Tuesday, February 1, 2011

N.T. Wright and Christian Tradition

Whenever I have the urge to write a blog post, I ask myself a variety of questions: will I regret writing this and publicizing this on the internet when I wake up tomorrow? Will this benefit anyone? Will this end up being a theological slander of sorts? Will this be to seek understanding through reflection and struggle?

I ask these questions even more so in relation to my reading of N.T. Wright's scholarship. Admittedly, I haven't always had the best attitude when it comes to Wright. Some might say that it is due to the fact that I am comfortable in my theology and feel rather disturbed by his biblically accurate conclusions. Others might say that I value systematic theology above biblical theology and therefore anything that Wright says will expose my idolatrous systems over and against the text of Scripture. Still, others might even say that I haven't read enough of Wright to offer a fair assessment (fair enough), or that Wright is working within categories that I don't fully grasp (probable?).

Despite all the above, I have been assigned to read Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) for my Life of Jesus course. I haven't finished it yet, but I've been struggling since completing the first 150 pages or so. Before I get into my issues with Wright, I first would like to remember similar angst I experienced when reading Karl Barth's doctrine of election within the Church Dogmatics for the first time last spring. It all started in the beginning of the semester when I was assigned to give a presentation on Barth's Anselm commentary (AQI). The first 78 pages or so were really difficult to grasp, partly because I was a brand new reader of such genius (not to mention the fact that almost 1/4 of the text is in Latin). Despite everything I learned, the one aspect of Barth's theology that really struck me was the relationship between the Credo of the Christian Church and the credo of the individual. As a former Eastern Orthodox catechumen, I was simultaneously overjoyed and relieved to find a Protestant scholar who so deeply valued and respected the great Christian tradition. I didn't mistake this for blind consent, but rather proper humility.

When I began to read Barth's doctrine of election in II.2 of the CD (I think this is right, I'm too tired to go double check), I was immediately alarmed and puzzled at the fact that he departed so radically from the reformed tradition. He never struck me as being hasty or irresponsible, but I began to wonder if his esteem for the Christian tradition offered in AQI was mere lip service. So for my final research paper, I was determined to find out why Barth criticized the theologian (Calvin) so sharply whose picture hung above his doorpost in Barth's study for most of Barth's life. I started reading paragraph 32 and I was almost immediately struck by how much time, effort, and toil Barth put into his engagement with the tradition before and after deciding to criticize it. You can almost sense at one point his existential crisis when he all but says "why Calvin, why? It was right there and you were so close, why didn't you make Christ the Subject of election!?"

At that point, no matter my agreement or disagreement with Barth's conclusions, I believed he earned some type of "street cred." He earned the right to radically depart from the tradition since he first listened to it so closely.

Enter N.T. Wright. Given all of the sentiments expressed above, you must understand my instant aversion to his work when I read titles like What Saint Paul REALLY Said (emphasis added - to be fair, I am told this title was not chosen by Wright but by the publishing company). My hesitations have not changed since reading JVG. In the first chapter entitled "Jesus Then and Now", Wright discusses the historical quest for the historical Jesus beginning with the reformers. He sets the stage for his disagreement with almost every approach before him. Wright remarks that the reformers suffered from "the failure to ask about the theological significance of the ministry of Jesus, and the failure to treat the gospels with full seriousness as they stand, that is, as stories" (15). Even more, "the reformers, then, focused not on the Jesus of history for his own sake, but on the results, the 'benefits', of his work ... [and the reformers had an] uncertainty about the value of the history of Jesus' life in relation to the theological and hermeneutical task" (15, 16). Wright does admit that JVG "is not the place to explore why the reformers made the moves they did, nor [does Wright have] the competence for such an enquiry" (15). Note that there is not one citation from one reformer, nor any engagement with any primary text of even one theologian prior to Reimarus except for one citation to Melanchthon.

Jumping forward a bit, Wright reinterprets the parable of the Prodigal Son away from traditional readings. He argues that the parable is not for personal application, but rather tells "the story of Israel, in particular of exile and restoration" (126). In fact, this parable most clearly encompasses the narrative of God's relationship with His people; "The exodus itself is the ultimate backdrop: Israel goes off into a pagan country, becomes a slave, and then is brought back to her own land. But exile and restoration is the main theme. This is what the parable is about" (126). Since I am a reader of Barth, I immediately expected an excursus which discussed the history of exegetical interpretation concerning this particular parable not to mention citations from multiple western fathers sprinkled with sentences in Latin and some Greek words. But there is no such treasure to be found. Wright fails to offer any engagement with the tradition for why he is departing from it so dramatically.

Before anyone charges me with defying the principles of sola scriptura in criticizing Wright's allegiance to the text of Scripture, I'd like to qualify my issues. First, the reformers never intended for sola scriptura to mean a lack of engagement with the tradition of the Christian confession. I don't have the time nor the energy to get into that detailed discussion. Second, I am not necessarily upset with Wright's ultimate disagreement and criticism of the tradition. Rather, it would seem that he dismisses the tradition without first giving it a fair hearing. On The Sword and the Ploughshare blog, I read his post this evening concerning McCormack's Croall lectures. The following remark found therein really struck me: "it just may be, as some have told me, that the orthodox tradition, if only we listened to it properly, has all the resources necessary to solve these problems." This quote captures my sentiment perfectly. The individual and/or the community of believers should never first assume that the Christian tradition is correct when "doing theology." One can hope that "it may just be" that the conclusions are biblically faithful. Yet, as Barth continually preached, we all must start at the beginning when doing the theological (or exegetical or historical) task. However, the individual and/or the community of believers should never first assume that the Christian tradition is wrong when "doing theology." We can only find this out after we have "listened to it properly."

I admire Wright's commitment to biblical scholarship. I have learned an incredible amount from reading his work. But I wish he would spend more time grappling with the Christian tradition. And I wish he would offer more critical engagement with the Christian tradition within his books. I don't think this is too much to ask from a scholar who believes that he is the first within the entire history of Christianity to truly grapple with the historicity of Jesus Christ.

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