N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Scripture”–Ch. 7: The Bible to the Modern World



***Let me first apologize for the long post, but it is such a good chapter!

If you have read all my posts on Surprised by Scripture, chances are your head is spinning over all the things Wright covers. There’s a lot to digest. Well, when we come to chapter 7, I hope you’ve put on your stretchy pants, because a full-out banquet of Worldview goodness is going to be served up.

For me, chapter 7 is possibly the most important chapter in the book because, whereas most of the other chapters tackle specific issues and topics, chapter 7 takes aim at the much broader topic of worldview. If you will, Wright erects the over-arching biblical and Christian framework for a proper worldview, and then puts it in stark contrast to the modern secular worldview that, unfortunately, even a lot of Christians hold.

Epicureanism and the New World Order

This might come as a disappointment to many conservative fundamentalists, but America was not “founded” on Christianity. Yes, it claimed that Christian morality embodied and articulated “natural law,” but Christianity the actual religion? Not so fast. Wright correctly points out that the foundation of the grand experiment that is the United States was a purely Enlightenment philosophical outlook. Look on your paper money folks: “A New Order of the Ages!” And what was the “old order”? –Not just monarchy, but also the Christianity that most of the rulers of Europe held to as justification for their rule. America, from the very beginning was to be a democratic, Enlightenment experiment.

Now not everything that came out of the Enlightenment was bad, but Wright points out that there were two distinct features to “the Enlightenment project” that impacted the United States more than anywhere else.

Feature #1: Enlightenment Epicureanism

First, there was the Enlightenment’s embracing of Epicureanism (mentioned in an earlier post) that essentially split the world into two, at least philosophically. Thomas Jefferson himself didn’t identify as a Christian—He in fact said, “I am an Epicurean.” This view essentially said, “The natural world, which can be objectively studied through science, is completely different than the supernatural world, which is not based on any evidence, and is just a matter of private belief.” Translation? The “natural world” = reality; the “supernatural world” = not reality.

Combine that worldview with the “three revolutions” of the 17th and 8th centuries (the theological revolution—Protestantism against Catholicism; the political revolution—the American and French Revolutions that wanted democracy instead of monarchy; and the scientific revolution—all the technological advances)…and you got an over-arching mentality that said, “Screw the old way of doing things! We can build a completely new world order!”

What happened in America, then, is that there essentially became an ever-widening divide: on one hand there was the secular Enlightenment thinkers who thought that science held the key to an ever-progressing better world, and forget “God” because that’s “faith” which isn’t “real” and can’t be “proven.” On the other hand there were the “old-timey religion” Christians who viewed science with suspicion, and advocated instead that we needed to get back to the B-I-B-L-E, because that’s the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God…the B-I-B-L-E.

And the thing was that both sides viewed the Bible wrong: secularists (like Richard Dawkins) assumed that the Bible was just a book of factual, scientific distortions that “science” had not proven wrong; “old-timey religion” Christians—let’s call them biblical literalists (like Ken Ham) insisted that everything in the Bible was scientifically factually accurate, and “those scientists” who say otherwise are just working for the devil…just read your Bible and get saved so that you can obtain your individual salvation and be taken away to heaven, away from this world of sin (and science!), when you die.

Because of this Epicurean worldview, there came the rise of theological liberalism and modern biblical criticism: it claimed to be an objective scholarship of the Bible, but in reality it was no such thing—its starting assumption was that the “supernatural claims” in the Bible were obviously false, and so we need to “objectively” find “what really happened.” Sadly, such an assumption (or at least part of it) still dominates Christian thinking: the very assumption of “miracles” betrays an Epicurean worldview (see my post on Ch. 3 for more on this). The assumption that God occasionally intervenes in the form of miracles into what is normally a world run by “natural laws” is a “Christianized” and “bastardized” take on a fundamentally Enlightenment-Epicurean assumption regarding the natural world.

Feature #2: The Secular Gospel of Progress

The second Enlightenment feature Wright mentions is the Enlightenment myth of “scientific progress.” Ever hear of the modern political term “progressives”? Here is where it comes from: the liberal democrat worldview that through science and democracy, we are bringing about a new world order! It is the advancement of history for the betterment of humanity! Unfortunately, as Wright points out, things like the French Revolution, Auschwitz, and the Gulag were all done by societies that embraced this notion of “scientific progress for the betterment of humanity.”

But such horrors don’t seem to deter the optimism of progressives. “We just need to work harder for the utopia we can achieve!” Now yes, that opens the door to an entirely different (and political) discussion, but I want to focus on what Wright says, which is this: Enlightenment philosophy and the Bible tell two completely different stories of reality.

The Enlightenment philosophy, “tells the story of the world as having reached its destiny, its climax, with the rise of scientific and democratic modernism.”

The Bible, though, “tells the story of the world as having reached its destiny, its climax, when Jesus of Nazareth came out of the tomb on Easter morning.” It was the birth of the new creation.

Unfortunately, many Evangelical Americans have taken the Biblical story, reduced it to “the Bible” as merely a collection of “facts and laws,” and then have tried to “argue for and defend the Bible” from the philosophical base, worldview, and assumption of the Enlightenment. Think about it: most churches, when they talk about the resurrection of Jesus, portray it as simply “proof that Jesus is God,” that “he then went up to heaven,” and he will come back and take us to heaven, away from this world.” I’m sorry…that’s not the message of the Bible. That a bizarrely mutated interpretation of the resurrection from an Enlightenment assumption of reality.

Wright points to the truly bizarre theology of dispensationalist movement within some Evangelical churches as case in point. Don’t know what “dispensationalisim” is? Are you familiar with The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye? That’s it!

So What’s a Christian to do in this Modern World?

The first thing a Christian should do is to recognize and categorically reject these two Enlightenment-features that have marked so much theological and political antagonisms in America. I have to warn you, though, when you do that, you’re going to find a little bit like you’re in exile: no one will seem to understand you, and every theological and political ideologue will hold you in suspicion and contempt because you don’t fall in completely in line with them.

What do I mean by this? Simple: I know people in both the far Right and far Left political camps in America, and both “sides” accuse me of being in league with “the other side.” I know people ultra-fundamentalists who call me a theological liberal because I don’t think the universe is 6,000 years old, and I know ultra-progressive Christians who think I’m a homophobe because I say that the Bible clearly states that same-sex sex is not good. But then the ultra-fundamentalists think I’m too liberal because I say that the Bible doesn’t condemn someone for simply being attracted to the same sex—neither side really sees the difference between attraction and behavior because they are too firmly entrenched in their ideological agendas. Ah, but I digress…

Wright says that the key thing a Christian needs to do is to regain the biblical worldview of the world: “Heaven and earth are the twin halves of the good creation, made to overlap and interlock, so that God who lived in heaven would also be present, though mysteriously so, here on earth, and the dwellers on earth would always be within arm’s length of heaven.”

Or to use a more concrete example: we need to see, from the very beginning of Genesis, that God has intended this natural world to be His Temple—where He would dwell with the image-bearers He created. Instead of a pagan temple with the statue of a god inside it, God’s good creation is God’s Temple, and He has put us—creatures made in His image—in it to represent Him, and to rule and care for His creation as His priests, His stewards, and His kings. We are His kingly-priestly-custodians of His good creation-Temple.

This biblical understanding, Wright argues, has tremendous implications for how we view creation and what our purpose as human beings is. He takes us back to Genesis 1-3 and points out that they were never meant to be read as scientific accounts. Instead, they are highly poetic and metaphorical narratives intended to creatively show us what our purpose as God’s image-bearing king-priest-custodians really is.

Unfortunately, there is a segment within Evangelicalism today that is determined to try to “prove” Genesis 1-3 is factually and scientifically accurate. Of course, the only way men like Ken Ham can argue such a thing is to make a up a fictitious category of “historical science,” then define it as “belief about the past that can’t be tested or observed,” and then turn around and claim that Genesis 1-3 is science…historical science…that is now defined as untestable belief.

Why do some Evangelicals buy this sort of illogical nonsense? Because they have unconsciously bought into the Enlightenment-Epicurean dualism of reality that says, “It’s only true if it is scientifically true!” They’re trying to prove the truthfulness of the Bible using false Enlightenment definitions and assumptions.

The Bible and Human Knowing

By the end of the chapter, Wright addresses the concept of knowledge, and how we come to know truth. He states, “When we let [the Bible] be itself, we find a mode of knowing that is neither the brightly lit supposed objectivity of post-Enlightenment scienticism, nor the fuzzy and indistinct subjectivism that is its opposite.” The Bible gives us a radically different worldview and a radically different take on knowledge, specifically in three ways.

First, being made in God’s image, human beings come to a better knowledge of God, not by “proving facts” about Him, but by reflecting His wisdom and care into the world, and by reflecting the praises of creation back to Him.

Second, in contrast to the Enlightenment assumption that the only real kind of knowledge is scientific, the Bible reminds us that knowledge comes to us through a wide array of channels: the philosophical, the artistic, the musical, the poetic. All are equally needed and useful, and to elevate only one type of knowledge above all others is ultimately a perverse form of idolatry.

Finally, all knowledge takes place within the context of community. We in America, with our hyper-individualism, have to be constantly reminded of this. Specifically as Christians we must remember that we come to a deeper knowledge of God as we participate as a Church community as we care for creation, as we study the Scriptures, and build each other up and invest in each other’s lives.

So what does the Bible say to the modern world? How should the Church address the modern world? Wright gives us plenty to think about and reflect on, doesn’t he?

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