The Line Connecting Rob Bell and N.T. Wright

I’m finally reading David Wells’ The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World.  This is the final volume in Wells’ series exploring the current state of “evangelical” theology and practice.  He says that it is a summary volume, and thus it has no footnotes or endnotes.  Nevertheless, he does interact with various theologians and names names and gives sources.

Chapter 3, “Truth,” has a subsection entitled “Evangelical Adventures.”  Here he discusses recent trends in how the authority of the Bible is understood:

In recent years this understanding of biblical inspiration and its resulting authority in all of life has been undergoing a major revision among some evangelicals.  The revision, on the high end, is evident in the work of N. T. Wright, for example and I. Howard Marshall; it is evident on the low end in experimenters like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and a host of other cultural fashionistas. (85)

He then goes on to describe how Marshall speaks of how the Holy Spirit has continued to enlighten God’s people since the time of Jesus, moving us beyond the New Testament.  Then he comes to Wright:

Wright, more adventurous than Marshall, disengages the authority of God from the authority of Scripture rather more radically.  In different ways and in different places he mocks the idea that Scripture contains timeless, unchanging truths or that it was ever meant to do so.  The authority of God is experienced as something other than the authority of Scripture.  This was his thesis in The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture.  Wright offers a baffling illustration to make his point.  Suppose a lost Shakespeare play were found today.  Four of the acts have survived but we know that originally it had five acts.  What would we do?  Would we not try to create the fifth act as faithfully as we could so that the play could run its course?  That is our situation in the church today.  We do not have the fifth act of God’s revelation, the one for our present moment.

The problem with this, of course, is that the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play could be written in any number of ways with any number of outcomes.  So it would be with Scripture had God left us to our own wits. (85-86)

Wells moves on to discuss Bell and McLaren.  Then he draws the connection between these emergent authors and Wright/Marshall:

A line connects Marshall and Wright to Bell and McLaren.  It is that the authority of God functions separately from the written Scripture.  Marshall thinks the Spirit has liberated us from some of what is in Scripture; Wright thinks the Scriptures were never given to function as absolute truth in our world in the first place; Bell thinks the Scriptures simply send us on our way to do our own thing; McLaren thinks historic faith needs to be de-reconstructed for postmoderns so that the baggage of enduring truth can be dropped.

The common thread across this broad front is that Scripture cannot be fully authoritative at the level of its functioning in the life of the church today.  We are in fact autonomous, freed from its language and constraints as we shape our own understanding, in our own way, in the postmodern world.  At the end of the day Christianity is about filling out my story, being propelled on my journey by the Scripture or the Holy Spirit, and being propelled into the (post)modern world.  It is not about our fitting into the Bible’s narrative.  It is not about seeing it as an objective framework of truth… (87)

I’d never heard of that before.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Wells is right about this connection.  Wright gives me the heebie-jeebies.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

6 responses to “The Line Connecting Rob Bell and N.T. Wright

  • David DeJong

    This seems like a caricature of Wright’s five-act hermeneutics to me. As I recall, Wright uses that to insist on the primary authority of the post-Pentecost revelation (i.e. letters of Paul, etc.) as that revelation which should most guide the church today. His hermeneutics is, I think, attempting to avoid theonomy, etc., by providing an eschatological framework for the reading of Scripture.

    Anyways, not saying I’m agreeing with Wright, just saying that this sounds like a caricature.

    Have you read much Wright? Given all the misrepresentation of his work that occurs (because he seems to raise strong emotions), it’s best to read his work directly rather than depend on other’s summaries.

  • Bill DeJong

    Hi Wes,

    A friend alerted me to your post with the assumption that I would be interested in your comments about Tom Wright. Permit me these responses:

    (a) I don’t know how much you’ve read of David Wells, but he strikes me as a theological curmudgeon who walks around with a stick and beats those see theology and the church as something dynamic (and not static). Wells is the Christian equivalent to Neil Postman and a theological Luddite; we are innovating ourselves to death and the only apparent solution is to go back in time. I concede that my exposure to Wells is restricted to “No Place for Truth” and “Losing our Virtue,” both of which I found pessimistic, depressing and unhelpful for their lack of a positive program.

    (b) Wright’s point about the fifth act has less to say about the authority of Scripture and more to say about the interpretation of Scripture and the role of the church today. If Wells had read Wright a little more carefully, he would have noted that the fifth act is in a story sequence, not a revelation sequence. To put it differently, the church is to live out the fifth act of the biblical story—namely, the time period between Pentecost and the Parousia. The first four acts are: creation, fall, Israel and Jesus.

    In this fifth act, not everything is carefully spelled out and so we improvise. We look at worship in Scripture in old and new covenants, note principles and patterns, and we design a worship service. We recognize that our worship is not explicitly prescribed by Scripture and yet we don’t hesitate to call it Scriptural worship.

    (c) Wright’s point about “timeless truths” should be embraced with open arms by Reformed folk committed to redemptive-historical interpretation. The great Reformed exegetes remind us again and again to be sensitive to aspects of the text which are unique to the time period of the text. We must be careful, for example, to identify a certain party in the church today as Pharisees, though there may be people today who fit the general profile of Pharisees.

    (d) The comparison to I. Howard Marshall is unfortunate. (BTW, if you read the Dutch churches’ material on marriage and divorce you’ll hear Marshall overtones.) Marshall promotes a trajectory hermeneutic in which the Bible functions as a sort of springboard to dealing with contemporary issues. Wright’s position is more nuanced and far more biblically rooted. Interestingly, Wright concludes his book by recommending numerous books on hermeneutics (including some by Reformed fellows) and he does not mention Marshall’s book, _Beyond the Bible_. That’s telling.

    I hope this clarifies Wright’s position for readers of your blog. For a thorough presentation of Wright’s view on this, I refer you to chapter 5 of _New Testament and the People of God_.


  • Wes Bredenhof

    Thanks, Bill. At some point I’ll get this book by Wright and check it out for myself. Stay tuned.

    As for Wells, besides the Courage to be Protestant, I read Above All Earthly Pow’rs a couple of years ago. I found it a helpful analysis of the postmodern “zeitgeist.” We need curmudgeons too. I suppose your criticism of Wells could equally have been laid at the feet of Machen and his Christianity and Liberalism. One man’s curmudgeon is another man’s “watchman for the house of Israel.”

  • David DeJong

    For the real line connecting Bell and Wright, however, I would recommend Jeremy Begbie’s lecture at the recent NT Wright conference, which can be found here:

  • Kent

    “It is not about our fitting into the Bible’s narrative.”

    This closing statement demonstrates that Wells does not fully understand Wright’s discussion on the authority of scripture. One of the main points is that we do submit ourselves to the authority of the Bible. Our story takes its cues from the narrative in the Bible.

    I agree with David Dejong that this is a caricature of Wright’s five act hermeneutic. Wright uses this as an analogy; he is not suggesting that we are to actually write down the final piece of scripture. Much as a jazz musician would improvise in the style of Count Basie, so we are to live out in word and deed in the same vein as the Bible.

    I would highly recommend this article to all readers:

%d bloggers like this: