Andrew Perriman took on N. T. Wright’s five-act approach to reading scripture with this blog entry last week, and it’s worth reading.
Perriman has really influenced how I approach scripture, especially how we read ourselves into the overall story here. What strikes me most about this blog entry is how Perriman takes on the creation-centeredness of Wright’s — and by extension, our — theology.
I have complained in the past that out theologies are far too creation centered. That we take the literal start of the book literally — our thinking about our relationship with God (and his with us) must start with “In the beginning…” Perriman helped me see that all of that is a warmup to the real story, which begins with Genesis 12 and God calling Abram and his family either out of Ur or (depending on how you read the text) somewhere in the wilderness of Haran.
The church has put itself in a place where it has to explain and justify from creation, of God’s good creation and well-ordered world, which led to convoluted mess of natural theology and the wholesale adoption of Greek ways of thinking. God, in much of church thinking and teaching, is first and foremost creator, and redeeming in something we encounter later.
This also forces the church to attempt to explain redemption in ways that, frankly, aren’t helpful.
But if the story starts with Abraham’s call, then it assumes the creation. Indeed, scripture rarely attempts to explain creation or justify it as good or well-ordered. God is first and foremost encountered as redeemer, the one who calls and commands to “go” and “follow” and “do not be afraid.” Creation is mostly assumed, and the need for redemption felt and understood — often as a cry for help — but not theorized or intellectualized. Scripture is the story of an encounter with, an experience of, of God, and an attempt to make sense of that encounter, of who we are, given that God made Abram certain promises. It is not really a set of ideas, principles, or values.
We are God’s fallen people. We know we are fallen, we see the condition of our lives. We need to be redeemed. We don’t really need to understand why we are fallen, except maybe to know that we are bearing the consequences of not just our sins, but those of our ancestors, who set into motion through their sin and faithlessness the situation we find ourselves in. We cry out for redemption, and we know — God will redeem us. God always does.
The question is always: where is our God right now?
Perriman believes Christendom was a fulfillment of a promise given by Christ, and then again through Paul, that God would judge the pagan empire and subject it to Christ’s rule. I’m less convinced of this, though if we are faithful to the story of Israel, Christendom’s history mirrors that of biblical Israel. Because Christ fulfills all promises, however, the most that history is for us is metaphor. The rise and fall and exile and redemption of Israel gives us a way of understanding the rise and fall and failure of the church.
However, Perriman says something very interesting as he reconsiders the five-act structure of scripture:
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.
How we read ourselves into the story we have is what matters. And Perriman is suggesting here that we may have to be attentive to the presence of God in our midst in ways that make us far less scripture — or better, word — focused. That we have to be ready for prophetic voices to rise up, and proclaim both God’s judgment upon the church as well as God’s promise of deliverance (both fully realized and not-quite-yet in Christ).
It means the possibility of a reopened canon, or a partially reopened canon. Because it will be difficult to sort it all out as competing voices all claim inspiration, or at least prophetic faithfulness. We already do this, since we cannot read scripture without an interpretation, without an understanding of what it might already be saying, so this is nothing new. I doubt we will add to scripture, not formally, but Perriman understands it will take new prophets to help us here what God is saying to us in the collapse of Western Christendom, and how to discern the presence of God with us at a time when all seems to be slipping from our hands.