Friday 4 September 2015

What makes it hard to understand Tom Wright?

The fact that people want to discuss N.T.Wright is no real surprise, and not only because his name is such a gift to punning respondents: “Is Tom Right?”, “Where Wright is Wrong”, “Wrighting the Wrongs” “N.T.Wrong”, “Getting it Wright.” We could go on.
In part the discussion is generated by the fact that he is eye-wateringly prolific. At a scholarly level he is producing a multi-volume account of Christian origins and theology which, taken together, currently stands at 3751 pages and there is still a volume to come on the Gospels. Alongside that there are host of other scholarly books and articles. And then there is the appeal of his equally prolific popular-level output which ensures his work is discussed well beyond the academy.

So the discussion is no surprise. Anyone who writes as much as N.T. Wright is going to provoke discussion and divide opinion. What is intriguing, though, is that someone can be so celebrated as a clear writer and yet his position on any number of issues remains rather hard to pin down. As the blurb on the back of his For Everyone commentaries says “Wright writes wonderfully, accessibly, and as smooth as fine chocolate” and yet the discussion frequently comes down to “what is he saying?” Does he believe in penal substitution? What role does he think our works play in final judgment? Is justification forensic and covenantal or only the latter? Is it a declaration that someone is already accepted or the transformative moment itself?

There are of course many reasons for this. While lecturing on the New Perspective a while back, I discussed the following for a start:

      1.      The volume of his works
In part it’s hard to say definitively what Wright’s view on anything is, simply because there’s so much to read, especially on those hotly debated topics. Until recently any judgment about his take on many of them also had to be suspended or at least provisional in the knowledge he was promising a definitive treatment of Paul. Now that that has arrived there are few (if any?) who have embraced the task of reading those 1600 pages and setting them against everything he’s written on Paul since his (unpublished) PhD thesis and the articles he started publishing before I was even born (1979, since you ask, and his Tyndale Lecture The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith was published in 1978).

      2.      The volume of the debate
Browse the internet for a few minutes with ‘N.T. Wright’ as your search term and you’ll realise how loudly the voices are raised for and against the former bishop. This presents several distinct challenges to getting at what he really thinks. 

First, there is a great deal of caricature out there. There are collections of quotes torn from context and held up as exhibits for the prosecution or the defence. There are hundreds of conflicting accounts of what Wright really says and it takes an intimate knowledge of his work (oh dear: see point 1) to sift through the blogs, articles and books.

Second, it would be na├»ve to think that most of us aren’t in some way invested in the debate. There are young scholars who champion Wright in the hope of preferment. There are scholars with their own followings who have carved out a role as the aNTi-Wrights. In church settings, some of us will recognise the difficulty of saying anything nice about him in contexts where he is persona non grata, or feel the need to preface every comment with “I don’t agree with everything he says, but…” There is also the temptation, ever present in debates like this, to play to our own audiences. The draw of the Inner Circle is powerful, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, and so we have to resist the urge to misrepresent or sugarcoat Wright simply to gain affirmation from whichever group we hope to please. 

In passing, two things to note: One, this point holds true whoever is under discussion. Two: there is the possibility I don’t properly understand Wright because I don’t want to/it will be inconvenient socially/professionally to do so. Over this issue, and every other debate for that matter, the ninth commandment ought to be writ large.        

3. Variety of expression 
As far as I can see there is relatively little development in his thinking across the 35 years that Wright has been writing. That is not, by any means, a criticism, but rather testimony to the originality of his PhD thesis. In a sense, all of his subsequent work was already there in embryo. There he sowed the seeds and he has been watering and harvesting them since. There is, however, a surprising amount of diversity among books published at the same time, or even within the same work. 

This can mean there is simply a lack of consistency. As Wright once commented in a public discussion with James Dunn, speaking of Paul’s view of final judgment, “each time I say it, it comes out slightly differently.” Although there are some stock phrases and definitions that are used with regularity, it is also true that some central concepts do come out “slightly differently” each time and it’s not always obvious how to reconcile them or what weight to give to different formulations.

On the other hand, there can be an element of out and out contradiction. For example, the question of Wright’s current stance towards the ‘Old Perspective.’ In Paul and the Faithfulness of God 2013 he expresses his hope that “we should also manage, with this analysis, to transcend the low-grade either/or that has been taking place between ‘old’ and ‘new’ perspectives. I have no interest in perpetuating such a squabble.”[1] But in an article from the same year subsequently republished in the companion volume to Paul and the Faithfulness of God he states that his argument in relation to Romans 4 “strikes exactly against a position which has become one of the last strongholds of the ‘old perspective’ on Paul” and he goes on to say that his reading means that “this last refuge of the ‘old perspective’ is dismantled, leaving the occupants nowhere to hide.”[2]

4.      A tendency to polarise
We’ve just seen an example of this in the desire to polarise old and new readings of Paul. Interestingly, the other main architect of the New Perspective on Paul James Dunn has spent the last twenty years or so slowly softening the contrast between old and new, but Wright seems determined to keep pressing them apart. It’s a tendency you can find elsewhere: “Romans 4… is through and through covenantal; hardly at all soteriological.”[3] Justification is ecclesiological and not soteriological and so on. In part this simply reveals polemical flair but, as Wright himself has regularly argued, New Testament Studies are bedevilled by false antitheses which do little to illuminate or progress the discussion.

In particular there are two dangers for us here. The first is that we accept a polarised account of the debate (choose A or B) and forget that A and B might not be the only options or actually complementary truths we need to hold together. Second, there is a danger that we think Wright is actually arguing on those terms. At least some of time, the headline might be "A and not B", but in the detail of his arguments he is holding them together more than he might seem to be.

So there are 4 reasons at least that make it hard to get Wright. There are also a couple of other factors which people who are sympathetic to Wright also appeal to, suggesting that he is more misunderstood than anything else. About these I am less sure.

      5.      The clash of biblical studies/systematics.
One argument appeals to the fact that he is a biblical scholar and confusion or antagonism arises when systematicians bring their Reformed structures of thought and terminology to the debate and can’t find a direct match in his work. There is certainly some truth in this. As Jim Packer once said, “When exegetes and dogmaticians get together it is noticeable that they tend to sniff suspiciously at each other, as dogs do, uncertain whether they can be friends.”

There is therefore a need for some careful translation and there are places where I think it is right to say that the substance of some Reformed doctrines can be found in Wright, even if they are couched in different terms. On the other hand, this appeal to a clash of cultures can sometimes be overplayed for two reasons:

First, Wright is not simply a biblical scholar. Although his main interests lie in history and exegesis he knows the value of systems. He is someone who is determined to allow exegesis to feed theology and theology to be lived out in the church. 

Second, Wright himself is familiar with the Reformed heritage of his conservative opponents. He came up through the CU movement in Oxford and, little known fact though it is, his first published work was a collaboration with three fellow OICCU members entitled ‘The Grace of God in the Gospel’ published by, wait for it, The Banner of Truth, in which the Reformed doctrines of grace are carefully defended. Which is to say that I’m not sure he would be oblivious to the significance of standard Reformed distinctions, such as the view that at the final judgment we will be judged ‘in accordance with our works’ but not ‘on the basis of them.’

6.      Variety of his debating partners
One of the most common defences made on his behalf is that he can’t afford to be more explicitly conservative because of the dialogue he sustains with the liberal academy. Indeed, it is suggested he occasionally has to kick against the conservatives on his ‘right’ to win a hearing with the ‘liberal left’ and disguise the fact that he is in many respects a conservative himself. Essentially this would be the reverse of Toby Ziegler’s strategy in the West Wing: “We don’t need to move to the right if there’s an opportunity to spank the people to our left.” And, for some, this means that his more perplexing comments about justification and penal substitution aren’t quite what they seem. 

A few comments on this:

i. This is not a strategy I have ever heard him vocalise – this is guesswork. Someone knows the secrets of men’s hearts and it isn’t us. 

ii. We ought to recognise that he has been carrying a very remarkable dialogue with the liberal academy and continues to defend the historicity of the resurrection, the reliability of the Gospels, the divinity of Jesus, and a biblical stance on a number of sensitive ethical issues. From the perspective of one of his liberal dialogue partners his book Jesus and the Victory of God was simply “elegant fundamentalism.” There is much to cheer about here. 

iii. I am not sure, however, that a Christian could blamelessly pursue this sort of strategy. To choose one battles, certainly. But to prod or provoke brothers and sisters in Christ in order to gain a hearing with the liberal left? I suspect that here his champions do him a disservice. We should all hope this is not the case.

[1] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols., Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: SPCK, 2013), 1038.
[2] Wright, N. T. “Paul and the Patriarch: The Role of Abraham in Romans 4.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35 (2013): 207–41.
[3] Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1002.