At the community center where I volunteer each week, a client started going on in a loud voice about how the Bible condemns certain kinds of sexual activity. The case worker, who was just trying to make small talk, tried to deflect and change the conversation. Finally exasperated that she could not change the topic, she said, “Well, the Bible says lots of things we don’t pay attention to.”
And so the pair pretty much summed up the way we talk about ethics in the church.
I picked up NT Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God at annual conference (thank you Cokesbury discount) and started reading it a couple of days ago. It is — as is everything he writes — readable and engaging and interesting.
His discussion about how the early Christian church read the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) brought back to mind the exchange at the community center.
Wright’s argument goes like this: The early Christians did not treat the Old Testament like a grab bag of ideas from which they could pick and choose, but they did read it in a new way. As a consequence of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, they understood that something new and decisive had happened and that some of the purposes of God had been accomplished. They read the scriptures in a new way in light of this.
This new way resulted in their recognizing that some parts of the scriptures were no longer relevant for their ongoing life — not, we must stress, because those parts were bad, or not God-given, or less inspired, but because they belonged with earlier parts of the story which had now reached its climax.
With the coming of Christ and the opening up of God’s covenant promises to all people, Wright argues, those parts of the Mosaic law that served to mark out Jews from Gentiles were set aside because they had served their purpose. He argues that the purity laws mandating non-contamination by Gentiles, the temple sacrificial codes, sabbath requirements, and the conception of a geographic Holy Land limited to a specific place were no longer part of the story of the people of God now that Jesus Christ had opened the Abrahamic promises and covenant to all people.
But even as some parts of the scripture were understood as having served their purpose — Wright uses the analogy of a pilgrim people who travel part of the voyage on ship, but leave the ship behind when they get to land — that did not mean that none of it was relevant any longer. The story of God, as Wright describes it, is a story of creation, redemption, and final victory of God’s purposes in a world that will one day fully reflect God’s will in all things.
What Wright is encouraging us to do is to take seriously the theological seriousness of the early Christians. In response to Jesus Christ, they did read the scriptures in new ways — ways that would have been unrecognizable a few generations before. But it was a new reading that was grounded entirely in the revelation of Jesus Christ.
The case worker at the community center articulated what we often do with the principled and difficult theological discernment of the early church. We see that those early Christians “ignored” some parts of scripture. We take that as a license to say we can do so, too.
But, of course, there has been no new Jesus since the days of the early church. There has been no new decisive event that brought to a climax the story God had been telling and opened a new chapter (unless you think the Muslims have it right). Jesus Christ is the same today and yesterday.
Wright is not at all flippant about the challenges of reading scripture well in our day and age. He dismisses the “because the Bible says so” arguments that some make just as energetically as he engages the “we eat bacon” arguments of others. I am grateful for the seriousness with which he takes the scriptures and the need for us to engage with them and be formed by them.
I recommend the book. I am sure I will write about it more in the days ahead.