Saturday, June 11, 2005
Why is N.T. Wright so consistently misrepresented by writers in the Reformed world? Surely if Wright's theology were orthodox such criticisms would be less common. Does the widespread nature of such claims imply that there is some substance to the claims made against Wright? Are these misrepresentations indicative of a failure to communicate on Wright's part? I have been asked these questions on many occasions. I think that there are good reasons why Wright has been consistently misrepresented by certain writers in the Reformed camp. Here are just a few:— Wright's Reformed critics are not sufficiently immersed in Wright's own theology to be able to treat it on its own terms. Frequently, by placing Wright's theology within the conceptual frameworks provided by their own theologies (or by the confessions) problems result that are seen to be easily reconciled and dissolved when one approaches these statements in terms of Wright's own theology (imputation is a classic example here). Many of the Reformed authors who criticize Wright make some clearly counter-factual claims concerning Wright’s theology that can be easily exposed by anyone who has read Wright in much depth. Some of these claims are nothing but supposed implications of the position put forward in What St Paul Really Said. The inner logic of Wright’s theology has not been understood and when Wright’s statements are explored in terms of the critic’s own theological logic, bizarre heresies emerge. We should also recognize that many of the traditional dichotomies that have decisively shaped traditional forms of theology are rejected by post-modernist (in distinction to 'postmodernist') theologians. Subjective/objective, ecclesiology/soteriology, forensic/participatory, declarative/transformative, internal/external, individual/corporate are all dichotomies that have been complicated, problematized or rejected. When one is accustomed to framing one's theology in terms of these dichotomies one will find it difficult to understand the work of someone who does not. When so many of these dichotomies have traditionally framed a particular doctrine, the result of a rejection of these dichotomies may look remarkably like a total rejection of the doctrine itself, although the new epistemological environment may provide for its working in remarkably analogous ways. Traditional Reformed doctrines of justification have been decisively shaped by all of the dichotomies listed above and more besides. Wright frames his doctrine of justification in a significantly different way, as would many in the so-called (and largely mythological) ‘FV movement’. It seems to me that many of Wright’s Reformed critics lack the epistemological teeth and juices necessary to break down and digest a system of theology as anti-modernistic as Wright’s. It would be like trying to understand Einstein without moving beyond the framework of Newtonian physics in any way at all. In addition to the above factors, I believe that there is a fundamental lack of charity which is betrayed by the tone of the arguments. I also believe that is a pattern of scapegoating to be observed by anyone who has studied René Girard. Those involved do not fully realize what they are doing, but anyone who looks closely can recognize what is taking place. In the absence of true charity and in the process of scapegoating misrepresentation is hardly surprising. Silences on particular issues are presumed to constitute denials of certain truths. Other statements are taken in their worst possible sense and subjected to interpretations that are revealed to be unjustified in the light of the larger body of Wright’s writing. The political reaction against Wright and the NPP in Reformed circles muddies the debate considerably. People are pressed to reach conclusions as soon as possible and not given the time to properly apprehend and mentally process Wright on his own terms. Understanding Wright properly is a matter of delayed gratification; it can take many hours of study. One will probably not understand Wright by reading a quick potted treatment in someone like Waters (or myself). One has to be disciplined and focused. One also has to be open-minded for quite some time before one is qualified to make up one’s mind. Keeping one’s mind open really is quite an achievement in the Reformed world at the moment, where one is expected to be able to jump to a pro or anti position after a quick skim of What St Paul Really Said. Anyone else have any thoughts?