Interpretive Methods in “The Last Word”

This book disappointed me, especially in this: I had hoped that it would magically solve all of my problems with understanding the Bible’s authority in a short 139 pages. I am deeply offended that it did not accomplish this aim!

That said, Wright does offer an interesting insight on how to deal with the Scriptures in relation to what people often refer to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: a methodology for doing theology that involves the interplay of 1) Scripture, 2) Tradition, 3) Reason, and 4) Experience.

Now, for us to say that the Bible is authoritative in any meaningful sense, Wright says that experience must be submitted to the Scriptures. If you experience a death in the family, a great pleasure, a difficult business decision, or you’re unhappy in your church: these are the kinds of experiences that are to be submitted to the authority of Scriptures. So, while experience isn’t to be flatly ignored (let’s not try to make the Bible say that the world is flat, or made of cheese, or anything crazy like that), it is to be submitted.

Tradition, according to Wright, is the sum total of the history of the church’s wrestle with the Scriptures. We are informed, guided and challenged by tradition in our own engagement with and by the Scriptures, but it is not an independent way of knowing. I’m guessing that this is fairly easy thing for Protestants to accept, but my Catholic brothers and sisters would differ with Wright on this point I’m sure.

Finally, we come to reason. Reason guards against arbitrary and nonsensical readings of Scripture. It helps us to pay attention to our context, biases, and the many discoveries of the various sciences. What it does not mean is giving into pressure from atheistic science, nor can reason be used interchangeably with ‘the results of modern science.’ In a nice turn of phrase, Wright reminds us that “science, by definition, studies the repeatable, whereas history, by definition, studies the unrepeatable” (118).

Wright contends that reason is not an alternative or independent source to scripture and tradition. It is there to ensure that “we are truly listening to scripture and tradition rather than the echoes of our own voices” (118). So, reason is also finally submitted to the authority of the Scriptures. It does not find itself above or beside, but rather below the Scriptures.

So, what do people think about this? Can we bear to submit experience, tradition and reason to the authority of Scripture? Does this even make sense?

2 responses to “Interpretive Methods in “The Last Word””

  1. Only if it’s the same King James Version that Jesus used. :)

    When I was in University (many moons ago) I remember the ‘Survey of the OT’ professor standing up with the Bible in one hand and a novel in the other. He said, “How do you know what Margaret Lawrence meant to say when she wrote ‘The Stone Angel’?”

    Ultimately, his point (sparing you the complete lecture) was that we need to read the Bible in the same way we would read, and come to understand, any other book of literature: we needed, in essence, to submit its text to certain principles of cognitive reasoning (as if there is any other kind). Therefore, if there existed, in our reasoning, certain archaisms in the text which did not resonate with current scientific norms, then we were at liberty to discard such notions, as we would do in any other academic discipline.

    We were therefore justified in putting aside belief in things such as a six day creation, a cataclysmic flood, the exodus, Job, Jonah and his big fish etc. Of course we were still being true to the spirit of the Scriptures because we still endeavoured to learn ‘the lesson’ behind these spurious stories.

    Now I am not, by any means suggesting, that these aforementionned stories constitute in themselves articles of faith (as you previously suggested, we need to understand God’s truth not just in light of “the facts” but also in light of its “metaphors” etc.)They are just typically the elements that most point to when discussing the trustworthiness (believability)of the Bible.

    Wright’s conclusions, I would suggest, as you have documented them, are therefore quite helpful. I would add that there is a mystical (spiritual) side to the equation. To a great degree, the Scriptures are only truly understood (although not usually in their entirety) by those with eyes to see.

    So, to answer your question – sort of. Can I “bear to submit experience, tradition, and reason to the authority of Scripture?” I would answer: Ideally, yes! Practically, hmmmm.

  2. Hey Colin

    KJV indeed ;)

    Of course, we do need to be careful in rethinking the Bible on account of the findings of modern science. Science often oversteps its bounds into metaphysics, saying that there is nothing beyond the natural world. This cannot be accepted by Christians.

    Yes, as you hint at, there must be some notion of the Holy Spirit making the Scriptures “come alive,” even though I don’t know how to spell that out exactly.

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