Have you ever read a book and wanted to highlight almost everything in it? This was my reaction when reading N.T. Wright’s newly revised and expanded book, Scripture and the Authority of God (previously titled The Last Word – 2005).
Wright’s thesis is stated clearly in the preface – “The phrase ‘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’.” By setting the scripture in the larger context that the biblical writers themselves insist upon, we will begin to more fully appreciate the role that scripture ought to have in our lives. A role that includes, and yet transcends, the conveying of information about to one that takes an active part within the ongoing purposes of God. As Wright contends, “Scripture is there to be a means of God’s action in and through us.” This action enables us to see who God is and who we are in relation to the establishment of God’s kingdom. Through scripture, God equips his people to serve his purposes, particularly as he reveals Jesus Christ within its pages.
Wright then provides us with a better way to read scripture – what he refers to as the five-act hermeneutic. This method of reading scripture takes seriously the typical concerns related to genre, setting, literary style, etc, and the very important differences these things make in properly reading the narrative. He then takes it a step further by offering a multi-layered method; one that involves knowing where we are in the overall drama of scripture and what is appropriate within each act. The acts are: creation, fall, Israel, Jesus and the church. They constitute different stages in the divine drama which scripture itself offers.
The primary purpose set out in reading scripture this way is to understand it better and to pay tribute to the differing stages of the overall narrative, while finding our place within it. As a result, we must act in an appropriate manner for this moment in the story, and not another. While we will be in direct continuity with former acts, we will also be living with a sense of discontinuity, in that our ultimate fidelity will belong to the stage in which we live. For example, when we read Genesis 3-11, we read it as a second act in a play in which live in the fifth., with Jesus as its climax and turning point (act four). Wright argues for a developmental approach to reading scripture that honors the Old Testament as it stands in the Christian canon, but one that at the same time moves beyond it to fully embrace our act.
Such a method helps us to better appreciate, understand and practice scripture in ways that are appropriate to where we are within the divine drama. It has the ability to move us toward a more-informed and contextual reading that will likewise enable us to live in a contextual way that is congruent with our stage in the story, rather than trying to act-out stage one or two.
Wright concludes his new edition with two case studies that show us the value of reading scripture this way: Sabbath and monogamy. These two essays are very helpful in fleshing out his proposed method, while at the same time offer us helpful insights into these two contemporary issues.
I highly recommend this book to every christian who desires to read the bible in a more informed and contextual way. I think the five-act model proposed will be immensely beneficial in helping us move through the countless debates in church and culture that often center on inaccurate readings of scripture. By paying careful attention to the whole narrative of the bible, we will place ourselves in a better position to weigh the issues in a more appropriate and biblically faithful way, while at the same time become more effective at living out our part in God’s cosmic drama.