Wednesday, May 27, 2009

N.T. Wright on the Bible As Narrative

I just finished teaching an intro to N.T. Wright's idea of the Bible as narrative, like a "5-Act Play." I'm very interested in what Wright has to say about this, as many are. For example, when I was standing in line with other Palmer Theological Seminary professors a few weeks ago at PTS's commencement ceremony a few of them had just spent some time studying with Wright. One of them said Wright would get animated as he began to talk of the Bible as narrative.

Here are the notes I handed out to our RMS students, which I commented on. (For the fuller story go here, or read Wright's The Last Word.)

N.T. Wright on Biblical Authority
The Bible is not primarily about controlling things, people or situations.
The Bible is not primarily about presenting ‘timeless truths’ or giving us answers to our most pressing theological questions, although there are timeless truths in the Bible.
The vast majority of Scripture consists not in a list of rules or doctrines, but in narrative. The Bible tells a remarkably consistent story about God’s plan to restore the world back to God. Wright holds that the Bible, despite its many literary genres, can as a whole be described as “story,” or narrative. It is neither a “list of rules” nor a “compendium of true doctrines,” though the texts do include rules and doctrines.
Wright says “We must let the Bible be the Bible.”
We mustn’t belittle scripture by bringing the world’s models of authority into it. We must let scripture be itself, and that is a hard task. Scripture contains many things that I don’t know, and that you don’t know; many things we are waiting to discover; passages which are lying dormant waiting for us to dig them out. Awaken them. We must then make sure that the church, armed in this way, is challenging the world’s view of authority. So that, we must determine—corporately as well as individually—to become in a true sense, people of the book. Not people of the book in the Islamic sense, where this book just drops down and crushes people and you say it’s the will of Allah, and I don’t understand it, and I can’t do anything about it. But, people of the book in the Christian sense; people who are being remade, judged and remolded by the Spirit through scripture.
Does the biblical narrative best explain the way things are? Wright’s answer is: yes. Therefore the Bible is not merely a human story that reflects the beliefs and experiences of ancient communities.
A question: how can narrative function authoritatively?
· Stories have a unique power to change people – all the more when we are talking about the story of God as ‘the immanent lover of the human race’.
· In Scripture, the story is about God’s kingdom coming in power. Jesus’ teaching and healings carry the authority of the kingdom. So God’s authority “is his sovereign power accomplishing the renewal of all creation.”
· The authority of Scripture is an aspect of this kingdom power, and therefore, Wright reiterates, not merely the authority of doctrine or commands. So it is insufficient to think of Scripture merely as “revelation” or as a “devotional manual.” Rather, Scripture is God’s kingdom instrument for bringing us divine speech, transformation of mind, and power for mission.
Where does the Bible derive its authority from?
· Wright says: ‘all authority belongs to God,’
· Thus the Bible’s authority must be derivative.
· Biblical authority, then, is shorthand for God’s authority vested in Scripture.
o Wright’s thesis is “that the phrase ‘authority of Scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.’”
o Scripture itself points away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself, now delegated to Jesus Christ. It is Jesus, according to John 8:39-40, who speaks the truth because he has heard from God.
· The Bible gives us a story that has various parts. Certain parts or “acts” of this story no longer have relevance for us today.
· It is here that Wright introduces his well-known” five act play,” which he claims is not only found in Scripture but also helps us to interpret Scripture.
The Bible as a “5-act play”
Wright writes:
Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.
Consider the result.
· The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand.
· That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution.
· This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency. [In other words, you and I and the whole world are part of this grand narrative.]
The Bible’s “5 Act Play” goes like this:
Act One: (Creation). Whatever means God uses to create the world it’s a crucial feature of the play that creation is good and that humans are in God’s image.
Act Two: (Fall) God’s good creation is full of rebellion: evil and idolatry become real features of the world.
Act Three: (Israel) The story of Israel as the covenant people of God for the world. This act begins with the Abrahamic covenant and ends with the Jewish anticipation of an event in which God will liberate Israel from spiritual exile and reveal himself as the world’s true King.
Act Four (Jesus) The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. As the climax of the narrative it represents the inauguration of a new kingdom in which death and sin are being reversed throughout all of creation.
Many of the OT teachings, as well as some of Jesus’ teachings, have played out their intended purpose.
Wright compares the Old Testament to a ship that has brought travelers to their destination. Once they arrive, “they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their voyage has been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose.”
The apostles’ teaching, then, recorded in the New Testament books, becomes the “new covenant charter,” guiding the church in its encounter with the cultures of the world.
Act Five: (New Testament and the people of God). The New Testament forms the first scene of this act. The church is the people of God, in Christ, for the world; their job is to act in character: to live out Act Five by showing the world the true way of being human and to bring about God’s victory over evil on earth. This largely involves living out (“improvising and retelling”) God’s story and gospel – namely that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead to ‘put the world to rights.’
For Wright the five-act play is not just the grand narrative of Scripture, but also the true story that we are living out – more accurately, we are living out Act Five, which has yet to be completed.
What about the canon? How did we get the books we now have in the Bible?
It was not the church that gave authority to Scripture. To Wright, this view is a mistake like “that of a soldier who, receiving orders through the mail, concludes that the letter carrier is his commanding officer.”
Rather, the church recognized as canonical those books that carried on the larger narrative of the kingdom. Wright notes that the church’s martyrs were “normally those who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and the rest,” not those who read, e.g., the Gospel of Thomas. For the latter was “non-narratival, deliberately avoiding the option of placing [Jesus’] sayings within the overarching framework of the story of Israel.” So, far from making the church more comfortable, as some have charged, the canonical books sustained the church’s “energetic mission.”

Uh-oh - Wright believes that in the early centuries there was in the church a “diminishing focus” on narrative, corresponding to an increasing use of Scripture as a “court of appeal,” or rule book, and as a “lectio divina,” a book of private devotions.
THE LOSS OF THE BIBLE AS NARRATIVE: In the debates between Protestant and Catholic, both parties, Wright says, devalued the narrative character of Scripture, thinking of authority as “the place where you could go to find an authoritative ruling.”
The Enlightenment adopted a different narrative from Scripture, one of human progress, leading to the eschatology of a fully rational society. Reason alone will deal with the problem of evil. This leads to “the muddled debates of modern biblical scholarship” (The Last Word, 89) which try to synthesize the Bible with rationalist themes. The best response, Wright says, is not to dismiss all biblical scholarship (as we are often tempted to do) but to “make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions” (91). That, he argues, is what the authority of Scripture should mean for us today.
Wright says: “The story of the Bible, and the power that it possesses, is a better story than any of the power games that we play in our world. We must tell this story, and let it exercise its power in the world. And that is the task of the whole church.”