Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture

Originally published in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible. 2008. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI, pages 59-71.  Reproduced by permission of the author.

N. T. WRIGHT

Scripture, Doctrine, and Life: The Puzzle of Perception

For many in today’s church, “doctrine,” especially when labeled as “dogma,” is the dry, lifeless thing that once seemed important but now fails to send people out to change the world. For some such people, it is Scripture that brings them to life—the book where they meet Jesus and find him speaking to them. They read, or listen to, Scripture in the way that they would listen to a favorite symphony or folk song. It recreates their world, the world where they and God get it together, the world where all things are possible to those who believe.

Not everybody sees things that way. For some, Scripture itself, except for highly select verses and passages, has become as dry and dusty as dogma itself.  It is full of problems and puzzles, alternative readings and private theories of interpretation, and seems to them like a black hole that can suck down all the energy of otherwise good Christian people (exegetes and preachers) and give nothing much back in return. For them, what matters is invoking the Spirit, worshipping for longer and longer, extended prayer and praise meetings, telling others how wonderful it is to have a living relationship with Jesus. Such people assume (since the background of their tradition is broadly evangelical) that Scripture remains in some sense normative, but how it exercises that normativity, or how it “exercises” anything at all, or engages with their life and faith remains unclear.

The third category completes the circle. There are some for whom the books of devotion appear stale, but for whom, as C. S. Lewis once put it, the heart sings unbidden when working through a book of dogmatic theology with pipe in teeth and pencil in hand. For such people, as well, the endless and increasingly labyrinthine productions of the Great Exegetical Factory, especially the older Germans on the one hand and the newer Americans on the other, leave them cold. The lexicographical, historical, sociological, and rhetorical mountains of secular exegesis all move, and every so often there emerges a ridiculous mouse that squeaks some vaguely religious version of a currently popular self-help slogan. Meanwhile, the real mountains—the enormous, looming questions of God and the world, of church and society, of Jesus then and now, of death and resurrection—remain unaddressed. Salieri, in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, looks at Mozart’s operas and declares that Mozart has taken ordinary people—barbers, servant girls, footmen—and made them gods and heroes. He himself, however, has written operas about gods and heroes, and he has made them ordinary. A similar verdict awaits the contemporary “secular” exegete who dares to look into the mirror.

“Does it have to be this way?” asks not only the theologian but also the bishop. Where are the so-called ordinary people in all of this? Is there a better way not only of understanding the relationship between Scripture and doctrine but also of allowing either or both to bear fruit in the postmodern church and world?

Scripture and Narrative

To say that I want to begin to address this with some remarks about Scripture and narrative may provoke a sigh from at least some dogmaticians: “That is so last century, so postliberal. They are even giving it up at Yale now. Can any good thing come out of narrative?” Well, as a reader of Scripture, I perceive that the canon as it stands not only is irreducibly narrative in form, enclosing within that, of course, any number of other genres, but also displays an extraordinary, because unintentional to every single individual writer and redactor involved, overall storyline of astonishing power and consistency. You could say, of course, that this is all due to those who chose the books and shaped the canon, but if you look at the ones they left out, you would have to say either that even if you put them all in, you would still have the same narrative or that if you put some of them in (the gnostic Gospels, for instance), you would precisely deconstruct what would still be a huge, powerful narrative and offer instead a very different one from which, ultimately, you would have to exclude more or less everything else that is there. The gnostic Gospels, if made canonical, would eventually act like the baby cuckoo in the nest, kicking out all the native chicks, but if the chicks got together where they had landed on the ground, they would still have a massive family likeness. You cannot, in the end, take the anticanonical rhetoric of much contemporary writing to its logical conclusion without ending up having the canon again, only now as the alternative narrative. No: what we have, from Genesis to Revelation, is a massive narrative structure in which, though Paul, the evangelists, and John of Patmos are, of course, extremely well aware of the earlier parts, no single author saw the whole or knew about all its other parts. It is as though engineers from different workshops were invited to produce bits and pieces of cantilevers which ended up, when put together without the different work-shops knowing of it, producing the Forth Bridge. And the case I have made elsewhere, to bring this into sharp focus, is that Paul was aware of enough of this large story at least to add his own bit and point to the completion, even though other writers, such as the seer of Revelation, finish the narrative sequence with a different metaphor: marriage, in Revelation 21, rather than birth, as in Romans 8. But with Paul, we are “thinking Scripture” all the way, and that means “thinking narrative.”

I am thus taking the phrase “thinking Scripture” in, I think, two ways. First, that as we read Paul, we should be conscious that he is “thinking Scripture” in the sense that his mind is full of the great scriptural narrative and the great scriptural narratives, and that he is conscious of living in the climactic and newly explosive continuation and implementation of the first and also of living with the echoes and patterns of the second. But, second, part of the point is that as we read Paul, we should be conscious not only of “Paul said this, that, or the other” but also of “How can Paul’s saying of this be Scripture for us; how can it, that is, function as the word that addresses, challenges, sustains us, putting us to death and bringing us to new life?”

Now of course, within the grand narrative from the first garden to the new city there are multiple smaller narratives, some of them pulling this way and that within the larger one, sometimes even seemingly in opposite directions. That is to be expected, and actually it is only if we shrink the grand narrative from its full proportions that this becomes a problem. And of course, since the narrative itself is precisely about God’s extraordinary, vibrant, and multifaceted creation, we find poetry, prophecy, and wisdom firmly embedded, embodying what the story is saying about creativity and procreativity, about humans bearing God’s image, about God’s generous overspilling love, and so on. And within this narrative, and sometimes within its subgenres, there are statements of overarching truth or inalienable moral duty: the Ten Commandments come within the Exodus narrative (and are themselves prefaced by, and sometimes refer back to, bits of the larger narrative), and huge yet simple statements such as “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” are framed within the implicit narrative of Paul’s ongoing relationship with the feisty and factious Corinthians. And because I hold, as I always have done, a very high view of Scripture, not only as dogma but also as method, I find myself bound to ask whether doctrine, including, be it said, doctrine about Scripture itself, has really taken on board this element. It is not simply a question of “How can a narrative be authoritative?” I have written a book about that already.[1] The question, rather, is “How can a narrative, or more specifically this narrative, relate to the abstract questions, cast frequently in nonnarratival mode, that have formed the staple diet of doctrine and dogma?”

Is this even the right question to be asking? Might it not seem to imply (1) that it is doctrine that really matters, that will give life and energy and focus to the church; (2) that Scripture is the authority for our doctrine, since that is itself a foundational doctrine, but (3) that Scripture as we find it seems singularly unsuited for the purpose (as Winston Churchill said about a golf club in relation to the task of conveying a ball into a small and distant hole)?  And, granted that modern and often postmodern exegesis has left Scripture in bits all over the floor, each labeled “early Q” or “deutero-Paul” or “Hellenistic moral topos” or whatever—as though that settled anything—will it help (and if so, how?) to draw attention to Scripture’s most prominent characteristic, or will this too collapse into another pile of mere narrative theories, with actantial analyses like the spars of the skeleton ship in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, giving the initial appearance of being seaworthy but actually carrying only Death and Life-in-Death?

Doctrine as “Portable Story”

I think not. I want to propose what may be a way forward—not a particularly original one, but one that I have found helpful in reflecting recently on that strange doctrine called “the atonement.” I want to propose that we see doctrines as being, in principle, portable narratives.

What do I mean? When I am at home, my clothes live in wardrobes, and my books on bookshelves. But when I need to be away from home, I put them in bags and suitcases. It is not easy to carry suits, robes, and shoes, let alone books and notebooks, a laptop computer, an MP3 player, and so on, all loose, on and off the London Underground. The bags and suitcases perform a vital function. But when I get to my destination, even if I am only there for a single night, I get almost everything out, hang up the clothes and robes, and arrange the books on a desk or table, not because the suitcases were not important, but rather because they were. The bits and pieces have got where they were going and must be allowed to be themselves again.

This model suggests a to-and-fro between Scripture and doctrine that goes something like the following. It may be very important for the internal life of the church, or for the church’s witness to the world, that we address a question about the meaning of Jesus’ death that has come up at some point in debate How are we going to do it? It is hard, each time you want even to refer to Jesus’ death itself, to quote even a few verses from Mark 15, Matthew 27, Luke 23 or John 19. If, each time I wanted to refer in a discussion to the archbishop of Canterbury, I had to spell out the complete biography of that great and good man as set out in Who’s Who, the discussion would get impossibly clogged up. The title—the phrase “archbishop of Canterbury “—is a portable version of this, implying it all without telling the full story; but at any point it might be important that people were aware that this title refers to someone who was born in Wales, to someone who once held a chair at Oxford, to someone who has written a book on the resurrection, and so on. The narrative is implicitly carried within the title; at any point, you can reach in and get the bit of the story you need. Thus, in the same way, and thinking about Paul and the cross it is quite cumbersome, each time you want to refer to the atonement, to have to say something like “Paul’s teaching that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.'” So we bundle all of this, and the much fuller statements as well, up into a suitcase labeled “atonement,” which we can carry on and off the trains and buses of our various arguments and discussions, and which really does perform a vital function in enabling discourse to proceed. However when we get to the other end, we need to unpack it all again, so that what we are left with is not a single word—”atonement” or “reconciliation” or Versöhnung or whatever it might be—but rather the whole story John 18-19 as it stands, Romans 3, Galatians 3, 2 Corinthians 5, and so on. Such passages, I suggest, are the ground-level reality The word “atonement” itself and its near equivalents, and the various theories about atonement, are of service only insofar as they enable us to bundle up the passion narratives and the key New Testament witnesses to the meaning of the cross, not in order to muzzle them or only to “live out of a suitcase,” snatching an item here and there but keeping everything else crumpled up and invisible inside the zipped-up leather dogma, but rather to bring them out again and live off them, live with them, put them on and wear them, line them up and use them.

At this point, already, I must introduce a further element. The conviction has been growing in me that when Jesus wanted to explain to his followers what he thought would be the meaning of his death, he did not give them a theory; he gave them a meal. And the meal itself, by being a Passover-meal-with-a-difrerence, already indicates a massive and complex implied narrative—a story about a long history reaching a new, shocking, and decisive fulfillment—a story about slavery and freedom, about Israel and the pagans, about God fulfilling his promises, about covenant renewal and forgiveness of sins. And this encoded story, this meal-as-narrative, works by doing it. Breaking the bread and drinking from the cup are not about something else, unless that something else is simply called “Jesus.” Rather, we might better say that theories about atonement are, at their very best, abstractions from the Eucharist, which is itself the grid of interpretation that we have been given—by Jesus himself!—for Jesus’ death. This makes life much more complicated, of course, since we have suddenly introduced a third and disturbing element into the “Scripture and doctrine” debate, but at least in the case of the atonement, we have, I think, no choice.

Creeds as Portable Story—and Therefore as Symbol

I will come back to this presently, because it might be that the atonement is, in this respect and perhaps in others, something of a special case. But first I want to state the obvious and then develop it a little. The idea that doctrines are portable stories is, of course, already present in the classic statements of Christian doctrines, the great early creeds. They are not simply checklists that could in principle be presented in any order at all. They consciously tell the story—precisely the scriptural story!—from creation to new creation, focusing particularly, of course, on Jesus and summing up what Scripture says about him in a powerful, brief narrative (a process that we can already see happening within the New Testament itself). When the larger story needs to be put within a particular discourse, for argumentative, didactic, rhetorical, or whatever other purpose, it makes sense, and is not inimical to its own character, to telescope it together and allow it, suitably bagged up, to take its place in that new context—just as long as we realize that it will collect mildew if we leave it in its bag forever.

One of the things that creeds enable Scripture to do, by being thus compressed into a much, much briefer narrative framework, is to allow the entire story to function as symbol. It is no accident thatsymbol was one of the words that the early Christians used to denote their creeds. The creeds were not simply a list of things that Christians happened to believe. They were a badge to be worn, a symbol that, like the scholar’s gown that tells you what this person is about, declares, “This is who we are.” That is, of course, why the creeds are recited in liturgy: not so much to check that everyone present is signed up to them but rather to draw together, and express corporately, the church’s response to the reading and praying of Scripture in terms of “Yes! As we listen to these texts, we are renewed as thispeople, the people who live within this great story, the people who are identified precisely as people-of-this-story, rather than as the people of one of the many other stories that clamor for attention all around.” And this, I think, is the role of doctrine, or one of its crucial and central roles: to ensure that when people say the creeds, they know what they are talking about and why it matters, and also to ensure that when some part of the larger story is under attack or is being distorted, we cannot just come to the rescue and, as it were, put a finger in the dyke, but rather we can discern why the attack has come at this moment and at this point and can work to eliminate the weakness that has allowed it to gain access.

Part of my general point about Paul is precisely that he is constantly doing this packing and unpacking, compressing and expanding, hinting in one place and offering a somewhat fuller statement of the same point elsewhere. A good example of this is in 1 Corinthians 15:56-57, where Paul says (bewilderingly, since he has not been talking about these things), “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” By itself, this is more or less incomprehensible, since nowhere else in his writings to date has Paul said anything about the law being “the power of sin.” We might just about have inferred it from Galatians 3, but it would be stronger than anything there. But in Romans 7 Paul explains precisely this point at much greater length, ending with the same shout of triumph. In other words, it is not simply the case that Scripture gives miscellaneous teaching about various topics that the church can codify into portable statements and then decodify back into Scripture again. We can see the same process going on within Scripture itself, not least in Paul himself, and not least at this point, when we are thinking about sin, the law, and the victory of Christ—in other words, about atonement. All this leads us to another important general point about the nature of doctrine, Scripture, and narrative.

Checklists and Connect-the-Dots

It dawns on me, uncomfortably, that it is possible to treat doctrines, not (as the creeds do) as basically a narrative but simply as a kind of abstract checklist, dogmas to which one must subscribe but which do not really belong at all within a story, or, more insidious perhaps still, do belong within a story but within a story that, because it is not usually seen as such, is quietly doing its powerful work of reshaping what these admittedly true doctrines will now it mean and why. In other words, simply putting a checkmark beside all twenty-nine (or however many) true doctrines is not good enough. It could be that you are like a child faced with a connect-the-dots puzzle, realizing that you I have to link the dots but not understanding what the numbers are there for.  You can indeed draw a picture in which all the dots are connected, but it may bear little relation to the picture that was intended. You can, in fact, link all the dots, both in the classic early creeds and most of the later ones (e.g., the post-Reformation confessions and articles), and still be many a mile away from affirming what the biblical writers, all through, were wanting people to affirm. You can connect all the dots and still produce, shall we say, a thistle instead of a rose. To take a different but related example: if I come upon the letters “BC” written down somewhere, it is only the larger context, the larger implicit narrative, that can tell me whether they mean “Bishop’s Council” (in an entry in my calendar), “British Columbia” (in my cousin’s mailing address), “Before Christ” (in a book about ancient history), or the two musical notes that bear those names (about the conclusion of Sibelius’s seventh symphony). Implicit narrative is all. If you affirm a doctrine but place it in the wrong implicit narrative, you potentially falsify it as fully and thoroughly as if you denied it altogether.

This point is not dissimilar to one made by Robert Jenson,[2] though I think he has not done enough to ward off the suspicion that his own proffered solution is subject to the same critique that he has offered of other theories. Writing about the doctrine of the atonement, he suggests that what is wrong with the three main models—Anselm, Abelard, and Christus Victor, to put it bluntly—is that all of them are placing the death of Jesus within a narrative other than the one that Scripture itself proposes. Scripture is not talking about the honor or shame of a medieval nobleman, or about a program to educate people in how to love God, or about monstrous mythical powers and how they might be defeated. I think, actually, that Scripture is more obviously talking about the last of those, but that is another question to which we may return. My difficulty with Jenson (and I suspect that he is building up to addressing this in a fuller work for which the 2006 article is a brief flyer) is that his alternative narrative, which is about the relationships between the three persons of the Trinity, while very interesting and not at all unrelated to the story that Scripture tells, is still not that story itself and still avoids the really important part of the whole thing, the thing to which the church has persistently given far too little attention (including, I believe, the classic creeds themselves): the story of Israel.

It is this story that drives the whole of the New Testament, which is not surprising, because it is what drove Jesus himself. When Paul says that “the Messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures,” he does not mean that if we look hard enough, we can find a few helpful proof texts. What he means—and what we see in the great sermons in Acts, particularly chapters 7 and 13 and the subsequent summaries of similar material—is that the story of Israel from Abraham to the Messiah is seen as the plan of the one Creator God to save the whole world. It is remarkable how difficult it is to get this across to people who are deeply embedded in a rather different story, one that reads simply “creation, sin, Jesus, salvation.” Interestingly, of course, if you miss the “Israel” stage of the story, not only do you become a de facto Marcionite, as many, alas, in both Protestant and Catholic traditions seem to be, but you also leave yourself, most likely, without an ecclesiology or with having to construct one from scratch far too late in the narrative. There are, of course, all kinds of clues in the New Testament to indicate that something is badly wrong here, and the story of exegesis, not least in the Protestant and evangelical worlds, has sadly included several quite clever moves for rendering these clues (e.g., Rom. 9-11) irrelevant. The story of Israel is assumed to be at best exemplary and at worst irrelevant, except for odd flashes of prophetic inspiration, rather than having anything to do with the meaning of the story of Jesus himself. And with this all pretense of actually paying attention to Scripture itself has vanished.

The question presses, of course, as to how paying attention to the story of Israel enables us to understand what the New Testament writers are saying about the cross, not to mention how we might, having understood, work toward a more biblical formulation; or how all this integrates, as it must if it is to be true to Jesus and the New Testament authors, with the Eucharist and the life of the community that is formed around it. But the same point could, and perhaps should, be made in relation to other doctrines, not only the atonement. Christology, for instance, has, in my view, suffered in the Western tradition because of people simply putting a checkmark in the “Jesus is divine” box without really stopping to think which god they are talking about, what it means within the biblical narrative to say such a thing, and how this integrates properly, not merely accidentally, as it were, with the other box that people will usually check,” the “Jesus is human” box. The signs that all is not well include, on the one hand, a kind of “superman” theology wherein Jesus is “the man from outside” coming with miraculous, “supernatural” power to “zap” everything that is wrong, all conceived within a strictly dualistic view that ends, not surprisingly, in his followers being miraculously “raptured” up to join him in “heaven,” and, on the other hand, an official acknowledgment that Jesus was human, which nevertheless leads to no engagement whatsoever with the question of what it meant to be Jesus of Nazareth, to live and think as a first-century Jew longing for God’s kingdom, to be possessed of a deep and radical vocation and to construe that in terms and stories available to a first-century Jew, and so on. The enormous resistance to this latter project tells its own story, which cannot be reduced, in my view, simply to reaction against, say, the Jesus Seminar and some of its sillier forebears.

The mention of the “rapture” points to a further example of how not to connect the dots. For many Christians, the question “Do you believe in the second coming?” means, quite simply, “Do you believe in the dispensationalist rapture doctrine?” and indeed there are some who would love to believe in the genuine New Testament doctrine of the second coming who feel obliged not to put a checkmark in the box because they cannot and will not swallow the rapture. Rapture theology is what you get, in other words, when you take the doctrine (“He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and of his kingdom there will be no end”) and put it, first, within a heaven-and-earth dualism in which the only point of human existence on earth is to work out how to leave it with a ticket to the right destination, and, second, within a very localized nineteenth-century reading of one particular set of texts, especially 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which flesh out, within that larger (wrong) story, what the “second coming” might look like. Again, there is enormous resistance to any attempt within these supposedly biblical circles to tell the genuinely biblical story about heaven and earth, and new heavens and new earth, and about the good Creator God, who has promised to unite them into one in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:10, which itself stands at the heart of a prayer story that is a Christ-and-Spirit-shaped version of a Jewish creation-and-exodus celebration).

Many other examples could be given, but I trust the point is taken. This leads me to a final observation.

What Does “Listening to Scripture” Actually Mean?

Part of the long-term debilitating result of a moribund and overly footnoted exegetical tradition—somewhat, we may suppose, like the endless annotations upon annotations of the late medieval period—is the apparent failure in many parts of today’s church actually to engage with Scripture or to listen to it with any seriousness. Here, of course, the normal locus might be thought to be the sermon; however, in many Western churches, the exegesis offered from the pulpit is bare and uninspiring and often is either rather obvious or just plain eccentric. No doubt there are noble exceptions in every direction, but I have an uncomfortable suspicion that most Western Christians, at least in mainline denominations, know what I am talking about. And if that pushes the emphasis elsewhere, where is that “elsewhere”? In small Bible study groups? Fine, but do they produce fresh, vibrant readings of Scripture that then can be passed up the food chain to the larger community? In other groups of clergy and other ministers? Fine, but is this an exercise in mutually assisted devotion rather than a real grappling with key passages and issues with a view to taking some action? In synods? We draw a discreet veil over the mere suggestion. In doctrine commissions and other similar groups? Well, perhaps; but I must say, as one who has been a member of several such bodies, that the best that one can normally hope for is flashes of insight mixed with heavily negotiated compromise statements that end up reflecting not just last century’s exegesis, but the wrong bits of last century’s exegesis.

Yet most churches include in their formularies and/or statements of intent something about “listening to Scripture” or even “listening to Scripture together,” and church members regularly refer back to this in their synod debates and the like. Yes, sometimes noble efforts are made, such as at successive Lambeth Conferences, where serious Bible study has, thank God, been a major, important, and cross-cultural feature. But my concern, granted that that is an exception, is twofold. First, ought we not to be thinking hard about what could and perhaps should be done in this area, aside from what we are currently doing (and not doing very well)? Second, is it not at this point that there is a real danger of those who want to get the church refocused and reenergized trying to do so by, as it were, going behind the back of Scripture (lest we get bogged down in that moribund exegetical tradition again!) and leaping straight for something called “doctrine” instead?

That may be a false fear, but it should perhaps be named just in case. I will not attempt to answer it, but, in answer to the former question, it is worth drawing attention, within the more catholic end of the church, to two phenomena. First, there is the “Ignatian method” of reading Scripture, normally done individually and normally for personal devotional engagement and enrichment but sometimes perhaps in groups and with more wide-ranging results. I am not aware that people tend to emerge from an Ignatian meditation eager to go and put some fine-tuning into one or another of the church’s doctrines, but perhaps they should. Second, there is the liturgical reading of Scripture, and particularly of the Gospel reading, as the climax and focus of Scripture, seen as one mode of the personal presence of Jesus with the worshiping congregation, symbolized by making the sign of the cross at the Gospel reading during the Eucharist and at the “Gospel canticle” in morning and evening prayer. I suspect that this phenomenon remains inarticulate for most worshipers even in the traditions where it is the norm, but it is likewise worth drawing out and reflecting upon.

Moreover, I am suggesting that the Eucharist is in fact the primary and indeed dominical grid for understanding Jesus’ death. I recognize that the word understanding is actually changing in meaning as I say that, so that it is forced to encompass physical and social actions and realities as well as mental states and abstract ideas. It is therefore perhaps germane to my more focused question that we might contemplate the eucharistic reading of Scripture in terms of that reading being one part of the necessary and formative action within which the Eucharist means what it means. It thus enables God’s people to “understand,” in this deeper sense of being grasped by the reality at every level, who Jesus the Messiah was and is and what his death really did accomplish.

Scripture, Exegesis, Dogma, and Church: Some Concluding Pauline Proposals

I know only too well, from both sides of the table, as it were, the frustration felt by the preacher or dogmatician who is told by the exegete, “The text does not actually say that.” I hope that the dogmatician also recognizes the frustration that the exegete feels when told, precisely in his or her effort to be obedient to one of the primary Reformation dogmas, about Scripture itself, “Do not give us that exegetical mish-mash; we want results, good solid doctrines that we can use and preach from.” (Ernst Käsemann commented on this point in a typical statement about those who are concerned only with “results” needing to keep their hands off exegesis, because it has no use for them, nor they for it.[3] I understand his point, but I insist that we must keep on trying.)  I return, instead, to the category of narrative. Rather than trying to filter out the actual arguments that Paul is mounting in order to “get at” the doctrines that, it is assumed, he is “expounding,” I have stressed that we must pay attention to those larger arguments and to the great story of God, the world, Israel, and Jesus, giving special attention to the “Israel” dimension, which is regularly screened out in dogma but is regularly vital for Paul, and within which the cross means for him what it means for him. Closer exegetical attention would show that what the tradition has usually called “the atonement”—that “portable story” within which so much implicit exegesis and dogma has been baggaged up, sometimes uncomfortably—is not a suitcase that Paul employs. It is, perhaps, a sub-suitcase, a compartment within his larger luggage—perhaps something akin to the way Schweitzer saw justification as a Nebenkrater within the “main crater” of “being in Christ,” though of course I disagree importantly if obliquely with his particular point. But it is not the main thing that Paul is talking about.

Where does that leave us in terms of the questions posed earlier on? To begin with, it means that we must constantly struggle to hear Paul within the world of his implicit, and often explicit, narratives, especially the great story that starts with Abraham (itself understood as the new moment within the story that starts with Adam and, indeed, with creation itself) and continues through Moses to David and ultimately to the Messiah. Protecting Paul from that story—that is not too strong a way to put the matter—has been a major preoccupation both of some academic exegetes who have wanted to locate him solely within a Hellenistic world and of some dogmaticians and preachers who have wanted to make sure that he is relevant to, and addresses clearly, the pastoral and evangelistic issues of which they are aware. But it is precisely at this point, as I have stressed, that the doctrine of Scripture’s own authority presses upon us. By what right do we take Scripture and find ways to make it talk about the things that we want it to talk about?

I suggest, in fact, that the key point is to develop more particularly our reflections on the way in which Scripture is used, heard, and lived with within the actual life of the actual church. The belittling of Scripture into a short and puzzling noise that intrudes upon our liturgy here and there is dangerous and destructive, especially, of course, in churches where there is not even much a strong dogma to take its place. And the use of Scripture as the peg to preach sermons that the tradition, even the evangelical or Protestant tradition, has decreed we ought to preach is always in danger of self-delusion. In short, we have to discern and attempt ways of letting Scripture be heard not only when it says something that we understand but want to disagree with (that is where “the authority of Scripture” normally bites), but also when it says something that we do not understand because we have carefully screened out, or never even imagined, the narrative world within which it makes sense.

One of the main ways this needs to be done is, of course, through sustained teaching by preachers and teachers who are themselves soaked in Scripture. Fair enough. But I do think that our churches and parachurch organizations could and should do more to help people understand the great narrative of Scripture, by sustained readings, public and private, by drawing attention to the great narrative themes and encouraging people to explore them, by discouraging the nonnarratival or deconstructive songs that have swept in through today’s cheerful and unthinking postmodernity, and by encouraging and creating new words and music to get the great themes into people’s heads and hearts. All these suggestions remain a great challenge at the level of pastoral and ecclesial practice. But I think, as well, that at the academic level we need to see far more open exchange between serious historical exegesis—not done in a corner or by bracketing out questions of meaning, doctrine, and life but instead engaging with the realities of which the text speaks—and a dogmatic theology that itself remains open to being told that it has misread some of its own key texts. This, in other words, will be a dogmatic theology that itself does not hide in a corner or bracket out questions of history, text, and original sense.

We are once again at the fault line bequeathed to us by our Western culture, not just in modernity but going back at least as far as the medieval period; and if we are ever to have any hope of straddling that crack without falling down into it, the doctrine called “authority of Scripture” (which declares that Scripture is the way through which God the Holy Trinity activates, through the Spirit, the authority that the Father has delegated to the Son) insists that it is by paying attention to Scripture itself that we will find not only the bridges over the chasm but also the means to make the earth move once more and bring back together what should never have been separated in the first place. If reflecting briefly on Paul’s doctrine of reconciliation helps us to glimpse a pathway toward the reconciliation of two camps within the church that have been circling one another suspiciously for far too long, and perhaps two personality types that have projected themselves a little too enthusiastically into that polarization, I think that Paul himself would heave a sigh of relief and suggest that now, reunited, it might be time to get on with the task of coherent living and preaching the gospel.


[1] Wright, N. T. 2005.  Scripture and the Authority of God.  London: SPCK.

[2] Jenson, Robert W.  2006.  “On the Doctrine of Atonement.”  CTI Reflections 9:1-13.

[3] Käsemann, Ernst.  1980: viii.  Commentary on Romans.  Trans. G. W. Bromiley.  London: SCM Press.

Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics is available for purchase online at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), Barnes and Noble and Christianbook.com

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