but we can be part of the narrative that God is writing. Our obligation is to submit to the lordship of Christ and “through baptism and membership in the body of Christ” (p. 116) become part of the story. I believe that some find this to be an intriguing understanding of Scripture and the Christian life but it is a false one.