NT Wright’s Lambeth Lecture: ‘The Bible and Tomorrow’s World’

NT Wright’s lecture from the 2008 Lambeth Conference (Wednesday, July 30) is available. The topic: ‘The Bible and Tomorrow’s World’. I thought it was a good piece and was worth reposting here:


My theme today has obviously been designed to go with today’s Indaba group work on our use of the Bible. This is an opportune time, as our Conference quickens its pace, to reflect on how we use scripture, not least how we Bishops use scripture as part of our vocation, as in the main theme of this Conference, to be ‘bishops in mission.’

Let me draw your attention to a book of mine which is foundational for what I’m going to say. Scripture and the Authority of God grew directly out of my work on both the Lambeth Commission and the International Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission. It was published in America under the strange title The Last Word – strange, because it certainly wasn’t the last word on the subject, and also because if I was going to write a book called The Last Word I think it ought to be about Jesus Christ, not about the Bible. But such are the ways of publishers.

The puzzle about the book’s title, though, points forward to the first thing I want to say this afternoon, which is about the nature of biblical authority and the place of the Bible within the larger edifice of Christian theology and particularly missiology. I turn to my first main section.

1. Scripture and the Authority of God

a. Scripture as the vehicle of God’s authority

Debates about the authority of scripture have tended to get off on the wrong foot and to turn into an unproductive shouting-match. This is partly because here, as in matters of political theology, in the words of Jim Wallis ‘the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t get it’. And sometimes the other way round as well. We have allowed our debates to be polarized within the false either/or of post-enlightenment categories, so that we either see the Bible as a holy book, almost a magic book, in which we can simply look up detached answers to troubling questions, or see it within its historical context and therefore claim the right to relativize anything and everything we don’t immediately like about it. These categories are themselves mistaken; the Bible itself helps us to challenge them; and when we probe deeper into the question, ‘what does it mean to say that the Bible is authoritative’, we discover a new and richer framework which simultaneously enables us to be deeply faithful to scripture and energizes and shapes us, corporately and individually, for our urgent mission into tomorrow’s world.

Consider: How does what we call ‘the authority of the Bible’ relate to the authority of God himself – and the authority of Jesus himself? When the risen Jesus commissions his followers for their worldwide mission, he does not say ‘all authority in heaven and earth is given to – the books you people are going to go and write.’ He says that all authority is given to him. When we say the closing words of the Lord’s prayer, we don’t say that the kingdom, the power and the glory belong to the Bible, but to God himself. And when Jesus commissions the disciples for mission in John 20, he doesn’t say ‘receive this book’ but ‘receive the Holy Spirit’. Authority, then, has a trinitarian shape and content. If we want to say, as I certainly want to say in line with our entire Anglican tradition, that the Bible is in some sense our authority, the Bible itself insists that that sentence must be read as a shorthand way of saying something a bit more complicated, something that will enable us to get some critical distance on the traditional shouting-match. From very early on in the church, it became clear that those entrusted with God’s mission included some who were called to write – to write letters on the one hand, and to collect, edit and write up the stories about Jesus, and the story of Jesus, on the other hand. The composition-criticism of the last few decades has moved us on a long way from the old half-truth that the biblical authors ‘didn’t think they were writing scripture’. Paul certainly believed that God had entrusted him with an authoritative mission, and that his letter-writing formed part of that Spirit-given, Christ-shaped, kingdom-bringing activity. And the gospel writers, in their different ways, write in such a manner as to say, with quite a rich artistry: here is the continuation and culmination of the great story you know from Israel’s scriptures, and this is how, through its central character, it is now transformed into the narrative of God’s dealings not just with Israel but with the whole world. Any first-century Jew who has the nerve to begin a book with ‘In the beginning’, weaving the themes of Genesis and Exodus, of Isaiah and the Psalms, into the story of Israel’s Messiah, and doing so in such a way as to provide a framework around and energy for the mission and life of the followers of this Messiah – anyone who does something like this is either astonishingly un-self-aware or is making the definite claim to be writing something that corresponds, in a new mode, to the scriptural narrative of ancient Israel.

From very early on the first Christians discovered that the church was to be shaped, and its mission and life taken forward, by the work of people who were called to write about Jesus, and about what it meant to follow him in his kingdom-mission. The new dispensation, the Messianic age, did not mean the abandonment of the notion of being shaped by a God-given book, but rather its transformation into something new, new genres and themes developing out of the old. But this already indicates that the Bible was not something detached, an entity apart from the church, simply standing over against it. The Bible as we know it, Old and New Testaments, was, from the first, part of the life of God’s people, and remained so as it was read in worship, studied in controversy, and made the basis for mission. But this did not mean then, and does not mean now, that the Bible can be twisted into whichever shape the church wants at a particular time. You can’t say, as some have tried to say, ‘the church wrote the Bible, so the church can rewrite the Bible’. Paul would have had sharp words to say about that, as would the author of Revelation. From very early on, all the more powerful for being implicit and not yet much thought through, we find the first Christians living under scripture, that is, believing that this book is its peculiar gift from its Lord, through the work of his Spirit, designed to enable the church to be the church, which is of course as we have been thinking throughout this Conference not a static thing but to be the church in mission, to be sent into the world with the good news of God’s kingdom through the death and resurrection of his Son and in the power of that same Spirit.

b. God’s Authority and God’s Kingdom

When we say ‘the authority of scripture’, then, we mean – if we know our business – God’s authority, Christ’s authority, somehow exercised through the Bible. But what is ‘God’s authority’ all about? To look again at scripture itself, it is clear that one of the most common models assumed by many in today’s world simply won’t do. We have lived for too long in the shadow of an older Deism in which God is imagined as a celestial C. E. O., sitting upstairs and handing down instructions from a great height. The Bible is then made to fit into the ontological and epistemological gap between God and ourselves; and, if it is the Deist God you are thinking of, that gap has a particular shape and implication. The Bible is then bound to become merely a source-book for true doctrines and right ethics. That is better than nothing, but it is always vulnerable to the charge, made frequently these days, that it is after all only an old book and that we’ve learnt a lot since then. The Left doesn’t get it, and often all the Right can do is to respond with an ever more shrill repetition of ‘the Bible, the Bible the Bible’. As the late great Phil Ochs sang during Vietnam,

And they argue through the night,

Black is black and white is white,

And walk away both knowing they are right;

And nobody’s buying flowers from the flower lady.

I know that quoting a Vietnam protest song dates me, but I guess that I’m not the only one in this room radically shaped by the events of the late 1960s . . .

The real problem with the Deism that infected so much of the western world in the eighteenth century and dominates it still – thank God for our brothers and sisters from elsewhere who didn’t have that problem! – is that it lives by serious reaction against the whole notion of God’s kingdom coming ‘on earth as in heaven’. (Actually, much Protestant theology couldn’t really cope with this idea either, perhaps in reaction against the perceived worldly kingdom of mediaeval Catholicism, which is why it privileged a particular reading of St Paul over against the gospels, a problem still with us in the guise of the Bultmannian legacy.) But when we re-read the gospels and the kingdom-announcement we find there into the centre of our own life and thought, we discover that God is not a distant faceless bureaucrat handing down ‘to do’ lists, our ‘commands for the day’. The God of scripture is with us in the world, his world, the world in which he lived and died and rose again in the person of his Son, in which he breathes new life through the person of his Spirit. Scripture is the vehicle of the kingdom-bringing ‘authority’, in that sense, of this God. That is why the Left, which prefers a detached Deism so it can get on and do its own thing, disregarding instructions that seem to come from a distant God or a distant past, gets it wrong, and why the Right, which wants an authoritarian command from on high, doesn’t get it.

There is a particular problem here, because our Anglican formularies speak of scripture and its authority in terms of ‘things which are to be believed for eternal salvation’. Living as they did within the late mediaeval western view, our Anglican fathers rightly saw scripture as the norm which guided you towards God’s promised salvation through faith in Jesus Christ; but, like everyone else at the time, they saw that salvation less in terms of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven and more in terms of being rescued from this earth for a ‘salvation’ somewhere else. We can’t go into this in any detail, but I just want to note that part of the exciting work today of re-integrating gospels and epistles and rethinking the whole notion of the kingdom and particularly new creation and resurrection is not without its effect on the place and role of scripture in the whole process. Basically, I believe that scripture is the book through which the church is enabled to be the church, to be the people of God anticipating his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven, and that this fleshes out what our formularies say in a three-dimensional and energetic fashion. I have said more about all this in the relevant section of Surprised by Hope. And to say more about it I move to my third sub-section.

c. Scripture and the Story of God’s Mission

So how does the Bible function in the way I have described? Answer: by being itself; and ‘being itself’ means, primarily, being itself as story. I do not mean by this what some have seen as ‘mere story’, that is, a cheerfully fictive account to be relegated to the world of ‘myth’. The Christian Bible we know is a quite astonishingly complete story, from Chaos to Order, from first creation to new creation, from the Garden to the City, from covenant to renewed covenant, and all fitting together in a way that none of the authors can have seen but which we, standing back from the finished product, can only marvel at. Speaking as a student of ancient literature, I am continually astonished by the shape of scripture, which can’t simply be explained away as the product of some clever decisions by a third- or fourth-century Council. Of course scripture contains many sub-plots, and many parts which are not in themselves ‘narrative’ at all – poems, meditations, wisdom sayings, and so on. But the narrative shape continues to stand out, and indeed to stand over against all attempts to flatten scripture out either into a puzzle-book of secret gnostic wisdom, which deconstructs the stories, or into a book of true answers to dogmatic and ethical questions, which also deconstructs the stories but from a different angle.

And this raises the question, how can a narrative be authoritative? This is the right question to ask, and it raises some exciting possibilities. As I have set out at length elsewhere, scripture offers precisely the unfinished narrative of God’s heaven-and-earth project, God’s great design, as Paul puts it, echoing the Law and the Prophets, to join everything in heaven and earth into one in Christ. And the unfinished narrative functions like an unfinished play, in which those who belong to Jesus Christ are now called to be the actors, taking forward the drama towards its intended conclusion. This is actually a far stronger, and more robust, version of ‘authority’ than the one which simply imagines the Bible as a source-book for true dogmatic and ethical propositions. Of course such propositions are to be found in it, and they matter; but they matter as the tips of a much, much larger iceberg, which is the entire drama. And it is by soaking ourselves in that whole drama that we, God’s people in Christ Jesus, are to live with and under scripture’s authority, not simply by knowing which bits to look up on which topics, but by becoming people of this story, people formed and shaped in our imaginations and intuitions by the overall narrative, so that we come to know by second nature not only what scripture says on particular topics but why it says those things. And living under scriptural authority, contrary to what has been said by liberalism ever since the eighteenth century, does not then mean being kept in an infantile state, shut up to merely parrotting an ancient text, but rather coming alive, growing up, taking responsibility for seeing how the narrative has gone forward and where it must go next. We are, in short, to be improvisers, which as any musician knows doesn’t mean playing out of tune or out of time but rather discerning what is appropriate in terms of the story so far and the story’s intended conclusion.

This, I submit, has a strong claim to be an intrinsically Anglican way of thinking about scripture, insofar as there can be said to be such a thing. I am always intrinsically suspicious of claims to discover a specifically or intrinsically Anglican approach to anything, not just because of the myriad of local variations but because of the characteristic Anglican claim that Anglicans have no specific doctrine of their own – it’s just that if something is true, Anglicans believe it. The truth behind that old joke is that we have tried over the years, when it comes to scripture at least, to nourish a tradition of careful scholarship, rooted in philology, history and the early Fathers, hand in hand with a readiness to let the Bible resonate in new ways in new situations. As an example of this I cherish Brooke Fosse Westcott, Bishop of Durham a hundred and ten years ago, who is buried close to J. B. Lightfoot in the great chapel at Auckland Castle. Westcott is known, of course, for his meticulous textual criticism, and his magisterial commentaries on John and Hebrews. But in Durham he is also remembered for being the Bishop who, before the days of trade unions, settled a long and damaging miners’ strike by negotiating so hard with the mine owners that eventually they met the workers’ demands. For Westcott, careful biblical scholarship and hard street-level work for God’s kingdom were two parts of the same whole, and we should be proud when Anglicanism reflects similar combinations.

All this is of course nurtured by the straightforward but deeply powerful tradition of the daily offices, with the great narratives of scripture read through day by day, preferably on a lectio continua basis, so that ‘living prayerfully within the story’ is the most formative thing, next to the Eucharist itself, which Anglicans do. Classic mattins and evensong, in fact, are basically showcases for scripture, and the point of reading Old and New Testaments like that is not so much to ‘remind ourselves of that bit of the Bible’, as to use that small selection as a window through which we can see, with the eyes of mind and heart, the entire sweep of the whole Bible, so that our ‘telling of the story’ is not actually aimed primarily at informing or reminding one another but rather at praising God for his mighty acts, and acquiring the habit of living within the story of them as we do so. That, I suggest, is the heart of Anglican Bible study.

Seeing the Bible in terms of its great story enables us, in particular, to develop a layered and nuanced hermeneutic which retains the full authority of the whole Bible while enabling us to understand why it is, for instance, that some parts of the Old Testament are still directly relevant to us while others are not, and how this is not arbitrary but rooted in serious theological and exegetical principle. In the book I have developed the model of the five-act play, with Creation and Fall as the first two acts, then Israel, then Jesus himself, and then the act in which we ourselves are still living, whose final scene we know from passages like Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21 and 22. The point of this model is partly to explain the notion of ‘improvising’ I mentioned earlier – when living within the fifth act, we are required to improvise our way to the necessary conclusion while remaining completely faithful to the narrative, and the characterisations, of the earlier acts and indeed to the opening scenes of our own present act, i.e. Easter and Pentecost. But it is also partly to provide a way of understanding how it is that though, for instance, the book of Leviticus is part of our story, a non-negotiable part of that story, it is not the part where we presently live. When you live in Act 5, you cannot repeat, except for very special effect, a speech which was made in Act 3. Thus we do not offer animal sacrifice; the Letter to the Hebrews makes that abundantly clear. A similar argument is mounted by Paul in Galatians about God’s gift of the Mosaic law: it was good and God-given, but those of its prescriptions which separate out Jews from Gentiles are no longer appropriate, since we are not any longer in Act 3 but in Act 5, and with that eschatological moment the old distinctions are done away. This could be pursued at much greater length, but let me just make one particular and important point. There are of course a good many features of the Pentateuch which are not only retained but enhanced in the New Testament; one cannot assume that because some features of Mosaic law are abolished that all are equally redundant, just as it would be a bad mistake to suppose that the reason some parts have become redundant is simply because they’re old or because we now ‘know better’. Things are not that shallow. In fact, it gradually becomes clear that the OT is continually calling Israel to a way of life which is about discovering a genuinely human existence, and that, granted the achievement of Jesus the Messiah in Act 4, a good many features of the Mosaic law are not only retained but enhanced. This holds true for the Decalogue itself, with the sole exception of the sabbath law, and it certainly holds for the codes of sexual conduct, as a great wealth of scholarship has shown again and again. In the whole Bible, what men and women do sexually resonates with larger cosmic issues, and particular commands and prohibitions are not arbitrary, detached rules, but tip-of-the-iceberg features revealing a deep and structured worldview underneath. I commend the five-act model to you as a creative and fresh way of understanding and using the Bible for all it’s worth.

But it is of course particularly designed to explain how the great story of the Bible is designed to point us to our mission and to equip us precisely for that mission. The story begins with the creation of heaven and earth, and it ends with their eventual marriage, their coming together in fulfilling, God-ordained union. The biblical story reaches its climax of course in Jesus Christ, where this union of heaven and earth was inaugurated, modelled and accomplished – against all the powers that would keep them apart – through his death and resurrection. And the mission of the church in the power of the Spirit is to implement the achievement of Jesus and so to anticipate the eventual goal. Mission, in other words, takes place within the overall narrative of scripture, and is reinforced and kept in place by the reading and studying of the text that speaks this way, drawing together all features of wider culture that point in this direction and standing over against all features of wider culture which point elsewhere. It is only by living within this overall narrative that we, as bishops committed to leading the church in mission, can keep our bearings when so many elements of our own culture and our various traditions would threaten to sidetrack us this way or that. As I have written elsewhere, the larger biblical narrative offers us a framework for developing and taking forward a wholistic mission which refuses to split apart full-on evangelism, telling people about Jesus with a view to bringing them to faith, and full-on kingdom-of-God work, labouring alongside anyone and everyone with a heart for the Common Good so that God’s sovereign and saving rule may be glimpsed on earth as in heaven. Anglicanism has tended to oscillate between these two, between a primary reading of the epistles as being about private and personal salvation and a primary reading of the gospels as being about ‘social justice’. The two need one another, and in the best Anglican traditions they join up, like all the other complementarities in God’s world. So my point at this stage is this: a serious Anglican reading of scripture can and should generate a five-act hermeneutic in which our goals in mission are greatly clarified and our energy and sense of direction for that mission reinforced, as the Spirit uses our telling and retelling of the story to shape the habits of our hearts, minds and wills. And to say that is of course to say that, at the very heart of it all, the point of scripture is to root, form and shape our spirituality as a people and as individuals. We are to be a scripture-shaped praying people, which of course means a Jesus-shaped praying people, which of course includes being a scripture-shaped and Jesus-shaped eucharistic people. It is out of that scripturally formed well of personal and corporate spirituality, continually confronting, transforming and directing us, that we draw water to be refreshed as we find our way forward in the service of God, his gospel and his kingdom. But all this points us on to our present culture and the challenges it presents. How can scripture form us for mission in tomorrow’s world?

2. Scripture and the Task of the Church

a. Foundation: Bible and Culture

The confrontation between Christian faith and contemporary culture, between (if you like) Jerusalem and Athens, is as old as the gospel itself. It is rooted in turn in the confrontation between the Old Testament people of God and the surrounding cultures of Egypt, Canaan, Assyrian, Babylon and then, later, Persia, Greece, Syria and eventually Rome. Indeed, cultural confrontation and the complex negotiations it generated are woven into the very fabric of scripture itself. Jonathan Sacks, who we so revelled in listening to last night, wrote an article the other day about the way in which languages without vowels, such as Hebrew, tend to go from right to left, driven by right-brain intuition, whereas languages with vowels, such as Greek, tend to go from left to right, as the left-brain passion for getting things worked out accurately drives from that side. I asked him at dinner whether he’d had any feedback on the article, and he said rather disappointedly that he hadn’t; but he drew the moral, which I now develop, that part of the power of the early Christian faith was to take a right-brain religion such as Judaism and express it within a left-brain language like Greek. (Of course, you could argue that the Rabbis made up for lost left-brain time with the Mishnah and Talmud, but that would be another story.) From the very beginning Christianity was engaged with its many surrounding cultures, and no one model – Niebuhr, you recall, explored five in his classic book Christ and Culture – will catch all the nuances we might wish. Even in a short address such as Paul’s on the Areopagus we can see all kinds of different things going on. Paul is in head-on collision with the great temples all around him, and the endless stream of sacrifices being offered at them, yet he can begin from the Altar to the Unknown God and work up from there, quoting Greek poets on the way. And, reading between the lines, we can see how the message he brought could say both Yes and No to the Stoic, the Epicurean and the Academic. The Stoic supposes that all is predetermined, that divinity is simply suffused within the world and working its purpose out. Well, says Paul, you are right that God is not far from any of us, but wrong to suppose that God and the world are the same thing. The Epicurean supposes that God, or the gods, are a long way away, and that the best thing to do is make such shift as we can in this world. Well, says Paul, you are right that God and the world are not the same thing, but you are wrong to suppose that God is not interested in the world, and us human creatures. The Academic sits on the fence: there isn’t really enough evidence to be sure about the gods, so it’s best to keep the old state religion going just in case (a position not unfamiliar, alas, to some Anglicans).Well, says Paul, you are right that there hasn’t really been quite enough evidence to be sure of anything; but now all that has changed, because there is a man called Jesus whom God raised from the dead, and he is going to sort everything out from top to bottom.

Now of course the point of all that is not simply an interesting set of skirmishes about different ideas. The point is that these ideas had legs, and went about in the ancient world making things happen. They altered the way you saw things, the way you did things, the goals you set yourself and the ways you ordered your world and society. From the beginning no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my culture, so I must adapt the gospel to fit within it’, just as no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my surrounding culture, so I must oppose it tooth and nail’. Christians are neither chameleons, changing colour to suit their surroundings, nor rhinoceroses, ready to charge at anything in sight. There is no straightforward transference between any item of ordinary culture and the gospel, since all has been distorted by evil; but likewise there is nothing so twisted that it cannot be redeemed, and nothing evil in itself. The Christian is thus committed, precisely as a careful reader of scripture, to a nuanced reading of culture and a nuanced understanding of the response of the gospel to different elements of culture. You can see this in Philippians, where Paul is clear that as a Christian you must live your public life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and that whatever is pure, lovely and of good report must be celebrated – but also that Jesus is Lord while Caesar isn’t, and that we are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. There are no short cuts here, no easy answers. Prayer, scripture and complex negotiation are the order of the day.

There is of course a very particular Anglican spin to some of this. Many parts of the older Anglican world, not least here in England itself, have become very used to going with the flow of the culture, on the older assumption that basically England was a Christian country so that the Church would not be compromised if it reflected the local social and cultural mores. That strand of Anglicanism has always been in danger of simply acting as Chaplain to whatever happened to be going on at the time, whether it was blessing bombs and bullets in the first world war or going to tea at Buckingham Palace. Within that world, the Bible has often been quietly truncated. We don’t like the bits about judgment, so we miss them out. We are embarrassed by the bits about sex, so we miss them out too – and then we wonder why, in a world full of hell and sex, people imagine the Bible is irrelevant! The Bible is a kind of spiritual Rorschach test: if you find you’re cutting bits out, or adding bits in, it may be a sign that you’re capitulating to cultural pressure. Equally, of course, there are many parts of the Anglican world where nothing but confrontation has been possible for a long time, and there people may have to learn the difficult lesson that actually the world is still charged with the grandeur of God, and that the biblical Christian must learn to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, no matter who they are, what they believe or how they behave. It is crucial to our vocation, and to our particular vocation granted our particular histories, that we rediscover the art, which itself is rooted in scripture, of discriminating (as Paul says) between things that differ, and of affirming what can and must be affirmed and opposing what can and must be opposed. Those of us who are involved in the business of politics and government know that this is a difficult and often thankless task, but it must be undertaken.

b. The Bible and Gnosticism

All this brings us to three particular features of tomorrow’s world which stand out particularly and call for a biblical engagement as we take forward our God-given mission. I am here summarizing the Noble Lectures I was privileged to give at Harvard University two years ago, which are yet to be published. The three features are gnosticism, empire and postmodernity, which fit together in fascinating ways and which provide a grid of cultural and personal worldviews within which a great many of our contemporaries live today. I speak particularly of the western world, and I regret that I am not qualified to do more of a ‘world tour’. But I remind all of us that, whether we like it or not, when the West sneezes everyone else catches a cold, so that cultural trends in Europe and North America will affect the whole world. (I notice that, though the current American election will affect everybody on the face of the earth for good or ill, only Americans get to vote. This strikes me as odd, though of course we British were in the same position for long enough and didn’t seem to mind at the time.)

Addressing these three issues could sound like an abstract intellectual exercise, but believe me it isn’t. This is the real world where people struggle and sin and suffer, and it is fatally easy for the church to be pulled down into the cultural assumptions of the day and so have no gospel, nothing to offer, no basis for mission or content to it either.

The first of the three makes this point graphically. When I was in college we studied Gnosticism as a strange ancient phenomenon, little imagining that it was already alive and well in western culture and that it would sweep through our world dramatically, not only in obvious thing like The Da Vinci Code but in the subtext of half the Hollywood movies and, more sadly, half the would-be theological thinking in our church. Two features stand out. First, a radical dualism in which the created order is irrelevant because we, the enlightened ones, are just passing through it and can use or ignore it as we please. At this point the Gnosticism of the right says, We can do what we like with our planet, because it’s all going to be destroyed soon and we’ll be snatched away to a distant heaven. And the Gnosticism of the left says, We can do what we like with our bodies, because they are irrelevant to the reality within us. And both are held in place by the larger Gnosticism of the western Enlightenment itself which has said, for the last two hundred years, We westerners are the enlightened ones, with our modern science and technology; we can make up the rules, we can saunter around the world exploiting its resources and its people, we can drop bombs on people to make whole countries do what we want, and it doesn’t matter much because we, the enlightened ones, are the natural possessors of justice, freedom and peace so those other people don’t matter as much as we do.

Along with the radical dualism goes Gnosticism as a religion, not of redemption, but of self-discovery. This is the real ‘false gospel’ at the heart of a good many contemporary debates. The Gnostic does not want to be rescued; he or she wants to discover ‘who they really are’, the inner spark of divine life. There is even a danger that we Anglicans spend time discussing ‘who we really are’, as though there were some inner thing, the Anglican spark, and if only we could identify that then we’d be all right. And in some of our most crucial ethical debates people have assumed for a long time that ‘being true to myself’ was all that really mattered (at this point the existentialism and romanticism of the last two hundred years reinforce the underlying gnosticism). This is a religion of pride rather than of faith, of self-assertion rather than of hope, of a self-love which is a parody of the genuinely biblical self-love which is regard for oneself, body and all, as reflecting the image of the creator.

And this false religion, though it often uses the language of Christianity, makes it impossible for people to have real Christian faith, or for that matter real Jewish faith; because in the Bible you discover ‘who you really are’ only when the living God, the creator, is rescuing you and giving you a new identity, a new status, a new name. The Bible is itself the story of, and the energy to bring about, the redemption of creation, ourselves included, not the discovery within ourselves of a spark which just needs to express itself. Gnosticism hates resurrection, because resurrection speaks of God doing a new thing within and for the material world, putting it right at last, rather than God throwing the material world away and allowing the divine spark to float off free. And it is resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus in the past, and of ourselves in the future – which is the ground of all Christian ethical life in the present. Christian ethics is not a matter of ‘discovering who you truly are’ and then being true to that. It is a matter, as Jesus and Paul insist, of dying to self and coming alive to God, of taking up the cross, of inaugurated eschatology, of becoming in oneself not ‘what one really is’ already but ‘what one is in Christ’, a new creation, a small, walking, breathing anticipation of the promised time when the earth shall be filled with God’s glory as the waters cover the sea. A biblically-based mission must learn from the great narrative of scripture to set its face against all Gnosticism, because it cuts the nerve of the mission both to the world of politics and society and to the life of every man, woman and child.

c. The Bible and Empire

Second, Empire. We British had an empire on which the sun never set, and we have spent the last hundred years puzzling over what went wrong and counting the cost. As I have said often enough, I hope and pray my beloved American friends don’t have to do the same. Let’s be clear: there is nothing absolutely wrong with empire in itself; empires come and go, they always have done, and the point is not ‘wouldn’t it be a better world without empires at all’ but ‘how can empires be called to account, be reminded that God is God and that they are not?’ All empires declare that they possess justice, freedom and peace; Greece did it, Rome did it, the British did it a century ago, the Americans do it now. Who will be next, and are we ready for that with a biblical narrative of empire that will say, with Colossians 1, that all the powers in heaven and on earth were created in and through and for Jesus Christ and were redeemed by the blood of his cross? Are we ready, in our biblically-shaped mission, to transcend the futile rhetoric of left and right – a very recent invention, in fact itself an invention of the Enlightenment – and to understand power the way the Bible understands it, as given by God to bring order to his creation on the one hand and, on the other, to anticipate in the present that final putting-to-rights of all things which we are promised? If we are thinking biblically we have a narrative which encodes a mission, the mission of God both to the rulers of this age and to those whose lives are either enhanced by them or crushed by them, or quite often simply confused by them in the middle. We in the West need to learn from our brothers and sisters who live under regimes which are deeply hostile to the church and would prefer that it disappeared altogether. And, dare I say, we need to learn these lessons quite quickly, because people are already talking about the next great superpower, and whether it is India or China we can be sure that, unless something truly extraordinary happens, the world will be dominated for the first time since ancient Rome by a superpower that does not stand within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and which will see that tradition as a threat. If we don’t prepare ourselves now for the future reality, and if we don’t learn the biblical lessons here and now of what Christian mission looks like under empire, we will fail not only the world of our own day but also the world of our children’s and grandchildren’s day.

Notice how empire and Gnosticism go together. Gnosticism arises under empire, because when you are powerless to change anything about your world you are tempted to turn inwards and suppose that a spiritual, inner reality is all that matters. Carl Jung put it nicely if chillingly: who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens. Welcome to the world of navel-gazing. That’s why second-century gnosticism arose when it did, following the collapse of the final Jewish revolt in 135 AD. And the empires of the world are delighted when people embrace gnosticism. Again in the second century the people who were reading the Gospel of Thomas and other books of the same sort were not burnt at the stake or thrown to the lions. That was reserved for the people who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the rest. There is a massive lie out there at the moment, which is that the canon of scripture colludes with imperial power while the gnostic literature subverts it. That is the exact opposite of the truth. Caesar couldn’t care less if someone wants to pursue a private spirituality. But if they go around saying that all authority in heaven and on earth is given to the crucified and risen Jesus, Caesar shivers in his shoes. And going around saying that is at the heart of Christian mission, which is sustained and energised by scripture itself, the book that will keep not only individual Christians but whole churches steadfast and cheerful in that mission when everything seems bent on blowing them off course.

c. Postmodernity

Whenever I mention postmodernity my wife either groans or yawns. Sadly she’s not here today to demonstrate the point, but before you have those same reactions let me say what I mean. We live in a world – the western world, but increasingly the global community – where truth is at a discount. Relativism is everywhere; there is only ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’. Facts don’t matter, spin is all that counts. Likewise, and deeply worrying for the church, because we easily get sucked into this, argument and reason are set aside, and instead of debate we have the shrill swapping of hurt emotions. ‘I am a victim; you are prejudiced; end of conversation’. Or, in one of those worrying irregular verbs, ‘I am speaking from the heart, you are prejudiced, he or she is a bigot.’ My friends, this entire way of thinking – a world where the only apparent moral argument is the volume of the victim’s scream – is an affront to the biblical world, to the Anglican world, to the world of scripture, tradition and reason. Reason is not the same as emotion or indeed experience. Genuine screams of genuine victims matter enormously, of course, and are all taken up into the cry of dereliction from the cross. But they are to be addressed, not with more screams, still less competing ones, but with healing, biblical wisdom. The reaction against scripture within postmodern Christianity is no worse than the reaction against reason itself. And ‘experience’, which for John Wesley when he elevated it alongside scripture, tradition and reason meant ‘the experience of God the Spirit at work transforming my life’, has come to mean ‘whatever I feel’ – which is no more a safe guide to anything than a glance at the English sky in the morning is a safe guide to the weather later in the day.

Of course, postmodernity doesn’t stop with the deconstruction of truth. It deconstructs the self as well. At this point the Gnostic would do well to hide, because in postmodernity there is no such thing as the inner spark, the true inward reality. That’s why, for instance, in today’s debates among the gay community, the essentialist position (‘this is who I am’) is increasingly discounted by the constructivists (‘this is what I choose to be today’) – though you wouldn’t know that from the way the church still talks about the matter. But the greatest deconstruction of all is of course that of the overarching narrative, the great stories. Big stories, like truth-claims, declares the postmodernist, are claims to power. Live within the modernist story and the modernists will end up running the show. That’s how the world has worked for long enough.

And of course that presents quite a challenge to the Christian; because the Bible, as I have stressed, is precisely a great narrative, the huge, sprawling story of creation and new creation, of covenant and new covenant, with Jesus in the middle of it. That is why many Christians today shrink their mission to the mere attempt to give some people, here and there, a spiritual life and a hope out beyond, rather than taking the mission where it needs to go, into every corner of God’s world and its systems and structures. But please note: the deconstruction of power-stories is itself a claim to power. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus ‘what is truth’, because for him the only truth was what came out of the scabbard of a sword. Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in John 18 and 19 stands near the heart of a biblical theology of mission, though sadly I’m not sure if that will come out in our Bible Studies in the next few days. In other words, though the postmodernist sneers at empire and its grandiose dreams, in the final analysis it colludes with it. It can scoff, but it cannot subvert. All those years of Jacques Derrida, and we still got George Bush. And Tony Blair.

So what does the Bible itself have to say on the matter? How can the great story I’ve been speaking of respond to the postmodern challenge – because make no mistake, if it doesn’t, our mission will shrink into a sad little parody of its true self. The answer is that the story of scripture is not a story of power, but a story of love – genuine love, overflowing love for the world God made. Note carefully what happens at this point.

I said postmodernity had one moral value only, the scream of the victim. That isn’t quite true. It has one other: the duty to, as is often said ‘embrace the Other’. This has come from various sources and it’s sometimes joined up, though I have to say with minimal justification, with some elements of the work of Jesus. This is at the heart of the appeal that we ‘live with difference’, and so on. I have spoken about that elsewhere; it all depends on a decision as to which differences you can and should live with and which you shouldn’t and can’t. There is an enormous amount of begging the question currently on this matter. But when we consider the biblical narrative we discover that here again postmodernity has produced a parody of the reality. In scripture, God makes a world that is other than himself, and that is full of complementarities: heaven and earth, night and day, sea and land, vegetation and animals, and ultimately humans, with the complementarity of male and female growing more evident within that world until it is finally affirmed, producing a picture of a world of radical differences with the differences made for one another. Within the biblical narrative, of course, this reaches its great conclusion when heaven and earth finally come together, with the new Jerusalem as the bride of Christ. This is the biblical story of love: the love of God for his world, the love within that world for that which is radically different from me, from us, the love which really does ‘embrace the other’, not in a casual and floppy sense of ‘anyone who’s a bit different from me’, but in the deep ontological sense of a love which goes out into a different country altogether to affirm the goodness of God’s creation there and to discover, in that affirmation, the greatest delight which mirrors the delight of God the creator, the delight of Christ the lover.

What we desperately need, if we are to pursue a biblical, Christian and indeed Anglican mission in the postmodern world, is the Spirit of Truth. There is no time to develop this further, but it is vital to say this one thing. We have got so used to the postmodern sneer that any truth-claim is instantly suspect. And at that point many Christians have lurched back to the apparent safety of a modernist claim: conservative modernists claim that they can simply look up truth in the Bible, without realising what sort of book it is, while radical modernists claim they find truth in today’s science, without realising what sort of a thing that is either. But we cannot go back; we have to go on; and the Spirit of Truth, often invoked in favour of any and every innovation in the church, is actually at work when we live within the great story, the love story, God’s love-story, and become in turn agents, missional agents, of that story in the world. Truth is not something we possess and put in our pockets, because truth is grounded in the goodness of creation, the promise of redemption for that creation, and the vocation of human beings to speak God’s word both of naming the original creation and of working for new creation – the word, in other words, of mission. The Spirit of Truth is given so that, living within the great biblical story, we can engage in those tasks.


There is much more to say, as Jesus himself said in the Farewell Discourses, but you cannot bear it now. I hope I have said enough to spark off some discussion and open up some topics of more than a little relevance to who we are as bishops in the Anglican Communion and what we should be about in our mission in tomorrow’s world. I have tried to offer a robust account of the way in which the Bible is designed to be the vehicle of God’s authority, not in an abstract sense but in the dynamic sense of the story through which God’s mission in the world goes forward in the power of the Spirit. And within that larger picture, the small details slot into place, not as isolated fragments of disjointed moral or theological musings, but, as I said before, as tips of the iceberg which show what is there all along just under the surface. There are other questions I haven’t addressed, not least the way in which the Bible demands to be read both individually and corporately in each generation, so that each generation can grow up intellectually, morally, culturally and Christianly. We will never get to the point where scholarship has said all that needs to be said and subsequent generations will just have to look up the right answers. Thank God it isn’t like that. But, as we in turn give ourselves to the tasks of being bishops-in-mission, of being biblical-bishops-in-mission, we must always remind ourselves that the Bible is most truly itself when it is being, through the work of God’s praying people and not least their wise shepherds, the vehicle of God’s saving, new-creational love going out, not to tell the world it is more or less all right as it is, but to do for the whole creation, and every man, woman and child within it, what God did for the children of Israel in Egypt, and what God did for the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus: to say ‘I have heard your crying, and I have come to the rescue.’

Source: ntwrightpage.com


  1. Hi. I am a long time reader. I wanted to say that I like your blog and the layout.

    Peter Quinn


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