The Last Word, by N. T. Wright Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God–Getting Beyond the Bible Wars is a 2005 book by N. T. Wright dealing with the authority of scripture. I read this on my new Kindle, and found myself wearing out the bookmark feature — dog-earing nearly every page. Wright begins by making an important distinction —

When we take the phrase “the authority of scripture” out of its suitcase, then, we recognize that it can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture’s authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possess … . It must mean, if it means anything Christian, “the authority of God exercised through scripture.”

(italics in original and in each quotation following). You see, if we give authority to the scriptures themselves, then we make them into an idol. We find ourselves worshipping the wrong thing. Rather, it’s God speaking to us through his scriptures — the authority is in God. Only persons have authority.

Moreover, that means we must consider “authority” in its biblical sense, not the sense of Anglo-American law.

Scripture’s own preferred way of referring to such matters … is within the more dynamic concept of God’s sovereignty, or Kingdom. It is not, that is, the kind “authority” which consists solely in a final court of appeal, or a commanding officer giving orders for the day, or a list of rules pinned upon the wall of the cycling club. This emerges clearly in the gospels, where Jesus’s “authority” consists both in healing power and in a different kind of teaching, all of which the gospel writers — and Jesus himself — understood as part of the breaking-in of God’s Kingdom. …

The biblical writers live with the tension of believing both that in one sense God has always been sovereign over the world and that in another sense this sovereignty, this saving rule, is something which must break afresh into the world of corruption, decay and death, and the human rebellion, idolatry and sin which are so closely linked with it.

“Authority” is thus all about the in-breaking of God’s kingdom — an ongoing process being experienced even today by the individual Christian and the church.

God’s authority, if we are to locate it at this point, is his sovereign power accomplishing this renewal of all creation. Specific authority over human beings, notably the church, must be seen as part of that larger whole.

It’s not that God lacks authority over people, but that we often overlook that God’s authority, exercised through the word, is exercised for a purpose as part of a larger narrative. It’s not just that the Bible has authority, but that God exercises his authority through the Bible in fulfillment of his redemptive purposes.

The Bible is much, much more than a rule book. And it’s more than a series of messages from the Great Beyond. It’s much more than a devotion manual.

“[T]he 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. … [W]e discover what the shape and the inner life of the church ought to be only when we look first at the church’s mission, and that we discover what the church’s mission is only when we look first at God’s purpose for the entire world, as indicated in, for instance, Genesis 1 – 2, Genesis 12, Isaiah 40 – 55, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, Ephesians 1 and Revelation 21 – 22.  …

This means that “the authority of scripture” is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel, the good news that in Jesus Christ the Living God has defeated the powers of evil and begun the work of new creation. …

“The authority of scripture” refers not least to God’s work through scripture to reveal Jesus, to speak in life-changing power to the hearts and minds of individuals, and to transform them by the Spirit’s healing love. …

“The authority of scripture” thus makes the sense it does within the work of God’s Kingdom, at every level from the cosmic and political through to the personal. Only when that all-inclusive authority is put in first place might we discover what the phrase could mean in terms of the ordering of the church’s own life to enable it to be the agent of God’s mission, and in terms of its challenge to every Christian to live under the authority of God in all departments of life.

Wright then explains how the church is to work within the authority of the scriptures —

The notion of “improvising” is important, but sometimes misunderstood. As all musicians know, improvisation does not at all mean a free-for-all where “anything goes,” but precisely a disciplined and careful listening to all the other voices around us, and a constant attention to the themes, rhythms and harmonies of the complete performance so far, the performance which we are now called to continue. At the same time, of course, it invites us, while being fully obedient to the music so far, and fully attentive to the voices around us, to explore fresh expression, provided they will eventually lead to that ultimate resolution which appears in the New Testament as the goal, the full and complete new creation which was gloriously anticipated in Jesus’s resurrection. … All Christian, all churches, are free to improvise their own variations designed to take the music forward. No Christian, no church, is free to play out of tune.

It’s a good book.

If you decide to teach from it, I suggest you bring along something that plays YouTube videos. There’s a lesson or two in watching how the experts improvise.

You see, there are many you see the scriptures like the score for a symphony. We’ll play beautiful music for God, but he’s told us exactly what instruments, what notes, and at what times and for how long we are to play. It’s all about following the instructions. And if there are no instructions, well, those are rests.

Wright says, no, God has given us the theme, the key, and the chord structure, but he’s left much of the sheet music blank so can improvise within his structure. We can’t play off key, we have to play together, we have to harmonize, but we don’t have to all be the same. Indeed, there’s no harmony at all when we’re all have to be the same.


8 Responses

  1. […] Is Not Disorder Thanks to Jay Guin for posting this video in one of his blog posts. Improvisation is knowing the rules so well that […]

  2. Each Biblical writer, and I’m emphasizing the books of the New Testement, wrote to particular communities with their own particular strengths and problems, through his own life experience and that of the resurrected Christ; and as we read the scriptures we are reading and understanding through what our own years of experience have created up to that moment.

    Experience is more than mental recall or memory. It is what we have lived being as much a part of our souls as the genes from our parents are a part of our physical bodies. It is those who understand this who actually listen to what the moment says. And when that person reads the scriptures he or she is not spending time with a document, but listening to what
    a God who has acted and spoken through the ancients is saying now.

  3. Jay,

    i’ve read this book a couple times and i think it has tremendous insights and a lot of things that are just spot on (though his laundry list of what the right and left have wrong is bound to piss anyone off a little bit). But it seemed to me that some of what he says just can’t be reconciled with a restorationist ecclesiology. If you consider us making up our own *new* act to the same play, how is that restorationism?


  4. It seems to that the vast majority of Christians, be it educated or not, do not understand what the Bible really says for the simple reason that they approach it wrongly. If one just reads it “like a book” instead of reading it like its the “penal code”, that persons eyes would be opened up to what it really says (which radically differs from what the majority thinks it says). Sure, in-depth study is required to understand many illustrations, symbolisms, and figures of speech, but, “Book, Chapter, and verse-ing” (proof-texting) has created countless commonly held heresies. I do appreciate your blog in that you “Book, Chapter, and CONTEXT” instead.

  5. Guy,

    Some elements of the First Century must, of course, be restored. Some, not so much.

    We’ve picked some parts and not other parts. The key is in knowing how to tell the difference.

  6. Jay,

    i don’t think anything you’ve said would be in dispute with anyone in mainstream Christendom. But that’s just my point. If everyone’s a restorationist, then no one is. Yet there are groups that are vocally non-restorationist (which, i would assume but could be wrong, would include the Anglican church of which N.T. Wright is a part). If you listen to any critiques of “Pagan Christianity,” you’ll hear some people bring this matter up–that the book is written presupposing a restorationist perspective, as though that presupposition is in dispute.

    If restorationism is as vague as you’ve put it, then i don’t think it means anything to be a restorationist. If just about everyone of just about any theological stripe could agree with your statement, then the restorationist’s understanding of that statement must differ either in degree or kind in or to warrant the term “restorationist.”

    Wright, i think, would absolutely agree with your comment. But he writes in the book as though there’s not any major concern for needing to imitate the first century church.


  7. Guy,

    It would be a mistake to begin reading the Bible with a restorationist assumption. Rather, the extent to which we are to be restorationist is a question that comes from the scripture, not a tradition or strategy we bring to scripture. Therefore, the answer is the same for everyone and has to nothing to do with one’s denomination or faith tradition.

    All denominations reject some First Century practice and all accept some First Century practice. The differences re restorationism are matters of degree. The Churches of Christ have a strong rhetoric of restorationism, but we don’t meet in homes, don’t celebrate the love feast, don’t have an order of widows per 1 Tim 5, don’t require our women to wear veils, and we don’t greet with the Holy Kiss.

    Just so, the Presbyterians (USA) take communion, baptize, sing, have sermons, pray, and give money in their assemblies. But no one would call them restorationists — and yet they follow most of the same First Century practices in worship as the Churches of Christ.

    You see, the label “restorationist” tends to be applied to those denominations that define salvation in terms of First Century practices — not those who follow First Century practices. The Anglican communion — Wright’s denomination — takes communion with wine using a single cup, and they do so weekly! But they aren’t called restorationists because they don’t define salvation in those terms, even though their communion practice is in some respects closer to First Century practice than our own.

    It’s wrong to be a restorationist if that means you define the borders of God’s kingdom based on which First Century practices you adopt in your worship. Rather, it’s a matter of hermeneutics. And if we take our hermeneutics from the scriptures — rather than from the Enlightenment or the Gospel Advocate — we’ll find Christianity much more about being the body of Christ than how we worship on Sunday.

    Hence, true restorationism is much more about restoring life according to the Sermon on the Mount and being led by the Spirit than forms and structures.

  8. Hi Jay

    I am John from Winfield. My picture should always show up, not an avatar. John with an avatar and Alabama John are not me.

    I believe we have neglected teaching the principles encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount. However, I remain unconverted to the view that “forms and structures” are unimportant. “Unimportant” is my word, not yours, but that seems where the Progressive understanding is generally heading.

    I know “safe” is a profane word to you 🙂 but looks to me like we should try to look like the church in the epistles, allowing that some things were cultural. I still believe that would be safe and that that would be a good thing.

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