Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright (Part 2)
This continues a 2-part review and discussion of N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God, a book I highly recommend.
A Better Way To Read the Bible
In the first post I talked about how we – conservatives and liberals alike – got to some severely-distorted methods of biblical interpretation and why that is such a problem. Instead of seeing the Bible as a simple rule book or science or history textbook, we need to look at the Bible as the story of God and his Kingdom among his people. A lot of conservatives will recoil at this quickly, arguing that the Bible is to be read as much as a literal inerrant historical and scientific textbook and anything else would be heresy (so, the majority of Christians throughout history and today are heretics). It was defined as one of the fundamentals in the 1910’s after all. Liberals may take a bit longer to recoil but usually are going to end up just as offended once we get practical since this Kingdom-story hermeneutic necessitates very real implications. I however, like Wright, believe that this is how Scripture speaks of itself and brings us into a far more beautiful picture of God than the legal plus scientific framework.
An important part of viewing the Bible within the larger story of God and his people is to know the main acts of the story. I’ve encountered this idea in a few different ways but Wright’s 5 acts explanation is very helpful. Think of the story of the Bible and of the world in general as a play with different acts. Each act is different but wouldn’t make sense without the prior acts and all acts are necessary to reach the conclusion. In Act 1, God created the world. In Act 2, humanity fell from grace and separated ourselves from God. In Act 3, God calls and works through the nation of Israel. In Act 4 we have the climax: the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus. Finally, Act 5 is what we live in now, the age of the church which I see as a sort of denouement: victory is assured but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to do (any good story has a denouement). Depending on your understanding of God’s foreknowledge, maybe this is already written/preordained or maybe it is open, but in whichever case we are called to act our parts.
At this point, the differences he presented throughout the majority of the book between the modernist framework and this story-of-God framework made a lot of sense in theory but didn’t really stand out to me until he gave two case studies to complete the book. Wisely, he picked two topics which have been controversial in the past but are generally not an issue anymore. This nicely avoided any accusations that he was simply pushing some other agenda and hopefully it means that people can focus on how they demonstrate his main points on how to read the Bible.
The common interpretation for Sabbath goes like this: in the Old Testament it was an enforced law but Jesus did away with it. Maybe it is still nice to remember the principle that rest is good, but that’s about it. How does Sabbath fit within the grand story of God and his people, though?
Sabbath is introduced right from Act 1 and is therefore seen as appropriate: if God can “rest” (more on what that means in a second), then so can we. In Act 3, Israel is brought out of slavery and thus the Sabbath is commanded to be a reminder, allowing a day to focus on that rescuing God. Paul, the earliest NT writer, said more or less nothing on the topic even though he spent a lot of time on other Jewish laws (namely, food laws and circumcision). Jesus – as is often the case – provides the pivot point as the climax of the story. He clearly broke the rules of Sabbath multiple times and seems to have had no problems with doing so. This is how we can get the usual answer: Jesus overruled the legalism of Sabbath and that’s all we need to know about it.
For a deeper look, what does it mean to take a Sabbath? We read that God “rested.” Wright provides one explanation: in the ancient world, it would have been read in the same way as a god building his Temple. The last stage of building was placing the image or idol of the god – in this case, humanity – and after that the god could take up residence there. The god would keep working on the grand project of creation, of course, but he would be at ease in his new home. This command returns after the Exodus as a way for God’s people to prove their loyalty, and Wright then says this: “the picture of the sabbath we get from the Old Testament is of a commandment which is important as much for what it points to [the rhythm of life and the necessity of sacred time] as for its actual observance.” Wright delves into this theme further and it definitely helped my understanding of the Sabbath as far more than a rule to obey (or not to obey, as most don’t anymore).
Once we get to the New Testament, Sabbath is the only of the Big 10 to not get reinforced and in fact seems to be undermined with statements like: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” As Wright says:
The only explanation which will do – but it will do very well indeed – is that Jesus believed he was inaugurating the new age toward which the entire sabbath institution had been pointing. He had come to announce and enact the Jubilee of Jubilees, the sabbath of sabbaths, the time when God’s purposes and human life would come together at last…. Jesus acted as if he were the Temple in person, offering people forgiveness on his own authority…. But the underlying point is the eschatological claim that Jesus was making: “the time is fulfilled; God’s kingdom is at hand!” The fulfillment of time indicates that the project which God the creator began in creation, and the redemptive project launched in the exodus, had reached their destination.
You probably want to read that over a few times to understand it – or even better, read the whole book. To try to summarize it and probably be overly-simplistic: in the OT sabbath was a pointer towards the Kingdom project God was working on and the necessary rest in the rhythms of life but in the NT Jesus declared that the Kingdom project was completed. Broadly speaking, we don’t need the signposts that point ahead to the Kingdom when the Kingdom is already here. Today, then, our task is not to debate whether we should enforce a day of rest as a continual looking back at the signpost. Rather, our task is to celebrate the Kingdom of God already present all around because everyday is sacred time.
Monogamy is interesting because it inverts the standard assumptions about the Old Testament and the New Testament. Polygamy was standard in the “legalistic” Old Testament but looked down on in the “grace-filled” New Testament. While for Sabbath people typically say that the covenant of grace has cancelled out the legalistic rules like Sabbath, that wouldn’t work with monogamy. In this case, it is the Old Testament which is “liberal” and yet we consistently – in the Western world at least – support the more conservative approach found in the New Testament. This issue shows that the legal-OT-vs-grace-NT approach doesn’t work.
Let’s look at the different acts again. In Act 1, the original design before “the Fall,” a man and woman were created to be in a monogamous relationship. After that, polygamy as well as divorce become acceptable. Jesus in Mark 10/Matthew 19 gives us a good hint at this, saying that Moses permitted – not commanded – divorce because people were living between the Fall and the redemption.
In other words, Act 2 broke the design of Act 1 and this stayed true throughout Act 3. In Act 4, in which the new creation is brought into being in the person of Jesus, the original design is restored: “they are no longer two, but one flesh. What God has joined, humans must not split apart” (Mark 10:2-9). If you can’t handle this kind of bonding, Jesus and Paul both promote the option of celibacy as being equal if not better, but the marriage relationship is one of permanent union with another and anything less is not acceptable in the new creation.
Once again the pivot of the Kingdom story is Jesus and his ushering in of the Kingdom on Earth. We aren’t just erasing the Old Testament but we are seeing how it fits within the bigger story – in this case a story which called for a stricter ethic instead of a looser one which we might expect.
This Framework and Anabaptism
As my own final note, this is pretty close to how Anabaptists have always understood the Bible. Arguably most Anabaptists have had a more simplistic view essentially boiling down to: everything should be interpreted through Jesus. With the issues above it would be as simple as “Jesus didn’t care about Sabbath so we don’t have to” and “Jesus taught monogamy or celibacy as the only options so we will to.” The Old Testament is still considered Scripture but is rarely treated as offering anything that the New Testament didn’t offer more clearly.
I don’t think that’s wrong by any means, but I do think that Anabaptists have a tendency to completely ignore the Old Testament. In practice Wright’s framework may lead to essentially the same implications but there is at least some understanding of why the Old Testament takes a back seat – not as less important but as an older act of the story which has less direct relevance today – than most Anabaptists have offered, at least in my experience.