Wright, Hays, and History as Apologetic (RJS)

This last week I (RJS – not Scot) have spent my commute listening to the audio from the Wheaton Theology Conference: Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright. This is fascinating stuff – I highly recommend it. This next week or so I am going to take a break from issues of science and faith and put up a couple of posts in dialogue with the speakers at the conference (no I don’t expect them to join in, but we can have a conversation anyway).

This conference was a celebration of the scholarly work of N. T. Wright through a combination of laud and criticism – for there is no greater honor than that which takes the work and thinking of another seriously and interacts with it honestly and deeply.

The opening talk of the conference was given by Richard Hays, Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth. In this talk Hays relates an incident that he calls “the blow-up in Boston” where Wright was rather colorfully, but vehemently, critical of a book  Hays had edited (Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage). Hays goes on to discuss the reasons in light of Wright’s work, with emphasis on where, perhaps, Wright has gone wrong, the losses in his work – and especially in Jesus and the Victory of God. A great talk…

In the middle of the talk – before getting into the losses – Hays gives what he sees as five gains in Wright’s eloquent, wide ranging, and cohesive construction of Jesus (time in: 23:15 – 28:30).  To quote/paraphrase: Wright gives us a Jesus who Jesus fits intelligibly into the history of Israel in the first century under Roman rule. He recovers the of political and pragmatic character of the gospel,  the Kingdom of God. He gives a positive coherence of the synoptic storyline with the old testament and Israel where Jesus is the culmination of God’s astonishing cosmic plan to restore his covenant people and to bring salvation to the whole world. He recovers a high Christology where Jesus was conscious of a vocation to enact in himself what in Israel’s scriptures God had promised to accomplish all by himself. He provides a historical account of Jesus that “might have apologetic value and impact.”

Wait a minute … might have apologetic value and impact? … said with a touch of dismissive doubt? … here I hit pause and resolved to post on this paper. Hayes doesn’t get it – he doesn’t understand why, in my opinion at least, Wright has the impact he has – why his work is important for the church, and not just for the guild of NT scholars.

Has Wright’s work (esp. his scholarly work) had an impact on your faith or church?

Does it have apologetic value and impact?

Here is the full quote from Hays’s lecture (27:04-28:30):

Fifth, and finally on the gain side, from a theological point of view one might hope, and I think Tom does hope, that his historical account of Jesus might have apologetic value and impact. He seeks to give us a historical narrative that takes in all the evidence and shows that the gospels actually do give us a persuasive coherent picture of what really happened in the life of Jesus. … To the extent that Tom’s construction works as secular history it creates a bridge for dialogue with nonbelievers about Jesus. They can be invited to cross the bridge and come and see who Jesus was without first having to surrender completely their own historical conciousness and world view. I fear that this apologetic hope is illusory or at least exaggerated. But it may be the case that Tom’s book really does serve a slightly different sort of apologetic function, as indeed so much apologetics does, it’s not a sign for nonbelievers but for believers. It may allow uncertain believers to gain greater confidence about the historical credibility of a story that they already haltingly believe on other grounds.

Wright’s work – the entirety of the three big books (The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and  The Resurrection of the Son of God), and much of the rest of his work as well, does exactly what Hays allows that “it may.”  But it does more than Hays allows, and the significance is far greater.

In our Colleges and Universities today many undergraduate students find their faith tested, often severely. Within the graduate and postdoctoral ranks in secular academia strain and tension is almost unavoidable – in all areas of scholarship and study. Ben Meyer reflects, in the introduction to Ch. 5 of The Aims of Jesus, that in the course of debates on faith and history (and we could broaden this to faith and intellectual pursuits in general) we see or have seen four responses to the conflict: (1) Faith requires the renunciation of intelligence. (2) Intellectual integrity requires the renunciation of faith. (3) By the skin of one’s teeth one can hold to both faith and integrity. (But within this position there is a constant tension. We bracket off the questions and continue to function – barely. Many stories – both of those who “lost faith” and those who “retained faith” include this approach in the mix.) (4) Intellectual integrity demands faith.(A modernistic “evidence that demands a verdict” approach.)

As a scientist I found another aspect to the discussion as well. The general approach of the church, the evangelical church at least, to science is indefensible.  It works to an extent within an enclosed conclave with well defended walls, but not in the wider world. Given the obvious problems in this realm, a serious question looms, menacing. Is there any reason to think that biblical studies in general and the foundations of our faith in particular is any different?

Hays estimation may apply – uncertain believer …  haltingly believing on other grounds. But this is a rather insulting turn of phrase – and undervalues the depth of the problem.

So what is the value of Wright’s work on Jesus? He takes an approach rooted in critical realism, uses hypothesis and verification, faces the evidence head on, and he puts forth a coherent and cohesive picture of Jesus and his mission.  No evangelical group thinking allowed. No skirting the issues, no truth by assertion, no  trumping confession. Jesus fits intelligibly into the history of Israel in the first century under Roman rule. Jesus is the culmination of God’s astonishing cosmic plan to restore his covenant people and to bring salvation to the whole world. We have a fully human Jesus who acted with purpose intent on a mission. We don’t have an otherworldly Jesus with miracles tacked on to prove divinity. We don’t have a set of random bits and pieces.

What Wright’s work does — and not Wright alone, there are other thinkers and scholars who follow in similar vein — is to add a fifth possibility to Meyer’s taxonomy: (5) Intellectual integrity is fully compatible with faith but requires honest interaction. We cannot separate the Jesus of history from the Jesus of the church.

Don’t underestimate the power of the apologetic. As an autobiographical note, in my adult journey I  have moved from 2 to 3 in Meyer’s taxonomy, with a long holding pattern in 3. Wright showed me a way to move on to 5 – no individual thing was more transformative than reading his three big books.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Wright has given us the last word. Hayes has valid criticisms of Wright’s work – as does Marianne Meye Thompson in the second talk.  A certain group of scholars may require the rejection of John, but faith with intellectual integrity does not.  And we should pay attention to the literary and theological shape of the individual gospels. I learned a great deal from both of these talks – and from the others as well.

What do you think? What are the gains from Wright’s work? Is there an apologetic value?

(The three big books are a bit much – 1876 pp total – but The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is and the book with Marcus Borg The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions provide an excellent start and make good books for small groups and University ministries. My suggestion: Every college ministry should read through The Challenge of Jesus on a regular cycle every several years.)

If you wish to contact me you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • Of course Hays must mean that he would value Wright’s portrait more if it were a thoroughly theological one and not one that attempts some neutrality. It’s sort of like Luke Johnson’s issue with historical Jesus research. It’s also a bit like a book I’m reading right now (excellent) by Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (just out from Oxford).
    But though I sympathize with the idea that confessional, communal, traditional readings are the fullest, I also think a historical project like Wright’s is exceedingly vital and has been immensely successful in fostering faith. People want historical research and evidence. Many people are not ready to read theological and traditional interpretations. So someone has to write for these many people (the majority of humanity).
    My New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God are worn like old Bibles, used and reused. Wright has done something masterful.
    Derek Leman

  • Chris Criminger

    Hi Scot,
    I have found Wright’s insights at times refreshing and more holistic than some of the approaches of Scripture I have read or seen. The historical ocntext, the acting out of prophesy, the focus on Israel, etc. (in a Christian academic world of replacement theology) I find Wright’s proposals very helpful and theologically stimulating. I know of no one who packs a house like Wright. I sometimes wonder if what the problem with the Evangelical quild at times is jealousy?

  • A lot of these debates are a little over my head. But I will say that I am forever grateful to NT Wright because his worked helped me call an internal truce between “the Gospel of Jesus” and “Gospel of Paul.” I always thought of them as being at odds with one another somehow, but Wright’s books and articles made the Gospels and Epistles harmonize in a way I had never experienced before.

  • Brianmpei

    For me it’s not only what Wright has written, which in my opinion has apologetic value and impact, but the influence his work has had on the work of others.
    RJS, you said, “The general approach of the church, the evangelical church at least, to science is indefensible.”
    Can you describe what you see as “the general approach…”? From your posts it’s evident you take exceptions but can you put it in a sentence or paragraph? I’m afraid I’m so out of touch with “the general” I may be a heretic and not know it!

  • dopderbeck

    RJS, Hays’ comment here I think stems from a methodological divide that is uncomfortably parallel to the faith-science debates.
    I think Hays is reflecting the dominant academic Biblical studies perspective that “historical studies” must a priori exclude “miracles” and other “non-natural” explanations. The “historian” must offer only “neutral” explanations of historical events, which explanations are accessible to everyone, not only to those with certain faith presuppositions. This episode in Duke Professor Marc Goodacre’s NT Podcast explains this methodological assumption.
    Even though Hays is a Christian, then, he might shy away from NT Wright’s “historical” arguments precisely because, within the Biblical Studies academy, they are not “historical” — they are, at the end of the day, assertions of “faith.” Further, and perhaps more significantly, I suspect Hays shies away from Wright’s approach for theological reasons. Hays would probably maintain, along with Karl Barth, that the truths of faith simply cannot be accessed directly by “natural” reason. (Interesting blog comment from Andy Rowell on this very idea w/r/t Wright and Hays). The Biblical text, then, must be read in a self-consciously and unapologetically “theological” manner.
    To be honest, though I’ve found Wright’s NT Origins series as well as many, many of his other books immensely helpful, I lean towards Hays on this one. It’s in some ways like the faith-and-science issue. If you expect to find “proof” of Christian faith using the Enlightenment’s methodological tools of empiricism and reason, you’ll likely ultimately be disappointed. There’s a real danger in overstating something like the “objective proofs” of the Resurrection, because for every good argument in favor there is at least one strong counter-argument. As with faith-and-science, it seems better to view these sorts of arguments as supporting the consistency and coherence of beliefs that are first arrived at by faith through an encounter with the living Christ

  • Dopderbeck:
    You will definitely like Legaspi’s Death of Scripture (I mentioned it in comment #1) in light of your take here. He argues that scripture is meant to be scripture (read theologically) and that modern biblical studies killed scripture and replaced it with an academic Bible. The book is historical, not theological, and recounts Johann David Michaelis, the pivotal 18th century figure who founded modern Biblical studies.
    Derek Leman

  • DRT

    Thank you for posting this. Just last week I was talking/ranting to the my church pastor how I am so grateful that in the past few years we all have finally come up with a way to have Christianity actually be a defensible position.
    I grew up a Catholic and had been a seeker for two decades. I had resigned myself to Buddhism being the only defensible religion. But now, with Tom and many others, Christianity is actually defensible and I can go back to my roots.
    The key to a religion being defensible to me is that if implemented, it would actually be good for society. I contend Christianity has largely not been that to a great degree.

  • Alan K

    Hays most certainly gets it. His critique stems from the fact that Tom Wright did his Jesus research according to canons that are entirely foreign to the church. I used to love Wright’s “Jesus and the Victory of God” but have increasingly come to believe that it was written to respond to the Jesus Seminar in language dictated by the Dom Crossans and Burton Macks and Marcus Borgs of the world. When Hays speaks of “apologetic value” he is speaking of the impact that Wright would have on those folks.
    I would imagine that Wright’s book on the gospels (which will follow his book on Paul) will be substantially different that his book on the historical Jesus. Why? Because the gospels don’t play by the rules of modern historiography, nor are they required to. The gospels tell us what the world is actually like, what God is like. They owe nothing to Lessing’s ditch. If Jesus is raised from the dead, and if he has ascended to heaven, and if he indeed has sent the Holy Spirit, then the whole starting point of biblical research is somewhere else than historical Jesus studies begins.

  • RJS

    As a Christian, and a scientist, I am deeply dissatisfied with the “non-overlapping magestria” approach separating life into compartments. Hays’s approach simply seems another version of this.
    While I agree with Scot, Hays, and others that ultimately there is a faith component that is essential – there is also a rootedness in reality, a compatibility, and a defensibility – these are not separable for me. I need a unified coherent whole. This is what Wright’s approach provides, where so many of the others miss the boat. DRT puts it well – and I think this is a common experience.

  • I agree with dopderbeck on this one. Additionally, my feeling from the lecture was that Hays shied away from Wright’s reconstruction of the historical Jesus a bit, was that he felt it was too much just that, a reconstruction. He worried that Wright was creating a fifth gospel that trumped the other four. Wright shows too little attention to the canonical forms themselves.

  • I am sure there is some apologetic value within Wright’s work for the person outside the faith … Yet Wright’s greatest contribution is the breadth he opens up for those already seeking to know Jesus and the Story of God thereby being better able to submit ourselves to Him and become a greater participant in it … yet to think we can engage evidence objectively is not only a dubious enterprise, it puts us in the wrong posture (call it false hubris)as we seek to encounter the Christ and participate in God’s work in the world …In other words I agree with Scot here http://j.mp/bfYffs

  • I have followed a similar pattern to RJS. Evidence based apolegetic rationally presented will provide firmer ground for my Christian worldview to stand upon than theological constructs no matter how well thought through!

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#9) — I don’t think Hays would consider his approach a sort of theological NOMA. It’s really very much the same argument we make against strong versions of natural theology, such as intelligent design theory.
    The question is how we “know” what we “know.” Wright is actually very much on the same page as Hays in much of his “critical realist” epistemology. It’s not that there are non-overlapping magesteria — it’s that there are distinct “layers” of reality that interpenetrate, supervene upon, and feedback into each other, but that neveretheless are usefully investigated by methodological tools appropriate to each layer.
    “Science” investigates a layer of empirical reality that requires the tool of methodological naturalism. It can’t prove or disprove “God.”
    Similarly, “history” investigates the actions of human beings, who act according to ordinary human agency in the natural world. “History” thus construed also uses methodological tools that assume no “direct” divine action, and therefore also can’t prove or disprove God.
    As an example of this way of thinking about “history,” consider the American Civil War. Many Christians, both at the time of the war and now, saw the war and its outcome as God’s providential judgment of African slavery. Abraham Lincoln himself famously agonized about this question of providence. Should a “historian” investigate this question of providence — not simply as a sociological or psychological factor, but as a Divine reality — in her monograph on the causes of the Civil War?
    It seems inconsistent to apply methodological naturalism to the practice of “Science” and not to apply it also to the practice of “history.”
    “Theology” investigates the actions and nature of God, including God’s revelation through incarnation, word and action. If we take “God” as a true layer of reality, indeed as the ultimate and final layer of reality, then we’ll also understand that “God” supervenes upon other layers, including those investigated by “science” and “history.”
    Thus, we’ll argue that no explanation of “reality” is complete with reference only to “science” or “history.” We’ll allow for “miracles” such as the Resurrection, as well as accounts of historical events that involve real Divine providential guidance. But at the same time, we won’t put too much of a burden on “science” or “history” to establish the reality of those miracles. We’ll gladly acknowledge that our account of reality presumes some things that can only be known by faith, even while we argue that our faith supplies the most coherent basis for all aspects of reality that we are able to investigate. But it is always “faith seeking understanding,” not “understanding seeking faith.”

  • pds

    The Design Spectrum
    Interesting talk. I tend to agree with you about the apologetic value of Wright’s approach.
    Ironically, I think scientists, including Christian scientists like you, could benefit from a more historically sophisticated approach to the issue of origins. I have not seen a good treatment of the proper methodology for the historical sciences by a theistic evolutionist.
    When you reviewed the Stephen Meyer book, I think you kind of punted when you got to his discussion of this. The Biologos folks have not done any better, as far as I have seen.
    This quote from Stephen Jay Gould would be a good starting point for discussion:

  • RJS

    Alan K,
    At the end of the mp3 file with the talk by Marianne Meye Thompson Wright takes a few minutes to address some of Hays’s critique. Some is addressed in the Panel discussion as well. He essentially admits what you say – that the argument is structured to play by rules that are not the churches rules. This is a weakness – I have no doubt. Hays has many good points. I would love to see an approach from Wright that did not have to play by “the rules”.
    But I don’t think Hays gets the the depth of the need, at least for some of us. I am not a NT scholar, much less a Historical Jesus scholar. I don’t really care about all of the rules or the in group arguments. But I am a Christian and a scholar who lives and works within the secular academy. There is a myth – widely and instinctively held, in the air we breathe and the water we drink so to speak – that a Christian faith with a high Christology is indefensible on “objective ground”. The church with theological construct does nothing to combat this and tell a defensible story. (I will come back to this in the post on Thursday).
    The church presents four spiritual laws and bridge illustrations without any meaningful context. A Jesus who performs miracles to prove that he really is divine and then goes to die for our sins.
    I never really dug into Wright’s “return from exile” theme – it is an interesting piece of the whole but not the meat. Perhaps this is a “fifth gospel” construct. Perhaps I am missing Wright’s main point – but so be it. What Wright gave me was an ability to see the whole as a coherent mission and story, not a bunch of magic tricks preceding the crucifixion; or a la the more skeptical scholars – a bunch of embellishments added by followers after the passage of sufficient time.
    We have a defensible whole …
    This is a valuable apologetic — and not in a derogatory fashion for uncertain believers who haltingly believe.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS — a while back, I linked this essay by George Hunsinger, and at the time I recall that you liked it. Not anymore?

  • RJS

    Brianmpei (#4)
    I was in college from 1977-1981. This was but a year after Harold Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible was published. So old earth progressive creation, and even more young earth creation are the kinds of views I refer to. The science is – in my estimation – indefensible. But a Christian approach, consistent with both the evidence and the faith, 30 years ago, even 20 years ago, this was hard to find. I hope today it is becoming easier – although we are still deep in conversation.

  • Kenny Johnson

    If anyone is interested, I created a Podcast feed for the conference with the .mp4 enclosures:

  • Scot McKnight

    I should perhaps weigh in a bit…
    Good post RJS and I know your concerns are good and important ones, and we mostly agree.
    1. Hays surely does see a tendency to create a 5th Gospel, and that of course is a concern.
    2. Historical analysis of Jesus and the Gospels has an indispensable role in rooting Jesus in real history (after all, Gospels tell the Story of Jesus as the Incarnation of God in history and time and space) and in preventing Christianity from turning into ideas and abstractions.
    3. But there are dimensions to what we believe that historical analysis can’t penetrate: he died “for our sins” and was raised “for our justification.” We can show by historical studies that Jesus died and conclude that he was raised, but there is no way a historian can show his death was a forgiving, atoning act. We can show that Jesus thought it was atoning, but we can’t prove that his death atoned for sins on the basis of historical methods. They eventually run out.

  • RJS

    It is not “either/or”. I agree with some of what Hunsinger says – not all. But we have a whole different level of conversation … and this level of conversation is made possible by things like Wright’s work – Bauckham’s , Hurtado’s …
    Actually I agree with much of what Hays says in his critique as well – but I was (if you couldn’t tell) rather frustrated by the quote I give above.

  • Kenny Johnson

    You said, “We can show by historical studies that Jesus died and conclude that he was raised, but there is no way a historian can show his death was a forgiving, atoning act.”
    But doesn’t the historic truth of his resurrection give credibility to the claims about himself?

  • Kenny Johnson

    Let me expand a bit on my last comment:
    If Jesus made all the claims he did, but was not resurrected, then His claims would likely have never been accepted.
    If Jesus resurrected without ever making those claims, we never know the significance of his resurrection.
    The two go together.

  • Scot McKnight

    Kenny, by all means.

  • Dave

    There is actually a tension within the Barthian position held by Hays:
    1) Barth strongly rejects any natural theology whereby humans can reason our way to God.
    2) Barth equally strongly rejects theology that devolves into ideology, using theology for our own means and ends.
    It seems to me that one common implication of (1) is for the church to somehow take ownership of Jesus and its understanding of him and thus fall afoul of (2). To clarify, for Barth God’s self revelation is a pure gift. But my question is: Who has received that gift? The church. Consequently the church is the steward of that gift, and now the question becomes, how can we ensure – as much as is humanly possible – that we don’t abuse that gift (ideology).
    Here the Barthian would say, “yes revelation is a gift that is non-given in its given-ness, it is not something we can possess, but rather we are possessed by it, therefore theology does not necessarily devolve into ideology.”
    I think this is a cop-out. One sure-fire way the church can keep its theology from becoming ideology is to open itself up to critical dialogue with those outside the church. Should Wright have played on the same field as the Jesus Seminar when writing JVG and RSG? Absolutely. This wasn’t an exercise in natural theology, but actually it was exercise that affirmed that the Word did really become flesh, that Jesus was fully and completely a human being in first-century time and space, and only intelligible as such. Did he present the fullest picture of Jesus possible? No. That wasn’t his goal. The good news is that Wright is planning a project where he will examine the picture of Jesus presented in all four of the gospels in their particularity.
    The Jesus Wright constructs isn’t the Jesus of a 5th gospel, but instead the thumbnail sketch of the one that we have in our four gospels already.

  • DRT

    Let me re-weigh in a bit here.
    This is a very difficult thing for me to articulate, especially since I don’t have all the “science”, if you will, relating to Christian scholarship.
    For me, the perspective is much more from a world point of view. I look at myself as someone who could have been born anywhere in the world, or at any point in time. If I were to take myself and put me in some other place and time then I would have a different reality to explain and a different set of religious views to consider.
    So, I for one, explicitly take myself outside of the white chubby middle aged married educated guy that I am and plop myself into the generic fictitious human. I am only me because I am not someone else. That is the mental construct that I use to say to myself that I am being objective. I then say that I have a choice as to what religion I want to believe in. I have studied a lot of them. It is a choice. This is expressly not an issue of faith but of choice. To me, belief is chosen. I chose my belief based on the best of my abilities which include thought, feeling, divine inspiration and experience.
    Now, I am not saying that it is not about divine experience. I have had grossly divine experience at a mystical, intellectual and what some would call a “God talking to me” type of level. But in all of that it never said “the religion Christianity is the only way”.
    Actually, my experience, feelings, and thoughts have taught me that Christianity has been a net negative on society and the world. Even if Jesus is Lord!!!
    Even if Jesus is God I would have considered other religions better at producing the type of world that Jesus advocated than Christianity.
    But, over the past several years as I have been studying the scholarship of people like Tom Wright, and others, I have come to realize that Christianity can actually be good for the world! But it has to change. It has to teach the message of Jesus. NT Wright and others are on to something that is different than what has been taught as christianity.
    For the first time in my life I believe Christianity stands a chance of being a defensible position in the world. And that is independent of whether Jesus is God or not. Not only can it be good for the world, but it makes sense. I am not talking science sense. I am talking about when I integrate the whole concept in my mind in now is something that makes senese.
    That may sound strange, but it’s the twisted mind I live in.

  • DRT

    One more try. Until the last decade I thought the best implementation of Jesus teachings was Buddhism.
    Ha, my captch is Two Bliss. Good one for this…

  • Dana Ames

    Christ is risen!
    I agree completely with what you’ve written, including comments. I began reading Wright in 2001, because a pastor whose scholarly knowledge I admired said that every Christian should read “Following Jesus” and NTPG. (I do concur with him about reading FJ, for sure, and with you about COJ.) I had just barely begun to believe that God is actually good. By the end of NTPG I had finally glimpsed the “unified coherent whole” which, like you, I need in order to make sense out of things. I finally actually had good news about God/Jesus/life that I could actually communicate, after 25 years of being an Evangelical, a name which of course implies that I have good news to tell… After JVG, I simply fell on my face and worshiped God. The papers available from the Wrightpage on Paul eliminated the gap between the “two gospels”, as someone else above remarked. Wright’s work has made me deeply, deliriously glad to be a Christian.
    I think D. Fitch is correct above, that for now at least Wright’s influence is strongest among those who are already seeking Jesus in the story of God and thereby become greater participants in this. However, this will seep into relationships between Christians and others; it can’t help but do so. Wright’s greatest influence may yet be felt by future generations. Mark my words.
    For myself, I thought I could be a sort of “Wrightian Protestant” in a middle-of-the-road sort of congregation where a little bit of difference on some things would be tolerated… Then about mid-decade I began to be exposed to EO thought and teaching, and was astonished at how much overlap there is between EO and NTW. His work and where it led me is the main reason I sought reception in the Orthodox Church. I know of others who could say the same. So there is apologetic value now, but I can’t say I know what sort of path to Jesus being exposed to that apologetic might take…
    FYI, the “end of exile” theme is one leg of a sort of three-legged stool which supports Wright’s ideas about what Jesus meant, and what his listeners heard, when he said “Kingdom of God” -the other two being the return of YHWH to Zion and the defeat of evil. I think it will help if you think of “exile” as ultimately the exile from the Garden, exile from the union with God that generates and continues life, and in contrast to which exile the “new creation” theme and the Resurrection as the center of history keep reverberating. Since you are familiar with NTW’s writings, you will know what I mean and will make all the many connections.

  • Randy

    A comment made without reading the previous ones.
    RJS, you sound like my story. Seeking an intellectually tenable position in critical realism that allows you to truly embrace the gospel (not just tentatively believe it). You did so as a scientist, I did so as a historian seeking to hear and see the gospels the way that Jesus initial hearers would have.
    In fact, for some time in the late 1990s, I had difficulty speaking of the gospel without footnoting the entire statement to Wright.
    Randy Gabrielse
    Captcha justify Sukkoth

  • Steve A

    THanks for the interesting post and comments. I really enjoyed the speeches as well and thought Hays was particularly good. I very much think that Wright has a huge apologetic impact on people, certainly on people in the church. I also think that his big picture of hte Bible story and this vision about believers in the church working “for” God’s Kingdom is a very powerful way to involve people in the faith with their heart and minds. I think this current popular-level trilogy play this role very well.
    Of course, Hays was primarily talking about JVG, not all of Wright’s work. I was kind of annoyed by some of the criticism because it felt like they were criticizing him for not writing a different book. Right–he doesn’t address John. That is important, I think, in helping JVG to be taken seriously by a broad group. Other things he has written will help clarify that he is not rejecting JOhn. Right, he was not focused on the form of each gospel–that is (presumably) what the book on the gospels will be about. I think the danager of the 5th gospel is very real, but don’t think that Wright fell into it and don’t htink that Hays really tried to show that he had.

  • DRT

    Now that I actually listened to Hays, yes! NTW pulls the concept together for me in a way no one else ever has and for me that makes all the difference in the world. I am not going to follow a bunch of texts in a book, I want to follow God!

  • Alan K

    Dave #24
    Two things. (1) If you were to crack open any volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics you would find him in conversation with those outside the church quite a bit. In fact he is one of the very best narrators of modern thought that I have ever come across. (2) You suggest that conversation with the non-church world can safeguard theology from becoming ideology, as if this is a big threat. I think the bigger threat is the other way around, one that actually happened. It was the German church under National Socialism that was neutered by having its theology domesticated by men like Hitler. The christology from below made sure that Jesus never got in the way of a Panzer or a Tiger making its way into Poland or the low countries. Barth’s christology from above is what led to statements like the Barmen Declaration.

  • dopderbeck

    Scot (#19) — well, what do you mean we can say we can “conclude” Jesus was raised through “historical studies?” There’s too much imprecision in the word “conclude” (as well as in “historical” studies). It makes for bad theology and worse apologetics IMHO.
    “Conclude” cannot mean something like “a fact no reasonable person could deny” or “beyond any reasonable doubt,” which is what I would take to be the ordinary meaning of “conclude.” By definition, the Resurrection is something that at some point is beyond “reason.” That’s precisely why it’s a “miracle.” The Resurrection indeed quite literally was something not of our present empirical world — it was an eschatological event.
    What we can “conclude” — i.e., explain through ordinary observation and reason — is that that something extraordinary happened following Jesus’ death; that the claims of an empty tomb are credible; that, as NTW notes in TRSG, the claims of Resurrection made by the Apostolic generation of Christians went beyond what was expected in the existing religious/cultural milieu, and were held to tenaciously though scandalous; and that the Jesus movement exploded thereafter in amazing ways.
    All of these things and more are powerful support for the specifically Christian belief that what happened was “the Resurrection of the Son of God.” But, we can’t draw this as a rational “conclusion” in precisely the same way in which you might make inferences in a court of law. IMHO, that is a category mistake.

  • Scot,
    Per you comment (#19), I have just finished doing a lot of further research on historiography. The distinction you wisely make is elaborated in Ron Nash’s fine book, Christian Faith & Historical Understanding.

  • Larry

    Hays surely does see a tendency to create a 5th Gospel, and that of course is a concern.
    But who is creating (or has created) this “5th Gospel”, is it Wright who is honestly trying to understand the message of the early church in its 1st century, Jewish context, or is the church, who has re-interpreted the text of the gospel in alien contexts?

  • Napman

    Dopderbeck #13
    Not sure why history requires a methodological naturalism. (And why does history only deal with human activity? Not even earthquakes? ) Wright certainly does not and he would not agree that every argument for the resurrection can be countered by a strong one that runs against it. This bracketing of God from the discipline of history owes much to the enlightenment and little to traditional Christian thought.
    I agree that the Christian faith does not rise and fall on the latest historical discovery or argument someone proposes. But if God reveals himself in history that God would have left tangible traces that count as evidence.To say a priori that such evidence cannot be assessed historically and must be left to theologians is an epistemic NOMA if not a Gouldian NOMA. Take an issue that, in my opinion, is clearly historical–what accounts for the start of the Christian faith. To say that history provides no access to such questions is to rule out methodologically the proper role of history–to give the best explanation of what did happen. Whether by flood, earthquake, wind, comet or resurrection, nonhuman events change human history and should in principle be subjects of historical examination, Thus Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God.

  • dopderbeck

    Napman (#35) said: This bracketing of God from the discipline of history owes much to the enlightenment and little to traditional Christian thought.
    I respond: Well, yes and no. No: there was no “discipline of history” before the Enlightenment. But yes: the bracketing of “faith” and “reason” owes everything to the Enlightenment and in particular to Kant.
    And this is precisely my push-back: what I hear is the claim that we can draw “conclusions” about whether Christ was Raised based on reasonable inferences from neutral data — and that in fact this should be our apologetic project. This, IMHO, is pure Kantian balderdash. This is one of the odd things about NTW’s TRSG: he is very good on avoiding the presumptions of the Enlightenment, yet he insists on using the phrase “inference to the best explanation,” which is saturated in Enlightenment philosophy. It would have been better if he’d spoken in terms of coherence, perhaps.
    (To be clear, I admire NTW and I agree that his work can have great apologetic value. But there massive problems with rationalistic apologetics that I want to avoid).

  • “We have a fully human Jesus who acted with purpose intent on a mission. We don’t have an otherworldly Jesus with miracles tacked on to prove divinity.” Yes, excellent point and well thought out article.
    With appreciation,
    Pastor Adam Barton
    Akron, Ohio

  • Scot McKnight

    not sure what you’re reading but historians use that term also for drawing the threads together.

  • dopderbeck

    If I could add one more thing at this point: if I respond a little strongly, it’s because I’m concerned about the flipside of what Roseanne describes. The pressure to be able to prove the truth of one’s faith can be unbearable for the sensitive and thoughtful believer who is exposed to arguments against it. Though it can be very helpful for that person to be armed with some reasonable responses to those arguments, I think it is often even more helpful to reassure that person that “faith” is not the same thing as “certainty” or “proof.” Otherwise, it’s easy for that person to become defensive and brittle, always wondering if she has “enough” faith, and perhaps even being tempted to give up because all the “proof” that can be mustered is never enough to achieve “certainty.”
    Here is how Alister McGrath puts it in his book “Doubting”

    To believe in God demands an act of faith — as does the decision not to believe in him. Neither is based on absolute certainty, nor can it be…. To accept Christianity demands fiath — and so does the decision to reject it. Both rest on faith, in that nobody can prove with absolute certainty that Jesus is the Son of God, the risen Savior of humanity — just as nobody can prove with absolute certainty that he is not. The decision, whatever it may be, rests on faith. There is an element of doubt in each case. Every attitude toward Jesus — except the decision not to have any attitude at all! — rests on faith, not certainty. Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservations — trust in a God who has shown himself worthy of that trust.

    So, while I think evidentiary apologetics can be helpful, I think it’s important always to qualify them within the fiduciary framework of “faith seeking understanding.”

  • dopderbeck

    Scot (#38) — yes they do, as do courts of law, which use evidentiary standards that cannot be directly applied to “prove” the truth of Christian faith.
    Scot, do you think Christian faith in the resurrection of Christ rests on historical “certainty?”

  • dopderbeck

    Or let me put it this way: if a person has any uncertainty whatsoever about the “historical proofs” of the Resurrection, can that person nevertheless believe in the Resurrection and be a Christian?

  • RJS

    I don’t think that we want to talk about proofs of resurrection. In the taxonomy I have in the post there are four possibilities to which I’ve added a fifth. We do not get to #4 Intellectual integrity demands faith. This certainly isn’t where I see the value of Wright’s book or his scholarship. The conclusion isn’t tantamount to proof – unavoidable or “conclusive”. But it is reasonable to conclude that – to give an example – resurrection occurred. So I see apologetic value of Wright’s work here.

  • RJS

    I just rescued your comment #39 from moderation … and it is clear I think that we are largely on the same page here.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#42) — as usual, at the end of the day, I think we’re pretty much on the same page. You reacted to Hays somewhat unfavorably because you found it helpful at a key point in your journey to know that there actually are “reasons” to believe in Christ; I reacted more favorably because I found it helpful at a key point in my journey to relax a bit about the level of “proof” required for “faith.” But I think we both agree that “faith” is neither “certainty” nor “belief without reasons.”

  • DRT

    I do think there is an interesting difference in the way people think in this. In a test I took over the years they had a section where you had to determine whether you had sufficient information to solve the problem or not. You did not need to solve it, you just had to know whether you had sufficient information to do that.
    Many people I know would come up with strategies to do that (reduce it to equations and count independent equations and unknowns, use logic if then type arguments etc.). However, my brain (and many other people’s brains) has an intuitive integrative ability that allows me to answer questions like that based on the brain’s basic wiring instead of reducing it to method as the complexity of the situation gets more and more complex (but with decreasing correctness of course).
    For me, Wright’s stuff (the Wright stuff?) helped give some more information that allows all the other pieces to fall in together. I don’t lay claim that I God and understand the big picture as much as I now think that I have enough information to know that there is a big picture that makes sense.
    So my standard for how much information I need for faith is based on the intuitive assessment that there is a defensible coherent position. Without that, no number of arguments and evidence can get me “to believe”.
    ha! Beck London…

  • pds

    The Design Spectrum
    dopderbeck #36,
    “Inference to the best explanation” is good historical methodology. What is wrong with it? Calling it “saturated in Enlightenment philosophy” does not get at why or why not it is the right methodology.
    “Inference to the best explanation” does not lead to “proof.” It leads to an inference, and that gives the basis for reasonable faith.

  • dopderbeck

    pds (#46) — define “best.” Is the criterion human reason? Why is human reason the “best” foundation? In the phrase “reasonable faith,” why is “faith” subservient to “reason?” To me this is the problem with “inference to best explanation” as the criterion for truth, rather than as a methodological tool. I think we’ll never get this stuff right unless we acknowledge that faith is a gift that precedes reason.
    As Hays said in his lecture that touched off this discussion: “It seems in principle that in Tom’s exposition of critical realism faith ought to allow faith a certain epistemological role by positing that we cannot avoid reading the evidence through the spectacle of our own worldviews….”

  • pds

    Dave #47,
    “Inference to best explanation” is a methodological tool. We agree. Who is saying it is more? God gave us reason so that we would use it.
    You said:
    “I think we’ll never get this stuff right unless we acknowledge that faith is a gift that precedes reason.”
    I don’t see it that way, but oh the wonders of Christian diversity. People come to faith in all different ways. There is no need to say X must precede Y.
    “Inference to best explanation” is also the best way to figure out where trilobites came from, but nobody seems to want to talk about my comment #14.

  • dopderbeck

    pds (#48) — there are theological and Biblical reasons to say faith precedes reason — even if someone thinks his or her own personal narrative suggests otherwise. God’s calling and the work of the Holy Spirit always precede our response.

  • DRT

    I can’t resist. I apologize to the tempered.
    #48 pds
    Does there exist a reasoned proof of faith?

  • Kyle

    Thank you so much for your contributions in #13 and #39. As someone else who views these things theologically through Barth revised by Torrance revised by McGrath, I completely resonate…and I still diligently read Wright, Hurtado, Vermes, Sanders and everyone else that I can in NT biblical studies.
    I particularly enjoyed this quote from McGrath, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservations — trust in a God who has shown himself worthy of that trust.”
    I also think your point in #13 fits with McGrath’s Gifford lectures from a year or so ago. It’s not that I believe in God because of fine-tuning (where I am the epistemic center of reality), but I believe in God (due to God’s self-giving revelation of Himself) and therefore fine-tuning makes sense.
    Captcha bad propounds

  • Yes, “The Challenge of Jesus” revolutionized my faith short of ten years ago. An excellent book, one of my favorites. And though I’ve read through a number of his other volumes, I have yet to read through the three tomes. Too bad, because when I finally make the time and space to do that, I’m sure it will simply reinforce what “The Challenge of Jesus” did in helping me see a more Jewish, more Biblical Jesus. One interacting as best we know with the sources we have, which means probably more true to the biblical story.
    But like Tom Wright said, it doesn’t mean he rejects the creeds. But only that they have deeper and more meaning and precision to him now (something to that effect).

  • bNelson

    The person I think of regarding NT Wright’s is Anne Rice, well known “vampire” novelist. NTW’s books played a large role in her re-conversion. She came “home”through the same research process she used to prep for all her novels, and Wright’s books had much of the information she needed to make the leap.

  • Dave

    Alan K #31,
    The German Church was so easily co-opted precisely because it refused to take history seriously, that is first century second temple Judaism seriously. They got a de-Judaized Jesus, and that makes it a lot easier to go around touting the Final Solution.

  • dopderbeck

    Kyle (#51) — yes! Barth => Torrance => McGrath — very much where I’m coming from — and yes, I’m channeling McGrath’s version of critical realism.

  • pds

    The Design Spectrum
    Dave #49
    You said,
    “there are theological and Biblical reasons to say faith precedes reason — even if someone thinks his or her own personal narrative suggests otherwise. God’s calling and the work of the Holy Spirit always precede our response.”
    Yes, God’s calling, work of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace precede our response. But as to our experience of our own faith and reason, you cannot be dogmatic as to order. Both our faith and our reason come as gifts of God’s grace.
    Biblical support goes both ways:

    27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, `This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. 33 So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

  • pds

    The Design Spectrum
    DRT #50,
    Why the apology?
    To answer your question, it depends on what you mean by “proof” and “faith.”
    Absolute proof? No.

  • Hello,
    Perhaps this has been explained elsewhere but who is RJS?
    Thank you.

  • RJS

    Send me an email, rjs4mail[at]att.net.

  • Edward T. Babinski

    WRIGHT: The Jesus I have discovered through historical research is . . . not the Jesus I expected or wanted to find when I began this work nearly twenty years ago. Studying Jesus has been the occasion for huge upheavals in my personal life, my spirituality, my theology, and my psyche. . . . Second, the Jesus I have discovered is clearly of enormous relevance to the contemporary world and Church. I know that others with very different Jesuses would say this as well, so you may find the point irrelevant. . . . Let me put it like this. After fifteen years of serious historical Jesus study, I still say the creed ex animo; but I now mean something very different by it, not least by the word “god” itself.
    SOURCE: N. Thomas Wright, “Jesus and the Identity of God” (Originally published in Ex Auditu 1998, 14, 42–56. Reproduced by permission of the author.)
    WRIGHT: As we read scripture, we struggle to understand what God is doing through the world and through us. The phrase “authority of scripture” can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for “the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.” When we examine what the authority of scripture means we’re talking about God’s authority which is invested in Jesus himself, who says “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18, NRSV) http://www.wittenburgdoor.com/heavy-theological-dude-mistakenly-talks-us
    Notice that Wright speaks less about the “authority of scripture” and more about “the authority of God” which is “exercised somehow through scripture.” “Somehow?” How clever of him not to say exactly how, but instead to acknowledge that “understanding” is a “struggle.” But of course all understanding is a “struggle,” which is a rather liberal concept to acknowledge. Perhaps Wright will one day even admit that maintaining belief in religious doctrines/dogmas is likewise a “struggle?”–E.T.B.)
    WRIGHT: I do not think Jesus ‘knew he was God’ in the same sense that one knows one is hungry, or thirsty, tall or short. It was not a mathematical knowledge. It was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by my family and closest friends; like the knowledge that I have that sunrise over the sea is awesome and beautiful; like the knowledge of the musician not only of what the composer intended but of how precisely to perform the piece in exactly that way-a knowledge most securely possessed, of course, when the performer is also the composer. It was, in short, the knowledge that characterizes vocation. As I have put it elsewhere: ‘As tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he [Jesus] believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to Scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.’
    N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999) p. 121-122
    WRIGHT: ‘Awareness of vocation’ is by no means the same thing as Jesus having the sort of ‘supernatural’ awareness of himself, of Israel’s God, and of the relation between the two of them such as is often envisaged by those who, concerned to maintain a ‘high’ christology, place it within an eighteenth-century context of implicit Deism where one can maintain Jesus’ ‘divinity’ only by holding some form of docetism.
    N.T. Wright, Challenge of Jesus, 122
    Wright also compares today’s theological conservatives to soldiers who long after the war has ended are “still hiding in the jungle, unaware that the world has moved on to other matters.”
    N.T. Wright, Challenge of Jesus, 99.
    ANOTHER WELL KNOWN THEOLOGIAN, DALE ALLISON, HAD THIS TO SAY ABOUT N.T. WRIGHT’S defense of the “many risen saints story” in Matthew 27:51-53:
    “These lame words [of Wright’s] lack all historical sense. They are pure apologetics, a product of the will to believe, and a prize illustration of theological predispositions moving an intelligent man to render an unintelligent verdict.”