Review of The Last Word by N. T. Wright

Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of ScriptureN. T. Wright. The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. 160pp. $19.95.

I appreciate Bishop N. T. Wright’s willingness to address the church through writing popular books. Wright is the consummate scholar and is perfectly capable of producing the kind of work that would only be accessible to specialists in the field of New Testament studies. Yet over the years he has included among his prolific output books addressed to the interested layman. His recent short work, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture, is one such book.

The main thrust of Wright’s argument in The Last Word is that Christians must understand the “authority of Scripture” as a shorthand for “the authority of God exercised through scripture” (p. 25). In chapter 1, Wright says that the book aims to answer three important questions: (1) In what sense is the Bible authoritative? (2) How can the Bible be appropriately understood and interpreted? and (3) How can the Bible’s authority be brought to bear on the church and the world (p. 19)? In chapters 2-6, Wright takes a look at the critical moments in the history of Israel and the Church and how the authority of scripture was appropriated in each respective era. Chapter 7 deals with right and left wing misreadings of scripture, and chapter 8 concludes with Wright’s constructive proposal: “‘the authority of scripture,’ 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” (p. 114).

There is much to commend in this short work. I appreciate Wright’s defense of the Canon against recent assaults by the likes of Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels (p. 62). I also appreciate Wright’s insistence upon an author-centered hermeneutic. Wright says that scripture must be interpreted in its “literal” sense in order for its authority to be realized in the life of the church. By “literal” sense, Wright means what the Reformers meant, “the sense that the first writers intended” (p. 73; cf. 135). Thus, for Wright, the work of grammatical-historical exegesis is of utmost importance (p. 112). This approach to the Bible leads us, Wright suggests, to stop treating the Bible like a repository of timeless truths, but as a story of the divine drama of redemption that has reached its climax in Jesus Christ. In all of this, Wright’s critical realist approach offers a healthy corrective to the excesses of post-modern skepticism.

Yet for all the good contained in this little book, there are some weaknesses worth considering. In The Last Word, Wright does indeed get “beyond the Bible wars.” As a matter of fact, he “gets beyond” them by avoiding them. I think this observation is true at least with respect to the issue of inerrancy, which has been the watershed issue of the “Bible Wars” in North America. Notwithstanding a few possible oblique and critical references to those who hold to inerrancy, Wright does not render an opinion on the question of inerrancy. This lacuna is a shortcoming indeed given the fact that many evangelicals have been arguing for years that the Bible’s authority depends on whether or not it errs in what it asserts.[1] Yes, Wright gets beyond that battle, but only because he does not show up for the fight.

Perhaps his reticence to engage this issue explains why Wright never quite gets around to explaining clearly what he thinks about the status of scripture as God’s word. In his critique of “fundamentalism,” Wright seems to imply that he doesn’t appreciate the quirky inerrantists and their hermeneutical approaches. But he never sets out clearly (or at least in full) what his view is on the matter. Indeed a number of his statements leave one wondering if “the authority of God exercised through scripture” reflects a Barthian perspective or something else altogether.

For instance, consider his remarks on the “inspiration” of scripture. Wright defines “inspiration” as “a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were the books God intended his people to have” (p. 37). Yet on the very next page Wright says that even OT Israel did not identify God’s “word” with “the written scriptures” (p. 38). He also says that “We cannot reduce ‘thus says YHWH’ to ‘thus says Jeremiah’ . . . We have for too long been in thrall to philosophers like Feuerbach, who wanted to reduce all talk of God to talk of humans and their experiences” (p. 39).

Reading statements like these makes one wonder if Wright thinks Feuerbach is somehow responsible for what we find in Psalm 119, where the Psalmist clearly treats the human words of Scripture as God’s very words. Indeed, this is but one of many texts that we read in both the Old and New Testaments that speak of the words of Scripture as if they were God’s own words (e.g., Neh 8; Mt 19:4-5; Acts 4:25; 28:25; Rom 3:2; 1 Cor 6:16; 2 Cor 6:16; 2 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:5-13; 8:5, 8; 2 Pet 1:20-21; 3:16). I am, therefore, not convinced that Wright does justice to how the writers of scripture talked about other scripture.

Given the fact that he is unclear about the status of scripture as God’s words, it isn’t surprising that when Wright finally does get around to commenting on 2 Timothy 3:16-17, he says that this text “was written, not so much to give people the right belief about scripture, as to encourage them to study it for themselves” (p. 133). In other words, Wright downplays the importance of believing the “scripture” (graphē) to be “God-breathed.” Yet isn’t it true that in 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul makes having a right belief about scripture (namely that it is “God-breathed”) the ground of its usefulness to the Christian?

Another shortcoming that one might point out is not so much a weakness as it is a detour. I notice that Wright returns to a theme time and again that does not properly have to do with the authority of scripture per se. It is his thesis that the Bible (not least in Paul’s writings) offers a critique of pagan empire (e.g., pp. 13, 47, 89, 99, 100, 112, 115, 131). The clear implication of this line is that the Bible has a particular rebuke for what Wright calls America’s “de facto world empire.” Wright thinks that the Enlightenment project has bequeathed to the world a series of failed attempts to solve the world’s problems and that America and its current “empire” is just the latest expression of that failure.

The Enlightenment failed to deliver the goods. People not only didn’t stop fighting one another, but the lands of the Enlightenment became themselves embroiled in internecine conflict, while “rational” solutions to perceived problems included such Enlightenment triumphs as the Gulag and the Holocaust. The greatest of the Enlightenment-based nations, the United States of America, has been left running a de facto empire which gets richer by the minute as much of the world remains poor and gets poorer (p. 13).

Wright goes on to claim that America, “the great world empire of our own day proceeds to impose its economic, political, military and cultural will on the world” (p. 100).[2] It is true that this kind of counter-imperial (and thus anti-American) interpretation of the New Testament is all the rage in certain sectors of New Testament scholarship.[3] But the implications of this thesis are far from settled and do not in any case help to advance Wright’s argument in this book.

Interestingly, Wright indicates that this imperial, Enlightenment outlook is characteristic of American “fundamentalism.” Perhaps it is for this reason that Wright rarely misses a chance to engage in his own brand of name-it-and-shame-it (p. 22) polemics against conservative north American evangelicals, who, he claims, “choose to ignore” the Bible’s authoritative teaching on loving one’s enemies, on economic justice, and on opposing the death penalty (pp. 92-93). Disparaging American foreign policy and conservative evangelicals in America might give Wright “street creds” with liberal academics, but I suspect it will only serves to alienate large portions of his audience while detracting from the larger case that he is making about the authority of scripture.

Nevertheless, Wright might have had more success with this line had his description of “fundamentalists” not been so given to overstatement. The majority of evangelicals in America do hold to the inerrancy position, but they do not all fit into the “fundamentalist” picture that Wright draws. The hermeneutical errors that he charges against “fundamentalists” are not shared by all inerrantists. I’m not sure, therefore, that Wright understands theological conservatives in North America as well as he thinks he does. If his list of “Misreadings of the Right” is any indication (pp. 106-108), I would have to say that he has a better handle on caricature than he does on reality.

I generally enjoy N. T. Wright’s work, and my reading of The Last Word was no exception. Yet I think he left a few too many things undone in this book. He does warn the reader at the outset that “the present book makes no pretense at completeness” (p. xii). But one wonders why he had more to say about counter-imperial readings of the New Testament than he does about the question of inerrancy and how it relates to the authority of scripture. If the authority of scripture has anything to do with the Scripture’s right to command belief and action, then surely Wright could have dwelt a little more on the status of scripture as God’s words. Unfortunately, it appears that Wright was a little too eager to get “beyond the Bible wars” to engage such questions. The reader, therefore, will likely be tempted to get beyond Wright’s book if he or she wants to find the answers.

______________________

[1] See for instance Number 5 in the “Short Statement,” in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978): “The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.”

[2] One wonders if Wright might also lament the “imperial” implications of this observation: “North America . . . happens now to be the major center of biblical scholarship, having supplanted Germany in this respect over the last generation or so” (p. 94).

[3] N. T. Wright (along with Richard Horsley, John Dominic Crossan, Jonathan Reed, et. al.) is considered to be one of the chief proponents of counter-imperial readings of the New Testament, as is evidenced by his many writings and his participation in Richard Horsley’s “Paul and Politics Group” of the Society of Biblical Literature.

For more on this movement, see my forthcoming paper to be presented at the 2006 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society: “The Fresh Perspective on Paul: A Theology of Anti-Americanism.” See also Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003); Richard Horsley, ed., Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997); Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperuim, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000); John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004).

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23 thoughts on “Review of The Last Word by N. T. Wright”

  1. Carson has a good review of this one, as well as two other new books on Scripture (by Webster and Enns), in the latest edition of Trinity Journal.

  2. Dr. Burk, thanks for this review. I started reading Wright’s book last semester, and without getting too far in the book, found myself wondering when he was going to address inerrancy. Your thoughts on the book will be helpful should I decide to ever finish it.

    Nick, Carson’s review is also available online at Reformation21.

  3. Denny,
    It is nice for us readers to have titles converted to italics in the footnotes — my older eyes look for such help.

    Tom probably avoids “inerrancy” because it is modernism rather than historical, while many today avoid it because it is modernism and not postmodernism. I prefer “identity-shaping” because it speaks of our relationship to Scripture.

  4. Scot,

    Thanks for the comment. At a conference in Louisiana last year, Bishop Wright expressed some irritation during a Q & A when a person asked him his position on inerrancy. Apparently, he sort of dismissed it as peculiar North American hang-up.

    I’m not convinced that the doctrine of “Inerrancy” is only relevant to a modernist framework. I think it says something about what we believe about God’s words inscripturated in historical documents.

    Anywho, there’s my two cents.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  5. Wright has some interesting views on imperialism, but I have to admit that his interpretations of the “American Empire” don’t bother me one bit. America has been given a free pass for far too long from evangelicals. Ask any missionary who has been on the field for any amount of time what they think of American Christianity. They’ll probably have views similar to those of Wright.

    Don’t get me wrong; I think the American values of freedom and opportunity are, at their core, the most noble of any country. I also believe that those values no longer characterize what America has become. It’s hard for me to believe that much of what the New Testament claims about Rome wouldn’t just as easily apply to our current American culture. In this case, I believe Wright is right.

  6. Denny,
    Conservative evangelicals in England, by and large, don’t get into inerrancy. E.g., John Stott. That’s at least worth thinking about.

    Saying the Bible is “not wrong,” as you know I’ve said this before, is not enough. Tom Wright is on the angels’ side on proposing that we need to think of a better and bigger term. Inerrancy is not enough. It is, however, useful politically to cut into the Christian world a clear figure.

    Saying the Bible is “true” is far more important to me. Tom says that often. So, what’s the hang-up?

  7. Scot,

    Thanks for the interaction. If the Bible errs in what it asserts, there are huge theological implications. Not only are there implications for “systems” of theology (some would argue a modernist’s concern), but also for the narrative of Gods acts in history (certainly a post-modern/critical realist’s concern).

    Wouldn’t you agree that if the Bible errs in what it asserts that creates problems for the Christian faith?

    By the way, where did you get that phrase “inerrancy is not enough”? It looks familiar. 🙂

    Thanks,
    Denny

  8. I am always confused by all the innerancy talk, without dealing with some of the errors, or supposed errors in the bible. For example, what about the clear disagreement in the gospels concerning exactly what happened with the rolling away of the tomb (John 20). The order and details are clearly different. What do inerrantist do with that?

  9. I’m not sure I got it from anyone, but I still make my point: what we need to affirm is that the Bible is “true”. Saying it is “not wrong” doesn’t tell us enough. Do you agree?

  10. Scot,

    The devil is in the details of what you mean by “true.” You know how the debate has unfolded historically, some saying it’s “true” in matters of faith but not “true” in matters of fact. When one says that it is not “true” with respect to so-called matters of fact, that presents a theological problem for those who see the the Bible as God’s words. Moreover, it also presents a problem because the incarnation is a matter of faith and fact, and the two can hardly be separated (at least not without dehistoricizing the Bible).

    Thanks for the comment.

    Denny

  11. Denny,

    Is the Bible true in all matters of “fact”? Is the book of Revelation, for example, not written in such a way that it could be interpreted fuguratively instead of literally? Isn’t the Bible full of different literary genre that would, in fact, lead it to be interpreted in ways that are true in their message, yet unvarifiable in matters of fact?

    I guess I’m just pushing back against the idea that Jesus can’t be factual because something else in Scripture may be more a matter of faith than fact. One does not necessitate the other. I do agree that my view of interpretation could become a “slippery slope”, but I don’t think that is any excuse for denying that it might be true.

    You are definitely a product of the enlightenment in your view of Scripture. I agree with Scot that inerrancy doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t allow for the artistic aspects of Scripture and only seeks to classify the Bible in modern, empirical terms. When we say the Bible is true, we communicate that it is reliable, authoritative and broad. How, in any way, does that undercut it’s power?

  12. Steve,

    Thanks for the feedback. Actually, we probably are not disagreeing. We have to take into account the different genres of scripture when interpreting the scripture, and sometimes that means recognizing the fact that some genres are highly figurative and less literal than others.

    When I talk about affirming that inerrancy of scripture, I do not mean to imply that we should adopt wooden, literalism in our interpretation of it. We should, however, be seeking to understand the author’s meaning–a meaning that comes to us through a variety of genres and literary expressions.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  13. I totally agree, but I’m trying to understand how that’s different from a “faith” vs “fact” understanding of the Word. You understand the author’s meaning not by empericism, but by faith. The meanings of the Biblical authors aren’t true because they’re verifiable, but because they are inspired by God (a truth that we view as fact based on faith).

    In light of that, why is it problematic for you to recognize the Bible as truth based on faith and not fact? I’m not saying there aren’t facts that overwhelmingly support the viability of Scripture, but I’m also not saying that you can’t poke holes in it if you are prone to do so. At the core, we believe the Bible to be authoritative by faith. Facts only serve to bolster that faith, but they aren’t the primary means of our belief in God’s Word. This view allows for the Bible to be true even if it is not completely verifiable (I’m not saying it isn’t verifiable, but the emphasis of my view is not on the emperical nature of The Word).

  14. Steve,

    Yes, we all begin with faith commitments. No one is a blank slate whereby they can be savingly convinced through reason of the truth of the Bible. But I’m not talking about proving the Bible to be without error through empirical means that are amenable to reason. I’m just talking about the theological implications of believing vs. not believing that the Bible has errors in it.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  15. I think you guys might be missing the point of the book. Wright seeks to demonstrate how God exercises His authority through Scripture… and I don’t think it is by winning the inerrancy debates.

  16. Rafe,

    Good point. I couldn’t agree with you more. God demonstrates his authority through Scripture by granting redemption to those whom He saves by grace through faith. Scripture’s authority has more to do with faith than anything. It’s why those with the gift of faith believe it to be authoritative and those without the gift of faith don’t.

  17. I appreciate the affirmation, Steve. God is bringing forth His kingdom in the earth by the Scriptures. It’s something the “rulers” of this world do not understand.

  18. After agreeing with Scot and others, I must say that another point that makes DB’s criticism moot is the fact that inerrancy would have little relevance for Wright in the first place, given that inerrancy concerns the ‘autographa’ and our use of the Scripture today is quite removed from such. Why should Wright make a fuss about it? Granted it is NOT an issue in the UK, but even so how would DB propose we deal with inerrancy today, WITHOUT harping back to the ‘original manuscripts’? If I am writing about the authority of Scripture to 21st century believers, how (why???) should I address inerrancy?

  19. Mr. Law (in #19),

    Of course we all agree that the autographs have long been lost. Some of us, however, are more confident than others in what is achieved in reproducing the original text through the discipline of TC.

    I don’t think Wright needs to make a “fuss” about inerrancy or that it even needs to be a major topic of every conversation about the Bible. However, Wright’s book is released in America with a different title than the one it has in the U.K. In this American title, there is a reference to the Bible wars—wars which he scrupulously sidesteps. I just thought he might have weighed in on the issue that has proven to be quite definitive on this side of the pond.

    Bart Ehrman is a case in point as to why the issue is still important. Ehrman is on a mission to demolish the doctrines of biblical inspiration and inerrancy. In Misquoting Jesus, he aims to convince readers that “there are clear reasons for thinking that, in fact, the Bible is not this kind of inerrant guide to our lives” (p. 14). In Ehrman’s own life, the undoing of inerrancy resulted in the undoing of his Christianity, and it appears that he wants to convince his readers to follow him down the path of skepticism.

    Therefore, I’m just not convinced that the post-modern turn has made inerrancy a dead issue. Certainly the discussion has changed, but it has not been rendered irrelevant.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  20. Denny,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I am a textual critic. An evangelical one in fact. You should pop over to http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com.

    However, our task is not to ‘reproduce the original text’, but to work back as best as possible to the ‘canonically received text’. This clarification of methodology is something I am stressing fellow evangelicals to recognize. It is especially important when discussing the OT. Evangelicals can not demand the superiority of the ‘original text’, because even the most conservative evangelical will admit certain types of editorial updating in the Old Testament (such as Moses’ death, place names, etc.).

    The Old Testament books developed over time, many beginning with a period of oral transmission. So what would be the ‘original text’ in an oral situation? We need to think more about our language, and I would suggest we start talking about the point the canonical form takes shape as that which is authoritative and binding on our lives.

  21. On page xii, Wright tells us that he has been “particularly spurred to write this book by participating in two commissions” trying to answer questions about the place of Holy Scripture in the world of Anglicanism. I would think the Anglican perspective continues to help shape the modern evangelical identity and maybe the publication of this book in the u.s. will be a part of that. I cannot help but think of Anglicanism and NT Wright’s “church” as a place in which religious men bring to expression a catholic impatience with spiritual authority; The spiritual authority of Jesus in heaven in communion with a faithful congregant hearing and doing the will of God in the earth. Rathar than hearing Jesus on this matter, religious men prefer to improvise. And this book beyond all that is good in it, is an implicit defense of improvisation. It fully assumes the improvised earthly authority of something called “the Church” Along with this improvised authority comes an improvised sacramental communion and an improvised mission. Did you notice this to any degree? Hopefully we will be found teaching men to seek God’s strength to be Christ’s witnesses (martyrs?), waiting on the Lord to unveil to the eyes of the world His absolute rule. Unfortunately some will be found teaching men to make use of the Scriptures as part of a swirling resevoir of imagined authority; an assumed authority for doctrinal improvisation on the improtant subjects of union, communion, and last things.
    -Jeff

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