So my book summary and review of Wright’s “Simply Christian” has been slow coming. Its not because I haven’t read it, rather its due to my own struggle to do service to the quality of his prose in the second half of the book. To be honest I’m not sure how to summarize it without skipping over vital points.
In the interim here’s a review of his “The Last Word” which was a very light and easy read. I read most of it on my plane ride back from Denver and finished it off today. It was a pleasurable read with a number of fine metaphors that drew out Wright’s arguments.
In order to keep this review brief I’ll break it down into three sections: very concise chapter summaries; pro’s & con’s of the book; and a few links to fuller reviews than my own.
Prologue – Wright begins his prologue with a war warry note that the Bible is again today the center of battling and division. Then he takes his readers through a breif forray of the Bible in Church History and draws his readers attention to five areas where the Bible is hotly disputed in contemporary culture: 1) Culture, “The continuing and much-discussed interplay between “modern” and “postmodern” culture has created a mood of uncertainty within Western society at least.” (pg. 6) Born out in the older dominant stories of culture being deconstructed; the notion of truth being re-raised or abandoned; and the problem of personal identity; 2) The second area of Bible battling occurs in the political arena as areas of international concern have heightened in the past few years; 3) The third area is philosophy where new issues of epistemology like postmodernity or sociology like postcolonialism have come to the fore; 4) The forth area is Theology, with the emergence of new contextual materials from the ancient world and the wider appreciation of the interperative role everyone plays as a ‘reader’ new battles have emerged; and finally 5) The fifth area is ethics with things like feminism and homosexuality coming to the fore in the public arena the Bible has again become a host for embattlements. Wright closes the prologue by notng that these modern battles echo the 16th century battles over scripture, tradition, and reason. Themes he give more reflection to as the book unfolds.
“By Whose Authority” 01 – “We now arrive at the central claim of this book: 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.” (pg. 23) Wright suggests that what often occurs in modern bible wars is that people hit oneanother with the ‘locked suitcases’ formed from using theological shorthand phrases like “the authority of scripture”, he says its time to unlock those suitcases and make plain what we mean by our doctrines. Rather than viewing scripture centrally as a theological text book or moralistic/devotional manuel Wright says we ought to view as a story. The question says Wright is “how can a story be authoritative?” (pg. 26) Viewing scripture as a story may help modern Bible readers before older Bible battles. The word authority itself should be understood in terms of the Kingdom of God context Jesus own ministry was carried out within. Scripture is there to bear witness to that work and push us into it. Wright suggests that words like “revelation” may also be misunderstood by us today, God is not conveying information alone but information in the midst of God carrying out his own mission. Even words like “devotion” when mixed with authority can be misleading. Wright instead says its as scripture moves us deeper into worship, transforming our minds, and sending us out in mission that its authoritative character has been heeded.
“Israel and God’s Kingdom-People” 02 – Just how was God’s authority excercised through his word to Israel? “Again and again the point of scripture was that it addressed a fresh, prophetic word to Israel in the midst of its often very ambiguous “experience,” breaking into Israel’s own world of muddle and mistakes – doing, in fact, in verbal form what God himself was doing to breaking into the world, and into Israel’s life, in judgment and mercy.” (pgs. 36-37) Wright likens inspiration to the philosophical notion of “speach acts”, saying that the word was not synonymous with written scriptures as much as it was an acknowlegement of YHWH’s “strange, personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating.” (pg. 38 ) Wright goes on to give a small yet sweeping description of how the ‘word of YHWH’ functioned in the life of Israel. He closes the chapter by carrying this thought over into the life setting of the early church in Israel, its second-temple context. Scriptures ‘authority’ works in at least two interlocking ways: “1) It formed the controlling story in which Israel struggled to find its identity and destiny as the covenant people through and for whom God’s justice would ultimately break upon the world…2) It formed the call to a present obedience through which Israel could respond appropriately to God’s call.” (pgs. 40-41)
“Scripture and Jesus” 03 – Jesus accomplished that to which Scripture had pointed. “The work which God had done through scripture in the Old Testament is done by Jesus in his public career, his death and resurrection, and his sending of the Spirit. Jesus thus does, climactically and decisively, what scripture had in a sense been trying to do: bring God’s fresh Kingdom order to God’s people and thence to the world.” (pg. 43) Indeed, says Wright, Jesus did speak of the authority of scripture in its own regard but that was in lue of his fulfillment of that role.
“The “Word of God” in the Apostolic Church” 04 – The Apostolic church understood Jesus words as the fulfillment of the OT narrative. The word of God says Wright was not just the word about the Kingdom of God but rather the way in which God was realizing in the world what Jesus had completed. The word is also the vehicle of the Spirit’s authority whereby the Spirit energizes, shapes, and directs the church. Indeed the early followers of Christ found their place in that story because of Christ fulfillment of it. “In particular, precisely because of what the early Christians believed about Israel’s story having come to fulfillment in Jesus, they developed a multi-layered, nuanced, and theologically grounded reading of the Old Testament.” (pg. 53) Wright notes that the absense of that story was often times the catalyst for heresy in the early church like Macionism. Where does this leave us with the New Testament? “the New Testament understands itself as the new covenant charter, the book that forms the basis for the new telling of the story through which Christians are formed, reformed, and transformed so as to be God’s people for God’s world. That is the challenge the early Christians bequeath to us as we reconsider what “the authority of scripture” might mean in practice today.” (pg. 59)
“The First Sixteen Centuries” 05 – “Close to the heart of Christianity in the second and third centuries was the sense of the church as the community that lives with and under scripture.” (pg. 60) But that life was very early on challenged by ancient diversions from it, diversions that have become popular as of late as religious gossip labeled as newly discovered alternative Christianies. To add to this says Wright there was a diminishing focus on the narrative character and Israel-Dimension of scripture, gradually scripture began to be treated as a court of appeal for controversies and an individualized form of lectio divina. Allegorical exegesis was another flawed sign of the church’s commitment to stick with scripture. This is a bold claim by Wright given the dominant impression allegory made on early church discussions and developments. He goes on to say, “Allegorization, then, represents both an insistence that the church must go on living with and under scripture and a failure, at some levels at least, to understand how scripture itself actually works…allegorical exegesis always ran the risk of conceding a great deal at a more fundamental level by encouraging people to see the Bible in a destoried and hence de-Judaized way.” (pg. 67) Wright says the Medieval Four Senses were another flawed attempt to get at the rich contours of scripture. This hermeneutical development gradually lead to the particular notion of tradition which saw it as parallel or at least supplemental to the interpretative framework for the Bible. “The Reformers’ sola scriptura slogan was part of their protest against percieved medieval corruptions…The Reformers thus set scripture over against the traditions of the church; the recovery of the literal sense over against the lush growth of the three other sense; and the right of ordinary Christians to read scripture for themselves over against the protection of the sacred text by the Latin-reading elite.” (pg. 71) Wright says the Refomers say the literal sense of scripture figuratively at times and that the Reformers never went beyond the polarization of scripture and tradition [its unfortunate that Wright never really went beyond the early Reformers to explore how reformational readings worked either with or against narratival hermeneutics, he’s missing the Old Amsterdam school as well as the Old Princeton developments]. Wright also says the reformers never went very far in narratival readings of scripture. Reason was the next impetus for development in the churches history.
“The Challenge of the Enlightenment” 06 – Reason eventually turned on the church and several enlightenment scholars tried to undermine orthodox Christianity. In fact says Wright, “Much of what has been written about the Bible in the last two hundred years has either been following through the Enlightenment’s program, or reacting to it, or negotiating some kind of halfway house in between.” (pgs. 83-84) The Enlightenment did two things to the way people read the Bible, it argued the necessity of reading scripture historically and several historians within it sought to undermine the faith by such readings. The Enlightenment offered its own eschatology rivalling that of Scripture where the birth of reason rather than th birth of Christ was the turning point in history. With the new eschatology came a new definition of evil where it was defined by the absence of reason rather than transgressions of God’s law. Wright says that one positive benefit was that people became aware that they are not indeed neutral readers but anticedently committed, this eventually lead to Postmodernity and the ascent that historical exegesis is still basic but no guarantee of modernities assured results. Wright says a bit before this last point that, “To affirm “the authority of scripture” is precisely not to say, “We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.” It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions.” (pg. 91) Postmodernities reaction to modernities ideals of reason was nearly correct but became itself a power-play ideology that could not stand to be challenged, ultimately, says Wright, it is itself nihilistic deconstructive. Postmodernity doesn’t welcome challengers either, “Indeed, challenges are routinely dismissed as an attempt to go back to modernity or even premodernity, leaving us with a fine irony: an ideology which declares that all ideologies are power-plays, yet which sustains its own position by ruling out all challenges a priori.” (pg. 98 ) Where does this all leave scripture, tradition, and reason? Wright has a vivid illustration in answer to this question; “scripture, tradition, and reason are not like three different bookshelves, each of which can be ransacked for answers to key questions. Rather, scripture is the bookshelf; tradition is the memory of what people in the house have read and understood (or perhaps misunderstood) from that shelf; and reason is the set of spectacles that people wear in order to make sense of what they read…” (pgs. 101-102) Experience cannot be added to these on equal footing but nevertheless has an important subjective contextual role to play.
“Misreadings of Scripture” 07 – In this breif chapter Wright offers several misreadings of Scripture from both the Right and the Left sides of the Bible battle divides. A way through these impasse’s is by adopting critical realism. He develops this further in the next chapter, one can’t help but sense overtones of Hans Frei’s “The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative” in Wright’s thoughts here.
“How To Get Back on Track” 08 – Wright opens this chapter by stressing the need for an integrated view of the dense and complex phrase “the authority of scripture.” This phrase when unpacked “offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community.” (pg. 114) The place of tradition is to remain in living dialogue with previous readings. The place of reason is in being attentive to context, to sense, and to wider knowledge of all sorts. Wright’s famous ‘Act Five’ approach to living with the authority of scripture seems so well-worn by now that it almost seems redundant sharing it here, needtheless to say we now live in the fifth act of Redemptive history. “To live in the fifth act is thus to presuppose all of the above, and to be conscious of living as the people through whom the narrative in question is now moving toward its final destination.” (pg. 124) Wright offers these strategies for honoring the authority of scripture;
- A totally contextual reading of scripture
- A liturgically grounded reading of Scripture
- A privately studied reading of Scripture
- A reading of Scripture refreshed by appropriate scholarship
- A reading of Scripture taught by the church’s accredited leaders
Wright closes his work with a suggested reading list for readers who’d like to go beyond where he has in this short book.
Pros & Cons of the Book:
PROS OF THE BOOK:
Its very accessible and as I mentioned a very easy read.
Wright does a fine job of raising the theological question of the authority of scripture within a narratival hermeneutic framework. Not to mention he exemplify’s what a critical realist approach to the question could look like.
His ability to at once praise and devalue postmodernity in a concise way is worth the price of the book.
He offer’s several penitrating illustrations that clarify difficult matters like the bookshelf one noted above or his Acts Five approach to scriptures authority in the life of the churches mission (see William Edgar for a critical engagment of this point).
Given a certain level of chastened polemical fervor it is not hard for readers to see that Bible battles often operate on less than charitable epistemically humble ground, and are as much culturally and epistemologically as they are exegetically motivated.
He’s offered a lucid approach beyond the wars which as one reviewer has noted is itself standing in the midst of the war, I don’t think he avoided getting into the fight but at least he has offered a way to humanize those on opposing sides of it.
CONS OF THE BOOK:
I do think that there were several terms that with a glossary and perhaps a running bibliography at the end of each chapter could have allowed his readers to better understand his position or outlook on them.
I think his depiction of Reformational thought was unfortunately truncated but I guess that goes as well for Counter-Reformation tendenz as well as Medieval discussions, etc. I think for most scholars there wasn’t enough gristle to move them beyond the Bible battles. But in fairness to request this from Wright here is to ask him to write an alltogether different book.
His development of the authority of scripture as God’s authority ‘exercised’ through scripture dropped into the background a bit during his chapters rehearsing church history (at least as I read them as such) which I think was unfortunate and could leave readers with the impression that his viewpoint is a rather late development in Christian thought. Which is true in as much as its apart of the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus but not entirely true given that narratival hermeneutics did feature in the Old Amsterdam and Old Princeton tradition represented in Vos. Because that occurs on a matter as central as the authority of scripture it could cause many of a more conservative outlook no light sense of anxiety.
The audience of the book was a little vague, some reviewers have seen it as lay readers and others as church leaders. This may impact Wright poorly in terms of his critics and their expectations.