Monday, January 23, 2006

"The Last Word" by Tom Wright. A Review

The Last Word - Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. N. T. Wright (San Francisco: Harper, 2005) US$19.95

A Review by Richard Kew

Five years ago, when it was still possible for those of differing viewpoints have a relatively fair exchange of idea, I was drinking coffee with the rector of a large Episcopal congregation who is on the left hand side of the issues troubling us. One thing we agreed upon was the desperate need to deal with hermeneutics and the authority of Scripture. We both love the bible intensely, and neither of us was necessarily comfortable with the way "our side" handled it, so we felt the time had come to get this skunk out onto the table. Alas, events overtook us, and such a conversation is probably no longer possible in today's charge atmosphere.

Yet having read Tom Wright's latest book on the nature of Scripture's authority, I think we have here a tool which might help break up some of that logjam. In his preface, the Bishop of Durham says he was spurred to write about the authority of Scripture as a direct result of his significant involvement in the International Anglican Doctrinal and Theology Commission, as well as the Lambeth Commission which produced the Windsor Report. He dedicates the book to Bishop Stephen Sykes and Archbishop Robin Eames, the respective chairs of those panels.

When I was a very junior priest in Bristol, England, I attended a gathering at which J. I. Packer dialogued with one of the more 'liberal'intellects in the diocese about the task of Scripture. I remember only snippets of that afternoon, but a comment that stuck in my mind was Jim's observation that the next few decades would be spent ascertaining the place and nature of authority in the church.

What Packer said is truly the case, for in one way or another at the heart of so many of the battles that are rending the church today is our various understanding of the place of Scripture in this mix, and the way in which we interpret the text. The truth is, though, that our conversations about scripture (and almost everything else for that matter) are totally inadequate because they end up as personalized insult and bellicosity. Wright notes, "a good deal of debate is conducted today at a shallow and trivial level... We are all used to, and tired of, the heated exchanges which consist simply of name-calling ("fundamentalist," "radical" and so on)" (Page 21).

He goes on to point out that everyone is at fault. So-called conservatives ignore huge swathes of Scriptures' teaching in favor of focusing on their particularities, while those on the other side of the aisle spend their time "playing to a gallery stacked with iconoclasts" (Page 22). One of the problems is that gross polarizations have taken place in North America, spilling over to everywhere else, and this has not helped us as we seek to use the Scriptures appropriately in the significant debates of our times.

What Wright tries to do in The Last Word is to nudge us out of long-held and well-prepared positions, many of which are totally inadequate, in order that Scripture can speak powerfully both within the church and amidst the changed spiritual, social, political, ethical, and cultural topography in the West today. Bishop Wright offers little comfort to those on all sides who merely want to dig into worn out positions and lob shells at "the other side" from the safety of their own bunker.

This book is a pretty successful attempt by a massive intellect to give us lesser mortals a grasp of how he thinks we should understand and use the Bible in light of what he has learned of its place within the Christian tradition. It is his contention that contemporary discoveries and scholarship demand that we put our entrenched positions rising from the Reformation and the Enlightenment back into the hopper, and recognize that there is a great deal more to the Bible's authority in our lives than 2 Timothy 3:16. These 146 pages are, in fact, a commentary on a statement Tom Wright makes toward the outset that "the phrase 'authority of scripture' can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for 'the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture'" (Page 23).

What Wright is in fact doing is to demonstrate how he, one who was shaped and formed by a standard-issue British Evangelicalism of the 1960s and 1970s, has come to see the Bible's place in our thinking, acting, and believing, in light of years spent attempting to grapple with the whole swathe of biblical scholarship, without divorcing his calling as both scholar and pastor. He tells us that one of our problems is that we tend to use shorthand in our conversations about the bible, and the outcome is distortion. "The familiar phrase 'the authority of scripture' thus turns out to be more complicated than it might at first sight appear" (Page 24).

Shorthands, like the phrase 'the authority of scripture' are like suitcases in which we can carry complicated things around, but "too much debate about scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases. It is time to unpack our shorthand doctrines, to lay them out and inspect them. Long years in the suitcase may have made some of the contents go moldy" (Page 25). We tend to forget that, excuse the pun, when we talk about the authority of scripture all of us carry around with it an awful lot of baggage from the church's and our own past.

Wright wants us to understand the richness of the story of God's engagement with his people and then to recognize that the authority of scripture is much larger than just how we happen to see and interpret the Bible. The doctrine of scripture's authority is "a sub-branch of several other theological topics: the mission of the church, the work of the Spirit, the ultimate future hope and the way it is anticipated in the present, and of course the nature of the church" (page 30).

He also wants us to recognize how our cultural environment has shaped our understanding of scripture, and then how the Enlightenment whittled away at the essence of what God's Kingdom and rule upon earth is all about. Authority, when we see it within the context of God's Kingdom plans, is much more than words through which God speaks to us. The Kingdom is about nothing less than God's work transforming the whole created order, and the authority of God within his Kingdom work is communicated to us, scripture having a peculiarly significant role.

The pithy theological analysis of this book is a masterpiece; yet there are so many tantalizing throw-away comments as he alludes to great areas of contemporary scholarship with which I am unfamiliar, that I kept wanting to say, "Stop, just a minute, enlarge on what you have just said." I found myself wanting to invite him to share with me a mug of good dark English beer in one of Durham's many pubs so that he could help me chew these things over.

One particular insight which struck me was this: "Recent study of the letters, and of the intention of the gospel writers, emphasizes the self-conscious was in which the New Testament authors believed themselves called to exercise their calling as 'authorized' teachers, by the guidance and power of the Spirit, writing books and letters to sustain, energize, shape, judge, and renew the church" (Page 51). Packed into this one sentence is enough for a whole day's conversation, and this was just one of those moments when I wished Bishop Tom had treated us to footnotes like those that abound in his heavier and more scholarly productions!

But he doesn't have time to pause, and just sweeps us on. He wants us to see that we live within a continuity with the early Christian community, rooted and grounded in the Israel of the Old Testament, and God's initiative in Christ to reform and transform God's people and God's world. "The written word, expressing and embodying the living word of the primitive gospel, was the Spirit-empowered agent through which the one creator God was reclaiming the cosmos, and as such it offered the way to a truly human life" (Page 58).

Wright then gives us a lightening tour through the first millennium and a half of the use of the bible, focusing on strenths and cul-de-sacs of the early and medieval church's use of the text, and that brings us screaching into the backyard of the Reformation. It is clear that some of the problems about the authority of the scriptures within the life of the church with which we struggle today are closely related to the Reformers' solutions, and the Counter-Reformation responses to their challenges then. We have managed to ossify them and turn them into weapons.

It is at this point that the Anglican in the writer comes to center stage, particularly in the wisdom of Richard Hooker, whose work more than four hundred years ago so shaped what has become the Anglican approach to the faith. Wright's priceless little summary of Hooker's understanding of the place of the written Word within the context of the living church, the nature of tradition and reason, and their interplay with it, is one very good reason for buying and digesting this book.

Here's a little teaser from that discussion. "Part of the legacy of Hooker... was precisely that holistic worldview which insists, not that scripture should be judged at the bar of 'reason' and found wanting, but that in reading and interpreting scripture we must do so not arbitarily, but with clear thinking and informed historical judgment" (Page 81).

This brings us to the Enlightenment, and then to the Enlightenment's successor and possible vanquisher, Postmodernity. The Reformation in many ways prepared the way for the Enlightenment, whose benefits Wright is swift to extol, however when it comes to the way we understand Christian believing and handle the scriptures, the Enlightenment leaves much to be desires. While the Enlightenment demands that we read the scriptures historically, the "Enlightenment project made deliberate attempts to demonstrate that such readings would in fact undermind the central Christian claims" (Page 84). It is within a landscape like this that many of us grew up, came to faith, learned our theology, and have sought to serve God within the church.

But if the mood of the Enlightenment was hauty, it is now being scrambled as Postmodernity comes along and challenges the Enlightenment's assumption that it knows best and it is the climax and summit of history. Whereas the Enlightenment taught us to pry the text apart with scientific precision, often reducing it to little bits, Postmodernity is at heart nihilistic, and asks us to deconstruct, "unmasking the power interests latent in texts and movements, not least those of the last two hundred years..." (Page 96). It is not the text, Postmodernity says, it is ourselves as we interpret the text that are most important.

Here's a personal aside. What has fascinated me in these last few years has been that those within the church who have been most on-board with the Enlightenment's mindset, are those most eager to use deconstruction -- one of the tools that most significantly challenges the ground upon which the Enlightenment stood. When we come to the bible those of a deconstructionist ilk have rendered "whole books unusuable because those writings are deemed guilty of what the postmodern Western world regards, in its new and highly self-righteous judgmentalism, as unforgivable ideological sins" (Page 97-98). Again, Wright's discussion of this phenomenon is worth the price of the book.

But in Bishop Tom's mind when it comes to contemporary misuse of scripture there is plenty of blame to go round, so culturally conditioned are we all. Even those of us who think we are being determinedly biblical are often guilty of playing fast and loose with the text, or bringing our own scissors and paste to it. Wright almost tears his hair out when he says that there is a "remarkable ignorance of what scripture is and teaches; an inability to use it in serious, mature, and indeed Christian ways" (Page 111). What is vital is that "we work our way through and out the other side of today's ideological debates" so that we can hope to see how the Kingdom's message speaks transformation into our contemporary environment.

The remedy to misreading both conservative and liberal, as well as the postmodern critique which, in effect, says that there is really no such thing as texts, only interpretations, is careful historically-rooted exegesis. He calls upon us to use the appropriate tools within the continuity of the church to see what on earth the Spirit is saying to us. The Spirit-led community, he asserts is a missionary community, and a missionary community is a scripture-reading community. "Scripture's authority is thus seen to best advantage in its formation of the mind of the church, and its stiffening of our resolve, as we work to implement the resurrection of Jesus, and so to anticipate the day when God will make all things new, and justice, joy and peace will triumph (Ephesians 1:3-23)" (Page 115).

Let's go back to that initial point Wright makes that the authority of scripture is, in reality, the authority of God exercised through scripture. I have no desire to spend my time thumping folks over the head with the Bible, although at times I plead guilty to having done so, but what I want almost above all else is to see the church put itself at the disposal of God through the holy texts that God has given to it.

My observation is that American churches in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular, have not given the right handling of scripture its appropriate place in our life, with the result that on all sides we have missed the mandate of God to us. Wright, therefore, keeps making the point that our minds (and therefore lives) are formed through the consistent, persistent digestion of scripture within the continuity of the whole Communion of Saints. The outcome of this formation is holiness, and biblical holiness is about a great deal more than our personal ethics (although they are the part of the story that the left sits light to, while the right sits light to the holistic implications of the story).

Tom Wright and I were formed in the same evangelical stream of Anglicanism at more or less the same time. We were taught by our mentors to love, honor, read, learn, and digest the richness of the holy Scriptures, allowing our minds and hearts to be formed by them. Like so many others, we have recognized the shortcomings of our ecclesial conditioning, and have in our different ways wrestled to be faithful to the God who called us in our use of his revelation to us, while recognizing that yesterday's parameters may be both limited and flawed as we move into a very different age.

However, I have lacked the intellectual tools to get beyond that sense of impasse. What this book has done for me is to open up new avenues of inquiry which, I hope, will lead me forward not only to a richer faith, but also a better way of handling the Bible as the Bible speaks to us within the raggedness of today's church. I will finish with Wright's closing words.

"The various crises in the Western church of our day -- decline in numbers and resources, moral dilemmas, internal division, failure to present the gospel coherently to a new generation -- all these and more should drive us to pray for scripture to be given its head once more; for teachers and preachers who can open the Bible in the power of the Spirit, to give the church the energy and direction it needs for its mission and renew it in its love for God; and, above all, for God's word to do its work in the world, as, in Isiaah's vision, it brings about nothing short of new creation -- the new world in which the grim entail of sin has at last been done away." He then quotes Isaiah 55:10-13 (Pages 141-142).


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Anonymous said...

WOW, I've been wanting to try reading some of Bishop Wright's books and now I know what to start with! Thanks!

James the Thickheaded said...

I'm confused at what ol' "mobby" is getting at - unless it's posting spam.
Gee, the guy's a gambling addict? At least he wasn't saving anything on his mortgage. Too busy.

I want to thank you for an excellent post. If I hadn't been writing for the past four hours, my eyes wouldn't be so glazed....and I would have absorbed the bullets of a fascinating review. I've been told to read "Living Jesus" next...but you may be bumping Wright's book up the line.

Currently reading the Charles Grafton works. And while Peter Toon and perhaps you as well come from the English Evangelical school...unfortunately we don't seem to have a real equivalent here in the states. Thus for me, Grafton seems to come close to how I feel. SOme call it classic Anglican - others prayerbook catholic, still others - Anglocatholic. It may not be by choice...but compared with the errors of modernism or post-modernism (I get confused between these two), the catholic tradition within the Anglican faith seems a bulwark against revisionism.

Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I keep repeating: "I don't want to swim the Timber. I don't want to swim the Tiber." But it gets harder and harder to justify. Even here in the heart wanders.

If ever there was a need for prayer, these times represent that in spades. If all our hearts were as penitent as they ought...we wouldn't be here. Happy Zeitgest!

Richard Kew said...

Yes, James, Mobby is spam, and it doesn't seem to matter how much you attempt to keep spam off the blog, somehow these nasty little pests seem to find a way around it. Having watched my grandfather gamble himself to bankruptcy, I find anything to do with gambling particularly loathesome.

While Tom Wright does not concentrate significantly on the Roman dimension of authority and Scripture, he does point out that there significant flaws in Rome's Scripture and Tradition as two parallel streams. Naturally, the Tridentine formulas were countering the shortcomings in the Sola Scriptura of the mainstream of the Reformation, but in taking the route they did, I believe they put into their system something that has deep and significant shortcomings.

I confess that swimming the Tiber has never been the remotest temptation to me. I am baffled by those of my friends and peers who have taken that course. They in turn are baffled that I cannot see the majesty of what they have done. Thus, a stand off.

Personally, I would not be able to make any kind of move in the direction of Rome until they remove from the papacy and hint of infallibility, allow for a diversity of theological views of the eucharist, put the honoring of Mary in her right place, and rethought their whole understanding of priesthood. Thus, there is no way that I am ever going to take that ride!

Anonymous said...

As one who floated the idea of blogs for you, Rev. Kew let me say I'm glad you're putting up with this nonsense yet still posting.

Here's hoping you'll view tyhe results of the Diocese of Virginia, and provide your thoughts.

Personally, I'm at my wits end.

And so I ask this question: why stay and defend an institution that no longer exists? The marrow has been sucked from the bone. What exactly are we fighting for? It certainly has noting to do about God.

Richard Kew said...

I appreciate how disspiriting, depressing, etc., the whole situation in ECUSA is, and those of us who are orthodox would not be human if we did not find ourselves pondering a lot of questions. There are days, nay, weeks, when I feel at the very end of my rope with what is happening, so I am sympathetic.

The question you ask, however, is the wrong one. I don't feel any particular mandate to prop up and ailing institution, which ECUSA is. What is our mandate is to stand firm for the truth, and not to let the Devil have what does not belong to him.

When I signed up with Jesus Christ I did not expect the trip to be all sweetness and light -- and I have not been disappointed! The Devil is the father of lies, and it is our responsibility to stand in the arena and contend against error, untruth, heresy, immorality. So, this standing against the wiles of the Evil One is what the circumstances demands, and I have been called to be one of those who stands firm. I suppose that's a privilege, but I confess there are lots of days when it doesn't feel like it.

When I was ordained I vowed that I would be ready, "with faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's word." I had no idea what I was vowing when I made that vow before my bishop, now I know. I don't like it, but read Paul's letters -- there was a ton of times when he didn't like what he was called to do either.

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Anonymous said...

Can someone explain to me what Wright means by his view of authority and how it really differentiates from a fundamental viewpoint? In other words, what does it mean that authority is God working through scripture? Examples, etc.