Saturday, September 30, 2006

Wright, Shakespeare and the Authority of Scripture

I recently read a short article by N. T. Wright that details (at least in brief) his understanding of how the Scriptures function as an authority in the life of the Church. Though Wright critiques many different traditions, the evangelical tradition—of which he seems to count himself a part—receives his most attention. Not unfairly, he accuses evangelicals of too quickly using the Bible as a mere breeding ground for doctrinal propositions. The difficulty with such an approach, he correctly points out, is that the vast majority of Scripture is narrative, and therefore does not easily lend itself to this end. Attempts to make it do so ultimately end up in what he calls “neo-allegorization.” I think he is right on this point.

Wright then proposes that that our understanding of how Scripture functions as an authority can be illustrated by a five act play that is missing the fourth act. Wright asks us to imagine that a previously undiscovered play by Shakespeare has been found, the only difficulty being that it was missing the fourth of five acts. Determined to see the play performed, it is decided that the actors will immerse themselves in the four available acts, get to know the characters, the preceding and ending plot lines—in short allow the “spirit” of the play to shape their “worldview” of the Shakespearean drama—and then adlib the missing fourth act in a way that is consistent with the rest of the play. In this scenario, the existing acts serve as an authority for the missing fourth act in that they establish how the fourth act should be played out. To do justice to the play, the actors must draw a line of believable continuity between the third and fifth acts of the play.

Similarly Wright suggests, New Testament believers have been called to live out this present age of God’s redemptive drama in a way that is consistent with the beginning and end of the revealed history as contained in Scripture. So though we need not sacrifice goats or observe the Levitical dietary laws, these elements of the first three acts serve as an authority in that they help to establish the “worldview” and general plot-line of salvation history—a worldview and plot-line that governs our actions in the present. Such an approach necessitates that we immerse ourselves in the whole of Scripture, allowing it to shape our understanding of the meta-narrative that is driving salvation history. We must allow the Scriptures to mold and shape our conception of how we are to act in this current age—this missing “fourth act” of the Church age.

It seems to me that Wright's intent with this analogy is to explain how the narrative portions of Scriptures function as an authority, not to deny that certain portions of Scripture do in fact possess propositional authority (though I don’t have the article in front of me at present). Regardless, the discussion regarding the function of Scripture as an authority need not be a zero sum game. The New Testament is not all narrative and the apostolic authors certainly lay out some pretty clear propositions about how we as Christians should be living. So in this sense, our activity in the Church age must not be a total adlib. With that caveat, I think Wright’s perspective—particularly regarding the narrative portions of Scripture—is helpful. The Scriptures can function both as “worldview shaping” authority (Wright) and as source of propositional authority (evangelicalism).


Todd said...

yeah, wrights description of the authority of the narrative portion of scripture in this manner has really been helpful to me.

Dan Morehead said...

Thanks for this.

Daniel said...

That article by Wright is excellent. Very thought-provoking.