Monday, May 12, 2014

Should We Be "Surprised by N. T. Wright"?

Wright near his home on the Fife coast

This week I finally got around to reading Christianity Today's April 2014 feature on N. T. ("Call me Tom") Wright who, depending on one's perspective—or church affiliation—is either the most famous or infamous New Testament scholar plying his trade in the context of a broad, international evangelicalism. Those of us who have spent the past three decades studying the New Testament academically might find it hard to imagine that there are still some thinking Christians in the English-speaking world unacquainted with Wright, whose voluminous output ranges from the massive, highly technical historical-theological series Christian Origins and the Question of God—four volumes of which, including his 2013 volume, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which checks in at more than 1500 pages, have already been published—to his rudimentary, popular expositions of each New Testament book in his New Testament for Everyone series. Wright is the rare academic (he has taught at Cambridge, McGill, Oxford, and [now] at St. Andrews) who has purposefully wed his erudition to an active, professional concern for the church (he has served the Church of England as Canon theologian at Westminster Abbey and Bishop of Durham) and an exceptional common touch. Nary a speck of dust can be found anywhere in the hall at a Wright lecture. And, as I have often told my students, if for nothing else read his books for their prose. Along the way your thinking, and quite possibly your life itself, will be changed in the process.

My own introduction to Wright's work came in 1987 when an article he had published in the 1986 volume of the Journal for Theological Studies on the noun harpagmos in Philippians 2:6 was recommended to me by my late, lamented teacher Harold Hoehner. I thought then, as I think today, that this was among the best scholarly articles on the New Testament I had ever read, even if one may quibble with him a bit at points. In the space of a mere 32 pages, he waded through the morass of competing, contradictory interpretations of that term, pointed out that the commonly-held "res rapta" view of the term really should have been labeled "res retinenda," and came to a conclusion that, after all was said and done, appeared to flow obviously from the grammar and context of the passage. This, I realized then as a Ph.D. student in New Testament, was no easy accomplishment. Later, when working on my dissertation on Paul's theology of justification in Galatians, I encountered his newly published The Climax of the Covenant, a revised compilation of articles he had written on Christ and the Law in Paul's theology. At first I was utterly flummoxed. Here was a man who, it seemed, was as incapable of espousing a well-worn, traditional interpretation as he was of writing a dull sentence. Yet all of his "novel" interpretations—not all coming from left field, as it turns out—were proposed in the interests of a genuine "biblical" theology which elegantly tied together all the apparent loose ends of the text in a coherent and convincing narrative framework. After a few more months of extensive study, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, I finally gave up trying to kick against the goads and concluded that his analysis of the text, in particular that of the apostle's seemingly convoluted scriptural arguments in Galatians 3, pointed a clear way forward in understanding the text both historically and theologically. Since that time, I have made it my business to devour each of his scholarly volumes, and have found each one of them stimulating and, at times, inspiring, even though, as with all writers, I find myself disagreeing at times in substantive ways.

In the intervening decades, of course, Professor Wright's fame and influence have burgeoned even as controversies over his views have multiplied in certain circles, most intensely in the American Reformed traditions. This, of course, is why Jason Byassee wrote his piece for CT. For the most part, Byassee's piece is well balanced, fair, and informative. In particular, he situates Wright well in his ecclesial and scholarly contexts in a way many of his conservative American Reformed and evangelical detractors simply fail to appreciate. In particular, Byassee emphasizes Wright's standing in the academic world, even quoting Richard Hays to the effect that Wright is now "bigger than Bultmann." Well, when Hays speaks, I listen. And I certainly believe Wright's work is far more valuable for the church than was the influential Marburger. Moreover, his scholarly output is both more rigorous and voluminous. Nevertheless, for better or (more often) worse, Bultmann indisputably set the agenda for academic New Testament studies for a good fifty years, even after his controlling Heideggerian existentialism became largely passe. As good and important as Wright's work is, I can say confidently that such overwhelming international influence is unlikely to emanate from the east coast of Scotland, particularly in American university departments of religion, not to mention their counterparts in Germany. And Wright's natural audience, British and American evangelicals, are (especially in this country) temperamentally more disposed to follow more "conservative" scholars like Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, whose articulation and defense of more traditional positions appears, at first glance, better to epitomize the "faithfulness" evangelicalism treasures.

Things, however, are not always as they appear at first glance. Nor is "faithfulness" always to be identified, in a knee-jerk sort of way, with tried-and-true "traditional" or even "confessional" readings of the text. After all, it was (and is in some circles even today) one of the arguments used against Luther that he had the arrogant audacity to overthrow more than a millennium of church tradition and teaching based simply on his own interpretation of the biblical text. Wright, thankfully, has consciously seen it as his duty to follow in the Reformers' footsteps in terms of their method, even if by honoring them in such a fashion he overthrows some of their teachings, most controversially the so-called imputation of Christ's "active" obedience/righteousness, that have attained the somewhat dubious status of being Reformed Shibboleths. Indeed, it is Wright's advocacy of the so-called "New Perspective on Paul"—itself a somewhat outdated label for a spectrum of views, precipitated by E. P. Sanders's compelling re-reading of Second Temple Judaism, that situate Paul's doctrine of justification in the eschatological inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God rather than, more generally, in the quest of the individual to secure his or her standing at the final judgment—that has made him the bĂȘte noire of contemporary New Testament scholars in many circles.

To be sure, Wright has written plenty in criticism of "traditional" Protestant teaching on justification. Indeed, his book-length 2009 response to John Piper, Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision, led to a famous back-and-forth with Tom Schreiner at the 2010 ETS Annual Conference, which apparently generated more heat than light, at least if the responses to Wright's presentations there are any indication. The ever-gracious Schreiner, for his part, seemed genuinely to understand the vast areas of agreement that the two had, focusing his criticism on Wright's contention for an ecclesiological dimension to justification—as opposed to Schreiner's contention that justification is entirely soteriological and individualistic—and his belief that future justification at the final judgment will be on the basis of the entirety of the life a believer lived (Schreiner and his Reformed followers preferred to speak of future judgment in accordance with works, though one always is suspect when theologians expect more precision in the use of prepositions than St. Paul himself used in Philippians 3:9, when he speaks of having a righteousness from God on the basis of (epi) faith, as opposed to Christ's active and passive obedience; the issue, as both Wright and Schreiner agreed, concerned that which would be adjudicated at the assize, both likewise agreeing that the works approved by God were not "meritorious" in the least, but reflective of the Spirit's sovereign work in the believer's life). In the aftermath, positions were hardened, and the false disjunction between "old" and "new" perspectives on Paul remains ingrained on the ecclesial landscape and a cause for professional vicissitudes for those scholars "amenable" to at least some of the New Perspective's concerns.

It is here that Byassee could have provided a salutary service by clearly articulating "what Wright really says." Alas, such was not to be. Instead, he perpetuates some of the more egregious misconceptions about Wright's views that appear immune to dislodgement.  The clearest example of this in Byassee's article is the following quotation:
It is important to stop and note how dramatically Wright has reworked things here. It means, in part, that the evangelist at summer camp who asked me, "If you died tonight, why should God let you into heaven?" was wrong when he provided the answer, "For no reason other than that Jesus died in my place."
What Wright really says is as follows:
"Nothing in my hand I bring," sings the poet, "simply to thy cross I cling." Of course: we look away from ourselves to Jesus Christ and him crucified, to the God whose gracious love and mercy sent him to die for us. But the sigh of relief which is the characteristic Christian reaction to learning about justification by faith ("You mean I don't have to do anything? God loves me and accepts me as I am, just because Jesus died for me?") ought to give birth at once to a deeper realization down exactly the same line: "You mean it isn't all about me after all? I'm not the center of the universe? It's all about God and his purposes?" The problem is that, throughout the history of the Western church, even where the first point has been enthusiastically embracedsometimes particularly where that has happenedthe second has been ignored. And with that sometimes willful ignorance there has crept back into theology, even into good, no-nonsense, copper-bottomed Reformation theology, the snake's whisper that it actually is all about us, that "my relationship with God" and "my salvation" is the still point at the center of the universe (Justification, 24-25).
Indeed, over the past few years Wright has been at pains to declare clearly that the so-called "old" and "new" perspectives on Paul are not mutually exclusive, and that the new perspective, born of a more nuanced understanding of Second Temple Judaism and early Christian history, provides a better understanding of the historical context in which Paul's teaching on justification must be located, and as a result shines a needed light on dimensions of the apostle's teaching which hitherto had been either ignored or under-emphasized in the Reformation traditions. This has likewise been the mantra of Jimmy Dunn, and it is simply inexcusable after all this time for people to continue to act as if such men "deny" the Protestant doctrine of justification. I will not hold my breath, however. Apparently one must chalk such reactions up to the controlling influence of presuppositions: worldviews determine even how one hears what others are saying, especially when matters close to the heart of the worldview are seen as being challenged.

This one quibble aside, Byassee does a good job of commending Wright to the Christian reading public. I will do the same thing. Of particular importance is Wright's new Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Much has been made of its unprecedented bulk. But its size merely reflects its importance and unique focus. Whereas the two previous candidates for "best Pauline theology" (those by Ridderbos and Dunn) each approach the text theologically and utilize loci derived from previous theological writings, Wright is different, striving to portray the apostle's narrative worldview and situate him historically as a Jewish theologian working as apostle to the Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world. What results is a massive re-reading of Paul as one who has not abandoned his Jewish beliefs but transformed them as a result of his belief that God had definitively and eschatologically manifested his covenant faithfulness in the death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah. What results is a theology in which he reaffirms the three major foci of Jewish theology (monotheism, election, eschatology) and reworks them around his Christian convictions and experience of Christ and the Spirit. What results from Wright's pen is not always entirely convincing, though it more often than not is. And, much to the pleasure of anyone investing the time to read 1500+ pages, it is never dull, and occasionally is downright inspiring. May this work have a long shelf life.