Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Brief Thoughts on N. T. Wright

nt-wright.jpgAs my biblical and theological readers probably ALL know, Nicholas Thomas (Tom) Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham (U.K.) and a renowned New Testament scholar. He is a prolific author of both scholarly works and popular works for laity. (He also has a secret career of dancing a silly dance over at Chrisendom, thanks to the superb technical skills and bizarre humor of biblio-blogger, Chris Tilling! If your life would not be complete without seeing an Anglican bishop dance a silly jig, you can find it here.

Not being Anglican, I have no thoughts on how good or poor Wright is as a bishop or priest.   However, I have been fascinated by how controversial he is in certain circles as a New Testament scholar.  In some circles he is widely admired and in others viewed quite negatively.  In Pauline studies, Wright is either praised or disrespected for being one of the proponents of the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which holds basically that Paul was not a Lutheran-before-Luther and that “justification by faith” is more of an ecclesiological concept than one about individual salvation. Paul remained far more Jewish in his thinking than is usually credited. I don’t find this very controversial, and I am mostly surprised that this perspective is thought so “new.”  Surely it dates back at least to Krister Stendahl (Dean of Harvard Divinity School in the ’60s and later Lutheran Bishop in Sweden) and his famous essay, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Judaism, and James D.G. Dunn have also promoted this view.  When I went to seminary in the mid-’80s, I understood it to have become nearly a consensus.  So, in this area, Wright seems to me to be neither a brilliant pioneer, nor some kind of arch-heretic. He has, I believe, consolidated the arguments for this perspective and, in his What Saint Paul Really Said, has popularized a view that had not previously “trickled down” from scholars to the pew. Perhaps that is what makes this aspect of Wright so controversial. 

But Wright is not only a Pauline scholar, but a Jesus scholar, part of the so-called “Third Quest for the Historical Jesus.” He is controversial here, too. Liberal scholars like John Dominic Crossan (and, to a lesser extent, Wright’s friend, Marcus J. Borg) believe that Wright is basically a “scholarly fundamentalist” who defends far too much of the Gospels’ materials as historical, including the bodily resurrection. For this reason, many evangelicals have become major fans of Wright, but others have assailed him, because his interpretation of Jesus and the Gospels is far more Jewish (and political!) than many evangelicals find comfortable.  And many are furious at Wright’s realized eschatology (following his teacher, G. B. Caird, and, before him, the legendary C. H. Dodd), which revels in apocalyptic imagery, but reinterprets it in ways that rule out a literal end of the world or even, apparently, a literal Return of Christ. (So, although the Crossans of this world continue to dismiss Wright as just one more evangelical, it is not your average evangelical whose hero in Jesus studies is Albert Schweitzer!)

Here, I agree with about 90% or so of Wright’s work.  I find his description of the Jewish milieu of Jesus’ day convincing, and his rooting of Jesus in it spot on.  I find his “politics of Jesus” similar to the perspective of John Howard Yoder (except that Wright seems to hesitate to draw the full pacifist conclusions of his view, as Richard B. Hays has pointed out) and, with quibbles over details, highly persuasive.  I share an amillenial outlook, but I demur at being as completely preterist as Wright is. Both Jesus and the N.T. writers clearly speak of a close to history when the fullness of God’s Rule will be established at Jesus’ parousia (future return–literally “unveiling”). Wright says that he prefers to call his eschatology “inaugurated,” to “realized,” but the former usually leaves room for a future dimension that he seems to omit.  I can’t follow him there.

In short, I find Wright’s work significant and helpful, but I can’t be counted either in the camp with those who think he hung the moon, nor with those who dismiss his fans as adherents of “Wrightianity.”  I find him to be more original and creative in Jesus studies than in Pauline studies and such creativity risks making large errors in order to make real advances. Those content to simply add a few footnotes to scholarship risk less, but make less progress. Anyway, that’s my $.02 worth.

Update: 1) Thanks to Jonathan Marlowe for reminding me to link to N.T. Wright’s webpage here. It contains much information about Wright, but also many of his sermons, lectures, papers, etc. on a variety of topics. 2) In places of agreement, I forgot to mention that Wright’s overall approach to Jesus’ studies (and to NT and early Christianity generally) is based on two principles that I share (and had adopted before I ever heard of Wright): A. A commitment to historical evidence and to realizing that, for Christianity, historical research is important–and not unconnected to faith. Thus, Wright and I (along with many others) completely reject the semi-gnostic attempt to secure faith by sealing it off from historical research which, in different ways, is done by fundamentalism, by some followers of Rudolf Bultmann (it’s an open question as to whether or not they are reading Bultmann himself right at this point), and some followers of Karl Barth (again, whether Barth himself is implicated is debatable), and by the conservative Catholic scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson. B. However, Wright just as thoroughly rejects the extreme historical skepticism (in the principles set out by Van A. Harvey in The Historian and the Believer) and methods of the Jesus Seminar types, even in the less-extreme versions represented by Wright’s friend, Marcus Borg.

3) Confession-time: Unlike many evangelicals, I find much of value in Borg’s work.  As I discussed here, Borg is one of my favorite liberal scholars, though I do not consider myself “liberal,” theologically. (Politically, I am, for a U.S. context, very liberal, although I prefer the term “progressive” because of my identification with the early Progressive movement.) I love the book co-written by Borg and Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, not least because it is a great example of how two Christians can disagree strongly while remaining friends. Overall, I am more in sync with Wright’s portrait of Jesus than with Borg’s, but there are a number of places where I thought Borg had the better of the argument.

4) I found out this past Advent, that an argument I constructed in seminary in the ’80s for the historicity of the Virgin Birth has much in common with a recently published defense by Wright. (This is what happens if you don’t publish quickly and often. Later, everyone thinks you’re just cribbing from a more famous person!) HT: Darrell Pursifal (Dr. Platypus) for calling this to my attention last Advent. My argument came more from thinking through hints and clues in the work of the late, great, Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, but if Wright has made similar arguments then maybe I was onto something and not just having semi-fundamentalist holdovers from my past. 🙂 As I pointed out here and here, however, I do not think the emphases of the NT birth/infancy narratives have much to do with the question of whether or not Mary was physically a virgin when Jesus was born.  The tendency of evangelicals to focus on that question and miss the major themes of these narratives may be very close to straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

5) The resurrection is a different matter. I have not yet read Wright’s book on the resurrection (It’s on my birthday wish list to be posted this weekend. Wink, wink; nudge, nudge.), but the description in several reviews shows an overall approach that I would approve–one I learned from such diverse sources as the late G. E. Ladd, my teacher, Gerald Borchert, my teacher, Frank Tupper, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.  I cannot agree with Marcus Borg that the resurrection is wholly “history metaphorized,” instead of “history remembered.” There do seem to be legendary or metaphorical details, as well as contradictions on details between the Gospel accounts (and the attempts of someone like Craig Blomberg to harmonize every one of those details do not persuade me). But the underlying event happened in our history–in space and time–even though it changes the nature of history, is eschatological, and is not just another event like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. I cannot agree with those like Crossan who believe that the body of Jesus was thrown in the garbage dump (Gehenna) and eaten by dogs and, with the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15), I hold that if Jesus was not raised, Christian faith is vain–an illusion. The spiritualized resurrections that people like Borg, Crossan, (or Bultmann?) embrace strike me as dualist, gnostic, and, more to the point, something that no first C. Jewish writer would have described as a “resurrection.”  So, if the reviews are correct in their description, I expect that I will agree with Wright’s book on the resurrection, and like it as well as Jesus and the Victory of God.(Now, the question is, will Wright understand, with Barth, and Moltmann, and Pannenberg, that Christ’s resurrection is the “prolepsis of the future?” That is, will he/does he see what the resurrection of Jesus means for the future dimensions of the Christian hope? I’ll have to wait and see.)

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March 30, 2007 Posted by | Bible, Jesus, New Testament, nonviolence | 22 Comments