Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dialogue with a composite N. T. Wrightophile

I just posted what could be construed (correctly!) as a critical piece on N. T. Wright. Now, I've done this before, and I know how it goes. I still get a trickle of outraged vitriol over this nearly four-year-old post. I've had it at Pyro, I had a silly go-around with a couple of dainty souls over at Doug Wilson's blog who wanted to engage me in a bracing round of "He Who Is Offended First Wins."

So I know how it goes.

Therefore, unless they miss it altogether, or read this post first, or have already come athwart my responses in the past, here's how at least some cries of outrage will run — along with my responses.

You haven't read all of Wright's writings!


Then you can't criticize him!

Well. Did you read all of my online writings before criticizing me?

Er, no... but you're nobody!

True enough. But in that case, why are you bothering to argue with me? Why do you care how I criticize Wright?

And besides, let's be fair:
  • If I can't criticize anything Wright says without knowing everything Wright says...
  • ...then Wright should be required to say everything any time he says anything — or he should say nothing at all.
Unless it's your argument that Wright is really such a wretched failure of a communicator that nothing he says can be understood?

No no, of course not. But you should give him credit. At least he believes in some kind of Hell. That's very conservative for his milieu.

Well now, as a Christian, is that my standard of judgment? It seems to me that this would be playing the game Wright himself is playing: considering men's judgment as paramount. My goal isn't to be more conservative than... well, anyone; nor more liberal. My goal is to please God. To do that, I must fear God (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10, etc.). If I do that, I will not fear man (Proverbs 29:25), and will not be swayed by trying to be well-thought-of by the world (James 4:4).

But he's an international scholar, and you're nothing!

Not quite true. I am a child of God, part of a kingdom of priests, and no man's slave. I have no Pope, just a great high priest before whom both Wright and I are naked and vulnerable, and by whose word we are both judged (Hebrews 4:11-13). I have to test everything by that standard (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Even N. T. Wright.

Besides, since when did an academic degree constitute a "Get-Out-of-Criticism-for-Life" card? Doesn't that actually raise the standard of judgment for Wright (James 3;1)?

But that's the problem. Your lack of advanced education enslaves you to a Western mindset that blinds you to your own biases, and leaves you unable to appreciate the subtle nuances of Wright's position.

Yeah, about that. See, I don't think you need a PhD in Second Temple Judaism to get the imagery of fire and judgment and all. I think people sometimes use that to come up with dodges and covers that make them feel more respectable in the eyes of people who hate God. I think they sometimes use it to change the message, and be better-liked.

When I was a very young Christian, a coworker asked if I really believed in a literal Hell. I said I really did. He responded that Eskimoes would not see a Hell of fire as a bad thing.

I thought, even at the time, that if I took my hand, and an Eskimo's hand, and stuck them both in a blazing fire, we'd have pretty much the same experience, and come away with pretty much the same impression.

I don't think it's rocket science.

In this way, Wright strikes me as Emerg***'s do. They throw around words like "Western" and "Platonic" as code-words for "I know that what the Bible teaches is offensive, and I think I've found a way to say I'm a Christian, but look smarter and more sophisticated than other Christians, and be thought well of by the world."

Which is really not a healthy Christian goal — and isn't my goal (Galatians 1:10).

But Wright is reaching people you could never reach!

Absolutely right.

But I think the question, "Reaching them with what?", is inescapable, unavoidable, and central.

We need to reach people with the Gospel. And I remain unconvinced that that is what Wright clearly, accurately, and urgently is concerned to do.


Associate-to-the-Pastor said...

Other than that, Dan has no strong opinions on the subject.

Anonymous said...

The best post I've seen on the subject of answering Wright's supporters. Good connection with Emerg***'s.

May I use that?

DJP said...


The thought that folks will make use of what I offer here, and multiply its effectiveness to God's glory, is a bright and happy thing to me.

The Squirrel said...

"Er, no... but you're nobody!"

Aw, Dan! You're not a nobody... you're a blogger!! (and a darned good one.)

Never be ashamed of who you are! B'sides, you gots friends!



Al said...

As a fan of Wright in several ways I appreciate this...

His views on Hell (and a couple of others), like CS Lewis', are a troubling boil on an otherwise lovely neck. When I read him I just want to reach out and lance it.

al sends

Herding Grasshoppers said...

Wow. Now THAT'S some imagery for you...

Dan - love this rebuttal. And it could be used in so many instances.

Good work,


Rachael Starke said...

New Testament books cited: Philips - 2, Wright - 0

New Testament verses cited: Philips - 7, Wright - 0

So, help me understand how Wright is this huge New Testament scholar?
Shouldn't a recognized scholar in a subject actually reference something of his source material when waxing eloquent on said subject?

Daniel said...

One of the youths (he is now grown up) I used to minister to was an avid reader, and a brilliant young fellow. He had one trait however that I tried hard to free him from: He informed his understanding of scripture through a study of theology, rather than informed his understanding of theology through a study of scripture.

Without a word of exaggeration, he had read over two hundred doctrinal/theological tomes before the age of twenty, but had only read through the bible once. He was always very certain of his doctrine, but his doctrine changed monthly, and always in accord with the latest "best" arguments.

Because his understanding of scripture was primarily being informed by his study of theology, everything he believed, was believed because so and so made a good argument for it. It was bizarre talking about theology with him, because his stake in the matter was all in his head, nothing seemed to take root in his heart - it was as if he were afraid to commit to believing anything - just in case someone made a good argument against it. (Kevin DeYoung probably could have snuck a chapter into "Just Do Something" along this lines I bet)

Anyway, he was often of a similar opinion to that described in your post: until you are as well read as, or as famous as someone that other people notice, it is arrogant to voice an opinion when that opinion contradicts someone of greater reputation.

Now just to make sure I am not accused of falling off the horse on the other side...

I believe that God gave and gives teachers to the church, and that it is foolish and dangerous (at best) to try and develop our theology in a vacuum. We need to be have our understanding challenged by others who are likewise engaged in studying God's word. Since God gave and gives teachers to the church anyone who ignores what God has given does so to his own detriment.

So I am not suggesting that it is bad to read theology. No, no; hardly! It is good to read theology (and learning the original languages is quite good too!). It's a question of balance, and it seems that where the balance is tipping we find this kind of thinking.

Phil Johnson said...

Bingo. I've actually had this conversation in real life.

(Except that my comebacks are about 40% less witty and a lot slower paced than yours.)

I loved this. Work it into your book somehow.

Becky Schell said...

"I thought, even at the time, that if I took my hand, and an Eskimo's hand, and stuck them both in a blazing fire, we'd have pretty much the same experience, and come away with pretty much the same impression."

Love that.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I love how you blunt and mute wooden objections by anticipating them in advance.

Of course, it's based on past experience which you enjoyed greatly, yes?

Jon said...

Dan, if you think you're a nobody then you haven't read this!

haha... I kill me. :-P

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

DJP: "Besides, since when did an academic degree constitute a "Get-Out-of-Criticism-for-Life" card?"

#1. When the academic scholar and his aping disciples said so. So STHU and get with the program.

#2. This "Get-Out-of-Criticism-for-Life" card is only issued to liberal theologian scholars and to those scholars who will accommodate and enable the views and writings of the liberal theologian scholars. This card is denied to conservative theologian scholars. So STHU and get with the program.


Eric Gregory said...

It would still be better if Wright's theses and expressly orthodox theology wasn't thrown out of the window due to

N.T. Wright does NOT deny justification (in fact, he just wrote a book about and called "Justification"), he simply disagrees that the entire point of the gospel is about recognizing sin, repenting, and being born into new life. Rather, the entire point of the gospel is that the Kingdom of God has come to earth, and we are called to become a part of and help others become a part of this Kingdom. The ENTRY point is baptism ("justification" is a historical fact, and not a present goings-on), but there is SO much more WORK to be done. Christ came to save sinners - not towards some ethereal far-off place that we usually conceive of as "heaven", but for the present, and the future comingling of the Kingdom of Heaven and this earth.

To sound like a tired N.T. Wright supporter, you really SHOULD read Wright before criticizing, and I don't mean reading Wright vicariously through reading Piper, but Wright himself (without your pre-conceived prejudices). His academic prestige shouldn't cause you to proclaim "liberal", and it's more evident that the unwillingness to hear another position on a subject that you rely on Martin Luther or John Calvin (rather than Christ, or even Paul) extrapolate for you.

N.T. Wright is a New Testament theologian with an incredible understanding of First Century Judaism, without which one cannot fully understand the context of much of the New Testament (which does not disavow the Spirit's interpretive help).

Read more N.T. Wright (and you might start with his theological treatise: "The New Testament and the People of God").

DJP said...

Well now Eric, where's your standing to call on me to read Wright's hundreds of thousands of words, when your comment is responsive to nothing in either of my relatively-must-shorter posts — and in fact was anticipated by this very post?

Should you read me before faulting me for my alleged lacunae?

Anonymous said...

It seems that some N.T. Wright supporters sound like Jehovah's Witnesses in that they don't want you reading material critical of their organization. They want you to read their own material.

Sure, it's a good idea to be aware of what the snakes and wolves are up to but honestly, how much sewage must one drink before they realize it's nothing but crap?

Matt Gumm said...

All I can say is, you rock, dude.

My fave is the "PhD in 2nd Temple Judaism" comment. So sad, but so true.