N.T. Wright on the Enlightenment, postmodernism, and common misreadings of scripture

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

It’s Monday, which means it’s time to continue series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be.  

As part of the series, we’re working our way through several books, and have already discussed The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Up next up is Inspiration and Incarnation, by Peter Enns.  But currently, we’re discussing Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright, and today I want to address Chapter 6, entitled “The Challenge of the Enlightenment,” and Chapter 7, entitled, “Misreadings of Scripture.” 

I confess I checked out few times while plowing through Chapter 6, which explores the effect of the Enlightenment on biblical interpretation and scriptural authority. Because this is just the sort of stuff you bring up at parties to make friends. 

Here Wright notes that “much of what has been written about the Bible in the last two hundred years has either been following through the Enlightenment’s program, or reacting to it, or negotiating some kind of halfway house in between.”  And so Christians need to be aware of which Enlightenment assertions “must be politely denied, which of its challenges may be taken up and by what means, and which of its accomplishments must be welcomed and enhanced.” 

Without casting Enlightenment rationalism as categorically evil, Wright details some of the problematic consequences of Enlightenment assumptions regarding the biblical text: false claims to absolute objectivity, the elevation of “reason” (“not as an insistence that exegesis must make sense with an overall view of God and the wider world,” Wright notes, “but as a separate ‘source’ in its own right”), reductive and skeptical readings of scripture that cast Christianity as out-of-date and irrelevant, a human-based eschatology that fosters a “we-know-better-now” attitude toward the text, a reframing of the problem of evil as a mere failure to be rational, the reduction of the act of God in Jesus Christ to a mere moral teacher, etc.  

Wright then discusses how the rise of historical biblical scholarship has both helped and hurt the Church, arguing for something of a middle-way between anti-intellectualism on the one hand and the glorification of it on the other. According to Wright, “to affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions.” 

And I especially like this: 

“Not all who try to follow the Bible in detail as well as outline are fundamentalists,” says Wright,  “nor are they all guilty of those cultural, intellectual, and moral failings which North American (and other) liberals perceive in North American (and other) conservatives. Equally, not all who question some elements of New Testament teaching, or its applicability to the present day, are ‘liberals’ in the sense pejoratively intended by North American conservatives or traditionalists.” 

Wright urges Christians to avoid plugging their ears and refusing to acknowledge the insights that can be gleaned from historical criticism on the one hand, and accepting historical criticism wholesale on the other. 

“There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is ‘true after all, and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes,” he says.  

As the chapter continues, Wright tackles postmodern scholarship, which he believes has offered some helpful critiques of Enlightenment assumptions while providing useful analyses of how certain texts might be received by particular groups, but which tends to veer into the complete dismissal of large portions of the biblical text. And so Wright sees postmodernity’s effect on contemporary Western readings of Scripture as “essentially negative.” “Postmodernity agress with modernity in scorning both the eschatological claim of Christianity and its solution to the problem of evil, but without putting any alternatives in place,” he says. “ All we can do with the Bible, if postmodernity is left in charge, is to play with such texts as give us pleasure, and issue warnings against those that give pain to ourselves or to others who attract our (usually selective) sympathy.” 

Wright’s solution is “a narratival and critical realist reading of scripture,” which he doesn’t flesh out in this chapter, but will in future ones...which is good, seeing as how I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. 

Chapter 7 gets a little more interesting because Wright lists common misreading of Scripture—by the religious right and the religious left. 

His list of misreadings on the right includes:

- the rapture 

- the prosperity gospel 

- the support of slavery (so I guess he’s referring to readings both past and present) 

- undifferentiated reading of the Old and New Testament

- an arbitrary pick-and-choose approach to Scripture, complete with an implicit canon-within-the-canon, which, for example, is tough on sexual offenses but says nothing about the regular biblical prohibitions against usury

- support of the death penalty

- “discovery of ‘religious’ meanings and exclusion of ‘political’ ones, thus often tacitly supporting the social status quo”

 - readings of Paul that leave out the Jewish dimension through which his letters make the most sense

- attempted “biblical” support for the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of scriptural prophesy - an overall failure to pay attention to context and hermeneutics

[I can think of plenty more, starting with this idea that the Bible presents us with a singular picture of “biblical womanhood” that more closely resembles the June Cleaver culture of pre-feminist America than the familial norms of biblical times -  not that I’m biased on that one or anything. :-) ]

His list of misreading on the left includes: 

- claims to objective or neutral readings of the text

- claims that modern history/science “disprove” the Bible or render it  irrelevant or unbelievable

- the cultural relativity argument which assumes that “the Bible is an old book from a different culture, so we can’t take it seriously in the modern world.” 

- caricaturing biblical teaching on some topics in order to be able to set aside its teaching on other topics

- “discovery of ‘political’ meanings to the exclusion of ‘religious’ ones”

- the proposal that the New Testament used the Old Testament in an arbitrary and unwarranted fashion

- the claim that New Testament writers did not think they were writing ‘scripture,’ so appealing to their work does them violence

- “a skin-deep-only appeal to ‘contextual readings,’ as though by murmuring the magic word ‘context’ one is allowed ot hold the meaning and relevance of the text at arm’s length."

- reducing “truth” to scientific statements on the one hand, or to deconstruct it altogether on the other. 

Wright believes a critical realist reading of the text is something of a third way between two extremes, one that can “take the postmodern critique fully on board and still come back with a strong case for a genuinely historical understanding.”

He argues that we do have serious and academic methods by which we can “say definitively that some readings of ancient texts are historically preferable to others,” and that those should be employed thoughtfully and humbly by the Church. 

In chapter eight, “How to Get Back on Track,” Wright will propose a five-part recommendation for approaching scripture today.


It's all getting a little theoretical to me.


So, did any of that make sense to you? What do you think of Wright’s assessment of the Enlightenment and of postmodernism? What would you add to the list of biblical misreadings—on either the right or left?

Check out the rest of our Bible series here.

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