Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Book Review: The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture by N.T. Wright.

Bill Clinton mastered triangulation or third-way politics.

N. T. Wright's The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture takes a page from Clinton's playbook.

Wright criticizes both the right and left's approaches to scripture (e.g., pp. 106-110) before positing a third-way. In his broad critique, Wright interestingly observes that all traditions elevate scripture, perhaps contrary to prevailing stereotypes. "[T]he churches which stem from the Reformation all emphasize...the central importance of the Bible. ... [A]ll officially accord scripture the central place in their faith, life and theology. This has marked out the post-Reformation churches from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, which give a more complex and interwoven account of how scripture operates within the life of the church. But those older churches, too, have never shrunk from the insistence that scripture remains the written word of God." (p. 4.)

That just about covers all of Christendom. So, then, what accounts for the vast divergence of views about what Scripture says? As in law, it's a matter of interpretation.

Enter Wright's new-way-forward. Wright proposes a "five-act" narratival hermaneutic. (p. 121.) Wright asserts: "[T]he Bible itself offers a model for its own reading, which involves knowing where we are within the overall drama and what is appropriate within each act. The acts are creation, 'fall', Israel, Jesus, and the church; they constitute the differentiated stages in the divine drama which scripture itself offers." (p. 121.)

Then, Wright turns to how the church--living in the "fifth act"--may ensure that "the authority of scripture--i.e. God's authority exercised through scripture--can be the dynamic force within God's people." He proposes five: reading scripture that is (a) totally contextual, (b) liturgically grounded, (c) privately studied, (d) refreshed by appropriate scholarship, and (e) taught by the church's accredited leaders." (p. 127.) Here, Wright reveals his Anglican predilections, but these five are not all indispensable to get to scripture's meaning, and Wright does not even so argue.

The book's North American title, The Last Word, is ambitious (to put it charitably). It's unlikely that Wright's "third-way" will end the "Bible Wars". Moreover, Wright inconsistently (with the title) advocates for continuing dialogue about Scripture. And he provides a very useful script to elevate the dialogue from the superficial sloganeering that has historically permeated the debate.

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