Wednesday, April 28, 2010

N. T. Wright and Classical Orthodoxy

Yesterday, I ended my post on the two recent conferences (T4G and Wheaton) by commenting on William Evans' assessment of the weaknesses in N. T. Wright's theology as follows:
While I agree with Evans that Wright is an Evangelical who is trying to be biblical, it is somewhat ironic that an Anglican of all people should, in the end, have his high ecclesiology undercut by, of all things, that old Evangelical habit of biblicism. In the end, Wright may be a temptation for Evangelicals precisely because they recognize a kindred spirit at this very point. And that, it seems to me, is where the historically-oriented confessionalism of the Neo-Reformed becomes absolutely necessary if we are going to be faithful to the biblical Gospel.
In this post I want to unpack the meaning of these rather cryptic remarks a little bit. I've just been listening to Wright's lecture on historical Jesus studies from the Wheaton conference and I hit the pause button because Wright just said something that I find utterly astonishing. Before I tell you what it is, let me quote something else that William Evans wrote about Wright's response to his critics in the panel discussion earlier on the same day as this lecture.

In response to Richard Hays question about how his [i.e. Wright's] view of Jesus relates to the confessional history of the church, Evans describes Wright responding as follows:
He also claimed that he was not trying to find a Jesus behind the Gospel accounts, but rather to do justice to those accounts. In a rather telling comment, Wright then asserted that his account of Jesus is more true to the canonical witness than the confessions of the church!
So it seems that Wright is not only making the astonishing claim that the Protestant Churches from the 16th century on have all misunderstood Paul on justification and that the whole Reformation has just been one large mistake, and this, I might add, at a point in history when even Roman Catholic theologians have recognized the authentic insights into soteriology that were gained by the Reformers. What Protestants have said for 400 years is wrong, says Wright. This is why, by the way, many people have viewed Wright's theology as a bridge into the Roman Catholic Church insofar as it removes the necessity of making everything rise and fall on the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

But it gets worse. As Evans says above, Wright thinks that his account of Jesus is more true to the canonical than the confessions of the Church. And he is not talking here merely about Protestantism. He is talking about the Augustinian-Thomist tradition of the Western Church that is the foundation of both modern Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. But it gets even worse. He is actually talking about the creedal tradition (Apostles', Nicene, Chalcedonian) that comes out of the first five centuries and forms the basis for both the Churches of the East and those of the West.

In other words, Wright is saying that his reading of the Gospels utilizing the historical methods developed in the 18th century and refined through three quests for the historical Jesus has resulted in a new understanding of Jesus that is superior to that of the traditional Church. I just heard him say this in his lecture practically in so many words.

We should not view Wright as a crypto-Catholic at all. If anything, his viewpoint is more antithetical to that of Rome than it is to the Reformers. In actual fact, it would seem that Wright is picking up on one of two tendencies within the history of Protestantism, that is, on the skeptical and critical one as opposed to the genuinely reforming one.

The skeptical tendency is found in the early Luther and the Anabaptists and it begins with a strict biblicism that eventually degenerates through the employment of critical methods into a fragmented liberalism that is overwhelmed by the authority of individuals (eg. Bultmann, charismatic faith healers) or classes (eg. black liberationists, feminists). The genuinely reforming one is found in the later Luther and pre-eminently in Calvin and the Reformed tradition and it begins with a shared theological heritage and seeks to correct this heritage at certain points with better exegesis using the same methods of reading the Bible that were used in the pre-Reformation period (supplemented by humanistic methods coming out of the Renaissance) and resisting the historical-critical methods as they developed in the 17-18th centuries.

I see Wright as dangerous to Evangelicals precisely because of the many conservative conclusions he draws on so many topics, such as for example, the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But his deeply modern method of reading Scripture and his apparent disdain for the tradition he is sworn to uphold as a bishop is deeply worrying. You can bet that his pupils and followers will not, in all cases, be as conservative as he is. But that is not to say that Wright is consistently conservative on all matters. To the contrary, he is anything but on a significant number of theological issues. His low regard for the Trinitarian and Christological orthodox tradition is manifested in a number of theological and ethical positions that he adopts. But that is a topic for another post. Maybe tomorrow.


David said...

This is very interesting Craig. It sounds like Wright was engaging with Douglas Campbell's recent work. It seems, from what Evens says, that Wright believes that not only moderns have misread Paul on Justification but the Church always has. Is this correct? That Wright indicated he believed this at Wheaton?
I haven't yet read all of Campbell's book. I think that it warrants attention though both in terms of whether he's right about Paul and whether the conclusions he draws from it are correct. I suspect he may be correct on the former but very much isn't in terms of the latter..

David said...

Hi Craig,
Given what Wright said about Chalcedon I think your point is unassailable.

Campbell's book
is a very interesting and truly comprehensive engagement with the faith in/of Christ debates that have been going on for a very long time. Campbell explores the relationship between Paul's account of the faith of Christ and the life in the Spirit which, in Romans, flows from and fuels our participation in Christ.
I think he's correct in his basic understanding which precludes any soteriology which sees salvation as centered on a modernist 'choice" to believe in Christ thereby winning the chooser a ticket to heaven. Instead he offers a coherent model of how the self can come through Christ to be conformed to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. All well and good.

Where I'm starting to have trouble is what he thinks this understanding damages and what it allows. He sees it as radically changing everyone's understanding of justification (especially evangelicals) but only through assuming that evangelicals believe in salvation through ones choice alone! He proceeds to tease out a litany of positions that have to be changed if he is correct (on homosexuality for example) and here his work strays from surefooted analysis of Romans and proceeds through constructing a host of straw men that he assails. I'm not all the way through it yet and the book is so immense and, I think, important, that it will take a lot of processing. So far I'm learning a lot from his account of Romans, and he's convinced me that his exegesis is sound (although, his reading of Paul is really no different from the one we find in the Fathers!). I'm entirely unconvinced that this understanding has the impact he thinks it does however, it’s not as revolutionary as he, and certainly his followers, seem to think.

The book has come at a very interesting time for young Protestant theologians in the blogosphere who haved raved about it. Many originally liked what they heard of Milbank, but then saw the actual insights teased out and baulked at how “conservative” it looked. They also smelled the sulpher from Milbank’s implicit suspicion that Protestantism was interwoven with modernism and so didn’t want to follow him toward a sacramental theology which reeked of Rome. On the other hand they seem to find real Protestantism (Evangelical Protestantism) also uncool, as if you start taking the Bible too seriously you’ll end up with all manner of unfashionable positions on homosexuality, gender and the like. So they end up either saying “screw Milbank, modernism is not too bad” and re-invigorating liberal Protestantism, as I think, we see with bloggers like Adam Kotsko, or moving toward an apocalyptic radicality as with bloggers like Halden. Both tend to end up looking curiously similar to the the theological liberalism that I assumed was dead in the water.

Books like Campbell’s are grasped at as offering something entirely different. Young theologians can think they’re moving beyond the theological liberalism of modernity without the genuine alternatives to it, such as Evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. They yearn for things which say, “everything has always been wrong, history (as for Pol Pot) starts now and you cool young things are the vanguard”.
Of course, dull people like me remember that this is what many Roman Catholics thought after Vatican II and many Protestants thought, well, in 1784. We used to call them “liberals”, and their theological project has been beaten to pulp. But yet, somehow, it raises its head again under the guise of a hitherto unseen “real Christianity”. It reminds me of a a quote from the Life of Abba Macarius of Scetic which is very close to Lewis Ayres’ heart, “A demon will not say to a person 'pray,' but, 'look, there are three
of us, a type of the trinity.”
 Warmest regards,

Craig Carter said...

Sorry to take so long to reply. Thanks for the good comments. You wrote:

"So they end up either saying “screw Milbank, modernism is not too bad” and re-invigorating liberal Protestantism, as I think, we see with bloggers like Adam Kotsko, or moving toward an apocalyptic radicality as with bloggers like Halden. Both tend to end up looking curiously similar to the the theological liberalism that I assumed was dead in the water."

I find these comments very interesting because I spent about 15 years thinking that Yoder offered a way of being both orthodox and pacifist. But everywhere I look today, I see exactly what you see: young theologians, activists and pastors using the thought of J. H. Yoder, N. T. Wright and K. Barth to adopt what I see as basically a late modern position complete with Pelagianism, socialist utopianism and a message of pacifism for the modern nation state. I actually had a Mennonite scholar of Yoder tell me that he thought Pelagius had the better of the argument with Augustine!

Theological liberalism is far from dead. I think it is merging with the rising environmentalist movement to create a post-Christian paganism, which as David Bentley Hart notes will prove to be a much tougher opponent than the old paganism, which basically crumbled before the determined witness of a robust Christianity.

I also agree with you that the conservative, confessional Protestantism at the heart of Evangelicalism and John Paul II Catholics are the only substantial and serious sources of resistance to late modern secularism and militant Islam. The problem is that many Evangelicals are not grounded in traditional orthodoxy.

I also resonate with your reference to a sacramental theology. We need to discuss that further.