Bible: Authority by N.T. Wright

Joe sent me to a article by N.T. Wright one of my more favourite scholars. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Here are some things I liked more specifically.

Let me offer you a possible model, which is not in fact simply an illustration but actually corresponds, as I shall argue, to some important features of the biblical story, which (as I have been suggesting) is that which God has given to his people as the means of his exercising his authority. Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.[5]

Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.

This model could and perhaps should be adapted further; it offers in fact quite a range of possibilities. Among the detailed moves available within this model, which I shall explore and pursue elsewhere, is the possibility of seeing the five acts as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Car 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end. The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act. Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material. Such an appeal-and such an offering!-would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the ways in which it would be (of course) inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from earlier sections. Such sensitivity (cashing out the model in terms of church life) is precisely what one would have expected to be required; did we ever imagine that the application of biblical authority ought to be something that could be done by a well-programmed computer?

That, in fact, is (I believe) one of the reasons why God has given us so much story, so much narrative in scripture. Story authority, as Jesus knew only too well, is the authority that really works. Throw a rule book at people’s head, or offer them a list of doctrines, and they can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away. Tell them a story, though, and you invite them to come into a different world; you invite them to share a world-view or better still a ‘God-view’. That, actually, is what the parables are all about. They offer, as all genuine Christian story-telling the does, a world-view which, as someone comes into it and finds how compelling it is, quietly shatters the world-view that they were in already. Stories determine how people see themselves and how they see the world. Stories determine how they experience God, and the world, and themselves, and others. Great revolutionary movements have told stories about the past and present and future. They have invited people to see themselves in that light, and people’s lives have been changed. If that happens at a merely human level, how much more when it is God himself, the creator, breathing through his word.

In the church and in the world, then, we have to tell the story. It is not enough to translate scripture into timeless truths.

The story has to be told as the new covenant story. This is where my five-act model comes to our help again. The earlier parts of the story are to be told precisely as the earlier parts of the story. We do not read Genesis 1 and 2 as though the world were still like that; we do not read Genesis 3 as though ignorant of Genesis 12, of Exodus, or indeed of the gospels. Nor do we read the gospels us though we were ignorant of the fact that they are written precisely in order to make the transition from Act 4 to Act 5, the Act in which we are now living and in which we are to make our own unique, unscripted and yet obedient, improvisation. This is how we are to be the church, for the world. As we do so, we are calling into question the world’s models of authority, as well as the content and direction of that authority.

8 thoughts on “Bible: Authority by N.T. Wright”

  1. I looked over your post and have listened to Wright present the material on CD. I don’t see anything wrong with it from my position. All the prior questions and problems still apply.

  2. I really have no brilliant thoughts of my own to offer but came across this link and thought it seemed to express an opinion similar to your own:

    Also on the topic of Biblical narrative, if you’ve never read The Great Code by Northrop Frye, I’d highly recommend it; it’s intended as a background in Biblical symbols, etc. for literature students but is a pretty challenging and useful study resource as well.

  3. “Throw a rule book at peoples head, or offer them a list of doctrines, and they can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away. Tell them a story, though, and you invite them to come into a different world; you invite them to share a world-view or better still a God-view.”


  4. I wonder if this is the real problem.

    “Inerrantists have done two main sins: 1) they have turned the Bible into a book of abstract propositions akin to a math or science book. 2) they have used their abstract propositions to wield power and control over people, leaving many hurt.”

    This seems more of an argument against the abuse of inerrancy rather than an argument against inerrancy itself.

    Perhaps N.T. Wright’s suggestion is the best solution. Rather than debating abstract propositions, maybe we should use the Bible to construct a narrative by which to live. A noble task.

    I think, Nate, you might want to level your argument more on the role that inerrancy plays rather than inerrancy itself. First of all, if we want to argue against the abuses that inerrantists have typically done, what better way than to stand on the authoritative Word of God to say that is not in keeping with the character of Jesus revealed in Biblical narrative. Second of all, if the debate about inerrancy is so unimportant to you, why on earth are you going to such lengths to affirm that there are errors in the text? This just places you in a position where you are doing the same thing you dislike about the inerrantists, just with an opposite agenda.

    If you want to focus on narrative then great. However, your argument has been leveled in a propositional playing field. You made a truth claim about the Bible having errors. You shouldn’t be surprised if you get truth claims in response.

    In truth there are some called to uphold and focus on more technical, propositional realities of the Word of God. This is legitimate. The problem happens when these people abuse their position and hurt people. Others are called to less-technical, more intuition-based interpretations of the text through things like narrative. This is also legitimate. The problem occurs if 1) the propositional folks start to undermine the narrative folks …………..or …………………. 2) the narrative folks start to undermine the propositional folks.

    I think that this issue is really one where the body of Christ can get along. Let’s not allow the technical fact that the Bible is inerrant to overshadow its true purpose: it is given as the first four scenes of a play (N.T. Wright says it better than I can). But let’s also not commit the opposite mistake and use its more subjective realities to undermine our propositional brothers and sisters. As the astute propositionalist Keith Brooks notes, “I don’t see anything wrong with it from my position.”

    Amen, Keith. Amen.

  5. Guys, I just wanted to point out I liked the post by “me”, and that Doug Wilson has some eerily relevant comments on one of his most recent posts, which I will post here in their entirety. I think this explains a lot about the way I am thinking, though I don’t want to speak for anyone else. Here they are:

    What Actually Is the Case
    Topic: Postmodernism

    The title of McLaren’s book, A Generous Orthodoxy, comes from a phrase coined by Hans Frei. And while there are serious objections to what Frei argues for elsewhere, he certainly has a firm grasp on the nature of pre-critical Christian thought. As he puts it, “In the earlier Protestant interpretive tradition, we have noted, the literal and religious meaning of texts and the judgment about their factual accuracy had been wholly united. The point to realize is not that they had been conceived to be in harmony with each other but that they had not even been generically distinct issues” (Hans Frei,The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, p. 56). This is exactly right, and the only contribution I would like to make to the discussion at this place is to point out that some of us still think this way. We do not divide the Scriptures into pieces, and then decide on our own authority which pieces to defend and which not (which is what liberals do), or on the other hand decide to defend all the pieces by whatever means handy (many conservatives after the Enlightenment). But there are Trinitarian Christians who don’t divide the text into pieces at all, and who refuse to defend the Scripture against secularist attacks while wearing secularist armor. But this next point cannot be emphasized enough, and is the place where many Christians (who should know better) are being taken in by the emergents and postmodernists. The notion that the events described in the Bible “actually happened as described” is not a notion borrowed from the Enlightenment. The precritical world was not a place where the medievals and early reformers had the epistemic jitters. They knew what they believed, and they believed it as the sure Word of God. But the apostasy of the liberals confused things (and is still confusing things).

    D.A. Carson’s comments on this whole issue are worth noting. “Frei argues that whereas earlier Christians simply lived in the narrative of the biblical text, by the eighteenth century liberals under the influence of modern thought began to question what really happened. Conservatives, replying to the liberal skepticism, tried to show that what really happened was more or less what the text says. So suddenly both sides were far more interested in the minutiae of what ‘really’ happened and were no longer living in the narrative text of Scripture. Both sides had been snookered by modernism. But this analysis is grossly unfair. The reason why earlier Christians lived so comfortably in the narrative of the biblical text is that they believed that the biblical narrative is true. When liberals began to doubt that it is true, conservatives replied in similar detail that it is. Of course, in itself such discussion does not constitute living joyously within the narrative. But the suggestion of Frei, and of Lindbeck and others who followed him, that we must simply return to living within the narrative, while refusing to consider, once these doubts have been raised, whether this narrative is telling the truth, is myopic counsel” (D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, pp. 143-144). And amen to this three or four times.

    I would simply want to add that Christians must be careful to contend for the truthfulness of Scripture in a particular Trinitarian way, and not in the way our fathers have found ineffective. But in doing this, the first thing we must do is banish from our apologetic ranks all who confound categories like arrogance and certainty, and humility and uncertainty. Bad whiskey doesn’t cease to be bad whiskey simply because bartender McLaren has an aw shucks demeanor about him. If it does not matter to them whether these things really happened (Jesus coming back from the dead, walking on water, David eating the shewbread, Abraham offering Isaac, Adam accepting the fruit from his wife), then the emergents should simply join up with the liberals now and be done with it. If they personally think that it all really happened, but they welcome others to the emergent conversation who like the Buddha dismiss such inquiries as unedifying questions, then they should not be surprised, and I hope they will not take it amiss, if I have nothing whatever to do with their damned project.

    Many years ago I was talking with a young man who was under the influence of some liberal hooey or other, and he was wanting to use any number of superlatives in talking about Jesus. But he did not want these superlatives to ever be grounded and anchored in what was actually the case. We were at a mountain retreat center, and so I pointed at a mountain across the way and asked, “Did Jesus of Nazareth make that?” And despite all the superlatives, humbly expressed, he could not answer the question. And despite what anyone might say, his uncertainty was biblically defined as unbelief, and not humility.

  6. I have been following this discussion over the last few posts, and I just wanted to say that I find it incredibly fascinating. When I first came to Tyndale and posed the same questions/frustrations as you have, I got ripped apart and preached at for months against my “heretical and liberal thoughts.” So I eventually gave up and kept my challenging to myself because no one seemed to take me seriously in their backlash. But for the past three years or so, I have not understood the Bible to be the innerrant word of God (nor have I the errant, or anything too contradictory), and I believe I am at a better place in my theological understanding than I ever have been. But yeh, I enjoyed the discussion here immensely. Good to know I’m not alone, or something like that, haha. But it’s just encouraging to see everyone here care so much about the topic to warrant such discussion. :)

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