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The Last Word:
Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding
of the Authority of Scripture

by N.T. Wright
Harper/San Francisco, 2005

review by Jeffrey Needle

Bumper 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.

Author 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.

He 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.

Adopting 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 heartnot 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)

Considering 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 serve.

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.


Copyright ©2006 Jeffrey Needle

The Last Word
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