Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding
of the Authority
by N.T. Wright
Harper/San Francisco, 2005
stickers often reflect the changing tides of belief and commitment.
They protest war, endorse candidates, skewer enemies
and sometimes simply amuse. One such sticker was spotted on an
automobile in the parking lot of an evangelical/fundamentalist
church: "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." Depending
on your theological inclinations, this can be a bold statement
of confidence and faith, the ramblings of a religious fanatic,
or as with most of us, something in between.
N. T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham, lives in a world where
the authority of scripture and the centrality of the written
revelation of God are at the heart of a struggle between religious
liberals and conservatives (although such labels are difficult
to define). Wright appeals to the reader
to take another look at the Bible, not as an isolated phenomenon—a veritable rule
book similarly applicable at all times and in all places—but
rather as a book better placed within both the contemporary cultural
context and as part of a larger tradition of interpretation.
begins his argument by reinterpreting what we mean by the "authority
of scripture." Chapter Three is titled "'Authority
of Scripture' is a Shorthand for God's Authority Exercised Through
Scripture." While this may seem obvious, it does set the
tone for the discussion that follows. The power of scripture
to change lives and to set agendas lies not in its printed pages,
but rather in the God who acts through the words on those pages.
a Barthian agenda of "scripture as divine-human
encounter," Wright delivers a brief survey of history and
civilizations, showing how scripture has alternately changed
the world around it, and was itself changed by the surrounding
philosophies and political agendas. Certainly education, science,
and the advance of culture have influenced religion's impact
in the world. The author argues that the authority of God, through
scripture, should be the changer, rather than the changed, playing
a more active role in the shaping of the church's mission and
its outreach to the larger society. He does not advocate coercion,
nor would he approve sectarianism, as these have historically
proven to be counterproductive to the larger mission of bringing
about the Kingdom of God. Rather, he advocates the development
of moral and ethical sensibilities based on a biblical worldview,
motivated by love for God and a passion for service.
Of course, our understanding of the meaning of scripture grows
as we come to understand our history and the world around us.
What does not change, in Wright's view, is the centrality of
the God of the Word, who calls us to proclaim the gospel of the
kingdom no matter where we are in the historical flow.
His critique is very even-handed. He explains how both the left
and the right have misused scripture to advance their own agendas.
Wright would argue that there is, in effect, only one true agenda
for the authentic Christian:
...the authority of 'scripture' is most truly put into operation
as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel,
the good news that in Jesus Christ the living God has defeated
the powers of evil and begun the work of new creation. It is
with the bible in its hand, its head and its heart—not
merely with the newspaper and the latest political fashion
or scheme— that the church can go to work
in the world, confident that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is
not. (p. 113)
this in the context of Wright's own episcopate—the vanishing
numbers attending the Church of England and the
seeming fragility of the church in some parts of the Anglican
Communion—this is a bold statement, a potential bridge between
the sometimes-warring factions of the church. Surely, if "church" is
to have any meaning at all, it must be the people of God acting
in the world in behalf of, and by the power of, the God they
Wright suggests that acknowledging the centrality of scripture
in the kerygmatic proclamation of the church can have a palliative
effect on the institution as it struggles through its crises.
He insists that accommodation can be made for varying viewpoints,
helping the people of God to find unity in their common quest
for the kingdom of God.
I have no idea whether the church will take up Wright's prescription
for healing. Certainly we have seen a growth in Bible study in
many mainline churches here in the United States, and this is
good. The question is whether this interest in, and commitment
to, the Bible will flow upward to the halls of leadership.
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