A Wild Goose Chase, Pt. 4: A Five Act Play, Pt. 1?

November 28, 2022

by Greg Henson, CEO Kairos University; President of Sioux Falls Seminary and David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary


In our previous posts, we have been exploring how the Spirit led the early church in Acts. What we have seen is that the Spirit led these Jewish believers into new ways of displaying faithfulness to God. What these early believers found was that following the Spirit was disruptive to their old patterns of engagement with the Gentiles. Although we are aware of the struggle, we often underestimate just how disruptive this journey was for these early Jewish believers, particularly as the Spirit upended what they had previously been taught to do, teachings found directly in the Scriptures. Of course, this raises huge issues for us, as we know it did for them.  But it invites us to explore the question of authority and what it looks like when we follow the Spirit.

One helpful way we have found to think about this issue was first articulated by NT Wright in his 1989 Laing Lectures and his Griffith Thomas Lecture (published in 1991 in Vox Evangelica) entitled “How can the Bible be Authoritative.” In his lecture, he argues that the Western church, including Evangelicals, need a more dynamic understanding of authority centered on “what God is doing.” In his lecture, he reminds us of the importance of narrative to understanding what God is doing and suggests another way to think about it which better incorporates how we are folded into the story of God.

We could not agree more! Enlightenment philosophical commitments have taught us to see the Bible primarily as the source of “timeless truths” and “objective moral absolutes” that we then apply to any and all contexts. While the Bible does share truth and direction on moral issues, when we apply the philosophical commitments of the Enlightenment to it, we end up with a “one size fits all” response to complicated and nuanced questions. Such a reductionistic approach to Scripture distorts the way we connect the truth we have been given to the actual story that is being told in Scripture. Ultimately, it disconnects us from Scripture in that Scripture itself is made into a “mere receptacle” of these truths that are all too easily discarded once we’ve gotten “the good stuff.” Once that happens, the teachings we have discovered are then unwittingly inserted into alien narratives which transform their meaning in ways destructive to the life and witness of the Church. In short, our thinking about the authority of Scripture hasn’t sufficiently taken into account the actual story being told in Scripture nor does it take into account Scripture’s narrative structure and function. But how do we remedy this?

Rather than thinking of authority in terms of the applications of abstracted “truths,” Wright suggests we think of how authority might function if we were finishing the writing of a play whose final act had been lost or destroyed.

Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly-trained, sensitive, and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves (p. 19).

Wright explains that the “authority” for the performance of the final act would be the first four acts. To be a credible final act the resulting performance would have to resolve the themes and storylines created by the earlier acts, but it would do so not by re-enacting previous scenes of the play over and over again or simply reciting lines cropped together to make new scenes. Rather, the final act would be judged as to whether it was consistent with the previous acts while also keeping the story moving toward its end.  If we are successful, it would keep the story going through “innovation and consistency.” Such an endeavor would be a kind of “improvisation” where different “final acts” could be performed by different groups of actors but nevertheless assessed for faithful performances of the play as well.

Samuel Wells, in his book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Brazos Press, 2004) picks up and extends the metaphor in some very helpful ways. Wells points out that, in contrast to Wright’s account of the first four acts (Wright names the first four acts as Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, and Church), that one should recognize that the Church is not the final act of the play. Rather, the final act has also already been given. That act is Eschaton. Wells’ variation on Wright’s metaphor centers the story on Jesus and outlines the five acts as Creation, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Eschaton. There is an end that the Church’s improvisation is headed toward.

Let’s pick up on that next week.

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