The question of how to read the Bible today is one of how we view the authority of Scripture. Can the stories in the Bible be applied to our present situation, and if they can how should we interpret them today? N.T. Wright has suggested that the Bible is a drama in five acts – Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus and the Church. The fifth act is unfinished and it is for the reader to enter into the drama and then to complete the story. Wright’s proposal is that the Bible is authoritative because it has delegated authority from God. The biblical narrative speaks of the sovereignty of God as he brings in his kingdom. It is by this kingdom hermeneutic lens that the reader can interpret the Bible today. I will begin this essay with a description of Wright’s proposal and then evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. I will conclude by using his framework to provide a contemporary interpretation on the theme of ecumenism.
The Five-Act Drama
The Bible is not a collection of rules and regulations, rather it is a series of narratives or stories about the people of God and how God works in and through their lives. This then raises the question how can narrative be authoritative? In order to answer this question, Wright suggests the idea of an incomplete Shakespeare play. The first four acts are known, but the fifth act has been lost. He argues that there is enough available material for experienced, trained Shakespearean actors to improvise and ‘work out a fifth act for themselves.’ This would be an authentic completion of the play because it is based on what has gone before, but is not just a repetition of the first four acts. The drama of the original would be enough to sustain the actors to innovate and yet finish the play in a way that is consistent with what had been written by Shakespeare. The first four acts would provide the authority by the fact that they contain the impetus which demanded the unfinished drama to be concluded in the proper manner by the actors entering into the story. The fifth act would be built on what had gone before, not by repeating the earlier acts, but drawing together the earlier themes, characters and situations in order to conclude the drama in an authentic manner.
Wright applies this model to the story of the Bible. He suggests the first four acts are Creation, Fall, Israel and Jesus. The New Testament forms the first scene of the fifth act. The church is required to improvise the fifth act, taking the authority from the rest of Scripture. The authority of Scripture is actually the authority that God has delegated and exercised through Scripture. It is the biblical narrative that tells the story of how God has acted. In the Bible the sovereignty of God is described as the kingdom. The kingdom of God breaks in through the actions of key characters in the narrative, most significantly in the life of Jesus. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). This authority is then delegated to the early church when they receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. There is no repetition of the earlier acts because, Wright argues, there is no need to. The church is in Act 5 and so it is unnecessary to repeat what happened in Act 3. For Wright, one of the key questions to ask of any worldview is ‘what time is it?’ He adds that each player would retell the story of the previous act. So Israel retold the story of Creation and Fall, Jesus retold the story of Israel, and the gospel writers told the story of Jesus. The task left to ourselves, the players in Act 5, is to finish the drama as a community and to bring to completion the biblical narrative.
Strengths and weaknesses of the framework
Authority can be used as a means of controlling people or situations. Attempts to ascribe authority to the Bible, without acknowledging that it is God’s authority exercised through the Scriptures, can lead to an unhealthy emphasis on this or that doctrine. Wright notes the tendency amongst evangelical churches to make doctrinal statements which claim authority of Scripture but would be more appropriately called ‘authority of evangelical tradition.’ Wright suggests that the more churches claim to be based on the Bible the more likely there are to be splits or new movements created that disagree on the particular emphasis of the Bible made by the other groups. Wright’s framework asserts that authority belongs to God. The emphasis is not on selected texts or doctrines but on the whole story and how God exercises his authority through the story. Thus a strength of Wright’s model is that there is freedom in the reading within the boundaries of the framework.
Richard Briggs suggests another strength of the five-act drama. This approach does not reduce the Bible to a series of moral principles for us to apply in order to lead a moral life. Instead the invitation is to get into character and act out the drama. Kevin Vanhoozer, notes the distinction between story and drama. In a story we need only be spectators or hearers, whereas in a drama we must become the actors and doers as well. Reducing the Bible to timeless truths, or only a witness to historical events belittles it. Wright argues against this low-view of Scripture, claiming that the Bible is much more. If the Bible were regarded as only a record of distant events when God acted in the past, then there is the danger of a deist view of God; that is a remote God who started creation but then stepped away from it. When we become actors in the drama, God’s authority is delegated to us, under the authority of Jesus.
A third strength is the five-act drama helps to place the present time within one of the acts and not in any of the others. Wright demonstrates this with several examples. We are not in Act 1 and therefore we cannot assume we are living in the Garden of Eden. Similarly we are not in Act 3 and so there is no requirement to rebuild the Jerusalem temple in order to offer animal sacrifices. These examples highlight the trajectory of Scripture. That is the momentum as the Bible moves forward through the acts. It does not imply the previous acts were wrong in some way, rather they have had their time and fulfilled their purpose. Wright illustrates this with the example of a ship used on a voyage of discovery. Once the destination is reached and the ocean has been crossed, the ship is left behind and the travellers continue the next stage of the journey on land. The ship was essential for the ocean crossing, but has now fulfilled its purpose. There is thus continuity with what has gone before, and discontinuity in the new stage of the drama.
Wright raises a couple of objections to the model. Firstly, we cannot be certain that the players in Act 5 would understand the first four acts sufficiently well to be able to improvise the end of the drama. In fact Wright says that church history is full of examples of individuals, groups and movements that have misunderstood the story so far. However this does not negate the validity of the model, it only demonstrates the fallibility of the actors. Secondly, the story of Act 4, in particular the death and resurrection of Jesus, seems so climactic and conclusive that there remains little left to be done in Act 5. Wright argues that part of the task of Act 5 is to reflect on what has gone before and included writing the New Testament account of Act 4. The reflection should continue to the present day. Also, the work of the Holy Spirit, who empowers and inspires the church, is a significant new theme in the fifth act.
Others have commented on the choice of the five acts. Vanhoozer commends the model put forward by Wright but prefers the acts to be ones set in motion by a divine act. So his five acts become Creation, Election of Israel, Jesus, Pentecost and the Church and the final act is Consummation. For Vanhoozer, the Fall is a conflict in the first act of creation. Also, he places the church in Act 4 as we await the return of Christ as the Bridegroom. Crispin Fletcher-Louis adapts Wright’s model to become Creation, Fall, Election, Exile and Restoration. In this adaptation, Exile and Restoration are a repeated form of Creation, and Exile is a repeated form of Fall. Bartholomew and Goheen add a sixth act, the return of the King, emphasizing the kingdom theme that permeates throughout the Bible. There is therefore a debate as to how to label the acts. This is potentially confusing when trying to locate the present time within one act, and has implications for how to improvise the finale. However, each adaptation still maintains the basic premise that there is an overarching story running through the Bible. Wright acknowledges, and indeed welcomes, that his model can be modified. The framework, or adaptations thereof, can therefore be applied in biblical interpretation as long as there is clarity and consistency over the precise model being used.
A contemporary interpretation: Ecumenism
Abraham was called by God to leave his homeland and move with his family to a land prepared for him by God (Gen 12). God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Gen 15). The covenant was renewed with Jacob when God changed his name to Israel (Gen 32). This racial identity as God’s chosen people is known as election and was of paramount importance to Israel. It was thought the failure to maintain the purity of their racial identity was one of the reasons that Judah was exiled in Babylon (2 Chr 36). Following the return from exile, the laws on racial identity were reformed under Ezra (Ezra 9). According to Wright’s model, all of these events took place in Act 3 of the drama.
When Jesus arrived (Act 4) he began to redefine election.
‘I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness’ (Matt 8:11-12).
The reason for Israel’s election was so that it could be a light to the nations in order that God’s salvation would reach the ‘end of the earth’ (Isa 49:6). However, Israel had not fulfilled its mission to the nations. Jesus symbolically redefined Israel by appointing the twelve apostles to sit in judgement over the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28). Jesus sent out his followers to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matt 28:19).
As the drama moves to Act 5, the clue for how the church should improvise is given by Jesus.
‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:34–35).
However, the history of the church has been marked by division and splintering, from the schism between east and west in 1054, to the Reformation and the separation of Protestantism from the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant church continues to fragment and form new denominations. Denominations have emphasised doctrinal differences, setting themselves apart from other streams. Some refer to themselves as the elect, indicating a continuity with the election of Israel. However, election is part of the story of Act 3. That is not to say that the church did not need reform, or that parts have diverged in their interpretation of the Bible. Nevertheless, the church at the beginning of the twenty-first century is fragmented.
Jesus called for his followers to love one another, so that the world would know they were his disciples. How then can the church play out Act 5 in a way that is authentic to Acts 1 to 4? The trajectory of the Bible is from chosen few to all nations. It is a mistake to live as though the church is only for the chosen few. A sign of hope is that Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, have agreed to meet in 2025 in Nicaea (modern day Iznik in Turkey) to celebrate the Council of Nicaea. In 325 more than 300 bishops met to discuss what became known as the Nicene Creed. This was a time when the whole church was united. The drama had been entered into, the actors were innovating the scenes of Act 5. It is the challenge for the present generation of actors in the drama to continue to improvise, to innovate and to play out the act in an authentic way.
Wright’s framework for biblical interpretation is based on the proposal that the story of the Bible is a five-act drama. The drama is unfinished and the actors in Act 5 are to improvise the ending. They take their authority from what has gone before. The authority of Scripture is actually the authority of God exercised through Scripture. Jesus has received this kingdom authority and he has authorised the church to act in his name. I have evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of Wright’s model and demonstrated how it may be used in a contemporary interpretation of a specific issue.
Bartholomew, Craig, and Michael Goheen. The Drama of Scripture: Finding our place in the biblical story. London: SPCK, 2006.
Briggs, Richard S. Reading the Bible Wisely: An Introduction to Taking Scripture Seriously. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011.
Fletcher-Louis, Crispin H.T. TH6926 Mark’s Gospel Lecture Notes. Cheltenham: Westminster Theological Centre, 2013.
Hafiz, Yasmine. Pope Francis And Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Announce United Gathering In 2025. 30 May 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/30/pope-francis-bartholomew-ecumenical_n_5419114.html> (1 June 2014).
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “A Drama-of-Redemption Model.” Pages 151-199 in Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology. Edited by Gary T. Meadors. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.
Wright, N. T. “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?” Vox Evangelica 21(1991): 7-32.
—. Jesus and the Victory of God. London: SPCK, 1996.
—. Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. New York: Harper Collins, 2013.
—. The New Testament and the People of God. London: SPCK, 1992.
 N. T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York: Harper Collins, 2013), 21.
 Ibid., 26.
 N. T. Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?,” Vox Evangelica 21 (1991), 18.
 Ibid., 19.
 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 141.
 Ibid., 141.
 Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 23.
 N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), 443.
 Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 142.
 Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?”, 9.
 Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?”, 13.
 Richard S. Briggs, Reading the Bible Wisely: An Introduction to Taking Scripture Seriously (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 99.
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “A Drama-of-Redemption Model,” in Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology (ed. Gary T. Meadors; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 158.
 Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?”, 13.
 Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 84.
 Ibid., 124.
 Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 57.
 Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 142.
 Ibid., 143.
 Ibid., 143.
 Ibid., 143.
 Vanhoozer, “A Drama-of-Redemption Model,” 174.
 Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis, TH6926 Mark’s Gospel Lecture Notes (Cheltenham: Westminster Theological Centre, 2013), session 6c, slides 3-9.
 Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding our place in the biblical story (London: SPCK, 2006), xi.
 Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 122.
 Yasmine Hafiz, Pope Francis And Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Announce United Gathering In 2025