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Mark D. Roberts

Part 11 of series: Sharing Laity Lodge
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At the pastors and leaders retreat at Laity Lodge, Bishop N.T. Wright gave five talks. We had asked him to speak from the platform of his fine book Simply Christian, and to spell out implications for Christian leadership. In fact, Bishop Tom did as we had asked, though adding an extra twist. He showed how many of the themes of Simply Christian are lived out in the early church as portrayed in Acts of the Apostles. So we got more than we bargained for, most happily, I might add.
I’m not going to summarize Bishop Tom’s teaching. And, unfortunately, Laity Lodge is not yet wired to put things like this online, either for purchase or for podcast. (If you want to purchase the CDs of this retreat, please contact our Administrative Coordinator, Liz Short, for the details.) What I want to do is to share one of my personal responses to Bishop Tom’s teaching.
Wright-Simply-ChristianAs he connected the points of Simply Christian to the book of Acts, I was struck again and again by Bishop Tom’s effort to interpret the text of Scripture accurately. Every time he referred to a passage from Acts, he set that passage in its larger literary and cultural context, and then paid close attention to the actual words and logic of the passage. Now there’s nothing radically innovative here. These are exactly the skills I have taught in seminary exegesis courses. But, listening to Bishop Tom, I was reminded of how tempting it is to cut exegetical corners. If I’ve worked on a text before, or if I think I know what it says, or if I just get tired, I’m inclined not to do the hard work of textual interpretation. Bishop Tom, on the other hand, keeps working away on the text. His example encouraged me and, to be honest, chastened me a bit.
I was also impressed by his willingness to admit when he wasn’t quite sure what a biblical passage meant. In the Question & Answer session, somebody asked about the meaning of Matthew 25:31-46. That’s the passage where the Son of Man/King judges the “sheep” and the “goats.” It’s the text where Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” etc. In response to the question about this passage, Bishop Tom admitted that he still wasn’t sure exactly how to interpret it, that he had various theories, but that he hadn’t settled on one. Apart from demonstrating impressive humility in this admission, it struck me as coming from someone who just won’t “cheat” when it comes to biblical interpretation. He will work on the text for as long as it takes to discern its meaning.
Now that’s not to suggest that Bishop Tom is inerrant in his exegesis. I’m sure he gets some things wrong, perhaps even some major things. Which of us doesn’t? But his relentless pursuit of biblical meaning is laudable as well as a great encouragement to the rest of us. He reminds me that faithfulness in understanding the Scripture requires hard work. I hope and pray I can imitate Bishop Tom’s example in my own life and ministry.
If you’re a lay person, if you’ve never studied Greek or Hebrew, if you don’t have lots of hours for study, you may wonder if you can engage in the sort biblical interpretation modeled by Bishop Tom. Though academic training and the knowledge of ancient languages certainly helps, I think it’s quite possible for somebody without such advantages to wrestle honestly and successfully with the meaning of Scripture. With a couple of good translations and a couple of decent commentaries, you can come close to the meaning of the original text. Moreover, much of what leads to the successful interpretation of a text has to do with careful reading of the passage and the context again and again and again. This can be done in English translation. So, though I would encourage anyone who is serious about Bible study to get some relevant academic training, I would also say that the discipline and commitment modeled by Bishop Tom are things that any Christian can and should emulate.
His commitment to figuring out what Scripture really says, rather than what we think it says or what we’d like it to say, gets Bishop Tom into trouble at times. He continues to take lots of flak from liberal Christians who are distressed by his interpretation of biblical texts related to homosexuality. Moreover, at the moment, he’s on the hot seat with many Reformed and evangelical thinkers – my theological family – for his take on Paul and especially on the meaning of justification. In my next post I’ll say a bit more about this controversy.

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