The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture

N.T. Wright HarperOne, San Francisco October 31, 2006
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Wright, bishop of Durham and former professor at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford universities, stands in the broadly evangelical Anglican tradition of John Stott and the Tyndale Fellowship. In The Last Word Wright sets out to explain “how we can speak of the Bible being in some sense ‘authoritative’ when the Bible itself declares that all authority belongs to the one true God, and that this is now embodied in Jesus himself” (p. xi). Critiquing the postmodern “smog of unknowing” over against what he terms fundamentalism’s “pseudoscientific quest for ‘objective truth’ ” (pp. 9–10), the book seeks a way through “the entire mess and muddle” to authentic Christian living. The eight chapters intend to explain the meaning of the authority of the Bible.

Wright notes that biblical authority is a delegated authority from God and Jesus Christ. Indeed, Scripture often points “away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God” (p. 24). The concept of the inspiration of Scripture “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” (p. 37). “We find the elusive but powerful idea of God’s ‘word,’ not as a synonym for the written scriptures, but as a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating” (p. 38). Wright’s point is not to diminish the text in itself but to argue that there is far more to God’s Word than issues of infallibility and inerrancy.

Wright presents Jesus doing what Scripture was meant to do: the Word is made flesh, bringing “God’s fresh Kingdom-order to God’s people and thence to the world” (p. 43). The apostolic church went on to proclaim the “Jesus-Story” as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. With time the apostolic writings were perceived to carry the same authority and power that had characterized the initial preaching of the Word. As in his work Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), Wright describes salvation history as a drama with five distinguishable acts that build on each other: the unfallen state of God’s good creation and the entrance of sin, Abraham’s covenant, Israel’s specific (Mosaic) laws, the life of Jesus, and now the final act (as he sees it) of the church.

In historic Christianity Scripture soon became primary, backed by tradition and reason in the defense of true Christian faith against heterodoxy. After surveying the various forms of medieval hermeneutics, Wright defends the sola Scriptura of the Reformation and the primacy of the literal sense—that is, “the sense that the first writers intended” (p. 73, italics his). Regarding modern biblical criticism, he argues that reason must be in the service of God’s Word and is not to be replaced with rationalism. Postmodernism is merely modernism’s critical method turned in on itself, exposing the subjective and contextual nature of truth claims. The author rejects the postmodern “impotence” regarding truth and also what he calls the simplistic response that “we just believe the Bible.” Having rebuked the tendency of both liberals and fundamentalists to stay complacent with their early training, Wright sets forth a list of “misinterpretations” of the Bible, beginning with the “dualistic ‘rapture’ reading” (1 Thess. 4) as in the Left Behind series (p. 106). Wright admits that his litany is “wildly” generalized (many readers will agree) and undefended for reasons of space.

In the final chapter, “How to Get Back on Track,” Wright emphasizes the interpretive role of the Holy Spirit and the Bible’s focus on God’s kingdom. He says this authority is the dynamic centrality of Scripture in the life of the church. He concludes that people should honor the authority of the Bible by a reading that is “(a) totally contextual, (b) liturgically grounded, (c) privately studied, (d) refreshed by appropriate scholarship, and (e) taught by the church’s accredited leaders” (p. 127).

This reviewer agrees with many but not all of the author’s judgments regarding issues of biblical authority. Wright’s suggestion that salvation history is a drama with five acts easily fits within dispensational theology. But in a single knee-jerk parenthesis he comments, “This has nothing in common, by the way, with the fanciful speculations and periodizations of ‘Dispensationalism’ ” (p. 54). Such a comment is unfortunate and reflects the superficial, dismissive scholarship that Wright so disdains in others. Ironically his view of continuity and discontinuity in divine revelation has a lot in common with today’s dispensationalism, all the more with his appreciation of God’s ongoing commitment to Israel. Some readers will likely not appreciate other broadside salvos against cherished beliefs. In fact at certain points (notably chapter 7, “Misreadings of Scripture”) Wright tends to construct Christianity around his own British and Anglican preferences.

Wright attempts to defend biblical authority without defining that authority. On the one hand he knows modern scholarship’s bristled discussions of text-critical problems—a briar patch that in this work he has no interest in entering. On the other hand his avoiding any discussion of inspiration, infallibility, or inerrancy does not resolve fundamental tensions. Ignoring inerrancy does not make it go away. Essentially the reader is exhorted to forget the difficulties and to trust the Bible as finally authoritative. Strangely, Wright ends up both exhorting faith in the Word and yet at other points eschewing such a faith.

—J. Scott Horrell

April 1, 2007
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2007 vol. 164 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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