Last week, I read an excellent book called The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God—Getting Beyond the Bible Wars, by N.T. Wright. I intended to share one or two of its insights in my sermon on “searching the scriptures,” but, well… you know how that went.
One of Wright’s main points is that the Bible must be read and understood not as a list of rules, a collection of moral teachings, or even simply as a way of conveying important information or guiding church doctrine, but primarily as a story—an overarching narrative describing God’s action through Israel to save the world. The story reaches its climax through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah.
When we understand it this way, we can easily make sense of the ways in which Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament.
When [Jesus] spoke of the scripture needing to be fulfilled (e.g., Mark 14:49), he was not simply envisaging himself doing a few scattered and random acts which corresponded to various distant and detached prophetic sayings; he was thinking of the entire storyline at last coming to fruition, and of an entire world of hints and shadows now coming to plain statement and full light. This, I take it, is the deep meaning of sayings like Matthew 5:17-18, where Jesus insists that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.1
Likewise, when Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 that Christ died for our sins and was resurrected on the third day “in accordance with the scriptures,” Wright writes, “he does not mean that he and his friends can find one or two proof-texts to back up their claim, but rather that these events have come as the climax to the long and winding narrative of Israel’s scriptures.”2
The early Church inherited this view of scripture-as-story. They recognized that “some parts of the scriptures were no longer relevant for their ongoing life—not, we must stress, because those parts were bad, or not God-given, or less inspired, but because they belonged with earlier parts of the story which had now reached its climax.“3 The early Church understood that there was continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament period and their own. (Not without conflict: Acts 15 and Paul’s letter to the Galatians let us glimpse the struggle over whether Gentiles must first become Jews in order to become Christians.)
If the Bible is primarily a narrative, rooted in Israel’s history, then we can’t afford not to read or study those parts of the story that have reached their climax, because without them we won’t understand what came after—which is the story we are now a part of as Christians.
In about 30 pages, Wright details ways in which the Church throughout the centuries increasingly moved away from this narrative understanding of scripture—often in a well-intentioned effort to defend the Bible’s authority but always to the Church’s own detriment.
Wright is both deeply appreciative and at times deeply critical of Reformers like Luther, Calvin, and others, whose legacies have shaped and influenced us Protestants today. As we grapple with contemporary issues, the last thing he believes that these Reformers (or, I hasten to add, a little-r reformer like Wesley) would want is for us to simply “return” to their teaching, their tradition. They would instead want us to return to the Bible.
What they would say is, “You must follow our method: read and study scripture for all it’s worth, and let it do its work in the world, in and through you and your churches.” They would not be surprised if, as a result, we came up at some points with different, or differently nuanced, theological and practical proposals. They would encourage us to go where scripture led, using all the tools available to us, and being prepared to challenge all human traditions, including the “Reformation” traditions themselves, insofar as scripture itself encouraged us to do so. 4
One main point that Wright stresses throughout the book is that the “authority of scripture” means nothing apart from God’s authority. God has the authority to work in and through scripture to transform us. Of course, once we start talking about God’s working through something to help us in some way, then we’re back where we started: The Bible—reading it, studying it, preaching it—is a means of grace.
In a later post, I’ll talk about our Wesleyan understanding of the Bible and where the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” fits in.