N.T. Wright on inspiration and the word of God

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

This year, we’ve set aside Mondays to discuss how to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be, and right now we’re working our way through N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God. (Next up, Inspiration and Incarnation by Pete Enns.) 

Now, we got a little distracted over the past few weeks trying to figure out whether Wright would identify himself as a Calvinist or not. I think we’ve resolved that issue adequately enough for the time...(my apologies if you’re still lying awake at night trying to figure it out)....so let’s move on to Chapter 2! 

Entitled “Israel and God’s Kingdom-People,” this chapter takes a step back to look at the big picture. Wright returns to a theme you will find in quite a bit of his writing, and that is that we must understand both Scripture and Jesus in the context of the question—“How is Israel to be rescued, and how is the whole world to be put to rights?” In other words, we have to frame the existence of Scripture and the presence of Jesus with the Problem of Evil. 

“To speak of God’s Kingdom,” says Wright, “is thus to invoke God as the sovereign one who has the right, the duty, and the power to deal appropriately with evil in the world, in Israel, and in human beings, and thereupon to remake the world, Israel, and human beings...When full allowance is made for the striking differences of genre and emphasis within scripture, we may propose that Israel’s sacred writings were the place where, and the means by which, Israel discovered again and again who the true God was, and how his Kingdom-purposes were being taken forward...Through scripture, God was equipping his people to serve his purposes.” 

This is where the notion of the inspiration of Scripture comes in, says Wright. 

“’Inspiration,’” he says, “is 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 books God intended his people to have.” 

Hmm. I've never heard it explained quite that way before. 

Wright then goes on to offer an explanation of what is meant by “the word of God" - and this really got my attention. 

“And in and through it all, we find the elusive but powerful idea of God’s ‘word,’” he says, not as a synonym for the written scriptures, but as a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing recreating” (emphasis mine).

This strikes me as an important point, for often, when I’m talking with Christians—particularly evangelicals—I get the sense that there is an assumption that “God’s word” is synonymous with, (and perhaps limited to), “the Bible.” But Wright points to Scripture itself to make the point, as he had earlier, that “God does indeed speak through scripture. But we cannot either reduce God’s speech to scripture alone, or for that matter ignore the fact that ‘speech’ must itself be thought of in terms of ‘speech-acts,’ the deeds which are performed by the fact of speaking at all...”: 

  • "By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,  their starry host by the breath of his mouth." (Psalm 33:6)
  • “'Is not my word like fire,; declares the LORD, 'and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?'" (Jeremiah 23:29
  • “The grass withers and the flowers fall,  but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)
  • (This is a personal favorite): "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,  so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:10-11)
  • "No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it." (Deuteronomy 30:14)

Concludes Wright:  “It is as though...‘the word of the YHWH’ is like an enormous reservoir, full of creative divine wisdom and power, into which the prophets and other writers tap by God’s call and grace, so that the word may flow through them to do God’s work of flooding or irrigating his people.” 

I love that thought! 

But, if I am understanding Wright correctly, this idea has consequences for both uber-conservative Christians (who may tend to see God’s presence and revelatory activity as limited the words printed in the Bible) and more liberal Christians (who may prefer to think of the words of Joshua and Jeremiah as entirely their own, and not the words of God). 

Wright notes that “Israel was thus constituted, from one point of view, as the people who heard God’s word—in call, promise, liberation,  guidance, judgment, forgiveness, further judgment, renewed liberation, and renewed promise....This is what I mean by denying that scripture can be reduced to the notion of the ‘record of a revelation,’ in the sense of a mere writing down of earlier, and assumedly prior, ‘religious experience.’ To think like that would be to superimpose categories entirely foreign to the Old Testament’s authors, editors, or hearers. We cannot reduce ‘thus says YHWH’ to ‘thus says Jeremiah’ without squashing our own framework on top of theirs, and indeed on their experiences as well.”


Wright concludes the chapter with an attempt to sum up the role which scripture played within Israel:“God’s sovereign activity, through, to and for Israel by means of his spoken and written word.”

In the next chapter, he will address Jesus—“the living embodiment of Israel’s God, the God whose spirit had inspired the scriptures in the first place.” 


So what do you think? Does this understanding of God’s word as a reservoir from which scripture is drawn resonate? What about Wright’s brief definition of inspiration? 

As always, please feel free to correct me if you think I may be misunderstanding Wright.

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