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.
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.