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.)

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

22 Comments

  1. Hi Michael
    Just to clarify the situation here: Wright got to the ‘new perspective’ before Dunn. Stendahl and Sanders clearly identified what Paul’s problem with Judaism was not, Wright and Dunn build on their work by constructing an alternative reading of Paul in the light of Sanders’ reassessment of Judaism. Wright’s doctoral thesis of 1980, The Messiah and the People of God, is earlier than Dunn’s 1983 article, and Dunn was his external examiner (views differ over the extent of Dunn’s dependence on Wight’s early work). In many ways then Wright is more original on Paul and on Jesus – and I think his major work on Paul (which was written incidentally before the Jesus book) will e his best work.

    Comment by Sean | March 30, 2007

  2. I am a huge fan of N. T. Wright, and I agree that if he consistently followed through with his thought on “Jesus and Paul vs. the empire of Caesar” that he would be a pacifist, as Richard Hays. If you go to the NTWrightpage.com, he has many lectures that can be dowloaded for free. I love the way he explains the Christian and Jewish view of resurrection and distinguishes it from the greek understanding of immortality. Moreover, Wright views the calling of the church in terms of being God’s Easter people of peace and justice. N T Wright has been a vocal critic of the Iraq War, and he won’t shut up, even when he is in the House of Lords, as bishop of Durham he has those political responsibilities as well.

    In Paul among the Postliberals, Douglas Harink has a stinging critique of N T Wright, accusing Wright of being a supercessionist. He contrasts NT Wright with John Howard Yoder, on this point of supercessionism. As for me, I do not see Wright as being supercessionist. Have you read Harink’s book or do you have any thoughts on that matter?

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | March 30, 2007

  3. Michael, I wouldn’t characterise Wright as omitting room for a future dimension. On the contrary, he has explicitly written of his belief in a future bodily resurrection and Jesus being present with us on the new Earth.

    Comment by graham | March 30, 2007

  4. Sean, thanks for clarifying the relationship of Wright and Dunn. I did know that Wright’s work with Paul was before his work on Jesus, but the latter still seems more original to me. I guess that is becauase I accepted the “new perspective” before ever hearing of Wright.

    Jonathan, thanks for the link to Wright’s page. I meant to put that in the post. I haven’t read Harink, but I have heard the supercessionist criticism–and I can see room for that critique even in his Jesus work. I would have to read and think carefully before knowing whether or not I agree. I am NOT a supercessionist–and neither are Yoder or Hays.

    Graham, I think the confusion over how thoroughly preterist Wright is stems from his own vagueness at this point. It’s almost as if he fears that, if he says too much, he’ll be back with the Dispensationalists!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 30, 2007

  5. I witnessed a singing Wright over at Faith and Theology and now a dancing Wright, within a week or so! Yes, sir, the “new perspective” on Paul isn’t that “new” any more. I believe the whole righteousness of God thing began with EP Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Wright is the huge thing on the street right now at my university, so we have started a little Wright resisters group, which makes me a bit biased. I really don’t have much against the guy, but because people love him so much here, I’ve decided to criticize him more. Even our philosophy of education Prof was using NT Wright! Personally, having read most of his books, I find he tries to accomplish way too much and so sacrifices thorough research. That being said, he primarily writes for a popular audience/seminar students, who are looking for a broad overview in historical-critical research, etc.

    The ministry program at my university is largely made up of Canadian evangelicals and for some reason they love NT Wright. But as you noted, “it is not your average evangelical whose hero in Jesus studies is Albert Schweitzer.” That is the irony of the whole thing. We constantly wonder why our evangelical ministry students praise him and believe that he affirms everything they already believe. He certainly challenges North American evangelicalism – but no one here seems to get it! They just don’t see it. It is fascinating.

    Comment by R.O. Flyer | March 30, 2007

  6. Thanks for the well developed review of Wright and the accurate description of his differences with Borg. I’ve read many books of each and fall much more in line with Borg for exactly the same reasons you choose Wright. I too appreciate their ability to debate in a civil means. I however find that Wright’s mistake is that he approaches theology with too much prejudice and that is usually the argument I have with you Michael. I think he starts off his analysis with a predetermined declaration of supernatural literal interpretations of certain stories which skews his results. I prefer Borg because he is willing to question everything equally and that produces a more fully formed theology that stands up to arguments from all sides.

    At some point in the debate Wright will end up having to say “well that is just what I believe to be true and I can’t really make an argument why”. Borg eliminates the need for that last line of defense. I think that is why even in your eyes he “had the better of the argument” in places. Borg and Crossan don’t believe the body was cast in the gehena, they suspect that is one (maybe the most likely) scenario, BUT their theology is in no way dependent on that scenario or any other.

    Thanks again for this post.

    Comment by Progression Christian Blogger | March 31, 2007

  7. Mike Leaptrott (Progressive Christian Blogger) I accept that “prejudice” affects us all. But I deny that this is more of a problem for Wright (or myself) than Borg or Crossan. I can point to several places in Borg’s writings where he says things like, “Finally, I don’t believe such and such about Jesus because it would make him too strange.” Borg makes such statements far more than Wright says anything comparable. Wright never says anything close to “well that is just what I believe and I cannot give an argument why.”

    Borg is NOT willing to “question everything equally.” Rather, even though he fights against the artificial confines of the modern (Enlightenment) worldview–which he knows are artificial and constraining–he still dwells too much within it.

    ALL of us, from the most illiterate to the particle physicist, have basic presuppositions which we do not argue for, but argue from.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 31, 2007

  8. I agree.

    Comment by Progression Christian Blogger | March 31, 2007

  9. Rob Bell is a big N. T. Wright fan. Rob Bell further popularizes N. T. Wright’s popularized view of “Jesus and the Gospels is far more Jewish (and political!),” which I passionately support.

    Comment by Mikhail Lomize | March 31, 2007

  10. Well, Misha, that’s nice, but who the heck is Rob Bell?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 31, 2007

  11. “I think the confusion over how thoroughly preterist Wright is stems from his own vagueness at this point.”

    The problem is that, taking all of Wrights work, he’s not vague at all. Certainly, when discussing the Jesus of the gospels you won’t find him denying or affirming the rapture in any depth (though touched upon in JVOG), but I’m sure we’d both appreciate his precision on points like that. When he has written of the future hope, Wright is very clear that he has one.

    He’s not half as vague as his critics need him to be.

    Comment by graham | April 1, 2007

  12. Well, since the “rapture” is not a biblical idea, I wouldn’t expect Wright to endorse it. And the passage that Dispensationalists misinterpret as a “rapture” comes from 1 Thess., not the Gospels. However, Wright interprets Mark 13 in completely preterist terms and that simply won’t do. There is a clear transition from the predicted destruction of the Temple in 70 to a more cosmic future prediction.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 1, 2007

  13. Actually, dispensationalsts will appeal to Mt. 24:40-41. Nevertheless, my point was that we cannot criticise Wright for seeing not seeing a future (to us) element where there isn’t one. (The point of bringing up the rapture was an analogous one. It is like saying that Wright plays down the future because he denies the rapture in Mt. 24. The fact that it isn’t in 1 Thess. either is beside the point.)

    As it is, I would read Mark 13 and Mt. 24 in completely preterist terms without any strained exegesis. If you want to see Wright’s future element, you have to turn to his treatment of 1 Cor. 15, or his very explicit writings on the new earth. How that can be called vague is somewhat confusing.

    Comment by graham | April 1, 2007

  14. That’s mean to read, “will ALSO appeal to Mt. 24:40-41.”

    As for the non-preterist parts of Mark 13, your argument is simply a non-starter IMHO. The destruction of the temple would be nothing but ‘cosmic’ for first-century Jews.

    Comment by graham | April 1, 2007

  15. FYI, Rob Bell is founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church near Grand Rapids, MI. I tend to think of him as part of the Emergent Movement. I have seen some of his Nooma videos with my youth group, and I believe they are excellent. Ben Witherington did a series of posts on him a while back if you want to know more. I haven’t read any of his books, but what I do know about him, I like. His speaking tours around the country draw thousands, and have been featured in the New York Times. He has indeed been influenced by NT Wright, something I picked up on after watching the first Nooma video.

    As for resurrection and future hope in N T Wright, if you don’t want to wait on your birthday wish to be fulfilled, listen to his recent lectures on the resurrection (at his website). I think you will like what you hear.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | April 2, 2007

  16. Thanks, Jonathan. I really don’t know what the emergent movement is. I read praise and critique without much description. But Misha Lomize, who is one of the Christian Peace Bloggers, lives in Michigan, so that might be why he cited Bell’s approval of Wright. In general, I don’t follow “famous pastors” whether liberal, conservative, etc. I never watch televised religion or listen to preaching on the radio. So, unless someone has been in the news or written something in one of my fields of interest (not usually sermon collections, either), they can be a famous preacher and I have never heard of them. But, that’s ok, because they probably haven’t heard of me, either.🙂

    Thanks also for the tips on Wright and the rez.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 2, 2007

  17. Mike–NTW also talks about his upcoming Commentary on Rev at the end of his talk in “St. Johns Lutheran–Q&A” (found at NTW page). Perhaps that will help us in discovering where he stands with unrealized eschatology; although, as he says, it’s not his area of expertise. Perhaps that is why he comments so little upon it or is so vauge about it.

    Comment by js | April 5, 2007

  18. Thanks, J.S., that is quite helpful.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 6, 2007

  19. wright hates the rapture. read his Bible Review article titled “Farewell to the Rapture”.

    where are you getting wright’s view on Mark 13?

    Comment by bryan halferty | September 1, 2009

  20. Mr. Halferty, there is no rapture mentioned in Mark 13 or anywhere else in Scripture. The “rapture” was made up by Darby in the late 19th C. No Christian theologian heard of it before then.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 2, 2009

  21. I’m with yuh on the rapture bit.

    I should have clarified when I mentioned Mark 13. Where do you get Wright as a thoroughgoing preterist? New Testament and the People of God? An article? His little commentary on Mark?

    Comment by bryan halferty | September 2, 2009

  22. In Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, his interpretation of what Jesus meant by Kingdom of God seems completely preterist.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 2, 2009


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