In Part III, I proposed N.T. Wright’s view of the Scriptures as the first four acts of an unfinished drama as a potentially profitable alternative hermeneutic to the normal ways evangelicals handle the biblical texts. Since I only included a brief paragraph from Wright’s thought on this method, I’ll take some time today to put some skin and muscle on the skeleton. I’ll note some of his own remarks and push them a bit further myself. Wright quotes will come from his lecture, How Can the Bible be Authoritative? (or PDF, if you’d like).
First, let’s allow Wright himself to explain a bit more:
Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted authority for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This authority of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.
The next obvious question is, “Where does the Bible stop and where do we pick up?” Let’s lay out the four acts given to us:
Act I: Creation Act II: Fall Act III: Israel Act IV: Jesus
The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Car 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end. The church would then live under the authority of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act. Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material.
So the Bible takes us as far as Act V, Scene 1, but there is much story ahead. There is no question that this is more difficult than extracting principles and applying them. Wright notes the difficulty well:
How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative? How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative? It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you. But what would you do if, instead, he began “Once upon a time . . .?”
But the difficulty of the approach is not what matters. What approach is most faithful to Scripture?
Here’s the biggest advantage to this way of thinking about Scripture: It puts us in our proper place in the story. It invites us into the story. The story of Scripture is the story of the world, and therefore the story of every person who ever lived. Think of the film Stranger Than Fiction. Harold Crick has no idea he’s a character in a story. But how much does everything change when he becomes aware of it? When we recognize that the story of Jesus is our own story, that there’s a writer, and that this writer is good, merciful, and loving and can identify with our weaknesses, struggles, and temptations, everything changes. When we understand that we’re part of a story with a happy ending, an irreversible, unchangeable happy ending that no amount of danger or evil can thwart, it makes all the difference.
Who wants a set of instructions from a commanding officer, when your day can begin with “Once upon a time…?” Especially when you have direct access to the story’s author.
In Part V, we’ll explore the concept of “Faithful Improvisation.”