The Bible in Five Acts

directors-chair.jpgI very much enjoyed N.T.Wright’s book on Biblical authority, “The Last Word.” In it, he illustrates an innovative way of looking at scripture in its entirety, a way which avoids many of the pitfalls that we encounter when trying to corroborate writings that appear to have diverse, even opposing points of view. He calls it the ‘Bible in Five Acts’ and the following is a more in depth description that I found on the NT Wright web page:

Let me offer you a possible model, which is not in fact simply an illustration but actually corresponds, as I shall argue, to some important features of the biblical story, which (as I have been suggesting) is that which God has given to his people as the means of his exercising his authority. 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.[5]

Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This ‘authority’ of the first four acts It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency. would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again.

This model could and perhaps should be adapted further; it offers in fact quite a range of possibilities.Among the detailed moves available within this model, which I shall explore and pursue elsewhere, is the possibility of seeing the five acts as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well (Rom 8; 1 Car 15; parts of the Apocalypse) of how the play is supposed to end. The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act. Appeal could always be made to the inconsistency of what was being offered with a major theme or characterization in the earlier material. Such an appeal—and such an offering!—would of course require sensitivity of a high order to the whole nature of the story and to the ways in which it would be (of course) inappropriate simply to repeat verbatim passages from earlier sections. Such sensitivity (cashing out the model in terms of church life) is precisely what one would have expected to be required; did we ever imagine that the application of biblical authority ought to be something that could be done by a well-programmed computer?

I think this is a neat way of looking at the Bible; as God’s dramatic achievement that has yet to play out – a play in which we all have important roles. Wright’s idea puts a more relevant twist on an old theme. People like George McDonald Fraser, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, CS Lewis, Tolkein, and lately Frederick Buechner and John Eldridge have all made the connection between the message and the medium, especially as it pertains to stories of mythic dimensions. We are all recieving our own stage directions and it’s important to make sure that we are listening to the director himself and not some of his flunkies. It is a good idea to spend some time making sure that the ‘back story’ hasn’t gone through any unnecessary and dangerous ‘re-writes’ that may have been made to meet the agendas of some of its self-appointed sponsors.

To point this analogy in another direction – too many cooks spoil the broth. God’s given us the ingredients, the untensils, even the kitchen to work in. Play with it, have some fun. Just remember that Jesus has spelled out certain basics, that if ignored, could result in a ruined recipe. But we can take joy in the fact that God is forgiving and will gladly help us to pick up where we left off.


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  1. #1 by Steve on October 23, 2007 - 10:32 am

    It’s a modified view of Dispensationalism. The word obviously carries a lot of baggage, but even as a recovering fundamentalist, I still consider myself a dispensationalist because it shows the differing ways in which God has dealt with man through the ages.

    But we can take joy in the fact that God is forgiving and will gladly help us to pick up where we left off.

    Does that mean all recipes turn out okay in the end?

  2. #2 by Christian on October 23, 2007 - 11:12 am

    I don’t know about that. Isn’t Dispensationalism considered to be the reality of how God relates to mankind? I’m not too familiar with the details. But I think Wright is suggesting a way that we might better comprehend the Biblical story and how we fit into it. More of a tool than anything else.

    I would think that as long as we remember and incorporate the basics that Jesus has taught us, then yes, each ‘recipe’ should turn out just fine.

  3. #3 by Steve on October 23, 2007 - 12:35 pm

    Sure, but I think both ways (disp-ism and 5 Acts of Scripture) show the differing ways God has dealt with us over time.

    And I agree with your comments here and on other posts that we have taken Scripture literally at the cost of contextualism. Anything that will help us to place it (and us) in context is a good thing.

  4. #4 by Keith on October 23, 2007 - 12:50 pm

    The analogy reminds me of one of the United Church of Christ’s main slogans/doctrines.

    “God is Still Speaking”

    I personally believe that he indeed is.

  5. #5 by lovewillbringustogether on October 24, 2007 - 2:41 am

    Not only is He still speaking… He is actually still ‘writing’ too!

    And listening/watching/working/resting/etc….

    How much attention we pay to Him compared to how much we pay to ‘us’ is the Real Issue! 🙂



  1. Some thoughts on postmodernism and the gospel #1: the importance of stories « Network Vineyard Church

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