The Last Word | Notes & Review

Posted on January 7, 2014


N.T. Wright. The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. (146 pages)

the last word

Preface to the American Edition

Taken as a whole, the church clearly can’t live without the Bible, but it doesn’t seem to have much idea of how to live with it. (ix)

The risen Jesus, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, does not say, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to the books you are all going to write,” but “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me.” (xi)


Scripture within the Church




Scripture within Contemporary Culture


The Bible, rather obviously, not only offers some fairly substantial individual stories about God, the world and humankind, but in its canonical form, from Genesis to Revelation, tells a single overarching story which appears to be precisely the kind of thing people today have learned to resist. (7)

In this book I shall be arguing neither for a variety of modernism, nor for a return to premodernism, nor yet for a capitulation to postmodernism, but for what I hope is a way through this entire mess and muddle and forward into a way of living in and for God’s world, and within the community of God’s people, with Christian and biblical integrity. (10)




Anyone who has worked within biblical scholarship knows, or ought to know, that we biblical scholars come to the text with just as many interpretative strategies and expectations as anyone else, and that integrity consists not of having no presuppositions but of being aware of what one’s presuppositions are and of the obligation to listen to and interact with those who have different ones. (16)


A Fresh Word from God

…we must delve deeply into the question of what it means in the twenty-first century to be a loyal Christian, and within that a wise and mature reader and/or teacher of scripture, taking full account of the new pressures and challenges we now face. We must draw on wisdom from the past without imagining that our questions are identical with those faced by Luther or Calvin, by Cranmer or Hooker, or for that matter by Aquinas or Ignatius Loyola. Or fr that matter, by John Henry Newman, Karl Barth, William Temple, Michael Ramsey or John A. T. Robinson. We are in uncharted waters. And they are a lot deeper than some contemporary debaters seem to realize. (21)

The Shallow Level of Current Debate

Chapter 1: By Whose Authority?

“Authority of Scripture” Is a Shorthand for “God’s Authority Exercised through Scripture”

When John declares that “in the beginning was the word,” he does not reach a climax with “and the word was written down” but “and the word became flesh.” (23)

Since these are themselves “scriptural statements, that means that scripture itself points — authoritatively, if it does indeed possess authority! — away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself, now delegated to Jesus Christ. (24)

Shorthands, in other words, are useful in the same way that suitcases are. They enable us to pick up lots of complicated things and carry them around all together. But we should never forget that the point of doing so, like the point of carrying belongings in a suitcase, is that what has been packed away can then be unpacked and put to use in the new location. Too much debate about scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases. (24-25)

Authority and Story

…the Bible itself, as a whole and in most of its parts, is not the sort of thing that many people envisage today when they hear the word “authority.” (25)

“Authority of Scripture” as the Language of Protest

Authority in God’s “Kingdom”

…in scripture itself God’s purpose is not just to save human beings, but to renew the whole world. This is the unfinished story in which readers of scripture are invited to become actors in their own right. (29)

What role does scripture play within God’s accomplishment of this goal? It is enormously important that we see the role of scripture not simply as being to provide true information about, or even an accurate running commentary upon, the work of God in salvation and new creation, but as taking an active part within that ongoing purpose. (30)

Transcending “Revelation”

A fully Christian view of the Bible includes the idea of God’s self-revelation but, by setting it in a larger context, transforms it. Precisely because the God who reveals himself is the world’s lover and judge, rather than its absentee landlord, that self-revelation is always to be understood within the category of God’s mission to the world, God’s saving sovereignty let loose through Jesus and the Spirit and aimed at the healing and renewal of all creation.

More Than a Devotional Manual

…it is wrong to confuse devotion with authority. (32)

Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself. – Wittgenstein

Authority… is the sovereign rule of God sweeping through creation to judge and to heal. It is the powerful love of God in Jesus Christ, putting sin to death and launching new creation. It is the fresh, bracing and energizing wind of the Spirit. (33)

Chapter 2: Israel and God’s Kingdom-People

Affirming God’s Victory over Evil

How can God be King, if things are as they are? (35)

…idolatry the worship of something other than the creator God, which is identified as the central evil. (35)

Without the problem of evil, there would be no need to speak of, pray for, or invoke God’s Kingdom or authority; it would be apparent as a present reality. To speak of God’s Kingdom is thus to invoke God as the sovereign one who has the right, the duty and the power to deal appropriately with evil in the world, in Israel and in human beings, and thereupon to remake the world, Israel and human beings. (36)

…we may propose that Israel’s sacred writings were the place where, and the means by which, Israel discovered again and again who the true God was, and how his Kingdom-purposes were being taken forward. (36)

Through scripture, God was equipping his people to serve his purpose. (37)

Inspiration and “the Word of YHWH”

“Inspiration” is a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were the books God intended his people to have. (37)

…the creator God, though utterly transcendent over and different from the world which he has made, remains present and active within that world, and one of the many ways in which this is so is through his living and active word. (38)

…within God’s world, one of the most powerful things human beings, God’s image-bearers, can do is to speak. 939)

The imagery is of a powerful sovereign who utters a decree from the throne, issues a fiat, and in the very utterance the thing is done. – Walter Brueggemann

Israel: The Scripture-Hearing People

Scripture in Second-Temple Judaism

  1. It formed the controlling story
  2. It formed the call to a present obedience

Chapter 3: Scripture and Jesus

Understanding Jesus within his historical context means understanding him where, according to scripture itself, he belongs. (42)

Jesus Accomplishes That to Which Scripture Had Pointed

…the entire storyline at last coming to fruition. (43)

Jesus Insists on Scripture’s Authority

Chapter 4: The “Word of God” in the Apostolic Church

Apostolic Preaching of the “Word”: The Jesus-Story as Fulfilling the (Old Testament) Scripture-Story.

The earliest apostolic preaching was neither a standard Jewish message with Jesus added on at the end, nor a free-standing announcement of a new religion cut off from its Jewish roots, but rather the story of Jesus understood as the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant narrative, and thus as the euangelion, the good news or “gospel” — the creative force which called the church into being and shaped its mission and life. (47)

The Life-Changing Power of the “Word”: Calling and Shaping the New Church

The “Word” as Vehicle of the Spirit’s Authority: Energizing, Shaping and Directing the Church

The apostolic writings, like the “word” which they now wrote down, 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 and whereby those through whom it happened could themselves be transformed into Christ’s likeness. (51)

This is not to say, of course, 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 canon. 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. (52)

The New Testament Canon: Richly Diverse or Contradictory?

The Early Christian Reading of the Old Testament: God’s New Covenant People and Their Place in the Ongoing Story

In particular, precisely because of what the early Christians believed about Israel’s story having come to fulfillment in Jesus, they developed a multi-layered, nuanced and theologically grounded reading of the Old Testament. … But from the very beginning they read the ancient scriptures in a new way. This new way resulted in their recognizing that some parts of the scriptures were no longer relevant for their ongoing life — 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. (53)

Continuity and Discontinuity in the Early Church’s Use of Scripture

When travelers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose. During the new, dry-land stage of their journey, the travelers remain — and in this illustration must never forget that they remain — the people who made that voyage in that ship. (57)

The New Testament in Dialogical Relation with All Human Culture

…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. (59)

Chapter 5: The First Sixteen Centuries

Meeting Early Challenges to Scripture with an Appeal to Scripture Itself, to Early Tradition and to Good Exegesis

The study of the early church as the scripture-reading community is one of the best ways of getting right to the heart of what early Christianity was all about. (61)

Reaffirming the Scriptural Narrative Against the “Newly” Discovered Alternative Christianities

The appeal to scripture was above all an appeal, at a structural as well as detailed level, to what may be called a renewed-Jewish view of God, the world and humankind. …the claim to be a people rooted in Israel’s story and recreated through the death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah, and thus to be living out the vocation to be genuine human beings, safe-guarded creational and covenantal monotheism over against, the first, the essentially platonic dualism of the Gnostics and others, and second, the omnipresent paganism of the Greco-Roman world. (61)

But the existence of this tension only reminds us of what was at stake in the church’s living with scripture and its refusal to abandon it in favor of the very different theological stance of, for instance, the so-called “Gospel of Thomas.” (62)

Such positions…gain their force from an appeal to a general sense within late-modern Western culture, particularly in the United States, that orthodox Christianity has been demonstrated to be bad for individuals and societies, and that its oppressive nature, colluding with enslaving forces, was already emerging in the writing and privileging of the biblical canon as we know it. People sometimes suggest, indeed, that the process of canonization is the sign that the church itself was the final authority. This proposal is sometimes made by Catholic traditionalists asserting the supremacy of the church over the Bible, and sometimes by postmodern skeptics asserting that the canon itself, and hence the books included in it, were all part of a power-play for control within the church and social respectability in that world. This makes a rather obvious logical mistake analogous to that of a soldier who, receiving orders through the mail, concludes that the letter carrier is his commanding officer. Those who transmit, collect and distribute the message are not in the same league as those who write it in the first place. (62-63)

The canonization of scripture, both Jewish and Christian, was no doubt complicated by all kinds of less-than-perfect human motivations, as indeed in the writing of scripture int he first place. But canonization was never simply a matter of a choice of particular books on a “who’s in, who’s out” basis. It was a matter of setting out the larger story, the narrative framework, which makes sense of and brings order to God’s world and God’s people. (63)

We should note, as of some importance in the early history of the Bible-reading church, that those who were being burned alive, thrown to the lions, or otherwise persecuted, tortured and killed were normally those who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and the rest. The kind of spirituality generated by “Thomas” and similar books would not have worried the Roman imperial authorities, for reasons not unconnected with the fact that “Thomas” and the similar collections of sayings are non-narratival, deliberately avoiding the option of placing the sayings within the overarching framework of the story of Israel. (63-64)

A Diminishing Focus on the Narrative Character and Israel-Dimension of Scripture

The church’s hold on the Jewish sense of the scriptural story was hard to maintain. Over the next few centuries, with the gradual loss of the Israel-dimension int he church’s understanding of itself and its scriptures, the notion of scriptural authority became detached from its narrative context, and thereby isolated from both the gift and the goal of the Kingdom. (64)

“Allegorical” Exegesis as a (Flawed) Sign of the Church’s Commitment to Stick with Scripture

What the use of allegory highlights, of course, is the church’s insistence on the importance of continuing to live with scripture, the whole scripture, including the bits which appeared deeply problematic… (66)

Allegorization, then, represents both an insistence that the church must go on living with and under scripture and a failure, at some levels at least, to understand how scripture itself actually works. (67)

The Medieval “Four Senses”: Another (Flawed) Attempt to Get at the Rich Contours of Scripture

the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical, and the moral. (68)

The four senses of scripture…drew on this sense of interconnectedness to suggest, in effect, that wherever one opened the Bible one might discover not only what happened in the past, but an open door upon the riches of Christian truth, the glory that lay ahead and the solid ground of Christian morality. (70)

Once you can make scripture stand on its hind legs and dance a jig, it becomes a tame pet rather than a roaring lion. It is no longer “authoritative” in any strict sense; that is, it may be cited as though in “proof” of some point or other, but it is not leading the way energizing the church with the fresh breath of God himself. The question must always be asked, whether scripture is being used to serve an existing theology or vice versa. (70)

The Development of “Tradition”

Sola Scriptura and the Reformation

…it provided, on the one hand, a statue of limitations: nothing beyond scripture is to be taught as needing to be believed in order for one to be saved. On the other hand, it gave a basic signpost on the way: the great truths taught in scripture are indeed the way of salvation, and those entrusted with the teaching office in the church have no right to use that office to teach anything else. (72)

The Reformers thus set scripture over against the traditions of the church; (72)

The “Literal Sense” at the Reformation

…the “literal” sense was the sense that the first writers intended… (73)

The Reformers and “Tradition”

Scripture and Tradition in the Counter-Reformation

The Reformers and the Story of God

…their readings of the gospels show little awareness of them as anything other than repositories of dominical teaching. (76)

The Place of “Reason”

…how, and at what level, human reason and clarity of thought and discourse make their contributions to Christian understanding. (78)

Chapter 6: The Challenge of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment’s Attempt to Undermine Orthodox Christianity through Rationalism — a New Twist to “Reason”

The enlightenment (whose leading thinkers include Hume, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and Kant) was, in fact, for the most part an explicitly anti-Christian movement. (83)

Much of what has been written about the Bible in the last two hundred years has either been following through the Enlightenment’s program, or reacting to it, or negotiating some kind of halfway house in between. (83-84)

Reading the Bible within the World of the Enlightenment

First…scripture must be read historically, looking for original meanings, without assuming that it would simply state, in perhaps simpler form, what the much later church had said. (84)

Second, however, from the eighteenth century onward, several historians working from within the Enlightenment project made deliberate attempts to demonstrate that such readings would in fact undermine central Christian claims. …the Bible could be faulted on matters of history… (84)

The Enlightenment’s Alternative View of History’s Climax

This meant that the Enlightenment was offering its own rival eschatology, a secular analogue to the biblical picture of God’s Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. (87)

…the Enlightenment’s alternative was equally wild and fanatical: the belief that world history, up until now a matter of darkness and superstition, had turned the decisive corner — in western Europe and North America in the eighteenth century! — and come out into the light, not least through science and technology. (87-88)

The Enlightenment’s New View of Evil

Scripture itself, meanwhile, is muzzled equally by both sides. It is squelched into silence by the “secularists” who dismiss it as irrelevant, historically inaccurate and so on — as you would expect, since it might otherwise challenge their imperial dreams. Equally worrying, if not more so, it is squashed out of shape by many of the devout, who ignore its global, cosmic and justice-laden message and treat it only as the instrument of personal piety and the source of true doctrine about eternal salvation. Secular and sacred readings — and the scholarship that has jostled between the two — have connived to produce the shallow readings which, as we saw in the prologue, constitute our immediate problem. (89)

The Muddled Debates of Modern Biblical Scholarship

To affirm “the authority of scripture” is precisely not to say, “We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.” It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions. (91)

“Literal” and “Non-Literal”

Historical Exegesis: Still Basic, but No Guarantee of Modernism’s “Assured Results”

There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is “true” after all and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes. (95)

…many of the problems or “contradictions” discovered by modernist critical study were the result of projecting alien worldviews onto the text. We have far better lexicons today than modernism did; new editions of more and more ancient texts; more archaeological and numismatic discoveries than most of us can cope with. We should gratefully use all these historical resources. (95)

Postmodernity’s Appropriate Challenge to Modernity: Necessary Corrective and Nihilistic Deconstruction

Postmodernity agrees with modernity in scorning both the eschatological claim of Christianity and its solution to the problem of evil, but without putting any alternative in place. (98)

Much criticism, both modern and postmodern, has thus left the church, after years of highly funded research in seminaries and colleges, less able to use the Bible in anything like the way which Jesus and the earliest Christians envisaged. (98)

Postmodernity’s Impotence

What about “Experience”?

…many church leaders now speak of “scripture, tradition, reason and experience” … a “Weslyan Quadrilateral…” (100)

If “experience” is itself a source of authority, we can no longer be addressed by a word which comes from beyond ourselves. At this point, theology and Christian living cease to be rooted in God himself, and are rooted instead in our own selves; in other words, they become a form of idolatry in which we exchange the truth about God for a human-made lie. (103)

“Experience” and Context

We could put it like this. “Experience” is what grows by itself in the garden. “Authority” is hat happens when the gardener wants to affirm the goodness of the genuine flowers and vegetables by uprooting the weeds in order to let beauty and fruitfulness triumph over chaos, thorns and thistles.

Chapter 7: Misreadings of Scripture

Misreadings of the “Right”

Misreadings of the “Left”

The Polarization of Debates and the Need for Fresh, Kingdom-Oriented, Historically Rooted Exegesis

Real history is possible; Real historians do it all the time. (112)

Chapter 8: How to Get Back on Track

We urgently need an integrated view of the dense and complex phrase “the authority of scripture.”

God, Scripture and the Church’s Mission

…the shorthand phrase “the authority of scripture,” when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community. (114)

We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be. (115)

The Place of Tradition: Living in Dialogue with Previous Readings

Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the church has read and lived scripture in the past. (117)

The study of church history is not, ultimately, a different “subject” from the careful Christian reading of scripture. Every period, every key figure in the history of the church has left his, her or its mark on subsequent readings of scripture, and if we are unaware of this we are to that extent less able to understand why we “naturally” read the text in this or that way. (117)

Traditions tell us where we have come from. Scripture itself is a better guide as to where we should now be going. (119)

The Place of Reason: Being Attentive to Context, to Sense, and to Wider Knowledge of All Sorts

Likewise, reason will mean giving up merely arbitrary or whimsical readings of texts, and paying attention to lexical, contextual, and historical considerations. Reason provides a check on unrestrained imaginative readings of texts. (119)

We must never forget that science, by definition, studies the repeatable, whereas history, by definition, studies the unrepeatable. Nor can “reason” be casually conflated with “the results of modern science,” as though there were a straightforward route, a kind of natural theology, from what we find in the test tube to what we can and must say about God and his Kingdom. “Reason” is more like the laws of harmony and counterpoint: it does not write tunes itself, but it forms the language within which tunes make powerful sense. (120)

Developing a Multilayered View: The Five-Act Model

We must be ferociously loyal to what has gone before and cheerfully open about what must come next. (123)

…improvisation does not at all mean a free-for-all where “anything goes,” but precisely a disciplined and careful listening to all the other voices around us, and a constant attention to the themes, rhythms and harmonies of the complete performance so far, the performance which we are now called to continue. (126)

All Christians, all churches, are free to improvise their own variations designed to take the music forward. No Christian, no church, is free to play out of tune. To change the metaphor back to the theater: all the actors, and all the traveling companies of which they are part (i.e., different churches) are free to improvise their own fresh scenes. No actor, no company, is free to improvise scenes from another play, or one with a different ending. If only we could grasp that, we would be on the way to healthy and mutually respectful living under the authority of scripture. (127)

Strategies for Honoring the Authority of Scripture

A TOTALLY CONTEXTUAL READING OF SCRIPTURE. We must be committed to a totally contextual reading of scripture. Each word must be understood within its own verse, each verse within its own chapter, each chapter within its own book, and each book within its own historical, cultural and indeed canonical setting. (128)

But it is not simply the Bible’s context that we must understand. As many have pointed out, it is equally important that we understand and appreciate our own, and the way it predisposes us to highlight some things in the Bible and quietly ignore others. (128)

A properly contextual reading of scripture will celebrate the rich diversity of material within the canon, resisting attempts to flatten it out into a monochrome uniformity, while at the same time always looking for the larger unity within which different emphases are held together. (129)

Such a contextual reading is in fact an incarnational reading of scripture, paying attention to the full humanity both of the text and of its readers. (129)

A LITURGICALLY GROUNDED READING OF SCRIPTURE. …the primary purpose of the readings is to be itself an act of worship, celebrating God’s story, power and wisdom and, above all, God’s son. That is the kind of worship through which the church is renewed in God’s image, and so transformed and directed in its mission. Scripture is the key means through which the living God directs and strengthens his people in and for that work. That, I have argued throughout this book, is what the shorthand phrase “the authority of scripture” is really all about. (131)

A PRIVATELY STUDIED READING OF SCRIPTURE. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 was written, not so much to give people the right belief about scripture, as to encourage them to study it for themselves. (133)

A READING OF SCRIPTURE REFRESHED BY APPROPRIATE SCHOLARSHIP. When a biblical scholar, or any theologian, wishes to propose a new way of looking at a well-known topic, he or she ought to sense an obligation to explain to the wider community the ways in which the fresh insight builds up, rather than threatens, the mission and life of the church. (135)

The Bible is a big enough book, and the church ought to be a big enough community, to develop a relationship of trust between its biblical scholars and those involved in the many other tasks to which we are called. (136)

A READING OF SCRIPTURE TAUGHT BY THE CHURCH’S ACCREDITED LEADERS. The church will not thrive by performing in a bumbling, amateur fashion and hoping that piety and goodwill will make up for incompetence. … sermons are supposed to be “audible sacraments.” (139)

Appendix: Recent Resources on Scripture

Getting Started on Bible Study

…studying scripture is, in the end, far more profitable than theorizing about it… (143)

— VIA —

In classic Wright fashion, he brings together a thoughtful critique of “authority” and “scripture,” whilst at the same time exhorting the church to take all of it seriously, which means, for most of us, divesting ourselves of the attitudes and assumptions to which we are so deeply attached. Wright is brilliant, and to critique his thinking is an audacious endeavor. With that, I’ll limit my quibbles to two.

First is the statement on p.95 that “many of the problems or ‘contradictions’ discovered by modernist critical study were the result of projecting alien worldviews onto the text.” Perhaps, but there are many others that are not the result of projection. Here is where the “science” of textual criticism has come in handy, and I am curious how that field of study rubs up against Wright’s construct of “authority.”

Second is his statement, “We must never forget that science, by definition, studies the repeatable, whereas history, by definition, studies the unrepeatable.” (120) Perhaps science has developed a bit since writing this, but science is currently understood more as a methodology of doing work rather than a realm in which it is limited. Thus, there is such a thing as the “science of history,” (just as much as there is a “history of science.”) I’m simply pointing out that the classification here does not work according to popular convention. “Science,” is a much broader way of attaining knowledge, understanding, etc., and we deploy “science” and “scientific methods” every day in our hermeneutics, and theologies.

Okay, other than that, it is both right and a rite to read the tomes that Wright has written. This book is no exception, and I commend it to anyone who wants to take the bible seriously.

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