The Five Act Hermeneutic (Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright)

This is part 6  of the series blogging through the book Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright. You might want to start with part 1 and work your way through the series.

N.T. Wright on Colbert Report

Wright (and this series) started off posing the following questions:

  • If Jesus has authority, what do we mean by authority?
  • How does Jesus exercise His authority through the Bible?
  • Since the Bible is mostly narrative, how can a story be authoritative?

Wright also posed the problem that whenever we go to the scriptures to dig out ‘timeless truths’ rather than the ‘story’ we run the risk of letting something else possess the “real” authority. As he chronicles the various hermeneutic approaches throughout church history (chapters 3 through 6) he unpacks what that something else is:

This is where we see a tension developing between authority and interpretation: How far can a reinterpretation of the text go before it ceases to carry the authority which was the point of interpreting it in the first place? At what point in this process are we forced to conclude that what is reallyauthoritative” within such an operation is the system of theology or devotion already embraced on other grounds, which is then “discovered” in the text by the interpretative method being used? … The question must always be asked, whether scripture is being used to serve an existing theology or vice versa. (page 67, 71)

These are excellent questions. Whenever we are wrestling with a text and its meaning we come with lots of assumptions, cultural baggage, philosophical views, and theological commitments. Wright offers strategies for reading scripture which include reading in light of total context (surrounding passages, theme of the book, historical, and cultural settings), reading all of scripture (not just the parts we like), and using scholarship to provide insight and information on the history, culture, and language.

Wright also stresses that we need to be attempting to get the real “literal” meaning. This real literal meaning is defined as the intended meaning of the original author and not the “literal” reading of the words (112,135) . This allows for an interpretation to be more literal by using allegory or metaphor since that was how the author intended the text to be understood. Wright is correct, our goal is to understand the “original intent and message” of the text taking into account language, idioms, literary genre, and the history and culture at the time it was written.

The 5 Act Hermeneutic

The hermeneutic (a fancy word for framework) that Wright advocates focuses on the story line that runs through the pages of scripture from Genesis to Revelation and finds its climax in the hero of the story Jesus. The authority of scripture then is found in the telling of the story.

Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s telling the story of Jesus. (essay on How can the Bible be Authoritative (pdf))

Wright outlines the story as five acts in a play, acknowledging that not everyone will see the acts the same way.

  1. Creation
  2. Fall
  3. Israel
  4. Jesus
  5. Church

There are three keys to this model that pop out throughout the book. First, the story consists of different acts in which each act has both some “continuity and discontinuity” with the act that preceded it and the act that follows it. Second, we must remember that we are living in the 5th act and are free to improvise within the story. Third, the major task for the improv actors in the 5th act is to tell and act out the story.

The major theme of continuity throughout these acts is that God’s creation was good and God has promised to deal with evil and restore creation. A key break (discontinuity) is found between the OT and the NT.

God was fulfilling the covenant promises to Abraham by creating a single multi-ethnic family, those regulations in the Mosaic law which explicitly marked out Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors were not to be set aside, not because they were not good, or not given by God, but because they had been given for a temporary purpose which was now complete (54).

Seeing the authority of scripture within the model of a story has some advantages that should be considered during reading and studying the scriptures.

  • Jesus is the one who possesses authority and is the hero of the story.
  • keeps the Kingdom (and restoration of creation) in focus.
  • scripture is taken as an integrated whole.
  • acknowledges that much of scripture is primarily written in a narrative form.
  • can remove the tendency to “proof text” or see the Bible as a “rule-book”.
  • reminds us we are to live out scripture not just “know stuff”.

The improvisation is not the part of the model that is problematic. Not many people would deny that each person is called to live out their life as a follower of Christ in a dynamic way that is different from others. The exciting and scary part of life is evaluating the way God is gifting and guiding us to fulfill the great commission. However, as Wright cautions in the book we need to make sure we don’t turn “something” else into the authority. In this approach we need to make sure that we don’t make the “real” authority our ability to improvise and end up writing our own version of the story instead taking part in God’s story. We also can’t be so focused on the openness of the story that we lose sight of the principles that we are called to live by in scripture and forget that with this freedom to improvise comes responsibility.

There will always be debate and varying views on what an author meant by a particular passage, what language and cultural factors are involved, and how a passage should be applied today. This model does not solve that problem. It just adds to the debate, how a passage fits into the storyline. That is not a bad thing, but we should not assume that this model will allow there to be unity in how passages are interpreted. Wright seems to know this. He asks lots of questions throughout this book, an important one (found on page 81) reminds us that we will always be contending with the problem of whose view of what the original author meant will count?

UPDATE: See this hermeneutic applied to 1 John (link)

An aside on Act 1 and 2

Wright posted excerpts from the essay, which preceded the book, on the BioLogos site. BioLogos is a group that promotes theistic evolution. There are a variety of views within  theistic evolution regarding creation, Adam/Eve, and what the fall was, but most see Genesis 1-3 as a non-historical story. The denial is not that God created the heavens and earth, but that the “details” in these chapters are not historically accurate. The story and intended meaning of Genesis 1-3 is not to tell us “the how” of creation (or the fall) but to convey the truth that God is the good Creator and man is his creation.

Wright adopts this view, yet in his model he proposes the first two acts as a creation and fall. And the whole meta-story and his view of authority rests on the idea of a Kingdom that will come and will result in restoring a creation in need of redemption. He also roots his argument (chapter 9) that the Sabbath rest was a sign that God will redeem creation on God’s 7th day of rest in Genesis. How does one, particularly Wright, reconcile the issues raised in the story with a theistic evolutionary model? At what point did God rest and enjoy His creation in the theistic evolution view if there is no day 7? If creation was created good, but now is “cursed” and in need of restoration then how and when did the “curse” happen? How all this works out in Wright’s model is another suitcase that he left packed tight. Yet it seems critical to the story and the 5 act model.

if you enjoyed this post, I recommend the entire series on N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God as well as the series on N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus. Both can be found on the Series page.

4 thoughts on “The Five Act Hermeneutic (Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright)

  1. Pingback: Day 4: Genesis 12-16; Enter Abraham and the Covenant | Overisel Reformed Church

  2. Pingback: understanding scripture’s story « Jesus community

  3. I just finished Scripture and the Authority of God. Your summary is excellent and much needed. I think you have done a good job of identifying the main ideas. Your summary makes Wright’s view much more useful in a practical way. Thanks.

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