Book Review: The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God – Getting Beyond the Bible Wars

I was at the bookstore last week and saw this book by N.T. Wright that sounded intriguing. It was fairly short and dealt with an issue that is close to my heart: the authority of Scripture. It is succinct and to the point. I always write in books underlining and making comments throughout, and found myself frequently making marginal notes in this book. I find it to be a great take on a difficult and controversial topic.

Wright sets out to address the question “what is the authority of Scripture?” or probably better put, “what does the authority of Scripture mean?” This matter is especially relevant to me and the fellowship that I am a part of. As a Restoration Movement church, we began as a “No creed but the Bible” group. Our people love the Scriptures. Our love for the Bible is unparalleled in other denominations. In recent years, however, we have been dealt a blow as the hermeneutic of our past (command, example, inference) has been shown to be antiquated and ill-equipped for the postmodern matrix of thought. This has created quite a splintered division among our churches. While the arguments take on several different fronts, at the core, I believe is this issue of the authority of Scripture.

Wright sets forth his “central claim of the book: that the phrase ‘authority of Scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is a short hand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through Scripture.'” (p. 23) He expounds on this claim by examining Scripture through the eyes of Israel, Jesus, the early church fathers, and the rest of church history. The historical approach to the authority of Scripture is something that builds a firm foundation for his final presentation at the conclusion of his work.

What I really appreciate about Wright’s approach to Scripture is his seeing Scripture as a means to an end. Scripture is not the end itself. He manages to say this while upholding a very high view of the text as it is on its own. In his words, “We need to set scripture within the larger context which the biblical writers themselves insist upon: that of the authority of God himself.” (p. 28).

Wright quickly addresses the function of Scripture within Israel. Succinctly stated, Wright understands the function of Scripture within Israel as “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.” (p. 36). Moving towards the second-temple period in Judaism, Wright puts forth two keys – forming the “controlling story” in which Israel sets to accomplish its kingdom purposes, and, secondly, “formed the call to a present obedience.”

His discussion regarding Jesus and Scripture, in its brevity (four pages), presents Jesus operating from the confines of scriptural authority. Jesus, as the Word, becomes the essence of Scriptural authority. “Once we set Jesus in the context of the larger scriptural story, however, and come to grips with his sense of what exactly the new covenant would mean, and how it would both fulfill and transform the old one . . . we discover a much higher and more narratival, sense of ‘fulfillment,’ which generates that subtle and powerful view of scripture we find in the early church.” (45 – 46)

Through the early church fathers, Wright sees the “rule of faith” as pivotal in the understanding of Scripture. While the New Testament canon was in process, the “rule of faith” evolved into a controlling reality in the assembly of the early church fathers’ understanding of the Gospel. The Old Testament, then, became re-imagined through the lens of the rule of faith.

Wright, then moves his discussion into the first sixteenth centuries of biblical scholarship and the evolution of biblical authority in the Pre-Reformation centuries. It is particularly within this era of Church history that biblical authority especially becomes a front and center issue. Medieval theology allowed the allegorization of text became a central methodology of scriptural interpretation opening the door to multiple interpretations, and thus, creating the tension in regards to a control over identifying the reality of of biblical authority.

Enter the Enlightenment. The sense of progress and optimism and faith in the sciences brought about by the Age of Reason has, in large part, brought us to the dilemma we now find ourselves. The promises of hope, objectivity, and progress that the Enlightenment proposed has failed to be delivered. Wright proposes several aspects where the Enlightenment has led us down erroneous paths: offering an alternative view of history (eschatology), evil (“turning ‘Kingdom of God’ into ‘the hope for heaven after death'”), emphasis on individualistic pietism to the exclusion of globally-impacted matters, etc.

I found his chapter on “Misreadings of Scripture” to be especially interesting. Here Wright specifically mentions scriptural misrepresentations coming from “conservatives” as well as from “liberals” illustrating how Enlightenment sensibilities have allowed us to “tame the text” and say what we would have it said.

Finally, in the last chapter, Wright lays out his proposal for understanding “the authority of Scripture.” I found it reassuring, refreshing, and convicting. “‘the authority of Scripture,’ when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community.” (p. 114) He offers a great discussion on what role tradition plays in our understanding of the text. (This is an area that Churches of Christ especially needs to hear.) “Every period, every key figure in the history of the church has left his, her or its mark on subsequent readings readings of scripture, and if we are unaware of this we are to that extent less able to understand why we ‘naturally’ read this text in this or that way.” (p. 117) Just a great quote! Wright also offers a perspective on the role that reason plays in the process.

Wright proposes a “five-act multi-layered model” to understanding Scripture. (This is a synopsis of his more-detailed treatment in chapter five of his The New Testament and the People of God.) He affirms a reading of Scripture should be: Totally contextual; Liturgically grounded; Privately studied; Refreshed by appropriate scholarship; and Taught by the church’s accredited leaders. Each of these areas deserve extended treatment, but Wright’s discussion is succinct and to the point enough that I’ve chosen not to expound on it.

His approach is a welcome and refreshing treatment of Scripture that, most of all, emphasizes both the centrality to the life the church, and the communal nature. I end with this great analogy offered by Wright. For me this a key perspective in our churches overcoming their polarized stances and staunch unrelatedness:

“The notion of ‘improving’ is important, but sometimes misunderstood. As all musicians know, improvisation does not at all mean a free-for-all where ‘anything goes,’ but precisely a disciplined and careful listening to all the other voices around us, and a constant attention to the themes rhythms and harmonies of the complete performance so far, the performance which we are now called to continue. At the same time, of course, it invites us, while being fully obedient to the music so far, and fully attentive to the voices around us, to explore fresh expressions, provided they will eventually lead to that ultimate resolution which appears in the New Testament as the goal, the full and complete new creation which was gloriously anticipated in Jesus’ resurrection. The music so far, the voices around us, and the ultimate multi-part harmony of God’s new world: these, taken together, form the parameters for appropriate improvisation in the reading of scripture and the announcement and living out of the gospel it contains. All Christians, all churches, are free to improvise their own variations designed to take the music forward. No Christian, no church, is free to play out of tune. To change the metaphor back to the theater: 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. (p. 126 – 127, italics mine).

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