More on “The Last Word”

I blogged a while ago that I was reading N.T. Wright’s “The Last Word” and that I’d share some of my thoughts as I went along. Well, I haven’t done much on that, because it’s been mostly been sitting idly by. Today I realized that I had a bunch of time unencumbered by those nasty “obligations” and decided to plow through a bunch of the book. This unfortunately means that I won’t dig into the book as much as I had hoped to, but I’ll make a couple of comments.

Wright is essentially doing a historical survey of how Christians have conceived of the authority of Scripture throughout history, and how we have moved far away from the way Jesus and the writers of the NT themselves conceived of Scripture’s authority. Wright concludes the section on the early church with this statement:

…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. That is the challenge the early Christians bequeath to us as we reconsider what ‘the authority of scripture’ might mean in practice today. (58)

Wright then goes through a historical survey of the authority of Scripture throughout the history of the Church and how our understanding became unhitched from this narrative sense of the story of God “setting the world to rights” (a favorite Wright phrase) in Israel, Jesus and the Church. Instead, the Scriptures became a repository of information from which the Church shaped its theology, traditions and practices, sometimes only in the loosest possible way. I won’t cover this area, since he does it about as concisely as possible and it still takes 65 pages.

But I did want to quote another section that I find fascinating, as it was a new insight to me. Let’s see if anyone else does.

…the Enlightenment was offering its own rival eschatology, a secular analogue to the biblical picture of God’s kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. Christianity had declared that God’s kingdom had been decisively inaugurated by Jesus himself, particularly through his death and resurrection. This sense of a one-off historical moment in the first century, however, had been so muted in much Christian theology—eschatology being replaced by systems of salvation and ethics—that the Enlightenment’s cuckoo-in-the-nest move was made all the easier, and has in fact gone unremarked. It was this eschatological takeover bid which caused Enlightenment thinkers to pour scorn on the bible’s picture of the coming kingdom, in a move which is still taken for granted in many circles today: first to misrepresent it (‘All the early Christians expected the world to end at once’) and then to rubbish it (‘The were wild fanatics, and they were proved wrong’). This ‘we-know-better-now’ move, so characteristic of various strands within Enlightenment thought (and now forming part of the mental and emotional landscape of most modern Westerners), disguised the fact that 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… (86)

Fascinating. The Englightenment story of “progress” as an eschatology; a metanarrative. I think that I might agree. Any thoughts?

3 responses to “More on “The Last Word””

  1. Wow. That man’s got some intellectual muscle.

    It’s tough to disagree with the analysis of the Enlightenment as an alternative eschatology, even, as you said, a metanarrative.

    I make no apologies for this statement: Aren’t metaphysical claims that exclude the fear of the Lord, the acknowledgment of Him as ultimate reality, the Creator, etc., doomed at the outset? I know I’ve just given away my a priori commitments, and am therefore not embarking in true philosophy, but seriously, I just think that notions of metaphysics and eschatology are simply rubbish if God’s not the linchpin of the equation.

  2. I dunno, I would say that it is commendable to be honest about our a priori commitments in doing philosophy. I believe that it’s impossible not to have them, so actually being honest about them is something we should definitely be doing.

    I agree that God must be at the heart of all that we do, including our philosophical inquiry. Any metaphysical or ethical system lacking Him as the primary reference point will be foreign to a Christian, even if there are still things to be gleaned from them.

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