NT Wright at ETS (part 1)

I’m on my way back from Atlanta and probably won’t be able to offer a full summary of N.T. Wright’s paper, along with the responses by Schreiner and Thielman, until tomorrow. Nonetheless, I thought I’d offer a couple of quick impressions to get things started.

  1. Free advice: If you ever have the opportunity to debate N.T. Wright, don’t. He’s probably smarter than  you and he’s almost certainly funnier than you.
  2. The dialog was remarkably cordial and complimentary. Even Wright and Schreiner who remain the furthest apart of the three demonstrated a high degree of respect and charity. It would be great if every theological exchange manifested the same Christian virtues.
  3. It was nice to see all three panelists affirm how much common ground they share. More clearly that I’ve seen before, all three recognized that far more unites than separates them.
  4. I’m still frustrated by a lack of clarity and consistency in how some terms are used and defined. But it seems like we’re getting closer.
  5. I would have liked to see more direct interaction with specific biblical texts. They started to get there toward the end with some interesting exchanges on 2 Cor 5, Rom 4, and Rom 10. And, I thought these exchanges were the most helpful for really getting a sense of where they differ and why it matters.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 19, 2010, in Salvation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. Marc,

    Yes, the only way to debate Tom Wright is with your Bible open and in hand! He is simply brilliant, and always has more energy in reserve. He did not get to where he is at sitting around. He is tireless! Sadly however he is simply wrong, as Schreiner brings biblically and theologically to light, at least on the NPP issue, and the Book of Romans, etc.

  2. While I disagree with Robert’s “simply wrong” overstatement I am glad to see the two sides moving closer together. Often they talk past each other, which still seems to be the case, but it is getting better. Both approaches can only become better through this interaction. Wright is good, but not infallible. Schreiner the same.

    • Speaking of moving closer together, in case I forget to comment on this later, Wight spoke very highly of the paper Vanoozer delivered at the Wheaton conference a while back. He basically said that Vanoozer’s comments were spot on. I’m still traveling so I can’t link to the paper, but you should find it easily enough if you search the blog.

      Marc via cell

      • I watched Vanhoozer deliver his paper, and for Wright to say that he basically agrees with KV is great! I think Vanhoozer’s point on adoption is what is missing in Wright’s construal. If Wright could begin to emphasize this aspect in his “exegesis” I think what he is saying would necessarily take on a more Trinitarian and ‘personalising’ flavor in re. to his thoughts on “justification.” I often get the sense that the “personal” parts of ‘Justification’ for Wright are an “add-on” and not central to his “Covenantal” thesis; which continues to be a weakness in his work, and is why his apparent willingness to listen to folks like Vanhoozer is a good thing!

      • Indeed Bobby, this is the issue! Personal Justification, past, present and future!

      • Again Bobby, just to quote John Frame: “Historical studies have their value, but they can never resolve any theological issue. Only Scripture (sola Scriptura) can judge between theological alternatives.” And I always must fall back here! So far, this is what keeps me from both Rome or Orthodoxy.

      • Fr. Robert,

        Good, I’m glad you’re kept from Rome and Orthodoxy 🙂 .

  3. Marc,

    I could not agree more fully with point #1 in your post. I came to the conference to hear Wright in person so that I could hopefully gain some clarity on his position, and I do believe that it was helpful in that regards.

    Although I respect and enjoy the work of Thielman and Schreiner, I am afraid that Wright kept them on the defensive the entire time. It seemed that they could never raise any type of point that Wright couldn’t answer. This isn’t to say that Wright was necessarily correct, but he seemed much better prepared.

    If they had been able to spend more time dealing with texts it might have come off a bit differently.

  4. Again, the only way to debate Wright is textually and with plain exegesis. I think he is often weak here. And yes, it is best to debate him in letter or e-mail. In a group he is simply crafty and witty. But this is not always the person who is right. But I like Tom Wright, I just don’t like his NPP! 🙂

  5. Bobby,

    I still highly value both Rome and E. Orthodoxy, remember I was born and raised RC. And as an Anglican I got very close to Orthodoxy. I even follow their basic position of the Filioque. And love much of their Christology and Trinitarian doctrine. But they loose me with their lack of bibical Imputation, etc.

    Perhaps this is somewhat why I am far from Wright’s views, he seems far from both Protestant and Catholic and real High Church views.

    • Robert,

      That is certainly one of the charges against Wright; i.e. his “un-catholicity” in re. to his exegesis (or concern for the “history” of interpretation).

      I am not saying I don’t see some beautiful things in Rome or Orthodoxy, per se; just that their Biblicism is lacking, and so their theologizing equally “lacks.” Of course, isn’t this the charge that Wright is making, it’s just that he focuses his sights even sharper on Protestantism in general?

      • Bobby,

        Yes, how he got to the bishopric really amazes me? This is not personal but theological. But sadly, we know where Anglicanism has gone. And Tom is rather conservative compared to many others. Wright seems much more like a social Protestant to me, with his open minded covenantal views, and challenge on the Reformers and the Reformation. I guess I am simply just too Reformed myself. But I am really convinced that the best Reformation theology is in fact catholic. See Philip Schaff, J.W. Nevin and Mercersburg theology, etc.

      • And Btw, if Marc would allow me to say this.. I would consider in many ways that the mind and theology of Austin Farrer, to be that of the greatest Anglican in the 20th century. To struggle with theodicy, as did Farrer, is much needed in theology today. My personal thoughts at least. Yes, we must have our theological thinkers!

  6. Fr. Robert: I’m not sure that anyone can resolve theological issues without historical studies. Could you explain how it would be possible to understand the Greek language without it?

    Wright is arguing that much of the former historical research was wrong, the research that reformed theology presuposes as infallible fact. Wright is not taking the assumptions of the past for granted.

    The reformed are in fact bringing historical studies to the text to the same extent that Wright is, the only difference is that he is not assuming that the reformed have understood the historical context correctly.

    • Brian, I’d agree. Even if you don’t like Wright’s exegesis, I think we have to recognize that his position is exegetically driven. That’s actually why I would have liked to see more direct exegetical engagement in the plenary sessions.

    • Brian,

      I think Frame’s point (and mine) is where we make the final authority, our arbitration is always the Holy Scripture. Indeed we use historical helps and methods, but the Scripture alone is the word & “revelation” of God.

  7. I would agree Fr. Robert, that scripture is the is the final authority, as I am sure Tom Wright would as well. In that light, I’m not sure where the critique on historical research comes into play. We all must utilize it, and we all believe that scripture is the final arbitrator. It ultimately comes down to exegesis, and the fact that Tom Wright disagrees with the classical reformed tradition does not prove in any way that his exegesis is faulty, or that his making use of external biblical evidence is somehow opposed to sola scriptura, at least not in any way that is worse than the reformed. In fact I think it is probably more likely that Wright’s historical research would make him a far superior exegete to those who are presuming upon illegitimate “history”, as a foundation for their exegesis (though I realize that the historicity of Wright’s conclusions are debated).

    • Brian, good comments. Whatever one thinks of Wright’s exegesis, he is definitely exegetical. The main criticism of his exegesis is that he gives extra-biblical material too much voice in the process. But, that doesn’t change the fact that he is still exegetically driven.

  8. I don’t see why there should be a problem with his use of ST literature. If we don’t seek to understand the historical context we will never be able to reflect on whether our reading is held captive by our own immediate context. Historical studies prevent exegesis from becoming shallow, modern, ahistorical expositions.

    • I definitely agree that this is how it should work. The criticism often weighed against Wright is that he privileges ST literature over the data internal to the biblical texts themselves. It’s actually very similar to the arguments you hear about the extent to which we use ANE data to interpret OT texts.

  9. Let me critique Schreiner…

    “Justification means we are right with God, but I don’t see how it can also mean that we are covenant members. I would argue that those who are justified are covenant members, but justification shouldn’t be defined as covenant membership.” Why? It seems Paul can talk of that in Romans 4, and Gal 3, justified, and covenant membership, without any trouble… Abraham is after all the father of the covenant in Judaism, and if Paul a Rhodes Scholar of that tradition is using him, he must be thinking in terms of covenant…?

    Why can’t justification the law court metaphor and the Covenant metaphor, go hand in hand. I really think NT making a big deal out of covenant, and the big story of the Old Testament passages, is correct. But I still don’t like NT being too friendly with Dunn that these are only covenant membership badges at stake… And thus it is only ecclesiology… I think the reformers were dead right, that this was the article on which the church rose or fell, because this is about salvation, covenanting, conversion, justification, how do I know I’m in a right relationship with God? Show up to the correct ecclesiology, there is more to Romans, Galatians, and Philippians going on than that… I don’t think you need the intertestamental writings to figure that out!

    Let me critique NT….

    He seems to not preach, substitionary atonement, I’m not saying he does not believe it, but he likes to talk about, the good news, the death and resurrection of the messiah, The Kingdom, but a cross that replaces, a cross that is a great exchange, the great exchange is seemingly unclear, and ambiguous… I do not hear that or read that as an emphasis, a loud clear call in his theology! Maybe that is why he struggles so much with imputation, so debates should challenge him on why this under emphasis of this? The great debater will have a rejoinder, but let’s tie him down on this…! The great exchange seems to have been replaced by a great narrative, but does the narrative have a climatic moment. For Luther and Calvin it does the substitionary atonement of the cross and its blood… All religion of man dies there…. Are these the wiggles of that not willing to die there?

  10. Thanks for the good comment, John. I actually think Schreiner would agree with your contention that justification and covenant are closely related, he just wouldn’t agree that the latter is the definition of the former. Instead, he argues that justification is the ground for participation in covenant. And, that’s how he explains why justification language and covenantal concepts are often used in the same context.

    I’m not familiar enough with Wright’s overall writings to comment on your concern about his view of the atonement. I would completely agree that he does not deal with these themes extensively in his writings on justification. But, of course, that’s because he argues that they play completely different roles in the ordo salutis. But, I really don’t know whether he comments much on the atonement in his other writings.

    • Amen Marc,

      This is the real issue, that Justification & Covenant… are bound close together! I just don’t understand “biblically” why or what Wright is really seeking? Seems like a false trail to me! Note, with the loss of Imputation.

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