This is a guest post by Ryan Hermansen, a BYU graduate who lives in Southern California with his wife and three kids. He enjoys writing about religion, philosophy, science, and ethics. Ryan blogs at www.fromwhenceitmay.com.
By Ryan Hermansen
N.T. Wright was the Bishop of Durham in the Anglican Church, and has written extensively as a New Testament scholar for many years. In a speech he gave entitled ‘How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?’ he made a remark that, to Latter-day Saints, rings with interest – though to many others it probably passes unnoticed.
This excellent speech deserves to be read in its entirety; for the moment, however, I want to focus in on one particular section that is of special interest to Latter-day Saints. Wright begins by asserting that the Bible needs to be viewed not as a rulebook, nor as a lexicon of ready-made answers to Gospel questions, but instead simply viewed for what it is: “an ancient narrative book.” Growing from this straightforward observation is the question, how can a narrative book such as this – predominantly a book of stories – be considered authoritative?
He offers a provocative model for understanding how Christians can appropriately respond to the Biblical narrative; that is, how to make the transition from an “ancient narrative book” to a modern Christian life. First, he says, the biblical story “has a shape and a goal that must be observed,” and then compares that shape to a play with five acts: 1) Creation, 2) Fall, 3) Israel, 4) Jesus. “The New Testament would then form,” Wright says,
the first scene of the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom. 8; 1 Cor 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end. The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act.
The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.
So, the job of the Christian in the 21st century is to stay true to the shape of the first four acts – the primary themes that arc across them – but at the same time adapt and innovate in our 21st century context as much as necessary in order to move the story forward toward its proper dénouement.
With that background, here comes the part with special significance for the Latter-day Saint reader. After illustrating his five-act model, he introduces a counterpoint in the work of another author, JDG Dunn, and then proceeds with a fascinating possibility. He says,
At the same time, [the five-act model] forms a counter-proposal to the suggestion of JDG Dunn in chapter 3 of his book, “The Living Word.” There he implies, and sometimes states specifically, that since Jesus and Paul treated the Old Testament with a mixture of respect and cavalier freedom, we should do the same – with the New Testament! But this would only hold if we knew in advance that there had been, between the New Testament and ourselves, a break in (for want of a better word) dispensation comparable to the evident break in dispensation between acts 3 and 4, between Old Testament and Jesus. And we know no such thing.
Wright is making a reasonable, albeit hypothetical, provision for exactly what the Restored Church claims to be: a new act in the play, a new redemptive chapter blending old and new (innovation and consistency), occasioned by a “break in dispensation.” I’m sure that in the life and revelations of Joseph Smith, Wright would see a character who “was now behaving inconsistently” and introducing “sub-plots” or themes that didn’t do justice to the previous four acts. Fine, one can argue those points; but Wright’s comments at least cause us to reflect on how unique, and how significant, Joseph’s foundational claims really were. Joseph did not come out saying that he had worked out a better interpretation of the scriptures through valiant study and insight; he straightforwardly and unapologetically declared that a new dispensation of the Gospel of Christ was upon us, a restoration through heavenly messengers of much that had been lost during a “break” in dispensations, a period known culturally among the Saints as the ‘great apostasy.’
And as Dunn noted (and Wright implicitly agrees), a new dispensation naturally involves using the materials of the previous dispensation with “a mixture of respect and cavalier freedom.” Without knowing it, Dunn deftly summarized in one short phrase the work of the prophet Joseph Smith, for Joseph certainly evinced both a profound respect for what had come before, as well as a prophetic license to expand, clarify, and add. What the Latter-day Saint would include, of course, is that, just like with Paul and Jesus, Smith’s cavalier freedom was not simply a flight of fancy, but born of genuine revelation from on high.
Now, in order to persuade a man of N.T. Wright’s caliber that Joseph played such a role, we must clearly illustrate what comprises a dispensation of the Gospel, and then demonstrate compellingly that a “break in dispensation” did, in fact, occur. The aim would not be to convince by argument, of course, but rather to open the mind via the use of argument. The power to ultimately convince, sufficient to inspire covenant faithfulness, is the province of the Holy Spirit, as it always is.
And the crucial presupposition of Wright’s to confront is the one that holds the first coming of Jesus as the climax of the redemptive story. Surely it was the linchpin, but is that the same as saying it was the climax? Closely tied to this presupposition is another: since Jesus’ life was the climax of God’s revelation to humankind, then the primary vessel of guidance today is the biblical text – to the exclusion of any more visionary revelation, calling of prophets, or investiture of divine authority on human beings.
Now that the Restored Church is here to stay, much more rides on these assumptions. The more they are probed, it seems, the more threadbare they become.