Daniel Hoffman makes an important point about my argument that salient events in the history of the church could be said to have the same level of theological significance as events in the Bible:
I sympathize with this in theory—it sounds right, but it seems to me the obvious difference, at least as far as the conscious life of the church is concerned, is that we have no divine revelation/canonical scripture interpreting the post-New Testament developments. It may be that historically considered, the “collapse of Christendom” is as significant for the people of God as the exile, but the later comes with an inspired and canonical description and interpretation and the former does not.
I think this may actually highlight a serious problem with the five act play model of biblical authority. In what sense does the history of the church since the New Testament period constitute a continuation of the biblical narrative?
If Wright only means that the church goes about being church for ever and ever—serving, worshipping, loving, witnessing, praying—there is not much improvisation involved.
On the other hand, if we are talking about a story on a level historically with the events narrated in the Bible, can it really be characterised as a group of competent actors intentionally, creatively and faithfully plotting a fifth act?
After all, we don’t read the Old Testament as though the chief actors in the story were consciously and creatively making it up as they went along. It is rather the history of a people working itself out—driven by the usual social-political forces and somewhat constrained by the terms of the covenant, but still just history in process. Why should the story of the church be any different?
I have frequently argued that we should read both scripture and our own post-Christendom context narratively, but that is a retrospective reading. The most perhaps we can say is that in the light of the preceding storyline we can develop a faint prophetic sense of where we need to go next, what the next twist in the narrative should be. Is that what Wright means?
In any case, it still seems to suggest that if the fifth act—the story of the church—is to be a proper continuation of the drama given to us in scripture, it has to be of the same narrative-theological character. Just as the biblical witness is a prophetic interpretation of the tumultuous historical journey of the community, so our continuing self-understanding must be a prophetically interpreted response to the salient facts of our history—“the war against Rome, the conversion of the empire, the Wars of Religion, and the collapse of Christendom”, and so on.
But how does the inspiration of scripture come into this?
A major part of my general argument is that “historically considered” is exactly how we should read scripture. It’s not so much a question of whether we can raise history to the level of scripture as of whether we can “lower” scripture to the level of history without losing its directive and transformative power.
Scripture speaks of historical events such as the return of Jews from exile or the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist, but more importantly, in a way, it is the product of a historical community that needed to tell its story in this way.
Protestantism has given supreme authority to the Bible, but—again thinking historically—it is the community that has ontological and epistemological priority. As I wrote in piece discussing Peter Enns’ views on evangelicalism and historical criticism, “we place far too much reliance on scripture for our raison d’être and far too little on the historical existence of the people of God as a called and inspired community”:
The community is not determined by scripture. The community is determined by the sovereign decision of God to have a people for his own possession. Scripture is a by-product of that calling.
We could also then say that the canonisation of scripture was a historical development, a complicated decision made by Judaism and Christianity in the first centuries of the common era. Historically, we decided to make these texts normative and have ascribed to them an authority above other texts. But it is also true, it seems to me, that neither the authors nor the canonisers had resources available to them that we do not have today: they spoke, wrote, and redacted under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Arguably, the canonisation of the New Testament was simply an act of historical-critical discernment: this particular body of texts constituted the fullest and most reliable witness to the historical origins of Christianity. That is a judgment that has stood the test of time remarkably well. But otherwise, the documents are as much part of history, and of historiography, as the Maccabean writings, the apocalyptic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the works of Josephus and Tacitus, and so on.
Daniel asks finally: “if current events are just as important to the history of God’s people, why don’t we have any more prophets delivering inspired, canonical scripture?” That’s a good question.
I’m inclined to regard the canonisation of scripture as itself an “accident” of history and for the sake of history. What the New Testament does is give us a pretty good idea of the significance of Jesus’ life and death and of how the church got underway in the first few decades. It doesn’t need to do any more than that. But I do think that the post-Christendom church in the West needs a coherent prophetic perspective on the crisis that it faces.
The reason why we lack the prophetic perspective is that we don’t know how to tell our story. Modernism has detached itself from history. Modern evangelicalism is so myopic that it cannot see beyond the short representative “history” of the individual: a sinner in need of salvation. But scripture consistently tells large scale narratives about the past, present and future of the historical community, and out of that storytelling emerges the prophetic voice, interpreting, warning, and offering hope.
So if we learn to tell our story—our historical story—better, I think we will recover the capacity to speak prophetically about the place of God’s people in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world.