Monday, February 9, 2015

N.T. Wright dismissed as "little more than a book-a-year apologist"

You cannot make this stuff up. Dr Paul Holloway, New Testament (NT) Prof at Sewanee has written a letter to his own university apoplectic that it is awarding an honorary degree to Prof N.T. Wright also known as Bishop Tom Wright. (H/T Creedal Christian). 

I will let you read the letter yourself for the main objection he has to Wright's award (hint: it's socio-political-cultural). Though he protests that it is not his main objection ("But that is not my complaint here") it is an objection which, in my view, has more substance than what he then claims is his main objection. The substance, that is, of being an award by an institution committed to different values to Wright's so it never should have been made.

What is intriguing and/or amusing, is one professional NT scholar-whom-I-have-never-heard-of's assessment of N.T.Wright, a giant of 20th century and early 21st century NT scholarship.

"Wright’s receiving an honorary degree during my tenure is a professional embarrassment"

"My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist."

"Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend."

"I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work."

"He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science."

Then a sideswipe at St Andrew's University and Holloway's fellow Americans:

"Wright has since retired as bishop and found a job at an under-funded Scottish university anxious to attract young full-fee-paying American Evangelical men questing for old-world cultural capital."

The academically most objectionable statement here, and also the silliest, is "I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work." Let me count the ways to object to this statement:

1. There are in fact plenty of scholars who 'trust' Wright in the sense that they follow him as one of the leading exponents of the New Perspective on Paul. Holloway surely is not saying that he will deem them to be scholars but not 'critical' scholars?

2. The very point of 'critical scholarship' in the sense of examining every proposition for weakness and frailty if not fallibility is that no critical scholars trusts any scholar because a critical scholar critiques every view he or she comes across. What sounds like a damning criticism of one scholar applies (or should apply) to every scholar. Perhaps Sewanee should award no honorary degrees to anyone, if these are the grounds for assessing scholarly merit?

3. The phrase 'trusts his work' implies some body of sound research which one may trust without further examination. But that kind of research is not Wright's mode of scholarship. That kind of research is (say) about here are some ancient papyri and here is my translation of them, or here are the results of my archaeological dig in the middle of the desert and from the kinds of pottery shards and coins present I propose the following conclusions. What Wright (mostly) does is take an overview of the scholarship of the NT, as well as digging deeply as an exegete into the detail of the text, and make proposals about some feature or another. Neither a papyrist nor a shardist is he. Thus his books argue for this about the resurrection and that about justification. He does not ask anyone to trust his work but to examine (critically!) his arguments. Actually, plenty of critics do examine his arguments. Some find them wanting, some find them mostly persuasive, few (in my experience) completely agree with him which is, er, what happens in, er, critical scholarship. The previous sentence applies to other giants of biblical scholarship such as Bultmann, Brueggeman, Childs and Dunn.

4. It is very surprising that Holloway misses the point of Wright's role in NT scholarship which is to generate fresh discussion of familiar texts. Wright's singular achievement is to make us think again - critically! - about what we read in the NT. Looking at Holloway's professional career I don't think that is going to be said about him! His output is of a different kind, and that is fine. But fifty year's from now students will still be examining Wright's writings for their doctoral theses and Holloway's works - like most NT scholars that ever lived - will be in a dusty corner of the library.

5. One should be a careful kettle when calling the pot black. Holloway is the author of "Coping with Prejudice: 1 Peter in Social Psychological Perspective (Tübingen, 2009)." Now without reading the book, the title scarcely strikes me as a book that critical scholars are going to 'trust' as some kind of last word on social psychological perspective on 1 Peter. Social psychological work on NT letters is a new-ish field: surely critical scholars will read this book with the critical part of their mental faculties switched on rather than the trust part.

In the meantime, I expect the Sewanee authorities are rather pleased with this letter as it demonstrates a number of reasons why budding NT scholars will want to choose Sewanee over faux underfunded universities such as St Andrew's.


Tregonsee said...

Interesting that Sewanee, my undergraduate school, just trumpeted creating a new assistant college dean for Diversity or some such. Guess the School of Theology is not down with that.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bryden and Ron
I briefly published both your comments and then have thought the better of it. I don't want any grief from lawyers!

I get the point that there is something Stalinesque about suppression of academic discourse going on in the letter; and I get it that NT Wright is, shall we say, diplomatically, publicly on the side of Anglican conservatism re sexuality. But the precise nature of your respective critiques is, I suggest, just a bit strong in vehemence for my taste.

Father Ron Smith said...

So, Peter, you would rather no-one on your blog questions your own ideas about N.T.Wright and the 'rightness' of his critic? I must record that I do not agree with your summation of the argument.

There. I don;'t think that will get you into trouble. legally.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bryden (and Ron)
If I publish in full the comment you have just submitted, Bryden, then I will be publishing Ron's comment (cited by you) which I decided not to publish. (On the grounds, incidentally, that it states with conviction and certainty that X belongs to a not very nice group of people when the situation is much more nuanced than that, as the first part of your comment points out.

So, here goes, with a little bit of redacting:

Bryden writes:

"Isn’t language interesting? In the spirit of critical scholarship ...

“NT Wright, the NT scholar, is, like Tony Thiselton, one of the greatest living masters of the craft of hermeneutics, of the considered view that in sum the NT in particular and the biblical evidence in general does not favour any form of homosexual behaviour, which in fact it condemns.

As for the notion (recently proposed and difficult to establish exactly) of ‘sexual orientation’: the biblical evidence is probably moot, since the Christian Scriptures do not consider the question specifically. They do however enable solid theologies of creation and creation’s impairment (aka the Fall), enabling furthermore a due anthropology. Such an anthropology permits discussion and some conclusions surrounding such notions as ‘orientation’.

In sum: as with all forms of broken human being, the Scriptural stance towards “gays” is one of firstly unconditional loving acceptance, such is Yahweh’s/the Father’s compassion in Christ Jesus; and thereafter, such is the grace and power and truth of the Holy Spirit that the Living God seeks the full transformation of human being, initially here in this life and eschatologically in all its fulness.” (BB)


“[strong assertion made about NT Wright's views but with words which could be deemed libellous].” (FRS)

Because life in general and human being in particular is rather complex, sloganeering is not that helpful I sense, Ron.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron

Your assertion about NT Wright's views went WELL BEYOND what Dr Holloway said.

I am happy to publish what I do not agree with but I will only publish comments that I deem will not get this blog into trouble.

Just because people have views antithetical to your own does not mean I or they are "anti-gay." Try to avoid casting round that term. Currently such a term covers - by your lights - about 90% of Christians and 100% of what churches have taught about the sanctity of marriage for 2000 years.

Why then do you remain part of such a - by your lights - horrible lot of people?

Tom Downs said...

I feel the same way about Bishop Wright as I do about Bishop Spong; they are both popularizers who raise strong feelings in their readers on opposite ends of the religious/political spectrum. If you're old enough you'll remember William Barclay, another sort of popularizer, whose commentaries became the easy source for sermons for generations of lazy clergy. He offended no one and pleased everyone... except seminary professors.

Father Ron Smith said...

Perhaps I should say that N.T.Wright is more of a friend to ACNA than to TEC, in his stand on Gay issues. That might be more acceptable to you as moderator, Peter. At least, that can be proven by his warmer fellowship with ACNA and with former Bishop Nazir-Ali - if cooperation with ACNA associates is any indication.

Peter Carrell said...

That would be fairer comment, Ron. Though note that Sewanee is a university with strong links to the Episcopal church and it sees fit - notwithstanding Dr Holloway's protest - to honour NTW.

Anonymous said...

Tom Wright has published an enormous volume of biblical scholarship, only a very tiny amount of it having anything to do with the issue of homosexuality.

I well remember the summer in the late 1990s when I read both 'The New Testament and the People of God' and 'Jesus and the Victory of God'. I felt like I was being ushered into a whole new world of understanding of the times in which the NT was written, and first century Judaisms, and the faith/works controversy, and many other subjects.

I don't agree with everything Tom Wright says, but I'm very sad when people dismiss that huge body of scholarship simply on the grounds that he takes a different view than they do on homosexuality. We evangelicals are sometimes accused of making it the litmus test of biblical orthodoxy. It seems that we aren't the only ones to do that.

Tim Chesterton

Peter Carrell said...

Yes, Tim, there was a hidden codicil to the Nicene Creed proposing a litmus test for orthodoxy which had nothing to do with the Trinity! But all is being revealed on ADU :)

MichaelA said...

Hi Peter, it is pretty amusing watching an academic spat. But then, academia sometimes seems to be all about attracting attention, even notoriety, which may help in attracting funding. From that perspective, Dr Holloway might be very pleased that you are taking the time to criticise him!

I found the swipe at St Andrews ironic: "an under-funded Scottish university anxious to attract young full-fee-paying American Evangelical men questing for old-world cultural capital".

Really? This from a lecturer at Sewanee which in 2011 admitted to a major problem losing students to Georgia State, UNC and UT Knoxville!

And St Andrews attracting American men does have a rather august history: Benjamin Franklin for one; also Andrew Carnegie and James Wilson (first judge on USSC)!

St Andrews is apparently the third oldest university in the English-speaking world (1410) after Oxford and Cambridge. It does attract a lot of Americans (not just evangelicals and not just men, despite Dr Holloway's swipe). Meeting the heir to the British throne there however is probably a one-off!

Kurt said...

I think Tom Downs hits the nail on the head on this one.

Kurt Hill
In cold and snowy
Brooklyn, NY

Bryden Black said...

Sorry Kurt; I have to disagree on this one. Having read and listened to both Wright and Spong, they are of really rather different calibres. Tho Tom’s view of Barclay is spot on.

NTW has made and continues to make substantial contributions to NT scholarship - tho of course, being the guild it is, ever since the likes of Johann Gabler and Hermann Reimarus, the hermeneutical game has been keenly fought! And that is one reason I like Wright for acknowledging in his Question of God project right from the start how he is trying to proceed methodologically. Quite a few others simply smuggle their ‘prejudices’ in - for often they are also simply blind to them! And that makes this award, and the spat it has seemingly created, all the more intriguing, given who Sewanee are. For anyone who has taken the kind of genealogical appraisal of moral discourse at all seriously (like MacIntyre: see that other thread where I’ve posted), one may see what is really at stake with the likes of Holloway. Talk of “ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend”: what delicious irony!

Scot McKnight said...

Perhaps the greatest compliment to a scholar is attention by fellow scholars. No one attracts a larger audience at SBL than N.T. Wright. No one.

Father Ron Smith said...

"Quite a few others simply smuggle their ‘prejudices’ in - for often they are also simply blind to them!" - B.B. -

And so say all of us. This would seem to be a normal scholarly device - especially for those with moral scruples like NTW.