The Apostolic Church – that myth of an age in which all were Baptists (or Wesleyans or something like us today) and Scripture was the pure and holy word of God, taken literally, by all. Oh, and everyone understood the supernatural prophecies which had been fulfilled by Jesus. Seriously. Everyone.
Unless, of course, you get to read N.T. Wright or any of the early Church writers.
In chapter four, Wright is dealing with The “Word of God” in the Apostolic Church. Again, Wright turns to the narrative, which is the best way to understand Jesus by the Old Testament. It wasn’t that Christ was the answer to centuries’ old predictions but that he was the embodiment of the grand narrative of Israel, and was bringing to completion this story, and thus ‘fulfilling’ the words written by the Prophets. Or, perhaps, Christ acted by and was seen through the narrative and the early writers understood this. This is something which people, admittedly, have a difficult time in seeing because they cannot easily separate reality from their interpretative history.
Wright begins this chapter by noting a nuance often missed. When Paul and the writers of the New Testament were talking about the “word”, they weren’t meaning either the Old Testament or the New, but the oral tradition of Christ which was being spread around by the disciples. This came before the books which make up the Canon and was authoritative enough for the Church to be built upon. Today, we turn our nose up at oral tradition, believing that there is nothing oral or traditional about our interpretations. But, in the early days, before Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, there was the gospel of Romans 1.16. Here, Wright’s words become that of a preacher, in that he is preaching about the sovereign extension of power caused by the Gospel. Here, the literalists need to read. Here, they need to examine the word of power which was not bound in paper, or a translation, or a dogma. Can you imagine that time? But, it is from this “word”, as Wright puts it, which a proper understanding of Scriptural Authority is derived, and I would suggest, maintained so as to not become burdensome. This “word”, we must remember, is exactly why the New Testament was written. It gave the writers the urge to do so, and as Wright suggests, was part of their vocation.
Wrights suggests that the earliest Christian witnesses developed a “multilayered, nuanced, and theologically grounded reading of the Old Testament.” They did so to fit themselves into the grand narrative of Israel, of God’s covenant. This is a response, I would say, to the events of each and every Pentecost, each and every time the Gentiles were welcomed into the Jewish fold. Therefore, the Old Testament wasn’t really that Old, and neither was it a prologue. It was the core of the book of a people being transformed. In this, Wright steps into scholarship, and something which no doubt will cause anxiety to a few the more dogmatic, in that there was not a strict separation between Law and Gospel, and that the early Christians were actually theologically ept enough to know that, not having need to wait until the 16th century to figure out the Gospel of Christ.
A favorite quote of mine from this chapter,
The written word, expressing and embodying the living word of the primitive gospel, was the Spirit-empowered agent through which the one creator God was reclaiming the cosmos, and as such it offered the way to a truly human life; but it stood sharply over against some understandings of what a truly human life might be (58).
And thus… do you get that? It was the living word, the oral preaching, the power there, which brought about the New Testament (allowing for inspiration, of course). It was upon that foundation which the New Testament rests upon and if it rests upon a foundation, it cannot be a stand alone authority.
…the New Testament understands itself as the new covenant charter, the book that forms the basis for the new telling of the story through which Christians are formed, reformed and transformed so as to be God’s people for God’s world.