This is my rough summary of N.T. Wright’s approach to biblical exegesis, highlighting the major stages in the process. I call it “double rereading”. To pursue this hermeneutic the following has to be considered.
Orthodox Christianity, across its many traditions, is a historic faith that appeals to particular historical events. The main authoritative document on the historic origins of the Christian faith is the Bible. Therefore the Bible, understood in its original historical context, is the fundamental mediating authority on orthodoxy. Successive generations of Christians face their own peculiar challenges to the orthodoxy. To adequately face those issues, it is imperative that each generation rediscovers historic Christian faith for itself, by re-appealing to its foundational document, the Bible.
The traditional minimum 66 book canon, centred on the Gospel witness, which was the original narrative of Christianity.
- Traditional reading
How the various Church traditions have historically interpreted the text and implemented it up to the present time. You might call this reception history.
Historic and contemporary teaching that is a product of traditional readings of the text.
Proceeding from the doctrine one rereads the Bible on its own terms, determining its original intent. One then rereads the historic interpretations, and the doctrine that it results in, in the light of the re-examined biblical witness.
- New commentary
The double rereading results in fresh insights on both the Bible and the tradition. This new commentary serves as a preliminary basis for discussion on updating tradition so that it is both orthodox and relevant.
The times change and throw up challenges our traditions were not equipped for. We therefore go back to the Bible and see how they understood the Gospel in their own time. From there we learn how we can apply it wisely to ours. Essentially the process is not about ignoring the traditions but trusting the Bible above them. This requires us to understand the Bible on its own terms, irrespective of the consequences, making everything we do measure up to the biblical text.
There are certain disciplines that need to be brought to bear on this hermeneutic approach for it to be useful. They are literature, history, theology and philosophy. These are the four main areas of preliminary discussion Tom Wright uses in setting up the finer points in rest of his work. (An example of this can be found in the initial chapters of The New Testament and the People of God.) The Bible is an ancient and truly sacred text. This means it is literature that is both historically relevant and theologically significant. Furthermore, there are certain philosophical considerations that must underlie the document to achieve its final canonical form. There must be an active synergy between these different fields when we study the text because they are already present in it, organically coalescing with one another. These subjects give rise to four criteria we must consider when we do exegesis.
- Literary fidelity
The interpretation must be consistent with critical literary analysis. This includes sound exegesis and recognition of the narrative structure among other things.
- Historical plausibility
As an ancient text any reading of it should be plotted within the documents native context. As far as history is concerned, any reading that is not relevant to the original people and setting should be ignored.
- Theological relevance
The New Testament arose in the early Christian community which means it was various ways theologically motivated. Any understanding of the text should reflect those concerns and help inform contemporary Christians ones.
- Philosophical rigour
Any understanding of the Bible must be philosophically coherent and also correspond to the worldview at work in the text.
What I have observed from the work of N.T. Wright is meant to serve as a guideline. The rigorous hermeneutic approach he advocates requires we simultaneously pay attention to all these fields. This is a daunting task but one he does not expect a single individual to undertake on his own. Doing biblical theology as he understands it in the New Testament, is a load bearing activity for the Church. (He argues this precisely in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.) That is to say everything we do as Christians is affected by how we think about God and study the Bible. He therefore firmly believes it is the entire Christian community’s responsibility to lay hold of this massive undertaking together. We need scholars, pastors, lay people, and church members of all stripes and denominations to prayerfully and wisely sit together and study the word of God.
(For a better treatment see the masters thesis of Kyle Hughes, History and the Victory of God: The Contribution of N.T. Wright to the Study of the Historical Jesus.)