Monday, January 12, 2015

Notes on N. T. Wright, 1: On the Theological Utility of Historical Inquiry

This spring and summer I'm reading through N. T. Wright's major works. As thoughts, reactions, and micro-critiques occur to me, I'll share them here (or, if I can't find the time, consider this the first and last installment of the series). Wright is undeniably a major and influential figure, but his work rankles as often as it illuminates. There are some crucial problems worth exploring, and hopefully I can do that here in a preliminary way.

Wright writes, "without historical enquiry there is no check on Christianity's propensity to remake Jesus, never mind the Christian god, in its own image" (NTPG, p. 10). This is a patently false claim, but it is important to see why. The historical inquiry Wright has in mind was created relatively recently; with antecedents in the Renaissance and Reformation, it gained momentum in the 17th and 18th centuries and came to maturity in the 19th. So—from a Christian, theological, point of view—was Christianity truly lacking any check on its tendency to idolatry, to projecting onto Christ and God whatever it wanted them to be, prior to the creation of this intellectual discipline?

Partly this is a rhetorical overreach: Wright could simply rephrase to say, "historical inquiry is a valuable check on . . . ." But it's a rhetorical habit that is recurrent throughout his work, which reflects a habit of mind: it isn't merely ornamental. I think Wright really means what he says here. If so, what are the implications, for biblical exegesis, ecclesiology, doctrine of Scripture, doctrine of providence, and historical inquiry itself? What, moreover, might it suggest about Wright's project as a whole?

Here's one global thesis: That it is an irremediably Protestant one.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for starting the discussion at this point Brad. I have heard famous NT historical scholars say that they are unsure of the role that something like "original meaning" (composed of whatever the original writer was trying to say by X) is supposed to play... and then they skewer subsequent readings of the passage at odds with the original meaning that they believe they have discerned. At least Wright says what he thinks.

    There's no doubt that Wright's posture is a Protestant one. However, it's interesting that a great many catholics count themselves as early adopters of Wright's thinking.

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  2. Thanks, looking forward to following.

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