Photo credit: RHiNO NEAL

The Wright Stuff

Photo credit: RHiNO NEAL

 

Its hard to find Christians leaders who are ambivalent about Tom Wright’s writings. You are either for him or against him, love him or hate him. Recognise him as a genius; the leading western biblical scholar of his generation or write him off as a pompous woolly liberal. I hadn’t realised the extent to which the former Bishop of Durham is a marmite figure amongst evangelicals until recently. I have friends on both sides of this debate. I must admit I am a fan but I really want to understand why he gets on the wick of so many of my friends.

1) Piper versus Wright

For some it is a matter of taking sides. There is a guilt (or glory) by association going on. For some of my friends to be wrong side of John Piper is to be on the wrong side. Now as I have written elsewhere there is much to commend in John Piper’s work but he is neither omniscient nor infallible. Piper’s doctoral research was in New Testament studies but he has not remained in academic research he has chosen to invest his life in local church ministry. Now of course the academy and the church are not mutually incompatible and indeed there needs to be a greater interaction between the pulpit and the academy. But it is interesting that when the two disagree they tend to disagree on method. In my opinion Piper tends to read the NT through the lens of the reformers while Wright reads it through the lens of biblical theology. Neither the Reformers nor Wright’s reading of biblical theology are inerrant but these men do tend to talk past eachother when they engage. My friends love the humility and graciousness of Piper and find NT Wright’s tone as pompous and arrogant. I guess this is where someone’s presuppositions come in to play, because I know a lot of people who have the exact same problem with Piper’s work. How can we get past perceived tone and engage with content?

2) All or nothing

For some of my friends its all or nothing with the theologians they like. There’s a tick list – a writer needs to tick the boxes on a number of issues in order to have anything to contribute to a conversation. So for example if Tom Wright challenges views on justification he can’t have anything helpful to say on how to read the gospels. Strangely this thinking doesn’t apply to the great reformers – Luther’s anti-Semitism or Calvin’s encouragement to see Servetus executed as a heretic. It also doesn’t seem to apply to CS Lewis who is often loved by my friends who don’t like NT Wright. Because I do not share Luther’s antisemitism or Calvin’s willingness to execute dissenters or CS Lewis’ views on Heaven and Hell does not mean I can find nothing of merit in their work. I have been greatly helped by these flawed mens’ works and I find the same is true in NT Wright’s work. Some of it I do not agree with but I have still found much to treasure. Surely this is the mark of a discerning reader – scripture is our only infallible source, in all other writings we must apply a spirit of gracious discernment that seeks to pick the fish from the bones as my Albanian friends like to put it.

3) Politics

The gospel coalition have recently published a pretty scathing review of Wright’s most recent book. After offering a few sentences of what the reviewer found helpful – which seem pretty minimal – namely that Wright draws on the Old Testament understanding of Jesus to set the context for Jesus’ ministry; that he hasn’t taken a typically liberal approach by focussing on the ethical teaching of Jesus and that the incarnation reflects God dwelling with his people in his Son. Which apart from the emphasis on the Old Tetsatment context are not primary elements of this book. The bulk of the review is a vigorous critique where Wright’s “shoddy scholarship” and either “sheer chronological snobbery” or “plain ignorance” are highlighted. Wright is reprimanded for apparently

“his loathing of democracy, particularly American democracy. Fox News, the killing of Osama bin Laden, small government, the system of voting on government officials, the separation of church and state, etc.”

No references are given – but to label the Wright a hater of democracy when he has played a significant role as Bishop in the House of Lords and has a theology and a practice of social engagement (see the new resource inside out featuring Tim Keller and NT Wright talking about evangelistic, social and political engagement) This is quite a telling critique – it reminded me of the work of another stalwart of the Gospel Coalition, Wayne Grudem’s lengthy explanation of why capitalism is the only biblically justifiable position. Is it possible to be a critic of some aspects of american foreign policy without being labelled a hater of democracy? Surely there is room for gracious dialogue on differences of theology and politics – otherwise how will we avoid reading our political persuasions back into scripture because of our cultural location?

I have been very provoked and helped by NT Wright’s works. There are flaws – he is not omniscient but I do enjoy reading someone who is trying to read the bible by paying close attention to its context, grand narrative and internal consistency.

 

Love to know your thoughts.

23 thoughts on “The Wright Stuff”

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking as usual Krish. The difficulty I have, as very much a non-academic, is how to pick the fish off the bones when sometimes it all looks like fish? The last thing I want is to end up chocking on something that I perceived as fish when it was in fact bone.

    For me there is a tension between the intellectual/academic search for truth and understanding within scripture (which seems to have become a battleground) and the biblical principle of having the simple belief of a child.

    Academics seem to study the same passage of scripture and come to very different, often opposing, opinions. Is there any weight in saying that as we are told that Scripture is the mysterious, living word of God that can only be fully understood with the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit that it is not meant to be objectively understood but subjectively, individually understood. Have we elevated Academic theology to too high a place. A place which in effect distances it from the person on the street – does it not come across that the elite academics can’t even understand the Bible so why should we even attempt it? Do we not need, in some ways, to come back to the beautiful simplicity of the gospel message, faith and relationship with God?

    Is not Christianity far more about personal relationship with God rather than trying to fathom Him out and the nuances of His word? Do we spend far too much time worrying about what other people think of God’s word and far too little time exploring His word for ourselves?

    1. Nathan – I think that one of Tom Wright’s great contributions is his ability to communicate, for example through his Bible guides series ‘Mark for Everyone’ etc. with people without an academic theological background. I know many people whose personal relationship with God has deepened through reading Wright’s books. Yes I agree that the beautiful simplicity of the gospel message is of central importance. But we shouldn’t ignore the 1st commandment which speaks of loving God with all our mind, as well as heart and strength. As far as we are able I think we need to engage with attempting to understand the Bible, which is not an easy task and does need the help of faithful academics. You talk about the Scriptures being “individually understood” but we can’t ignore the fact that all its books were written for communities not individuals, so we do need to work at community interpretation. A totally individualistic interpretation of the Bible can be extremely dangerous.

      1. Nancy, don’t get me wrong I’m not against people such as N.T. Wright and I know that many people have been drawn into a deeper relationship with God through his academic and communicating gifts. However, I do believe that academic understanding of the Bible, although good, misses something of the alive reality of the word of God for us as individuals and communities today. And where do we go when academics disagree?

        I agree also that much of the Bible was written to communities but also believe it was written as well of the likes of you and me. To believe it was just written to the addressed communities makes the bible no more than an historical document. Academics through the centuries have helped incredibly in helping us understand the bible in it’s historical context (I’m not against academic study of the bible). However, I also believe we have and individual responsibility to apply the teaching of the bible to our individual lives and communities.

        I also agree with you that a totally individual study of the bible can be dangerous, but so can following a particular teacher or academic. It is a tension that we all must grapple with and I only wish I knew where to start!! For me two of the teachers (though not really academics)that have inspired me most in my Christian walk and have drawn me closer to God have been Graham Cooke and Rob Bell. Now, I have heard people rave about them and have heard others call them anything from misguided to the Anti-Christ. I don’t agree with everything that they say, I try and pick the fish from the bones but I find it very difficult. If I choose only to get teaching from those who no-one berates I have no-one to get teaching from. So from a personal perspective I find it a minefield! I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water but find it difficult to know who to listen to etc. As you say we don need to love the Lord, our God with all our heart and mind – but how much of that is OUR mind and not the mind of others?

        At the end of the day my gut feeling is that we need to continue to engage on many different levels and trust the Holy Spirit to retain the good within our minds and reject the bad.

        1. This whole discussion and the underlying issues reflect the reality of “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” when every verse is interpreted in (often) diametrically different ways, ways that are mutually exclusive, we need to ask if the real problem is deeper and broader than the simplistic question of which godly writer is correct.

    2. Nathan, to me the simple belief of a child is having that wide eyed curiosity about the world that permits any person to study the word with humility. As a both/and Asian I really hate the Westernized dichotomy between faith and intellect. In my opinion (and experience) anyone in church who has told me to “stop thinking” usually are not the most spiritual people I have ever met. What have they ever done except warm the benches in church on a Sunday? On the contrary, some of the most mature and spiritual people I have ever met tended to be great students and scholars of the Word. The most spiritual, in other words (and I don’t like to use the term ‘most'; as if I could truly compare that) are those who bring their whole selves to God. As Jesus said, mind, body, spirit…

      As I often say to my congregation, don’t park your brains in the parking lot!

  2. Thanks for this, Krish. Personally, I am a great fan of Wright’s work and think he is an extremely significant and highly accessible theologian for our times. However, I also appreciate the contribution of John Piper – I might not agree with everything he proposes (even though we’re both Baptists!), but he undoubtedly has much to offer the twenty-first century Church and I thank God for him. Other contemporary theologians I have a high regard for are Miroslav Volf and John Zizioulas – both from different traditions and with different approaches, but great servants of the Church.

    It is often through the discussions, debates and tensions that arise between theologians that God speaks and moves forward our understanding of Him and of the mission of the Church. So, let’s value the diversity of approach that we’re offered by the many gifted theologians that God has given us for the edification of the Body of Christ.

  3. “Piper tends to read the NT through the lens of the reformers while Wright reads it through the lens of biblical theology”.. that phrase might be a bit too kind to Wright!

    The usual critique of this debate is that, “Piper reads the NT through the lens of the Reformers, while Wright reads it through the lens of his research into 1stC Jewish culture”.

  4. “Surely this is the mark of a discerning reader – scripture is our only infallible source, in all other writings we must apply a spirit of gracious discernment that seeks to pick the fish from the bones as my Albanian friends like to put it.”

    ~ Do you really have friends in Albania? I do too! We travel to Lac (south of Tirane) as often as we can to visit a local orphanage. Beautiful place, beautiful people

    1. I do have friends in Albania I used to live and work out there. have been to Lac too – what a wonderful country it is !

  5. Thanks Krish, very interesting piece.

    I think your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. No theologian/speaker/writer/blogger is perfect. Not me, not you. I have read some really nasty blogs describing Tom as “wolf” or as a “false teacher.” We need to be very careful before banding about such terms.

    I “found” Tom’s writings when I was considering some questions from my own study and wanted to find out what someone else thought about the issue. That’s the way I find most writers.

    I don’t agree with Tom on some issues (notably his views on baptism and hell, as put forward in Surprised by Hope) but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong. It might well mean my understanding is flawed, which is really very likely.

    However, I do agree with a lot of what of he’s written and his approach to studying theology in its appropriate historical setting. But then again, we might both be wrong there!

    One thing we are at risk at is of only choosing to listen to those we think we will agree with (“itching ears” as it poetically referred to). Of course, the flip-side to this is that if we are to try to ensure we think only things that are good, right, pure, holy, etc. then this may seem to rule out reading things which we may think are wrong.

    This is where we need humility. I might be wrong, and I should never forget it. Of course, I don’t think I’m wrong but that’s why we need to constantly re-evaluate our beliefs and check them against the evidence that we have available.

  6. I’m a big fan of both Piper and Wright, and have found both of them very helpful overall, though there are points at which I’d disagree with them both.

    I find Wright’s stuff on Jesus and the resurrection to mostly be excellent. His take on Paul I have more issues with – even when I think he’s right, I always want to say “Yes, but…” because it seems to be overreacting in a certain direction.

    One aspect of Wright’s writing that I find irritating is the tone of “Everybody else has been missing this central point of the Gospel for a long time, until I pointed it out”. I don’t think that Wright is original as he thinks, or the things he says are quite as neglected as he makes out. For example, the political dimensions of the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God are also something that the Dutch neo-Calvinist tradition (Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer etc.) with its emphasis on the Lordship of Christ in the wholeness of life has embraced. But I guess saying “this aspect of the Gospel has sometimes been underemphasised or underdeveloped in some circles” doesn’t sell as many books.

    As far as that review goes, I think we need to bear in mind that throwing around terms like “theocracy” is a lot more politically loaded in the USA. Many Christians don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the religious right, so I can understand why arguing that there isn’t a separation between church and state is very controversial.

    Personally, I haven’t come across any “Piper vs Wright” partisanship – perhaps that’s just not a feature of the circles I’m involved in. Although some Christians I know have strong opinions either way on Wright, others I know would take a fairly nuanced view, agreeing or disagreeing on different points.

  7. Thanks for the article Krish, I’ve also found quite different responses to Wright among people I know and would through in a few extra thoughts…

    1) Theology. I think some people just disagree with what Wright writes. It may seem obvious but if you’re against social action, disagree with the ordination of women and have a “traditional” view of Hell then you’re unlikely to strongly agree with Wright. As a separate category I’d add Wright’s view of justification. I know a number of people of would “agree to disagree” on the first 3 issues but think you need to draw a line in the sand somewhere and that justification should be it. I think a lot of concern about Wright goes back to “What St. Paul Really Said.”

    2) Church Politics. I’m not an Anglican but I used to be(ish – I went to a Anglican church) and I know people who feel Wright has stood on the wrong side of some important Anglican debates. Mainly some people feel that he should have been stronger standing for a traditional view of sexuality and then feel that Wright should have supported and not criticized some conservatives who have taken a stand on the issue.

    3) “My enemies friend…” Again I know some people who are confused that Wright sided with people such as Robert Jenson, Jeffrey John and Steve Chalke who have in various ways criticized a traditional understanding of penal substitution while Wright has come out against people like Mike Ovey (http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/news/2007/20070423wright.cfm?doc=205). Similarly Wright is criticized in general for being quite generous and positive about more liberal theologians such as Rowan Williams and Rob Bell while not acting the same towards more conservative theologians. I think he can leave people who think that its correct to stand against Steve Chalke or Rob Bell’s theology with the view that Wright isn’t on their “team.”

    I don’t agree with the above views per se its just this is what I hear from people who find Wright easier to hate rather than love.

    1. I like so much that’s being shared in these sites. Not like some polemical posts.
      I have found Wright a God-send (or is it god-send — let the reader understand) personally, and his Christian Origins and the Question of God volumes have really helped me to a more authentic solid foundation for my understanding of the New Testament.
      I’m not sure, Tom, why you call Rob Bell a liberal — what do you base that on?
      I hope Tom Wright doesn’t support the idea that Christians can be involved in an, albeit faithful, physical homosexual relationship. Would you let me know if that is the case and the references. Would you kindly email me on mwarner@sailors-society.org. I shall be very disappointed if he is taking that line.
      God bless
      Mark

      1. Hi Mark,

        Just a couple follow ups. I merely meant liberal in the sense of not being a conservative, just as a either-or taxonomy. Other people view the issue this way and I was using shorthand. I don’t mean that Bell is a liberal in the sense of late nineteenth early twentieth century liberalism, just that Bell is more left (liberal) that right (conservative) in his religious views.

        Wright to my knowledge has an orthodox view on sexuality himself as far as I know my point is that I think some Anglicans are suspicious of him for not taking as strong a line on the issue as they would have liked him to. He’s generally held the line that the split in the Anglican church over homosexuality is a American issue and shouldn’t be dragged into this country and that British Anglicans can agree to disagree. This is viewed by some as being too soft. Its a difficult political issue in the Anglican issue which I’m not clear on. I was merely saying that for some people how Wright has acted is a big concern for how they view him.

        Hope that clears stuff up.

    2. I am confused by the comment that Wright does not have a “traditional” view of Hell, in Surprised by Hope he goes to great lengths to state he belief in a literal hell, and I have not read anything from Wright that would in any way go against a “traditional” view. If anything people might have more of a problem with his understanding of what heaven looks like, even though it is steeped in Biblical understanding, it may not fit the idea that many people have grown up with.

  8. Thanks for this post. A lot of the disagreement does seem to be superficial – using words to mean different things, etc. I wonder whether the Piper clan and the Wright clan are both seeing some of these superficial differences as real differences? Wright has some axes to grind against the conservative evangelical part of the church, so he isn’t reluctant to point out things that he perceives that part of the church has got wrong (even if they haven’t actually got those things wrong, on closer inspection). Similarly, that conservative part of the church wants to be able to put Wright in a not-quite-orthodox box, so when he presents something “new” and different, it’s not surprising that he is received with some suspicion, even if what he is presenting is not, on closer inspection, actually new and different after all, but just the old truths phrased in a slightly unfamiliar way with some slight differences of emphasis. I might be wrong, but that’s how the debate appears to me.

    Personally, I’ve found Wright’s work has enriched my appreciation of the gospel, rather than threatening it. Particularly his emphasis on what he calls “life after life after death”, which is just the historic, but largely neglected, doctrine of the resurrection.

  9. As with anything in academia (or what plays as academic), consider the source. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) is one of the premier bastions of religious conservatism in the United States–this review, moreover, was written by two individuals who either teach or received their graduate education from that institution.

    There is a risk, when assessing the source of criticism, to engage in pedigree snobbery. As a graduate student at a major US institution (who also works in his university’s graduate admissions office), I see this all too often. However, for specialized institutions that have a focus on one particular vein of research (re: seminaries), one must take a careful view of an alumnus’ philosophic and theological moorings which are undoubtedly influenced by the experience of studying at whatever institution they so chose. This is not to say–let me be clear–that an education from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is worthless or inferior to other options; rather, the two authors of this critical piece obviously come to the table with the heavy baggage of their extremely conservative educations and experiences.

    When viewed in this light, it is of little surprise that the authors of this piece are critical. No serious review of another individual’s work includes silly dismissals of an author because the supposedly dislike Fox News (indeed, that individual should be commended). I found this review to be inaccurate, unrepresentative, and far from irenic.

  10. I’m not going to comment on the theology of either of these guys – both have points I agree with and disagree with. On different levels I like them both!

    If someone tells me I shouldn’t read a book because they don’t like it’s theological stand point, I tend to go ahead and read it anyway! It’s not the theology I take issue with – it’s people trying to make the decision for me about what I should think. I’m more than happy for people to have a different standpoint to me.

    Recently, one of my young God daughters asked why one Christian leader was being unkind to another – just because he sees God and the Bible in a slightly different way. Good question! I want our children to hear all theological ideas, in ways they can understand, so they can safely discuss and (with the help of the Holy Spirit) come to their own conclusion. But also find Godly ways to debate….. in Love.

    I like to read books I know I won’t agree with because it sharpens me up Biblically and makes me think through what I believe….. for myself. I want that for our kids too….

    Let them read both points of view – let them understand both points of view :o)

  11. You say the Bible is infallible. Is this truly so?

    For me, it is fallible. This makes it all the more relevant to me as it is the story of a fallible world trying to follow an infallible God. I can relate to that.

  12. thanks for this Krish – very useful and as many of the comments show, its so important that people and sites like yours give space for proper discussions rather than tribal, polemical ranting. thanks.

  13. As a 20 something neo-calvinist….I feel neither men are arrogant…both care about truth so you’d expect to get some reaction. What I don’t enjoy are when people continue to say, there’s some great divide in evangelicalism as though we need to stir up division to fuel our faith (like how partisan politics can be in the States).

    Even N.T. Wright had said his heart has warmed to Piper in recent years and commended him as a pastor. Piper as well in his critique would often attach a friendly personal note to outline his intent.

    No one needs to vilify anyone here. Seek to understand, critique the points, and if you’re still not happy with people who follow the reformed tradition, then just let us be. Consider it as being cultural sensitive to our traditions.

    Just my two cents…

    N.T. Wright on Piper:
    “The trouble is, this is not a fight that I wanted to get into because Piper is a good, beloved brother in Christ, doing a good job, building people up in the faith, teaching them how to live. I would prefer that he exegete Paul differently, of course, but the people I really want to fight are (like for Paul) the pagans out on the street who are reordering society in ways that are deeply dehumanizing. The gospel is for the pagans. It’s the reflex of the gospel to have the in-house fight with the Judaizers as it were.”
    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2008/04/24/trevin-wax-interview-with-nt-wright-on-surprised-by-hope/

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