All the world’s the stage: a narrative-historical revision of Wright’s five act play hermeneutic

A friend sent me a link to a short talk by Tom Wright in which he explains his now quite well known five act play model of biblical authority. There are two further parts to the talk on reading the scriptures as narrative and on how the church can improvise its own narrative. I recommend it. I like the idea in general terms—I think that narrative is the hermeneutical key not only for understanding scripture but also for understanding the condition and purpose of the church today. But I have reservations about the implementation.

Wright originally proposed the model in a Vox Evangelica (1991) article called “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” It is also presented in The New Testament and the People of God (139-43) as a method for reconnecting the descriptive and normative approaches to scripture, which have been forced apart by modernism. Scholarship has gone one way, the church has gone another.

So Wright asks: “Is there another model, consistent with serious literary, historical and theological study, which will result in the New Testament exercising that authority which Christians from the beginning have accorded to it?” Yes, and here it is…

Wright’s argument is that scripture is like an unfinished Shakespearean play in five acts. The first four acts give us the story through to Jesus: 1 Creation; 2 Fall; 3 Israel; 4 Jesus. The writing of the New Testament constitutes the first scene of act 5, giving hints at the same time regarding “how the play is supposed to end” (142).

The task of the church is then to “live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer an improvisatory performance of the final act as it leads up to and anticipates the intended conclusion”. The authority of the Bible is expressed in the loyalty of the actors to what has gone before. We are making it up as we go along, but it has to stay within the parameters of the biblical narrative.

A sixth act? Seriously?

Other theologians have played with the scripture as drama hermeneutic. For example, in The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story Bartholomew and Goheen have rewritten the story around the kingdom theme and have taken the liberty of adding a sixth act in defiance both of Wright and of literary convention. “It is clear,” they say, “that the biblical story does not simply end at the conclusion of the fifth act” (26). This is what it looks like:

Act I God Establishes His Kingdom: Creation

Act 2 Rebellion in the Kingdom: Fall

Act 3 The King Chooses Israel: Redemption Initiated

Scene I A People for the King
Scene 2 A Land for His People

Interlude: A Kingdom Story Waiting for an Ending: The Intertestamental Period

Act 4 The Coming of the King: Redemption Accomplished

Act 5 Spreading the News of the King: The Mission of the Church

Scene I From Jerusalem to Rome
Scene 2 And into All the World

Act 6 The Return of the King: Redemption Completed

I have a number of problems with this.

Bartholomew and Goheen make the classic mistake of modern narrative theologians of confusing creation and kingdom. Kingdom is not a cosmic theme; it has to do with the political existence of Israel in the world.

It makes too much of creation and fall and too little of the flood and Babel narratives as the social backdrop to the call of Abraham.

I don’t see how the election of Israel can be described as the initiation of redemption.

The brief explanation of act 3 with reference to creation rather than to Israel is inexplicable: “the conflict (between human sin and God’s good purposes for the creation) intensifies and complications arise” (26).

The inclusion of the “intertestamental period” as an Interlude is a step in the right direction, but in their exposition of the story it does little more than fill in a bit of historical background while half the audience heads out to the toilets or the bar.

“And into all the world” is a gross oversimplification of the story of the church.

Wright’s version notably lacks a proper eschatology, so the addition of a sixth act is understandable, but Bartholomew and Goheen end where they started, muddling kingdom and new creation.

It’s an improvement on Wright’s simpler model in some respects, but it’s still constrained by theological interests.

So here’s a suggested narrative-historical revision.

All the world’s the stage

For a start, I think these “dramatisations” of the biblical narrative waste acts 1 and 2 on creation and fall. The first 11 chapters of Genesis establish the premise, the pre-historical context for the main storyline—the stage with its wings, lighting, backdrops and machinery.

The cosmos was created by the one true living God; humanity was given the task of filling the earth and subduing it but rebelled against the creator, sank into corruption and violence, was judged catastrophically, and was renewed through Noah and his family; then people added insult to injury by building a city and a tower in order to make a name for themselves.

But this is all just the world in which the drama of the play takes place, at most a prologue to the tale.

As a former student of Shakespeare (I know an iambic pentameter when I see one) I would keep the five act structure, but from the historical point of view it has a major shortcoming: we have no idea how long the fifth act will have to be.

This is my other major gripe with modern narrative theologies, including Wright’s—surprisingly, given the stress he places on history. In these constructions of the narrative history stops with Jesus. The rest is just the church being church for ever and ever.

If exodus, settlement in the land, exile, and return from exile are theologically significant events, I don’t see why the war against Rome, the conversion of the empire, the Wars of Religion, and the collapse of Christendom shouldn’t have equal theological prominence in the drama of the people of God, with in all likelihood more drama to come.

So arguably over the next few hundred years we will need a sixth act, and then seventh, and so on. But for now I’ll stick with our immediate horizons and retain the five act structure. At least in this revision I’ve allowed two whole acts for the history of the church.

Act 1 The people of God and the land: the story begins with Abraham, the father of a new creation people which will eventually settle in the land promised to it by God; it ends with the exile of Israel from the land as punishment for not keeping its side of the covenant deal.

Act 2 The clash with pagan empire: Israel finds itself repeatedly in conflict with and subject to more powerful pagan empires (Babylon, Greece, Rome), but the hope arises that eventually this theologically intolerable situation will be reversed, and Israel’s God will come to rule over the nations; his people will be the head and not the tail.

Act 3 Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God: Jesus declares to Israel that God will soon act to put things right, gathers a community of disciples to continue his prophetic ministry after him, and dies for the sins of Israel; God raises him from the dead, seats him at his right hand, and gives him authority to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations in the age to come.

Act 4 The people of God and the nations: the eschatological outcome is concretely achieved through the faithful witness of suffering churches scattered across the empire, and over time the nations switch their allegiance from many gods and many lords to “one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6); Bartholomew and Goheen’s “Return of the King” belongs here, not at the end of the play; the new “political-religious” arrangement holds for more than 1500 years but is eventually overthrown by the forces of modernity.

Act 5 The people of God and global secularism: the people of God in the West is still struggling to come to terms with the collapse of Christendom, but slowly a new self-understanding, a new modus vivendi, and a new missional purpose are emerging. Where we go from here remains to be seen—and perhaps prophesied.

If the pre-historical narratives of Genesis 1-11 constitute (at most) a prologue, then the post-historical narrative of Revelation 20:11-21:8 may be included as an epilogue, a final curtain.


Daniel Hoffman | Fri, 09/16/2016 - 00:17 | Permalink

“If exodus, settlement in the land, exile, and return from exile are theologically significant events, I don’t see why the war against Rome, the conversion of the empire, the Wars of Religion, and the collapse of Christendom shouldn’t have equal theological prominence in the drama of the people of God, with in all likelihood more drama to come.”

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.

So you may have addressed this elsewhere, but how does the factor of the completed canon of Scripture factor into how we approach the church’s post-NT experience? Another way of asking this is, 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? Why isn’t the biblical corpus expanding? Should it be?

I guess you’d say I’m agnostic when it comes to eschatology, but I lean toward full Preterism because it seems a bit unlikely God gave special directions about the end of the world and the world to come to one man, John the Elder/Seer, who we know almost nothing about.

We recognize Jesus’ authority because God’s spirit did amazing works through him. The same is true for the apostles. But what did John the Elder/Seer ever do?

And even if John the Seer was John the son of Zebedee, which is doubtful, it still seems strange since the apostle John wasn’t a famous prophet.

It all seems too forced and I suspect if Revelation had not made the canon, as many in the early church desired, full Preterism would be the most reasonable way to view the Bible.

Edwin | Fri, 05/01/2020 - 04:25 | Permalink

This is fascinating. Would it be fair to wonder if Acts 4 and 5 could be favouring Western Christian history and not seeing the history of the church from geographically unbiased perspective. The western empires may have abandoned their paganism and entered Chrsitendom but that doesn’t account for the majority of nations worldwide. And modernity, while obviously having a westernizing impact globally, wouldn’t have equal historical important elsewhere as it does for Europe and North America.


I couldn’t work out what Acts 4-5 had to do with it, but then the penny dropped.

Yes, my argument is that the New Testament does not have in view a global church, certainly not in the sense that we understand it today. The principle hope that emerges as the gospel about the resurrection of the Son of God is proclaimed in the Greek-Roman world is the limited “political” one—that Jesus would sooner or later be acknowledged as Lord by the nations of the empire. That is the climax envisaged in, say, Romans 15:12, Philippians 2:9-11 and Revelation 18-19. This does not preclude a final judgment and renewal of heaven and earth, but it leaves such things on the periphery of the future vision. This recent post may be helpful here.

So in historical terms, the New Testament sees as far as Constantine and the birth of Christian Europe. There is next to no interest in the spread of the gospel outside that trajectory. Paul’s intention was to preach the good news about Jesus as the future “emperor” from Jerusalem to Spain. No one thinks of going even to Persia, let alone to India or China.

Moreover, the global church as we know it is almost entirely the product of European missionary activity, carried along on successive waves of imperial expansion. So in that respect, European Christendom does account for the majority of nations worldwide.

In the West, Christendom has been replaced by secularism. The global church may be flourishing, but it has inherited its DNA from the western church, which may prove fatal. It may only be a matter if time before we see the global church go into a similar tail spin.

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