Sunday, June 13, 2010

God's Story: A Five Act Play

I prepared this for a recent presentation at our local Church's Theology on Tap. It is a commentary on N. T. Wright's book, The Last Word. I've not corrected (the several) typographical errors in it.
Adopted from The Last Word, by N.T. Wright
For Theology on Tap, June 8, 2010

“God said it, I believe it and that settles it.” Some of you have heard that phrase. It’s
the sort of thing you’d see on a bumper sticker on a big old Cadillac, driven by a white haired lady.
I heard one southern preacher repeat that phrase and say, “It doesn’t matter whether I believe
it! God said it and that settles it!” For someone like my grandmother, who took everything in
our Holy Bible at face value and cared nothing for what anyone else might have thought of her for
it, that type of approach to the Bible was completely sufficient. Those of us, though, who have been
confronted by a clever skeptic or the typical post-modern American who cares little for what a book
thousands of years old might have to say, “God said it and that settles it!” doesn’t really cut it.

What does it mean to say that “God said it”? Even if I want to believe it, how am I to know
exactly what to believe? What no longer applies – like animal sacrifice – and to what must there be
strict adherence? How are we to know these things? How do debates, which end up back at the
“authority of scripture,” get resolved? The issue of scriptural authority is not settled even within the
church as a whole and certainly not amongst scholars and theologians.

We could fill libraries on the subject, but one resource I found helpful was The Last Word:
Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. I am doing the
book an injustice to sum it up in a sentence, but I will anyway. Essentially, Bishop Wright takes
what something of a middle-of-the-road approach between Biblical literalism and liberalism. For
Bishop Wright, there is no doubt that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but he attempts to make
sense out of that, give some tips for how it be read so as to bridge the gap between competing
views of scripture. My talk focus on highlights I personally found most helpful.

“Authority of Scripture”

In the Protestant tradition, Bishop Wright urges, emphatically, that the Bible is both the
authoritative “God’s Word” and that it should be translated and understood “literally.” But, unless
you’re like my Grandma, those ideas, without explanation, don’t get you very far.

He argues, “‘Authority of scripture’ is a shorthand for God’s authority exercised
through scripture.” God, not the Bible, is our authority. While that seems simple, sometimes that
gets missed, especially on the conservative side.

The Five Act Play

I found Bishop Wright’s description of the Bible as a “five act play,” each act being distinct,
fitting in its time and place, as extremely helpful. The acts:

1. Creation
2. The Fall
3. Israel
4. Jesus
5. The Church

We are living in the Church age, not Creation, not the Fall. We cannot return to Creation.
We do not walk with Jesus through first century Palestine. We live in the age in which the Bible,
mostly the New Testament, is the foundation for our faith, the guidebook for Act 5.

An analogy demonstrates this point and helped me sort out how we might make sense out of
the debate over the validity of, say, the Old Testament in the post-modern world. Why might we
not still sacrifice animals and keep slaves or observe the Jewish food laws? He explains:

When travelers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave
the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their
voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both the ship and voyage had
accomplished their purpose. During the new, dry-land stage of their journey, the
travelers remain...the people who made that voyage in that ship.

Perhaps the best example of this line of thought anywhere in the New Testament is one of
the earliest: Galatians 3:22-29, where Paul argues that God gave the Mosaic law for a
specific purpose which has now come to fruition, whereupon that law must be put aside,
in terms of its task of defining the community, not because it was a bad thing, but
because it was a good thing whose task is now accomplished. But, as the whole letter
indicates, the people of God renewed through Jesus and the Spirit can never and must never
for get the road by which they had traveled.

(Last Word, pp 57-58.)

Tradition and Reason

The modern and post-modern worldviews tend to elevate “reason” over tradition. In the
extreme, there is no place for tradition that cannot be supported by reason. Most people, though,
really don’t know what they mean when that hold to that type of view. Obviously we as Christians,
Protestant and Catholic, give varying degrees of importance to tradition but all see it as important.
It seems we fight amongst ourselves over how much weight to give each in all matters of faith,
including the scriptures.

Bishop Wright, an Anglican, makes a pretty good case for harmonizing both tradition and
reason. With regard to tradition he says:

Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the
church has read and lived scripture in the past. We must be constantly aware of our
responsibility in the Communion of the Saints, without giving our honored predecessors the
final say or making them an ‘alternative source,” independent of scripture itself. When they
speak with one voice we should listen very carefully. They may be wrong. They
sometimes are. But we ignore them at our peril.

(Last Word, p 117.)

Secularists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics and even theological liberals would dismiss much or
all of scripture on the grounds of reason. But the church, I believe, should embrace it as a vehicle
for revelation. The place of reason, Bishop Wright says, in applying scripture is:

Likewise, reason will mean giving up merely arbitrary or whimsical readings of texts, and
paying attention to lexical, contextual, and historical considerations. Reason provides a
check on unrestrained imaginative readings of texts (e.g. the proposal that Jesus was really
an Egyptian freemason...)

‘Reason’ will mean 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. This does not, of course, mean giving in to the pressure which
comes from atheistic or rationalistic science. We must never forget that science, by
definition, studies the repeatable, whereas history, by definition, studies the unrepeatable.

(Last Word, pp 119-120.) Reason does not become an “independent source” of authority, over
scripture and tradition, but is a “necessary adjunct” to them.

Honoring Scripture, i.e. Making it Authoritative

He proposes five (5) ways of honoring scripture, i.e. making it authoritative.

A Totally Contextual Reading of Scripture:

Where Bishop Wright parts company with Christians on maybe the more fundamentalist end
of the spectrum is with his rejection of scripture as a compendium of “timeless truths.” He does not
say, of course, that scripture has no meaning for us in the modern age, but that it has context and is
rooted in the places and times of its writing:

We must be committed to a totally contextual reading of scripture. Each word must be
understood in its own verse, each verse in its own chapter, each chapter in its own book,
and each book within its own historical, cultural and indeed canonical setting...All scripture is
‘culturally conditioned.’ It is naive to pretend that some parts are not, and can be treated as
in some sense ‘primary’ or ‘universal,’ while other parts are, and can therefore safely be set

(Last Word, p128.)

A Liturgically Grounded Reading of Scripture:

Essentially what Bishop Wright means by reading scripture liturgically is that it should take
“central place” in our “public worship,” regardless of tradition. We shouldn’t avoid verses we don’t

There is simply no excuse for leaving out verses, paragraphs or chapters, from the New
Testament in particular. We dare not try to tame the Bible. It is our foundation charter; we
are not at liberty to play fast and loose with it.

(Last Word, p 132.)

A Privately Studied Reading of Scripture:

While Bishop Wright does not express it in exactly these terms, one of the criticisms leveled
against the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura (or even more extreme views of scripture and the
individual) is that too much of an emphasis on personal study can easily lead to heresy. You can
imagine that a group like the Branch Davidians became what they were because a mentally ill man
like David Koresh was left to figure out scripture on his own and, worse yet, teach it to others.
Charles Manson thought he was fulfilling the events described in Revelation when he ordered his
“family” to go on a murdering spree.

He does say that “western individualism” tends to make “personal reading” primary and
“liturgical reading” secondary, and posits that the order should be reversed, as he did in the book.
He treats private study as more of a function of personal devotion, but stresses it has a purpose in
the larger body:

If it is part of the privilege and duty of each Christian to study scripture, and to read it
devotionally, it is important that the wider church should be able to hear what individual
readers are discovering in the text. Of course, not all private readings will come up with
significant new insights; but many will.

(Last Word, p 134.)

A Reading of Scripture Refreshed by Appropriate Scholarship:

Bishop Wright describes “Biblical scholarship” as “a great gift of God to the church.”
Holding to the Reformation’s “emphasis on the ‘literal sense’ of scripture,” he explains that we are
not necessarily wise to “take everything literally,” but instead must, “‘discover what the writers
mean’ as opposed to engaging in free-floating speculation.” (Last Word, p 135.) So, for instance,
the literal sense of a parable is its intended meaning, not treating it as an historical anecdote.

Biblical scholarship should “explore different meanings,” not for the sake of being modern or
scholarly, but because, “Any church, not least those that pride themselves on being ‘biblical,’ needs
to be open to new understandings of the Bible itself.” This approach prevents us from “being blown
this way or that by winds of fashion,” or, “being trapped in our own partial readings and distorted
traditions...” (Last Word, p 135.) He’s careful to caution liberals about “thumbing their noses” at
“cherished points of view,” reminding them the purpose of biblical scholarship is to “serve the

A Reading of Scripture Taught by the Church’s Accredited Leaders:

By leaders, Bishop Wright is referring to not only to church hierarchy and pastoral staff, but
to Sunday School teachers and home group leaders. He reminds us that church hierarchy are often
muddled in the business of running the church and, thus, do not have the time to give the church
“careful and prayerful study of the text;” they turn to old sermons in the can. The “leader’s” role is
primarily to teach, he argues:

If, therefore, those called to office and leadership roles in the church remain content merely
to organize and manage the internal affairs of the church, they are leaving a vacuum exactly
where there ought to be vibrant, pulsating life...[H]ow much more should a Christian
minister be a serious professional when it comes to grappling with scripture and ...If we are
professional about other things, we ought to be ashamed not to be properly equipped both to
study the Bible ourselves and bring its ever-fresh word to others.

(Last Word, pp 138-139.)

I like that he, following the Reformers’ reference to the sacraments as God’s “visible
words,” says that sermons should be “audible sacraments.”


What I like about these five (5) points is that they are very organic and all fit
together nicely. We might wish to consider whether we can appreciate scripture and
allow these different approaches to it to help the word become authoritative in our church
body and in our personal lives.

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