The (N. T.) Wright-way or the Highway

Editor’s Note: This is a response by Paul Holloway to the post, “Paul Holloway’s Rant Against N. T. Wright’s Honorary Doctorate” at the Euangelion blog at Patheos.

Newsweek has hailed N. T. Wright as one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars. A toned down version of that view was recently reaffirmed at Sewanee, the University of the South, which earlier this semester recognized Wright with an honorary doctorate in Theology. I am the professor of New Testament in the School of Theology at Sewanee, and I recently mustered up the courage to disagree with this assessment of Wright in a letter to the student newspaper, the Sewanee Purple.

It was fascinating to watch my letter go viral in the blogosphere of Wright’s supporters. The relentless name-calling has been painful—painful for what it says about a certain segment of the church and by extension a certain segment of the academy. But there have also been some lighter moments, as when one respondent objected to my criticism of Wright as a book-a-year apologist by saying, “But look how many books he has written!”  My favorite one so far has been: “Wright is not an apologist, but a scholar—and a faithful one.”

What I dared to say in my letter is that properly speaking Wright is not a “scholar” who comes to the evidence with honest questions to be puzzled out and whose conclusions are always subject to revision, but an “apologist” who comes with ideologically generated answers that he then seeks to defend. I also said that Sewanee’s awarding Wright an honorary degree in my field on my watch was a professional embarrassment and that I felt like a biology professor who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science. The vitriol protesting even my questioning Wright’s preeminence was instant and more than a little revealing. For the record, I arrived at my estimation of Wright’s work over a decade ago when I taught one of his big books.  But Wright can speak for himself. Here he is in an unguarded moment back in 2007:

Well, in terms of method, sola Scriptura is what I’ve always tried to do, basically. You could put it negatively… If you find yourself thinking down a track where you think, Oh, well, if I go there, that’ll mean ditching this bit of the Bible or that bit, then all sorts of warning lights flash and say, “You probably shouldn’t be going there!”

How often do these warning lights flash in Wright’s head?  How often do his academic sensibilities yield to his Biblicism?  There is no way to know, since there are no footnotes saying, “My warning lights just went off again.”

Much of the ensuing mockery and ridicule directed at me revolved around the perception that underlying Wright’s extensive trade-press publications and invited essays is a massive body of peer-reviewed work.  Here is Christopher Seitz professor of Old Testament at Wycliffe House (Toronto) responding to my letter on Episcopal Café: “NT Wright’s peer-reviewed publication list is readily available.  Every major NT journal of renown is included.”  I am not sure where this perception comes from.  Wright’s published c. v. on the St. Andrews’ web cite is actually silent on the matter, while an ATLA Religion Index search turns up only two peer-reviewed articles in first-tier New Testament journals: New Testament Studies (1990), and the Journal of Biblical Literature (1996), and I have never seen either of these quoted in the secondary literature.  If one includes second-tier NT journals and journals of theology the number swells to half a dozen or so, depending on how one assesses things.  Even I was surprised by this.

My initial concern was with the academic standards of my university.  This is part of my job.  But the last few weeks have brought to light a much more interesting phenomenon: a kind of “hero cult” that has grown up around Wright.  It is well known that marginalized and other socially anxious groups construct and rally behind cult figures of their own construction.  These figures offer the social and cultural capital these groups feel they need.  When the legitimacy of these figures is questioned, the legitimacy of the groups itself is undermined.  The result is that these groups defend their tottering “heroes” tooth and nail.

This is all quite fascinating, but it is also normal, and I don’t really object to the Wright phenomenon in principle.  Comfort is hard to find and who am I to begrudge those who find it.  What I do object to, however, is the way self-interest and wishful thinking have produced a lack of candor in the church and in at least a small segment of the academy.  As institutions and faith groups compete in the marketplace of cultural respectability, truth telling and substance are easy to lose sight of.  This must be carefully resisted and not just papered over with angry words

Paul A. Holloway is Professor of New Testament at the School of Theology at The University of the South, Sewanee, TN.

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26 responses to “The (N. T.) Wright-way or the Highway”

  1. Wright is less inerrantist than the brief quotation from him that you cited above. In fact his loose views on biblical authority, as well as his admission that Adam and Eve were not the first or only humans, and the implication his work makes that many Reformed Christian leaders misunderstood Paul’s message for centuries, is creating backlash among the same biblical conservatives who love his apologetic treatment of the resurrection tales.

  2. Dan, It was not a dig but a fact: all Scottish universities are underfunded. St Andrews is indeed an excellent university, but the bills have to be paid. And St Andrews leverages its standing to do so. The situation is tragic. St Andrews has one of the highest percentages of full-fee-paying students in the UK. Nearing 40%, I think. Smart business plan, of which Wright it a part.

  3. Wright is an interesting figure and I agree with the assessment below: EdwardTBabinski: “Wright is less inerrantist . . . ” There are staunch inerrantists who want to pic a fight with Wright. However, he does have a significant following.
    I stopped Reading Wright exactly for the reason enumerated above, namely, he is an “an apologist who comes with ideologically generated answers that he then seeks to defend.” However, I don’t think that disqualifies him as a scholar. Let’s face it, we all come to the text with a certain amount of biases. However, Wright is more tied to his bias than most scholars who genuinely want to allow the data to take them where it leads. Wright has an agenda and while not an inerrantist, he is pretty darn close. In fact, his interpretation of some biblical texts in order to avoid the inevitable conclusion that the biblical writers were simply speaking from a less developed spiritual consciousness and were wrong (for example, his application of apocalyptic texts to history and to the resurrection), finally wore thin, I just couldn’t read Write anymore, so I haven’t looked at any of his more recent work. His agenda clearly shapes his interpretation of Scripture. I would call him an evangelical apologist. Not being a scholar myself I have no basis for entering that discussion.

  4. Dr. Holloway:
    Wright does have his fan club, but many who are not in this club (Prof Seitz, James Dunn, Marcus Borg, etc) would surely demur from your judgment that he is “not an NT scholar.”
    I believe you said something to the effect of “no critical scholar I know respects his work.” Either you do not know very many critical scholars (this is possible), or you would have to acknowledge that this is factually incorrect. Unless James Dunn is not a “critical” scholar, at which point the designation has really lost meaning.
    The irony is that you are Paul scholar. Wright’s scholarship on Paul was heralded as part of the so-called New Perspective. It is at least within the sub-discipline of Pauline studies that Wright ought to be taken seriously, even if you view his work on the historical Jesus and the gospels as apologetically motivated.
    I wonder what you think of Ehrman? He too is a book-a -year apologist. (He is also a scholar. It is not impossible to be both.)

  5. I’m not that familiar with N.T. Wright, however, it seems your opinion of Wright is somewhat swayed by your disagreement with his theological conclusions. Consequently, you are using the time tested tactic of belittling the value of his conclusions by questioning his theological authority or educational pedigree. I am not familiar with your writings, but I am familiar with this less than helpful form of theological debate. I think a simple apology for overstating your argument would have sufficed.

  6. It certainly came across as a dig, even if it is a fact (not only about St. Andrews but most colleges and universities at this point). I can’t think of an institution that is *not* courting full-fee-paying students.

    It makes no difference if you disagree with Wright’s opinions on the New Testament, but your letter came across as denigrating scholarship that others in your field obviously respect (or else Wright wouldn’t be in the Society for New Testament Study, a professional organization to which you also belong), and which you seem–according to your own words–to dismiss on at least partially ideological grounds. Beyond that, you seem to lack respect for the apologetic task, which is part and parcel of the work of the ministry for which you are supposed to be engaged in preparing your students. I have other issues with what you wrote, but you should receive my letter in a few days, so I won’t bother posting them here.

  7. Paul, if it wasn’t a dig, then you simply didn’t express yourself very well. Anyone in the business knows how strong St Mary’s faculty is, even those whose theology is quite different from most of that crew.

  8. There has been two millennia of orthodox scholarship, so it’s hard to stand out among folks of a traditional bent. You’re more likely to cite one of the church fathers than a modern theologian like Wright if they’re covering the same ground.

    It’s also harder to find something new and novel that would would meet the academic desire to add to the body of knowledge from an orthodox perspective. When I was working on my finance doctorate, it was easy to find new topics that hadn’t been given an empirical treatment, since there was maybe a half-century of scholarly work and many novel developments (transnational stock options was mine) that had yet to be explored.

    Modern critical scholarship on Christianity is more like finance than orthodox theology, having two centuries of depth at best. Thus, a compelling new argument is likely to stand out more and get cited more than a restatement of an old argument, even if it is an interesting restatement.

    Wright has a very solid level of respect in more evangelical settings, generating conversation and debate, since he rubs some folks the wrong way when Wright runs counter to their flavor of orthodoxy. That seems not to extend to academics in the field, party due to the replowing old turf issue and partly due to being on the other side of a theological divide.

  9. It is strange indeed that a scholar whose method involves accepting the prophets and apostles (their writings of the Old and New Testaments, as having unique authority in the church is dismissed by Prof. Holloway. Prof . Wright takes Scripture seriously while Prof. Holloway takes himself seriously. I disagree with Wright’s reading of Paul, but I appreciate that he is reading Paul, while Prof. Holloway is reading himself. Prof. Wright believes there is a true and authoritative Word from God to be heard in and though the Scriptures. Prof. Holloway thinks that is nonsense. Therein is the difference – not of the quality of the scholarship, where Wright is clearly the better scholar, but of method, Wright accepting Scripture as normative, Holloway accepting his own judgment as normative. It’s the age old question. Does the scholar listen to Scripture? Or, must Scripture listen to the scholar? Does the scholar labor to understand Scripture in order to say what it says? Or, does the scholar judge the Scripture in order to substitute his judgment for Scripture’s? Begin with Scripture as foundational? Or, begin a man as foundational? It’s not scholarship that marks Wright as inferior for Prof Holloway but first assumption.

  10. ” I also said that Sewanee’s awarding Wright an honorary degree in my field on my watch was a professional embarrassment and that I felt like a biology professor who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.”

    A Biblical creationist understands more about creation than a secular scientist who denies the existence of God. Science proves the existence of God, it doesn’t deny it. See Romans 1:18-20.

    A good book to read on the legitimacy of the Scriptures is “The Signature of God” by Grant R. Jeffrey.

  11. Liberals, political, theological, cultural, whatever, always believe they are purely objective, and that those poor benighted conservatives are not. Liberals cannot escape their worldview or their assumptions, and I would argue are much better and more consistent at begging the question than conservatives. Of course they deny this because, well, they’re liberals, and they know better. Not in my book.

  12. I know just enough about NT Wright and quite enough about academic politics, and general human behavior to say to Prof. Holloway that the tone of your comment about Biblical creationism in and of itself invited the vitriol you then found so interesting. Please sir, you started it! It’s a hostile comment. (And I don ‘t know enough to have a dog in the fight one way or the other about Prof. Wright.)

  13. In all honest Christian love, Professor Holloway, I will have to say that your comments were hurtful. I have spent the last 10 years in an incredibly conservative denomination, and four years ago I had the courage to step out of that denomination because of the writings of N. T. Wright. I am now an Episcopalian, and one who is a soon to be postulant. While I don’t disagree with you that Wright is an apologist (as I hope any Bishop within the church would be), I take strong offense at your careless comments about Wright’s followers. I am neither anxious nor am I an Evangelical. Not all Christianity looks like you. Not all Christian scholarship looks like yours (and that doesn’t make it any less scholarly, but just different). While I am discouraged by those people who have slung hate your way for the last few weeks, please understand that you made people hurt too, and I was one of them. In arguing against Wright’s scholarship, you shamed him, you shamed St. Andrews and institutions like it, you shamed his followers, you shamed any real scholar (such as Dunn) who agrees with his confessional scholarship, and you shamed me. That wasn’t very nice, and I would hope that you understand that. Have your beef with Wright’s scholarship if you will, but I hope in the future that you keep to the ideological disagreements underlying your scholarship as well as the scholarship itself rather than attacking him as a person, his institution, and the people who treasure some of the things that he has to say. Peace.

  14. What you imagine is neither here nor there. The point is, breadth of readership is not a guide to quality.

  15. You would have to prove that that is the reason they hired him…. until then it is conjecture and opinion, nothing more.