N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, and New Testament scholar, has become a theologian of note in recent years, both in his homeland and points west. In all of his popular writing, he does a most admirable job of making the not-terribly-simple quite accessible to the average reader.
In 2005, he published The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture(Harper SanFrancisco; published as Scripture and the Authority of Godby SPCK in the UK). It is, essentially, a book on hermeneutics – what theologians otherwise call the study of biblical interpretation. The title is sufficiently intriguing as to make one want to read it. And with an artistic version of the Last Supper on the cover (remember The DaVinci Code?), I suspect it has been a popular read. It’s not surprising that Wright would author a book on the Bible, given that he is the current President of the British and Foreign Bible Society.
Essentially, Wright’s thesis is a definition of “the authority of Scripture”. The phrase, “the authority of Scripture” has been used and abused throughout Christian history, and Wright wants to clarify the meaning for a new generation. What he says is, “‘Authority of Scripture’ Is a Shorthand for ‘God’s Authority Exercised through Scripture” (page 23 heading, emphasis his).
As part of the process of unpacking his thesis, Wright attempts to debunk some terms that are tossed around somewhat haphazardly in all circles of Christian thought. For example, we often hear the term ‘literal’ when it comes to an interpretation of Scripture. Wright says, “For them (the Reformers), the ‘literal’ sense was the sense that the first writers intended” (page 73, emphasis his). Nowadays, when we say, “The Bible says…”, we often are reading it through our own eyes with our own baggage. What made the Reformation revolutionary was the desire to read the Bible as it was first intended by those who wrote down the words in the first place.
Rather than be strictly theoretical, Wright seeks to help the reader apply the theory. On the matter of what it means to live by the authority of Scripture, he says, “Perhaps it is only under pressure from our cultured despisers that we will get down to the task we should never have abandoned, that of continually trying to understand and live by our foundation texts even better than our predecessors” (page 96). That can look somewhat different for different folks, one might successfully argue, but it certainly is a fine place from which to begin dialogue.
Wright even bravely ventures into the liberal/conservative debate and what are the misreadings of Scripture found in each tradition. Whether one falls on the liberal side of theology, the conservative side, or somewhere in between, the author offers an excellent challenge to define what we mean by various terms and phrases with characteristic effectiveness.
At 146 pages, this is not a long read, but it is a worthwhile one. However, I doubt it will be “the last word” on biblical interpretation!