Monday, January 1, 2018

Nonpartisan Evangelical Scholarship Part 3: N.T. Wright

If John Goldingay's Models for Scripture provided emergency roadside assistance partway through my PhD during my own little crisis of authority (see part 2 in this series), N.T. Wright's “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” (Vox Evangelica 21 [1991]: 7–32), has been more of a familiar traveling companion.

I first read Wright's essay shortly after Models for Scripture, and found it to reaffirm in more general terms what Goldingay had said. I have had occasion to reread it often since then because I assign it as a required reading when I teach Hermeneutics.

Whether or not N.T. Wright has succeeded in practice at being nonpartisan (in the sense I am using it), in this essay he defends nonpartisan evangelical scholarship:
"[E]vangelicals often use the phrase 'authority of scripture' when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying." (9)

"How can we handle this extraordinary treasure, responsibly? First, we have to let the Bible be the Bible in all its historical oddness and otherness. ... God forgive us that we have taken the Bible and have made it ordinary--that we have cut it down to our size. We have reduced it, so that whatever text we preach on it will say basically the same things. ... What we are seeing in such preaching is not the authority of scripture at work, but the authority of a tradition, or even a mere convention masquerading as the authority of scripture--which is much worse, because it has thereby lost the possibility of a critique or inbuilt self-correction coming to it from scripture itself." (23-24)

"If we really engage with the Bible in this serious way we will find, I believe, that we will be set free from (among other things) some of the small-scale evangelical paranoia which goes on about scripture. ... Of course the Bible is inspired, and if you're using it like this there won't be any question in your mind that the Bible is inspired. But, you will be set free to explore ways of articulating that belief which do not fall into the old rationalist traps of [the] 18th or 19th or 20th century. ... Of course you will discover that the Bible will not let you down. You will be paying attention to it; you won't be sitting in judgement over it. But you won't come with a preconceived notion of what this or that passage has to mean if it is to be true. ... I take it as a method in my biblical studies that if I turn a corner and find myself saying, 'Well, in that case, that verse is wrong' that I must have turned a wrong corner somewhere. But that does not mean that I impose what I think is right on to that bit of the Bible. It means, instead, that I am forced to live with that text uncomfortably, sometimes literally for years (this is sober autobiography), until suddenly I come round a different corner and that verse makes a lot of sense; sense that I wouldn't have got if I had insisted on imposing my initial view on it from day one." (29-30)

The substance of Wright's essay reappeared as part of Wright's The Last Word (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), but the original shorter version is freely available online here.

This is part 2 in a 4-part series:
Part 1: F.F. Bruce 
Part 2: John Goldingay 
Part 3: N.T. Wright
Part 4: Donald J. Verseput  

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