Wright on Scripture and Authority

 I recently read N. T. Wright’s The Last Word (2005 edition) because I try to (at least to some extent) stay up to speed with the movements of the broader non-Reformed side of the evangelical world (whatever evangelical means!).  I’m not a big fan of Wright, mostly because of his unbiblical revisions of covenant theology, soteriology, and ecclesiology.  After reading this book, I found out I also disagree with Wright’s views of scripture, including its nature, attributes, and authority.  I don’t have time to give a full review here, but I do want to make a few general comments about this book and Wright’s view(s) of scripture.

First, Wright simply does not give a full and accurate picture of the Reformation view of scripture.  He seems to think the reformers were rationalists who viewed the Bible as a dogmatic source-book.  Here’s one quote along those lines: “Heavy-handed schemes such as those of Marcion…and the theologically cognate ones of some Reformers…do not do justice to the sophisticated early Christian sense of continuing to live under the whole scripture, albeit in this multi-layered manner” (p. 57).  Seriously? It is quite naive and simply wrong to compare Marcion’s view of the Bible to that of some Reformers; note how Wright hints that the Reformers were unsophisticated people who downplayed the whole of scripture and flattened it out.

Second, I’m not thrilled by Wright’s logic.  He overstates things in a humorous or attractive manner which seems almost sinister at times.  For example, read this sentence: “There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is ‘true’ after all and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes” (p. 95).  I doubt we can make such a sharp dichotomy there.

Another aspect of “logic” that annoyed me in this book is Wright’s overall attitude that though there are (maybe) two or three good things about the doctrine of the Bible from past eras, for the most part they are wrong and/or deficient.  Write uses the term “fresh” on almost every other page, hinting that older views of the Bible are stale and out of date like an old salad.  Using the term “fresh” over and over may sound nice, but it struck me as arrogant.  Here’s one example (with two instances of “fresh”): “Precisely when scripture is read in the way I have described, all kinds of opportunities will arise for fresh words to be spoken, illuminating the passages that have been heard reverberating with them, but also moving forward to suggest what fresh meanings they might bear for today and tomorrow” (p. 133).

Third, Wright’s definition of “authority” is slippery and ambiguous.  He first says that God’s authority is embodied in Jesus, not some text (p. xi).  Later, he says that it “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 (p. 114).”  That sounds cool, but what does it mean?  Then he tweaks it a bit and says that authority means that scripture is how God directs and strengthens his church in and for its mission (though he does not define mission) (p. 131).  Wright also says that the authority of scripture has to do with the complex pathway a Christian walks (prayer, worship, understanding, and questions) as he/she takes his/her “own place in the ongoing story of God’s people as they engage in his mission to the world” (again, mission is undefined) (p. 134).  At a different place he says that “the authority of scripture’ is really a shorthand for ‘the authority of God exercised through scripture'” (p. 138).  To repeat, some of those phrases sound nice, but when we take them all together we don’t know what the authority of scripture really means.  The book is utterly confusing in that way.

Finally, Wright clearly dislikes doctrinal statements based on different scripture texts.  Over and over he criticizes those who read scripture in a doctrinal way.  Of course, there is a danger in viewing scripture primarily as a dogmatic textbook; yet at the same time, there are clear Bible verses that talk about knowing apostolic doctrine (cf. Titus 2.1).  Ironically, Wright approaches the Bible through the doctrinal lenses of the kingdom of God and the story aspect of scripture.  In other words, the kingdom motif swallows everything for Wright (it’s the dreaded theological Great White shark!).  Wright is inconsistent in his view of the Bible by saying we should not treat it doctrinally; yet he uses the doctrine of the kingdom to approach the Bible.  He misses the trees for the forest.  The more balanced way would be to study and exegete texts that have to do with the Bible itself (i.e. Ps 19, 2 Tim 3.15, etc.) and read those in harmony with other themes (kingdom, covenant, story, sin, redemption, etc.).  Wright’s view of scripture is unbalanced.

In summary, I believe David Wells‘ statements on this book, The Last Word, provide an accurate snapshot.

“Wright…disengages the authority of God from the authority of Scripture…radically.  In different ways and in different places he mocks the idea that Scripture contains timeless, unchanging truths or that it was ever meant to do so.  The authority of God is experienced as something other than the authority of Scripture” (The Courage to Be Protestant, p. 85).

After reading Wright’s book, I believe that his view of scripture is more harmful than it is helpful.  If you peel away the trendy language and misleading logic, what you find in this book is a chipping away at sola scriptura.  Though Wright says he is trying to offer a “fresh” way by steering between modernity and postmodernity, it seems to me that he’s veering towards the latter.

shane lems

sunnyside wa