N.T. Wright’s The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture

There are few figures today who claim the name “Evangelical” that are as controversial as the Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright.  There are also few figures as prolific in the output of their writings as Tom Wright.  As polarizing figures are apt to do, Wright seems to have inspired two different camps:  those who hang on his every word and those who seem determined to condemn his every word.

I am sure, though, that there must be others who, like myself, are uneasy with Wright’s primary arena of controversy (the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul and the potential implications of this view on the traditional Reformation doctrine of justification by faith), but feel that the Bishop might have much to add to evangelical life in other regards.  (Unlike many of his critics, however, this is as strong as I will state my unease, for my own reading on these issues has been primarily in secondary works and in the lectures of critics.  The fact that I have not grappled with and worked through Wright’s magnus opum, the multi-volumeChristian Origins and the Question of God, will keep me from going any further in this direction, an approach that other critics who have not read his primary works might consider adopting themselves.)

I am happy to say that this is the case with Wright’s The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture.  Not only is there very little here that establishment Evangelicals could be uneasy with, there is much here that will challenge and inspire Evangelicals who feel as if they are mired in these so-called “Bible wars” and who are seeking to have and hold a robust view of biblical authority that honors the God who gave us Scripture while recognizing the complex issues that accompany biblical inspiration as well.

I found particularly helpful Wright’s diagnosis of the hermeneutical blind-spots that those on both the right and the left inevitably hold.  As a pastor “on the right,” I must say I by-and-large agree with his assessments.  Escapist eschatologies, idiosyncratic and eisegetical readings that do not seem to hear, much less heed, various biblical justice issues that might challenge certain political presuppositions that many on the right appear to uncritically accept, and a host of other blind-spots are diagnosed with the precision that only one who has spent much time in the house of conservative Evangelicalism could offer.  Of course, his critique of the left’s blindspots were, I believe, spot on, and much less painful for me to read.  But for Wright’s critics on the right who fear nascent or full-orbed leftist tendencies in the Bishop, his list of leftist eisegesis will give some comfort that the good Bishop has both of his eyes wide open.

I must confess to being mildly irritated by what appears to be a rather consistent anti-Americanism within Wright’s writings (specifically here and in Simply Christian as well).  I don’t so much disagree with the main thrust of some of his concerns as I find them myopic, simplistic, and lacking in any real effort to see the other side of his primary concerns (i.e., America’s wealth and the war).  In truth, when it comes to American politics Wright sounds not only like a member of the Democratic party but also like any number of legions of anti-American Brits with an axe to grind.  But I digress…

What strikes me when I read Wright is his consistent desire for balance.  He wants a healthy respect for the role of tradition but eschews the mantras of Catholic traditionalists who see the Bible as the Church’s property.  He wants us to respect the valid contributions of critical scholarship, but wants us to see clearly the arrogant Enlightenment assumptions behind the supposedly neutral hermeneutic of modern skeptical elites.  He wants us to be “whole Bible” theologians, seeing the Hebrew Scriptures as the Word of God, but he also wants us to realize that those in “the fifth act” (“the church” in his five-fold schema of reading Scripture) cannot act as if they are in the first four acts.  I found this particular insight – how Christians are to read the Old Testament – to be the most fertile ground in The Last Word, and the one section that made me most want to delve into his larger works.

Wright’s work, in many ways, is a profound philosophical diagnosis of modernity and postmodernity and the challenges that these realities present to the modern reader.  His discussion of the concept of authority is quite helpful and few books have made me think as deeply about the words we toss about so casually in our discussions of Holy Scripture as Wright’s book.

Above all, my one reading of The Last Word has reminded me again of C.S. Lewis’ opinion that we’ve not really read a book until we’ve read it at least twice.  I will likely follow this advice with this book, though I need some time to digest this meal that has proven to be very solid, and, I believe, will prove to be quite beneficial for my own spiritual health.

The Last Word is worthy of a close reading.

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