Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Daniel J. Treier

Rethinking Biblical Authority

Prescriptions from N. T. Wright

Perhaps only Tom Wright could author a book about Scripture's authority that would garner back-cover endorsements from Brian McLaren, J. I. Packer, Ben Witherington, John Franke, and Timothy George. For these figures often disagree about the theological direction in which our ever-complicated evangelical churches ought to head. Wright himself does not really offer the last word, except insofar as the title (a bit of cheeky double entendre, chosen by the publisher rather than by the author himself) suggests a way of relating biblical authority to our current place in the drama of redemption.

How does one summarize a summary by a masterful communicator? Such is the dilemma of this review. The Bishop of Durham packs concise history, clear thinking, clever images, and contemporary churchmanship into "a tract for the times," as Wright describes the book in his preface to the American edition: "I trust that those who have grumbled at the length of some of my other books will not now grumble at all the things I have left unsaid in what is necessarily a very compressed, at times almost telegraphic, treatment." Such a treatment attempts to outflank contemporary battles in which the Bible is "generally treated the way professional tennis players treat the ball. The more you want to win a point, the harder you hit the poor thing."

After an extended prologue, chapter one develops the concept of biblical "authority" at some length. Wright's "central claim" is that "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 Bible consistently associates authority personally with the God decisively revealed in Jesus Christ. Accordingly, the Bible's authority comes in story form. Moreover, biblical authority must be strongly associated with the concept of God's kingdom. Building on Telford Work's recent Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation, Wright finds it "enormously important that we see the role of scripture not simply as being to provide true information about, or even an accurate running commentary upon, the work of God in salvation and new creation, but as taking an active part within that ongoing purpose."

Chapter 2 hints briefly at a biblical theology of God's "word" that is consistent with such a concept of "authority." The Word of God in the Old Testament does not function straightforwardly "as a synonym for the written scriptures, but as a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating." In that light we can make more sense of "Scripture and Jesus" (the topic of the even briefer chapter 3), since as the ultimate Word of God (e.g., John 1; Hebrews 1) Christ accomplishes that to which Scripture pointed. Chapter 4 then examines diversity within the New Testament, and discontinuity as well as continuity between the two testaments of Christian Scripture.

Cultures of biblical interpretation dominate the second half of the book, beginning in chapter 5 with "The First Sixteen Centuries." Wright affirms early Christian approaches to the unity of the Bible over against countervailing forms of "Gnosticism," with critical comments about its contemporary revivals. He also appreciates the medieval fourfold sense of Scripture in some ways, but criticizes allegorization for giving inadequate attention to the Old Testament and hence to Jesus' Jewishness. In this context Wright also reflects upon the relation between Scripture and tradition: the standard terms of discussion, regarding whether or how both might be sources of authority, results in category confusion. Likewise, in later Protestant contexts, the developing treatment of reason rationalistically, "as an entirely separate source of information, which could then be played off against scripture and/or tradition," goes against the classical ideas that Richard Hooker and others advocated.

Yet such has been "The Challenge of the Enlightenment" (chapter 6), with its rival religious priority upon individual human experience and its anti-Christian eschatology. Simply reacting against scholarship is naïve; everyone already depends upon scholars for their translations, lexicons, and so forth. Wright is unsympathetic to radical postmodern ideologies that dismiss the possibility of true knowledge by interpreting everything (except themselves) in ideological terms.

Hence he criticizes the recent tendency to add "experience" to the traditional three-legged Anglican stool of Scripture, tradition, and reason. This so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral is not true to John Wesley himself, especially since it often ends up taking the form "Scripture says … tradition says … reason says … but experience says … and so that's what we go with": "Adding a fourth leg to a three-legged stool often makes it unstable." Moreover, the original image easily misleads, since Scripture, tradition, and reason "are not so much like apples, pears and oranges as like apples, elephants and screwdrivers." In a better image, then, "Scripture is the bookshelf; tradition is the memory of what people in the house have read and understood (or perhaps misunderstood) from that shelf; and reason is the set of spectacles that people wear in order to make sense of what they read," while experience deals with the effects on people of what they read. Experience cannot function as an authority unless the concept of authority has become meaningless (and Wright is not afraid to point out the irony that postmodern revivals of Gnosticism assume concepts of self-identity they have elsewhere deconstructed).

Chapter 7, "Misreadings of Scripture," catalogues twelve ways conservative Christianity characteristically misreads the Bible, then enumerates twelve from the liberals. Against both, Wright appeals to the need for "critical realism." Chapter 8, "How to Get Back on Track," gathers together some recommendations. Wright's ultimate model concerns relating Scripture to the drama of redemption, along the lines of a five-act play—creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, and the church:

Those who live in this fifth act have an ambiguous relationship with the four previous acts, not because they are being disloyal to them but precisely because they are being loyal to them as part of the story. If someone in the fifth act of All's Well That Ends Well were to start repeating speeches from earlier acts, instead of those which belonged to the fifth act itself, the whole play would begin to unravel. We must act in the appropriate manner for this moment in the story; this will be in direct continuity with the previous acts (we are not free to jump suddenly to another narrative, a different play altogether), but such continuity also implies discontinuity, a moment where genuinely new things can and do happen. We must be ferociously loyal to what has gone before and cheerfully open about what must come next.

Of course, since the decisive act has occurred in Jesus Christ, we do not have the same relationship to the New Testament that the early Christians had to the Old. Readings of Scripture must be totally contextual (historically and canonically), liturgically grounded, privately studied, refreshed by appropriate scholarship, and taught by the church's accredited leaders. Here Wright pulls no punches: he is concerned about the real danger "that church leaders forget what 'the authority of scripture' actually means in practice" in favor of running programs. Indeed, "most churches, even those with well-developed educational programs, have a long way to go in their teaching of scripture." An appendix of "Recent Resources on Scripture" can help willing readers to begin reversing that problem.

Overall we may hope that this book will be a tremendous blessing to Western Christians, not only in presenting many traditional affirmations winsomely but also in clarifying muddled and difficult concepts. Wright's assessments of, and analogies for, relating tradition, reason, and experience to Scripture are perhaps worth the price of the book by themselves. Despite slippage on a few details, The Last Word is a wonderful resource for scholars, clergy, and lay people.

On a couple of points, however, we must demur or at least seek more nuance. First, Wright occasionally manifests a biblical scholar's dismissive tendencies regarding systematic theology. A characteristic example would be his criticism of John Webster's Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. While appreciative, Wright suggests that "one would never have known, from reading this book, anything at all about what the Bible contains …. [S]ince [Webster's] thesis is that scripture is the central source for all Christian thinking, it might have been appropriate (and not beyond the wit of such a fine scholar) to base this contention, too, on scripture itself." This criticism, immediately preceding a strongly dismissive comment regarding Karl Barth's theological exegesis, is well-taken but ultimately too strong. Webster's controlling motif of sanctification indirectly applies biblical themes to complex issues, with all the abstraction necessary to high-level theological discourse. Yes, direct biblical citation is absent where it would be preferable or even necessary for Webster's sketch to convince us fully. But not all biblical interpretation can fit the same genre.

Second, Wright practices apparently scrupulous equivalence between liberal and conservative Christians when criticizing (un)biblical misinterpretation. This is undoubtedly due to the bishop's current context: the debates within Anglicanism over sexual ethics that are reflected in the book's dedication and in a number of comments throughout. Wright views fundamentalism as a form of modern or anti-postmodern questing after certainty—which is true enough, depending on what counts as "fundamentalism." Furthermore, conservative biblical interpretation needs critique—perhaps even sustained criticism. Meanwhile, Wright denies that to criticize polarizations means that he is "indifferent to the question of whether the events written about in the gospels actually took place."

Aside from the rhetorical situation among Anglicans, however, it is not clear that conservative Christianity should be tacitly lumped with fundamentalism, or that "liberal" misreading needs to be treated on quite the same terms. Wright's very realized eschatology regarding the church—leaving the ultimate eschaton outside his five-act model, speaking of working "to implement the resurrection of Jesus" on p. 115, and so forth—may or may not lie behind his ecclesiastical assessments at this point. In any case, many readers may reject the book's rhetorical equivalence between "conservative" and "liberal," despite the effects of the post-Enlightenment era upon both—if indeed only one side thinks the decisive acts in the drama actually happened.

Those complaints notwithstanding, The Last Word is a fabulous book. With characteristic verve and occasionally pungent grace, Wright rightly locates the doctrine of Scripture within the dramatic authority of the Triune God, whose last word is spoken in Jesus Christ but must continually be heard in and by the church, for a needy world. The Last Word could be the beginning of more faithful listening, as well as sustaining more fruitful conversation about the nature of biblical interpretation.

Daniel J. Treier is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College. Currently completing a volume on Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in the Brazos Theological Commentary, he is most recently the author of Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Baker Academic).

Most ReadMost Shared