The Last Word

Modified scanning review of The Last Word : Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture by N.T. Wright, following some of the guidelines set out in Reading on the Run, Continuum Reading Concepts by J. Robert Clinton.

1. Info about author
N. T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham, England and one of the most prolific NT scholars today. He has written over thirty books. Of his many works he is probably best known for his series on the NT, which includes so far The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and Resurrection of the Son of God. He taught for over twenty years at Cambridge, McGill and Oxford.

2. Author’s perspective, intentions and thesis
Wright observes that most churches make strong statements about the centrality of scripture and its authority in the mission, life, discipline and doctrine of the community. However, there is no agreement on what this might mean or how it might be practiced. He describes how both evangelicals and liberals misread scripture, and he tries to restore the Bible to its rightful role as a guide for the church.

Wright believes we are asking some of the questions regarding authority in the wrong way. “How can what is mostly a narrative text be ‘authoritative’?” (xi) Authority, for Wright, belongs to God alone, and is now embodied in Jesus Christ. So, the question becomes, “What might it mean to think that the authority of Jesus is somehow exercised through the Bible?”

The authority of scripture must be understood as part of a larger divine authority.

3. Methodology and organization
Wright’s method is not complex. His is a historical sketch of the reading of scripture, which is held up to his major theme that the authority of scripture is best understood under a larger divine authority. He thus traces, in chronological fashion, the place of scripture within Israel, the NT, apostolic churches, and the first sixteen centuries. At the point of the Enlightenment the long-held ideas about scripture were challenged. The challenges led to misreadings, which are still observed today in the battles over the Bible.

Wright organizes the book into eight chapters with a prologue. The prologue sets the scene by briefly sketching the place of the Bible within the Christian church and the role of the Bible within contemporary culture. In the prologue, Wright touches briefly on scripture in the church, in culture, in politics, in philosophy, in theology, and in ethics. He ends the prologue by asking three key underlying questions, which become the focus for the rest of the book: 1) In what sense is the bible authoritative in the first place? 2) How can the Bible be appropriately understood and interpreted? 3) How can its authority, assuming such appropriate interpretation, be brought to bear on the church itself, let alone on the world?

Chapter one’s primary purpose is to describe Wright’s thesis: “the authority of scripture can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.” (23) Scripture itself understands authority to belong to God alone. The very word “authority” today does not resonate well with the idea of “story” envisaged in Scripture. We need to understand then, not so much the authority of scripture, but rather the authority of God. This entails seeing God’s authority as his sovereign power accomplishing the renewal of all creation. The authority of scripture is a sub-branch of several other theological topics. The Bible is not simply revelation or a devotional manual.

Beginning then with Chapter two, Wright steps back and reflects on God’s Kingdom and the role of scripture within it. Chapter two outlines the way various forms of Judaism sought to live under scripture and wait for God to rescue his people and complete creation. In Judaism, scripture’s authority operated to form the controlling story of God’s people and the call to a present obedience through which they could respond.

Chapter three seeks an understanding of Jesus in his historical context as the accomplishment to which scripture had pointed. The sense of fulfillment in Jesus is more narratival.

Chapter four traces the notion of “word” in the apostolic church, where preaching described Jesus’ story as the fulfillment of the OT story. This of course sets up much debate about the idea of canon. Wright summarizes thusly: “the New Testament understands itself as the new covenant charter, the book that forms the basis for the new telling of the story through which Christians are formed, reformed and transformed so as to be God’s people for God’s world.” (59)

Chapter five compresses “a very long and complicated story.” (60) It highlights 1) the early appeal to scripture itself to meet challenges, 2) the whole scriptural narrative over against alternative Christian stories, 3) the slowly diminishing appeal to the narrative that began with Israel, 4) the development of imaginative ways of reading scripture that on the one hand tried to deal with the complexities and opaqueness of scripture within a rule of faith, but on the other hand often neglected to understand how scripture itself actually worked, 5) the development of “tradition” that made anything authoritative if established in ecclesial tradition and backed up with clever exegesis, 6) the Reformation establishment of scripture over against tradition, by a stressing of the literal sense and a continuity with early church fathers, 7) the way in which the reformation and counter-reformation understood authority to mean “the place where you could go to find an authoritative ruling,” 8) the loss of an ongoing narrative and the rise of reason.

Chapter six turns its attention to the Enlightenment, of which, Wright claims, we are all products. Though it brought many blessings to the world, it also spawned “a rationalistic skepticism which has chipped away at the very foundations of Christianity itself,” (82) deconstructed the very phrase “authority of scripture”, created an alternative view of history’s climax and the problem of evil, muddled debates, and ultimately led to dichotomies of literal vs. non-literal and modern vs. postmodern.

Chapter seven offers misreadings of the “Right” and the “Left” and challenges us to involve ourselves in kingdom-oriented, historically rooted exegesis. More precisely, Wright claims a “critical realist” reading can take the modern skepticism and the postmodern critique and still make a strong case for a “genuinely historical understanding.” (111)

Finally, chapter eight proposes ways to remedy the misreadings, by first developing an integrated view of the phrase “authority of scripture.” This integration highlights the role of the Spirit, focuses on the goal of God’s Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, envisages the church as characterized by a listening, wrestling with, obedience before, and proclamation of scripture. The Chapter then offers suggestions on this theme. We must understand the authority of scripture as God “at work through scripture to energize, enable and direct the outgoing mission of the church, genuinely anticipating thereby the time when all things will be made new in Christ.” (138

The helpful appendix offers further reading suggestions for bible study and more in-depth exploration of the themes in the book.

4. Final Assessment
Ministers and laypeople alike should read and discuss this book.


Igford said...

Excellent review. The book looks very interesting. Do you have somewhere else to publish this? It doesn't deserve to get lost in a blog archive.

Gail Spinks said...

Thanks for the encouragement Igford. For now I am going to let it sit in the blog. I plan to use the blog as a platform to practice writing reviews. Maybe soon I will look to get something published. Keep an eye on the blog for more reviews as time allows.

who? said...

who is who? did gail write the review or did chris write the last comment under gail's name?

Chris Spinks said...

Sorry 'who?'. Gail and I share a computer and sometimes we forget to log out as one and log in as the other. The review and comment were written by me, Chris Spinks. The better question now is "Who is 'who?'?"

Donna said...

It was me. Donnananadingdong.


donna said...

okay, someone just broke the rules of blogging!! you CAN NOT blog under someone else's name for them!!! i feel completely violated.

Chris Spinks said...

Well, technically they were not blogging, but rather commenting. They are different things. Nevertheless, they both should never be done using someone else's identity (unless of course it was by accident, which is what got this whole conversation started).

Igford said...

I think it is also fair when done in a joking fashion. Why would someone named "Donna" call herself "DonnaNanaDingDong" and then add a "Probably" to a statement that she would know for a fact if it was truly her? She wouldn't! It was an obvious fake.

Sure, the person could have signed the comment as Anonymous and changed the "me" to "Donna", but where is the fun in that? Where is it?!?! I looked, and I don't think I see it anywhere!

I mean... I'm just sayin... you know... for whoever it was that did it.

Chris Spinks said...

Good point Igford...I mean who?...I mean DonnaNanaDingDong