As part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be, we’re working our way through a stack of fantastic books about how to read the Bible. We’ve already discussed The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Right now we’re discussing Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar. And next up is Inspiration and Incarnation, by Peter Enns, and Old Testament scholar. (Yeah, I realize we may have these last two a bit backwards!) Anyway, we need to pick up the pace with Wright, lest we get stuck with him through 2013, so today I’ve combined notes from Chapter 3 and Chapter4.
Chapter 3 is entitled “Scripture and Jesus,” and in it, Wright makes two points about Jesus, who is “the living embodiment of Israel’s God, and the God whose Spirit had inspired the scriptures in the first place”:
1. Jesus accomplishes that to which scripture had pointed.
This means that “in and through Jesus evil is confronted and judged, and forgiveness and renewal are brought to birth,” says Wright. “The covenant is renewed; new creation is inaugurated. The work which God had done through scripture in the Old Testament is done by Jesus in his public career, his death, and resurrection, and his sending of the Spirit.”
“When Jesus of spoke of the scripture needing to be fulfilled,” says Wright, “he was not simply envisaging himself doing a few scattered and random acts which corresponded to various distant and detached sayings; he was thinking of the entire storyline at last coming to fruition, and of an entire world of hints and shadows now coming to plain statement and full light.” This is what Jesus meant when he repeatedly insisted that he had come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
2. Jesus insists on scripture’s authority.
Thinking of Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture helps resolve potential tensions that may arise when speaking of how Jesus saw scripture as authoritative, Wright says. How could Jesus, on the one hand, speak overtly about the importance of understanding and obeying scripture (Matthew 22:29, Matthew 15:6-9, John 10:35), and then, on the other, declare all foods clean (Mark 7:1-23), boast a relatively cavalier attitude toward the Sabbath, and urge his followers to be prepared to “hate” their father and mother (Luke 14:26) in contrast to honoring them?
“With the usual argument,” notes Wright, “which sees ‘scripture’ simply in black and white, almost on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, it is hard to see what on earth is going on. Once we set Jesus in the context of a larger scriptural story, however, and come to grips with his sense of what exactly the new the new covenant would mean and how it would both fulfill and transform the old one....we discover a much richer, and more narratival, sense of ‘fulfillment,’ which generates that subtle and powerful view of scripture we find in the early church.”
The next chapter, “The ‘Word of God’ in the Apostolic Church,” explores this view of scripture in the early church.
The stories of Scripture had raised practical and theoretical questions, which the life of Jesus was meant to answer, says Wright, so when Paul talks about how Jesus “died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures...and was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,” he is not simply providing proof texts to back up his claims about what Jesus did, but rather making the point that these events have “come as the climax to the long and winding narrative of Israel’s Scriptures.” And when Paul writes about “the word” (Colossians 1:5, 1 Thessalonians 2:13), he means “the story of Jesus (particularly his death and resurrection), told as the climax of the story of God and Israel and thus offering itself as both the true story of the world and the foundation and energizing force for the church’s mission.”
(Note: Wright’s understanding of ‘the word’ from Chapter 2 is critical to understanding his next few points.)
The early followers of Jesus wrote books and letters which were intended to continue this work on a wider scale. These writers believed themselves to be inspired by the Spirit and called as teachers, and their writings, argues Wright, “were not simply about the coming of God’s Kingdom into all the world; they were, and were designed to be, part of the means whereby that happened...Those who read these writings discovered, from very early on, that the books themselves carried the same power, the same authority in action, that had characterized the initial preaching of the ‘word.”
This brings up an important question: Did the New Testament writers think that they were writing scripture?
Wright seems to think so, at least in a sense.
“The fact that their writings were, in various senses, ‘occasional’ is not the point,” he notes. “At precisely those points of urgent need...Paul is most conscious that he is writing as one authorized, by the apostolic call he had received from Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Spirit, to bring life and order to the church by his words...This is not to say that the writers of the New Testament specifically envisaged a time when their books would be collected together and form something like what we now know as the cannon. I doubt very much if such an idea ever crossed their minds. But that they were conscious of a unique vocation to write Jesus-shaped, Spirit-led, church-shaping books, as part of their strange first-generation calling, we should not doubt.”
The books and letters, Wright notes, are diverse, nuanced, and often specific to first-century contexts. Many deal with difficult (and practical) questions regarding how to interpret and apply Old Testament scripture in light of Jesus and with the addition of Gentiles to the community of faith. The Messiah had come, which meant scripture had to be read in a new way. “This new way resulted in their recognizing that some parts of scriptures were no longer relevant for their ongoing life,” says Wright”—not, we must stress, because those parts were bad, or not God-given, or less inspired, but because they belonged with earlier parts of the story which had now reached its climax.”
According to Wright, the New Testament thus emerged as “a written expression of that word under which the earliest Christians knew themselves to be living—indeed, by which they found life in all its fullness.”
The early Christians believed that “God’s word was at work by the Spirit within the community, to put Jesus’ achievement into effect and thus to advance the final Kingdom." According to Wright, "the New Testament understands itself as the new covenant charter, the book that forms the basis for the new telling of the story through which Christians are formed, reformed, and transformed so as to be God’s people for God’s world.”
I think I’m tracking with Wright on all of this, especially when I consider how he defines “the word of God.” I’ve often wondered how the writers of the New Testament perceived their work at the time, and how they would react to how we’re using it today.
I’ll never forget F.F. Bruce’s comment to Scot McKnight, (which Scot recalled in The Blue Parakeet): “I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah.”
So what do you think? How did the writers of our New Testament perceive their own books and letters? Did they imagine them to be on par with the Hebrew scriptures with which they grew up? In what sense? In light of Wright’s analysis, (or an analysis you prefer), how do you think they would want us to interpret and apply the New Testament to our lives?
A lot of this feels a bit over my head, so I look forward to your response.
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