Review of N. T. Wright, The Last Word (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005)1

John M. Frame

Prof. of Systematic Theology and Philosophy

Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL

 

N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, England, is widely recognized as a brilliant and prolific New Testament scholar, with a deep concern for the church and its theology. He is best known for his development of the “New Perspective on Paul,” of James D. G. Dunn and E. P. Sanders, which has made him controversial in many circles. But beyond this controversy, Wright is considered conservative. He believes that Scripture is substantially historical, and he has no bias against the supernatural as such. Indeed, he has published the most comprehensive and powerful recent defense of the Resurrection of Jesus, setting forth its historicity, centrality, and saving power.2

For Wright, the Bible is the story of the coming of God’s kingdom in power, a political event that from its beginning challenged the Roman empire. He is, therefore, an opponent of privatized religion, an advocate of a Christian faith that seeks with God’s help to bring all things subject to Christ. He recognizes the centrality of the Lordship of Christ.

So one is naturally curious how a scholar with such commitments formulates the doctrine of biblical authority. The present volume answers this question. It is one of Wright’s shorter books (146 pp.) and one of his less technical ones, though not exactly “popular.” He seems here primarily to be addressing church leadership, rather than the academic community. The book is full of insight, but there are many questions that it omits—questions many readers will consider important.

In part, these omissions are intentional. Wright here seeks to transcend the old “battle for the Bible” by putting the question of biblical authority in a larger context. The subtitle reads, “Beyond the Bible wars to a new understanding of the authority of Scripture.” This approach reminds me of recent books that have tried to transcend the “worship wars” by formulating “broader principles” and “common criteria.” These books are sometimes interesting in their own right, but they usually fail to answer the questions that generated the worship wars in the first place.3 Or they answer them in such a question-begging way that nobody is persuaded. The Last Word is better than these worship books. But those who are wrestling with issues like inerrancy and infallibility will find it unsatisfying. Wright may hope that his approach will keep people from raising these issues, but I think that hope is unrealistic.

We should, however, examine the larger context in which Wright seeks to locate the authority of Scripture. He identifies as “the central claim of this book” the thesis “that the phrase ‘authority of Scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.’” (23) This implies,

…that scripture itself points—authoritatively, if it does indeed possess authority!—away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself, now delegated to Jesus Christ. It is Jesus, according to John 8:39-40, who speaks the truth because he has heard from God. (24)

The idea that Scripture “points away from itself” reminds us of the theologies of Barth and Brunner. For their followers, this implies that we should look at the Bible only as a human text, erring as humans do. But inerrantists also believe that Scripture “points away:” to the God who saves and who speaks to us the word of Scripture. This is to say that the metaphor of “pointing away from itself” is a truism that theologians of very different views appeal to.
So we must follow Wright’s argument further. Wright holds with many scholars today that the Bible, despite its many literary genres, can as a whole be described as “story,” or narrative (25-26). It is neither a “list of rules” nor a “compendium of true doctrines,” though the texts do include rules and doctrines. But how can a story be authoritative? Rules tell us what to do; doctrines tell us what to believe. But what does a story do? Stories, Wright points out, can be cautionary, can provide historical background to explain a command, and can shake up a reader’s mindset so that he will make different decisions (26-27). In Scripture, the story is about God’s kingdom coming in power. Jesus’ teaching and healings carry the authority of the kingdom. So God’s authority “is his sovereign power accomplishing the renewal of all creation” (29). The authority of Scripture is an aspect of this kingdom power, and therefore, Wright reiterates, not merely the authority of doctrine or commands. So it is insufficient to think of Scripture merely as “revelation” or as a “devotional manual” (31-33). Rather, Scripture is God’s kingdom instrument for bringing us divine speech, transformation of mind, and power for mission (34).4

Wright then embarks on a survey of history from the Old and New Testaments, through church history, down to the present. Like Geerhardus Vos, Wright views the kingdom, not only as God’s general sovereignty, but as his breaking into history to defeat evil (35-37).  Scripture equipped Israel for this warfare(37). God’s giving these books to Israel may be called “inspiration,” which 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). Wright believes that Scripture itself takes for granted such divine inspiration. Behind such inspiration is “the word of God,” which is “not …a synonym for the written scriptures, but …a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating” (38).

Jesus is the word made flesh and the true Israel, thus fulfilling the scriptures. So “Jesus insists on scripture’s authority” (44). But according to Wright Jesus fulfills the scriptures, enforcing some teachings of the Old Testament over against Jewish traditions, but also rejecting some Old Testament provisions as no longer applicable, such as dietary laws and God’s exclusive relation with Israel (45). In Wright’s view, the authority of Scripture does not free it from what he calls “tensions” (40), as between the idea that virtue is rewarded in this life (Deut.) and the idea that it is not (Job).5 Jesus’ use of Scripture brings out such tensions in ways that initially puzzle many readers (45). But, Wright says that these tensions are aspects of a rich, “narratival” kind of fulfillment (45-46).
In the apostolic church, again we meet the powerful “word of God,” now the vehicle of the Spirit’s authority renewing and equipping people for kingdom service. As with Jesus’ teaching, there are tensions in the apostles’ appeal to the Old Testament: continuities and discontinuities with the gospel. Wright compares the Old Testament to a ship that has brought travelers to their destination. Once they arrive, “they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their voyage has been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose” (57).

The apostles’ teaching, then, recorded in the New Testament books, becomes the “new covenant charter” (59), guiding the church in its encounter with the cultures of the world.

Wright then discusses the understanding of Scripture in later church history. Did the church give authority to Scripture? To Wright, this view is a mistake like “that of a soldier who, receiving orders through the mail, concludes that the letter carrier is his commanding officer” (63). Rather, the church recognized as canonical those books that carried on the larger narrative of the kingdom. Wright notes insightfully that the church’s martyrs were “normally those who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and the rest” (63), not those who read, e.g., the Gospel of Thomas. For the latter was “non-narratival, deliberately avoiding the option of placing [Jesus’] sayings within the overarching framework of the story of Israel” (63-64). So, far from making the church more comfortable, as some have charged, the canonical books sustained the church’s “energetic mission” (64).

Nevertheless, Wright believes that in the early centuries there was in the church a “diminishing focus” on narrative, corresponding to an increasing use of Scripture as a “court of appeal,” or rule book, and as a “lectio divina,” a book of private devotions (64-65). This development also leads to allegorical exegesis and the medieval fourfold sense, about which I must pass over Wright’s interesting observations (65-70).

In the Reformation, sola Scriptura is a protest, not against tradition as such, but against the notion that anything beyond Scripture needs to be believed “in order for one to be saved” (72; cf. his discussion of tradition on 117-119). The Reformers also insisted on the “literal sense” of Scripture, in contrast with the medieval fourfold scheme. In this, they did not intend to exclude figures of speech (as later literalists would do), but to advocate what the actual words meant according to the original authors. If the meaning of a passage is figurative, the literal sense, according to the Reformers, requires us to take it figuratively (73; cf. 92-94).

In the debates between Protestant and Catholic, both parties, Wright says, devalued the narrative character of Scripture, thinking of authority as “the place where you could go to find an authoritative ruling” (75).

In the Enlightenment, “reason,” which to Richard Hooker meant a responsible way of using the Bible (79-80; cf. 119-120), was redefined as something authoritative in itself, supreme over Scripture.6 Thus the Enlightenment adopted a different narrative from Scripture, one of human progress, leading to the eschatology of a fully rational society (87-88). Reason alone will deal with the problem of evil. This leads to “the muddled debates of modern biblical scholarship” (89) which try to synthesize the Bible with rationalist themes. The best response, Wright says, is not to dismiss all biblical scholarship (as we are often tempted to do) but to “make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions” (91). That, he argues, is what the authority of Scripture should mean for us today.

Wright understands well that no exegesis, whether modernist, fundamentalist, or otherwise is without presuppositions. So the task of understanding the Bible continues. Modernism was wrong to claim “assured results.” And literalists too should be open to rethinking their assurances, though Wright says this “does not mean that I am indifferent to the question of whether the events written about in the gospels actually took place. Far from it” (95; cf. 112-13). He poses the question:

Which is the bottom line: “proving the Bible to be true” (often with the effect of saying, “so we can go on thinking what we’ve always thought”), or taking it so seriously that we allow it to tell us things we’d never heard before and didn’t particularly want to hear? (95)

This question challenges the complacent Christian, but it does pose an apples/oranges alternative. Cannot we take an interest in proving the Bible true without curbing its freedom to challenge us?

In Chapter 7, Wright deals with some examples of “misreadings” of Scripture from the left and the right. Generally his critiques of these are on target. In Chapter 8, he argues that to get “back on track,” we need to return to the original kingdom context of biblical authority. We should read Scripture, he says, to be equipped for mission.

“The authority of scripture” refers not least to God’s work through scripture to reveal Jesus, to speak in life-changing power to the hearts and minds of individuals, and to transform them by the Spirit’s healing love. (116).

As we use Scripture, then, it is important for us to see our role within the “five acts” of the narrative (creation, fall, Israel, Christ, the church) (121-27). Our reading of Scripture should be “totally contextual,” “liturgically guided, “privately studied,” “refreshed by appropriate scholarship,” and “taught by the church’s accredited leaders” (128-142). An appendix suggests resources for such Bible study (143-46).

By way of evaluation: So far as I am aware, there is no statement in the book that I simply disagree with. And the book contains some excellent insights about Scripture, on its kingdom context, the canon, and Scripture’s relations with tradition, reason, and experience. Wright also has valuable things to say here about biblical interpretation: on how the New Testament fulfills the Old, and on what a “literal” interpretation ought to mean.

But there is a major problem of omission. If one is to deal seriously with the “Bible wars,” even somehow to transcend them, one must ask whether and how inspiration affects the text of Scripture. Wright defines inspiration by saying 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). But the same can be said about the books in my library: that God moved writers, editors, publishers, et al., so that the books in my library are the ones God wants me to have. Nevertheless, there are some horrible books in my library (which I keep for various good reasons). So it is important to ask whether inspiration is simply divine providence, or whether it carries God’s endorsement. Is God, in any sense, the author of inspired books?

Wright doesn’t discuss this question, but Scripture itself does. The Decalogue was the writing of God’s finger (Ex. 31:18). The prophets identified the source of their preaching by the phrase “thus says the Lord.” Jesus attributes David’s words to the Spirit (Matt. 22:43). Paul says that the Old Testament Scriptures were God-breathed, i.e., spoken by God (2 Tim. 3:16). And Paul connects this God-breathed quality with the authority of Scripture, indicating that biblical authority is not only the authority of divine power, but also of divine speech.

Or look at it this way:  “Word of God” in Scripture, is not merely “a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating” (38).” It is all of these things, but it is also, obviously, divine speech (as Wright himself recognizes on 34). When God creates, for example, he creates by speech, by commanding the world to exist. Prophecy and Scripture are “word of God,” not only in their power, but also as speech and language: not only power, but also meaning.

Wright is right to say that God’s word, and specifically Scripture, is more than doctrines and commands. But if inspiration confers divine authorship, and if God’s word is true speech, then it becomes very important, within the context of the kingdom narrative, to believe God’s doctrines and to obey God’s commands. Indeed, as Wright notes, the very nature of narrative poses the question of whether the events described “really happened:” that is, what should we believe about them, and how should we act in response. But then narrative itself implies doctrines to be believed and commandments to obey.7

That is what the Bible wars are about. One can believe everything Wright says about the narrative context of biblical authority and still ask responsibly whether the words of Scripture are God’s words to us. Wright’s book does not speak helpfully to this question, nor does it succeed (if this was Wright’s purpose) in persuading us not to ask it. So, like the worship books mentioned earlier, The Last Word does not discuss what is most relevant to the controversy. It proposes a context, but a context is not enough. Two people who accept Wright’s proposal may nevertheless differ radically on the question of whether the Bible is the word of God.

Many of us would like to get away from the debates of the liberal/fundamentalist controversy. But if Scripture is God’s very word, then we cannot be indifferent to its doctrinal and ethical authority, or silent against attacks on that authority. Wright has done some great work in defending the truth of Scripture, and it is evident in the present volume that he has scant regard for the scholarship of enlightenment skeptics like those of the Jesus Seminar. So he has himself entered into the Bible wars. But are these wars merely contests to see who is the better scholar, or is the word of God itself at issue? If the latter, much more must be said and done.

 

1 This review originally appeared in Penpoint 17.4 (Aug., 2006) and is used here by permission.

2 Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

4 Some readers of my own writings will see this as a covenantal triad, the three functions being normative, existential, and situational respectively.

5 Wright doesn’t quite say that these themes are actually contradictory, but he does not attempt to reconcile them here. I will assume that he regards them as most orthodox Christians do, as aspects of a larger truth.

6 Compare his similar discussion of “experience” at 100-105.

7 Wright’s title, The Last Word, is perplexing in this respect. He reproves some early Christians for regarding the Bible as a mere “court of appeal” (65, cf. 75), a final test of doctrine and ethics. He seems to be reproving a certain emphasis here, which is fine. But then the question arises: if the Bible is not merely a court of appeal, is it at least that, along with other things? Wright has little if anything to say about how the Bible should be used as a court of appeal; he wants to steer us toward other issues. But the question will not go away. The very title, The Last Word, alludes to Scripture as a court of appeal (unless Wright means “last” in a merely temporal sense, which I doubt). I realize, of course, that titles are usually chosen by publishers, rather than authors. But in this case there seems to be more than the usual tension between the title and the author’s emphasis.