October 14, 2011

Review: N.T. Wright, “Scripture and the Authority of God”

Title: Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: HarperOne
Genre: Bible
Year: 2011
Pages: 224
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9780062011954
Price: $25.99
N.T. Wright has been called “the C.S. Lewis for our time.” Like Lewis, Wright is Anglican. Like Lewis, Wright’s overriding purpose is to demonstrate Christianity’s relevance for our times (Lewis with modernism, Wright with postmodernism). Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy, Wright wrote Surprised by Hope. Like Lewis, Wright’s style is cleverly engaging. This particular similarity is evident from the first line of Wright’s latest publication:
“Writing a book about the Bible is like building a sandcastle in front of the Matterhorn. The best you can hope to do is to catch the eye of those who are looking down instead of up, or those who are so familiar with the skyline that they have stopped noticing its peculiar beauty” (ix).
Odds are, if you’ve enjoyed Lewis’s theological or devotional writings, you’ll enjoy Wright’s. Some differences between the two deserve attention. Unlike Lewis, who was content to remain a lay Anglican, Wright once served as Bishop of Durham, and sat in the UK’s House of Lords. Unlike Lewis, who was an armchair theologian and literary critic whose fiction largely outranks his non-fiction, Wright is a distinguished Bible scholar who takes higher criticism much more seriously than Lewis could have. Lewis still serves as a safe source for many Mormons who are pleased to find similar theological ground in the works of a non-LDS author. Wright can easily serve a similar purpose for Mormons in regards to contemporary biblical scholarship.1  He has a knack for making complex academic discussions comprehensible to regular folk like me. It is with this in mind that I recommend his latest book, Scripture and the Authority of God.2  It’s a lot thicker than its 224 pages appear at first glance as evinced by this over-long, chapter-by-chapter review, but at least the prose is almost always accessible and the analogies creative!
“Taken as a whole,” Wright writes, Christendom “can’t live without the Bible, but it doesn’t seem to have much idea of how to live with it” (ix). With “no pretense at completeness,” Wright’s Prologue gives an overview of the place of Old Testament scripture within the Christian church beginning with the time of Jesus.3  He contextualizes the writing of the New Testament and outlines the growth of tradition and authority in biblical use up to the Reformation when individual scripture reading accelerated. Reason comes to the fore during Enlightenment debates over scripture, debates which echo today. These periods receive closer attention in subsequent chapters. His prologue concludes with a look at how contemporary culture views scripture in tandem with politics, philosophy, theology and ethics. He sees Bible believers and disbelievers making selective, shallow use of the Bible. So-called conservatives privilege a “literal” reading of Paul while ignoring his “ecclesial, ecumenical, sacramental, and ecological dimensions.” So-called “radicals” in a “gallery stacked with iconoclasts” enjoy saying things like “Paul says this, and we now know he’s wrong” (19). These, and other approaches, receive Wright’s scorn throughout the book.
In the first chapter Wright displaces the Bible as the primary authority by, oddly enough, quoting the Bible as identifying God as its source of authority.4  The book doesn’t argue that the Bible should have authority; it’s approaching the question of how a book can have “authority” and what shape that authority can take (16). God, not the Bible, is the authority, and scripture has authority only “in a delegated or mediated sense” (23). Further, the Bible’s over-arching content is narrative; it tells a story. Rather than being a “rule-book” from which we pick and choose things to do, the Bible tells a story within which the reader is also situated. “Scripture is there to be a means of God’s action in and through us–which will include, but go far beyond, the mere conveying of information” (28).  Mormons will be comfortable with Wright’s description of a “much older notion of ‘revelation,’ according to which God is continually revealing himself to and within the world he has made, and particularly to and within his people Israel” (29).5  This is a key interpretive principle Wright will return to throughout his book.
Chapter two serves to describe scripture as a record of God’s response to evil and suffering in the world through a selected people, Israel. The records tell the story of God and his people, places obligations upon them, and gives voice to prophets who try to call a straying Israel to repentance. “God was equipping his people to serve his purposes,” the establishment of a “Kingdom” (35). Scripture told Israel that God was with them and that he wanted things to get better. “It formed the controlling story” for Israel,” and it “formed the call to a present obedience” (38-39, emphasis in original).
Chapter three brings Jesus into the picture. By analyzing the sayings and actions of Jesus in comparison with the Old Testament, Wright argues that “at the heart of [Jesus's] work lay the sense of bringing the story of scripture to its climax, and thereby offering to God the obedience through which the Kingdom would be accomplished” (41, emphasis in orig.). Thus, sifting through the Old Testament for prophecies about individual acts of Jesus largely misses the point. As the “word made flesh,” Jesus viewed himself as enacting and fulfilling scripture, although this raised some interesting contradictions. Wright identifies the conundrum pressing heavily upon early Christian believers: finding ways to account for continuity and discontinuity with the Old Testament.
This is the bridge to chapter four, which analyzes the early apostolic church’s approach to scripture. When Christians today refer to “the word,” they usually mean the Bible itself. “The word,” Wright argues, clearly preceded the creation of our current canon, though. Early Christians understood “the word” to be the story of Jesus, the enacting of the promises of Hebrew scripture with ongoing obligations and expectations for the new covenant movement (48). Here Wright has set the stage for his “fully Christian theology of scriptural authority”:
“Planted firmly in the soil of the missionary community, confronting the powers of the world with the news of the Kingdom of God, refreshed and invigorated by the Spirit, growing particularly through the preaching and teaching of the apostles, and bearing fruit in the transformation of human lives as the start of God’s project to put the whole creation to rights” (50).
Wright argues that inattention to this narrative-driven nature of scripture results in “the sterile debate between people who say, ‘The Bible says…’ and those who answer, ‘Yes, and the Bible also says you should stone adulterers, and you shouldn’t wear clothes made of two types of cloth.’ We earnestly need to get past this unnecessary roadblock and on to more serious engagement” (122).
Chapter five is eminently interesting, as Wright looks at “The First Sixteen Centuries.” Mormons might be disposed to disregard this chapter on the grounds of the “Great Apostasy,” but Wright doesn’t follow the LDS narrative. Mormons can learn much from careful and charitable examinations of this period especially because the goings-on still affect how people, including Mormons, read the Bible today.
He describes “Four Senses” of interpretation (69): 1. The “literal,” or how the writers understood what they were recording (a complex method because not all scripture was intended to be taken scientifically, historically, etc. and the Bible contains parables, metaphors, etc.) 2. The “allegorical,” whereby Christians discovered (or rather, imputed) “Christian” elements in non-Christian verses. (Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac representing God’s sacrifice of Jesus, for instance.) 3. The “analogical” sense, which Wright describes as “a way of discovering in the text a picture of the future life” (69). A Psalm speaking of going up to Jerusalem became a way to imagine going up to the heavenly city. 4. The “moral” sense, “a way of discovering lessons on how to behave hidden within texts which were not straightforwardly teaching such a thing” (69).
Wright’s at his best here. He recognizes the utility of these approaches: “wherever one opened the Bible one might discover not only what happened in the past, but an open door upon the riches of Christian truth, the glory that lay ahead, and the solid ground of Christian morality” (70). At the same time, he calls attention to the heavy cost: now “almost anything could be ‘proved’ from scripture” (70-71). The tale could easily wag the dog:
“It is no longer ‘authoritative’ in any strict sense; that is, it may be cited as though in ‘proof’ of some point or other, but it is not leading the way, energizing the church with the fresh breath of God himself. The question must be asked, whether scripture is being used to serve an existing theology or vice versa” (71, see also 67).
In the next chapter on the Enlightenment, Wright brings the narrative to the present in order to make a stirring case against anti-intellectualism, but also against the deification of intellectualism. Today, he argues, we ought to be aware what Enlightenment “assertions must be politely denied, which of its challenges may be taken up and by what means, and which of its accomplishments must be welcomed and enhanced” (84).
Speaking of politely denying, the gloves come off in chapter seven where Wright identifies a short list of “Misreadings of Scripture” (107). He acknowledges the over-simplification here, but at the “risk of caricature” he dismisses things like the “rapture,” “prosperity gospel,” the death penalty, and attacks the tacit acceptance of the economic “status quo” (108). He also challenges claims to “objectivity,” “cultural relativity,” grab-bag exegesis, “skin-deep-only appeals to ‘contextual readings’” and a host of other hot-button issues (109-111).
While acknowledging the murkiness of the past, Wright holds that we do, in some sense, have serious and academic methods by which we can “say definitely that some readings of ancient texts are historically preferable to others” (113). In chapter eight, “How to Get Back on Track,” Wright proposes a five-part recommendation for approaching scripture today. As a reminder, up to this point Wright has made a case that “‘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, now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community” (115-116, emphasis in orig.) Thus, reading scripture today requires respect for tradition. “They may be wrong” sometimes, he adds, but “every key figure in the history of the church has left his, her, or its mark on subsequent readings of scripture” (118). It requires respect for reason. This includes being self-aware of one’s interpretive context in the wider scheme of things. It also requires “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” (120). His five-step model highlights the necessity for both public and private study, academic and devotional approaches.6
An interesting underlying tension throughout Wright’s book (and his work more broadly) is that a solid pathway needs to be carved between academic research and devotional application of scripture. In the final two chapters Wright presents models of how his desired approach can refresh scriptural interpretation in regards to the Sabbath and monogamy. One might quibble with his explanation that these two topics were chosen on the grounds that they “have not been particularly hot topics in recent discussion,” hoping that method will be highlighted more than his particular conclusion (xii). Especially in regards to monogamy!7  I have a few other quibbles and a few big disagreements with some of Wright’s claims and conclusions. But I appreciate his fresh formulation of the questions surrounding the different ways we use the Bible. I found his attention to historic and contemporary approaches to scripture helpful in identifying shortcomings in my own scriptural interpretations. Wright’s book is a much-needed admonition to exercise a more well-reasoned-while-still-devotional reading of scripture.
1.  In fact, his work has already been recognized by several LDS authors who commend his approach on the “New Paul Perspective” in the ongoing debate over grace and works. See the Book Notes from the FARMS Review here.
2.  The book is a revised and expanded American edition of his previous UK book Scripture and the Authority of God–Getting Beyond the Bible Wars, copyrighted in the US under the title of The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005). Wright has added two “case studies” to the end of the volume, enacting the sort of scriptural approach the book advocates on two specific  topics.
3.  If you follow biblical scholarship at all, the term “Old Testament” will set off alarm bells. In academic pursuits, words often serve as clues about controlling assumptions. Wright is well aware that the way we say things can easily get in the way of what we’re saying. His preface calls attention to his use of the term, as opposed to “Hebrew Scriptures,” preferring not to “pretend to a neutral set of labels” here because his analysis is Christian-centric (xiii). Other similar decisions will certainly bring criticism. For example, Wright doesn’t delve too deeply here into authorship issues but he’s clearly aware of them, as when he distinguishes between Paul and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews without calling attention to the distinction (21-22).
4.  Wright seems aware of this circularity though this book doesn’t address it, presumably because he writes to a Christian audience already assuming some sort of biblical truth. He clearly recognizes the power of appealing to what the Bible says (see for instance 26, 28, 31, 41, 92, etc.).
5.  I hesitate to over-emphasize only those ideas which resonate with Mormons. Without a doubt, some of Wright’s positions don’t fit well at all within LDS thought, not least of all his position on the written canon being closed and defense of various Christian creeds (119, 126). Nor his five-part story of God’s history, with creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, and the church (though he allows for modifications, p. 122). Still, his critique of some Protestant ideas will sit well with many Mormons, and perhaps even laudably challenge a few current problematic LDS assumptions. (I’m thinking particularly of a certain form of biblical literalism or fundamentalism, see pp. 72, 74, 79, 92, and anti-intellectualism, pp. 85-86, 91-92, 134-135).
6.  Wright’s Five “Strategies for Honoring the Authority of Scripture”:
1) A Totally Contextual Reading of Scripture: In each word, sentence, verse, chapter, and book, the cultural setting must be carefully examined. “All scripture is ‘culturally conditioned’” (128). Because time keeps moving, this project is never complete; because scripture is recorded by people, it is never wholly pure. Wright calls this an “incarnational reading of scripture, paying attention to the full humanity both of the text and of its readers” (130, emphasis in orig.). This term reminded me of a similar-with-important-differences LDS approach. See James E. Faulconer, “Scripture as Incarnation,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 17–62. Most importantly to Wright, the context should include his outlined overarching storyline of God’s creation and desire for the world to be made right again, his calling of a people and his expectation of their mission to the world.
2) A Liturgically Grounded Reading of Scripture: Wright views “corporate worship” as the primary place to hear scripture. When listening “in communion with other Christians across space and time” we follow the example of Israel, Jesus, Paul and others who recognized scripture as requiring a “central place” in worship (130-131). Utmost concern should be paid to selection, not favoring easy or common verses over the whole of the Old and New Testatment story as outlined by Wright earlier in the book.
3) A Privately Studied Reading of Scripture: ”Western individualism tends to highlight individual reading as the primary mode,” Wright says, but this should not replace communal reading. At the same time, it is an opportunity for personal reflection, a way to change a mind and soften a heart by wrestling with scripture. I was particularly impressed with Wright’s description of the “complex pathway whereby each Christian is simultaneously called to worship and prayer, supplied with fresh understanding, puzzled by new questions (and so stimulated to yet more study and questioning), and equipped to take their own place in the ongoing story of God’s people” (134). A paradox in scripture study is the opportunity it affords to find, not only answers, but more questions as well.
4) A Reading of Scripture Refreshed by Appropriate Scholarship: Such scholarship is “a great gift of God to the church,” and I would argue that gift is for Mormons too, and not exclusively written by Mormons. Wright says such study requires careful loyalty and joyful openness, a hard path to negotiate, no doubt.
5) A Reading of Scripture Taught By the Church’s Accredited Leaders: It should be plain by now that Wright seems to include most Christian denominations generally in his label of “church.” Here he calls for various leaders, often hampered by or overly focused on administrative tasks, to become more serious about presenting scripture as “audible sacraments” (139). He wants to avoid a division between “clergy” on one hand and “scholars” on the other. (This issue presents a unique challenge within Mormonism which deserves its own post!)
7.  Incidentally, this is the only place Mormonism receives explicit mention, and it’s a confusing mention at that. He says that monogamy is generally assumed in the western world to be the primary and appropriate type of marriage today and adds: “Of course, in America itself, as is well known, the Mormons have made their case, and live their own lifestyle. But that is regarded by most Americans as raising a question, not offering an answer” (176). I’m not sure what he means, other than that he believes “Mormons” still practice polygamy? At any rate, some Mormons might welcome his critique of polygamy’s place in the Bible, which he sees as God’s “winking at ignorance” (a la Acts 17:30). A Mormon view might say it is God’s circumstantial exception (Jacob 2:24-30).