NT Wright’s “Worldview-Story” as Biblical Theology

In a spectrum from history to systematic theology, where does someone like NT Wright fit? Is he closer to the history or the systematics end? Edward Klink III and Darian Lockett, in their fine new book, Understanding Biblical Theology, put Wright smack-dab in the middle of the two, but they put D.A. Carson’s history of redemption approach closer to history and Wright closer to theology. More of that later.

In their spectrum there are five types: history, history of redemption, worldview story, canonical and theological construction. BT1, BT2, BT3, BT4, and BT5, and today we look at BT3, worldview story. The big idea is learning to read each passage of the Bible in light of the worldview story/narrative of the Bible, however that might be constructed — and the commentary series of which I am the General Editor (now called “Story of God Bible Commentary”) will offer commentaries in light of this worldview story approach to the Bible. Had we had this book we would have asked each author to “subscribe” to BT3!

Where would you place NT Wright on the spectrum from history (left) to theology (right)? Is he more historical or theological than the History of Redemption/Carson?

Some major theoretical issues:

1. Narrative is both a literary and philosophical category.
2. Worldview story inherently critiques historical criticism in the direction of Hans Frei’s famous Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.
3. The way to read a passage is to see its location in the overall plotline of the Bible’s narrative/story.
4. This narrative speaks to modern readers/Christians.

This worldview story, in their view, is more connected to academy than to church, and here I would contend the pre-2oth Century church especially did not carefully distinguish church from academy so that appealing to anything before the (early?) 20th Century church is not much of an appeal.

Big for this approach is how the NT uses the OT; the sources for this approach are both canonical and non-canonical. The subject of the this kind of “biblical” theology is the narrative structure at work in the texts to which the author/s appeal, including both canonical and non-canonical authors.

Their sketch of NT Wright’s works is adequate, though it is more than difficult to read, let alone put together, all of them. My read of their sketch is that it is adequate. They focus on two words, story and worldview, then combine them into Tom’s approach being a worldview story. (I don’t know that Tom ever uses that expression.) But his “story” brings into concrete reality a worldview that is a set of assumptions. More important, NT Wright reads the NT in light of a “historically reconstructed ‘story’ of Israel’s Scriptures” (112). That’s dead-on. NT Wright’s method is critical realism.  His worldview story is tied into Judaism’s story and stories and worldviews. The NT “continues” the OT story.

Well, what about the “image of God”? As I have said, I want to see if I can flesh out how each kind of biblical theology would explain “image of God” in Gen 1:26-27. NT Wright, connecting to folks like John Walton, sees the expression in light of the Ancient Near East and in the context of the role given to humans in creation: as those who represent God. We/they are, in other words, both kings and priests. This theme is unfolded in the Story of the Bible — to Abraham and Israel and to David and then to Jesus, as the priest-king, who is King/Messiah, and then as the Temple itself as well. And on to Paul’s use of Christ as temple and king and priest, into Hebrews, and with the people of God as kings and priests … to the new heavens and new earth. In other words, it’s not so much about progressive revelation as the continuation of an idea as the Story unfolds, a Story that gives meaning to the Bible and shows where humans fit in God’s Story, but also provides meaning for us today.

I have some issues with how the authors sketch the spectrum, and after reading the two chps on History of Redemption and Worldview Story I am less confident of their ordering. Here’s why:

1. NT Wright calls himself a historian; none in the History of Redemption self-identifies as historians. I find it odd then that they place Wright closer to the theology end.
2. Both read each passage in light of a “worldview” or “theology,” so this point applies to both: each reads each passage in light of a theology.
3. NT Wright is criticized in both of their chps for being too tied into a historical method; the BT2 History of Redemption approach is not criticized for its historiography.
4. Hovering over this entire set of chps is what the authors mean by “history,” and a good study of historiography shows that NT Wright’s approach to History is much more in tune with what history is — the creation of a story/narrative out of facts, sometimes conceived of as discrete facts, which is what NTWright does in his book. BT2 seems to me to be more in tune with theology and less in tune with this theory of history.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jordan Litchfield

    Scot,

    How would you respond to Richard Hays which Klink & Lockett quote just before the assessment section:

    “The important conversation partners for Tom’s interpretation of Jesus are not Irenaeus or the Council of Chalcedon, not even the letter to the Hebrews or 1 Peter. Rather, the key conversation partners are Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4 Ezra and so on … at this point, Tom’s method is much more in sync with the priorities of the academy and less in keeping with the perceptions of the church.” Kindle edition, locations 2221-2224

    I really like Wright’s method, but it does seem to me that a balance has to be struck between the voice of the Church and history. Why can’t the conversation partners be BOTH Irenaeus/Chalcedon & the DSS/4 Ezra?

  • scotmcknight

    Jordan,

    Yes, Klink and Lockett pull that one out twice about Tom’s work. First “important” is weighted. In reading Tom I’ve seen him interact with Hebrews, some 1 Peter, very little of the patristics. So, yes, in part this is true but Tom does interact with the whole of the NT.

    Second, Tom’s writings are more conducive to ordinary Christians and lay folks than are those of Hays, at least in my experience.

    Third, and this is what baffles me a bit about the spectrum these authors use, Tom really does see himself as a historian; Hays sees himself more as a NT theologian/church exegete. Tom seeks to show how a historical — and that means his worldview story, and not minute analysis that never comes up for air — approach can illuminate the NT texts (Jesus, Paul) and the church at the same time. I sense Tom always has one eye on the church when he does his history. Hays, too, has one eye on the church in his work.

  • Josh T.

    Re: the first two comments. It seems to me that a lot of Wright’s support for his biblically consistent ideas comes from those extrabiblical sources because he’s trying to speak persuasively to the academic audience, and not merely to those who already accept internal biblical support as sufficient. Also, when he’s speaking to the church, he is frequently trying to clarify historical meanings (e.g., “Repent and believe in me.”) by demonstrating contemporary usages of phrases and concepts that are too often taken for granted. So I think on the practical side of things the assertion in the Klink and Lockett quote is correct, given Tom’s methodology, but when reading things like Following Jesus which gets into the Gospel of John and Hebrews, perhaps the criticism doesn’t seem completely fair.

  • Kenneth Padgett

    Scott, would you put Hauerwas in BT3?

  • The Gleddiesmith

    Scott, what do the authors mean by “history”? Working off point 4 where you say NT Wright is more in tune with what history is.

  • scotmcknight

    Hauerwas, Kenneth, is an ethicist so I’m not sure I’d say he does theology this way. But, of the five he’d fit perhaps best into the BT3 model.

    “History,” Gleddiesmith, is the ascertainment of data and facts and the bundling of them into a meaning-creating narrative. That is, historians construct narratives that render meaning for the facts they discern.

  • The Gleddiesmith

    Sorry Scot, I wasn’t clear enough with my question. The collection of data and facts and the bundling of them into meaning-creating narrative is, if I understand you correctly, what NT Wright is doing. I was asking the question about how you would characterise the method/ideal of history of the authors of the book since you seem to be saying that the authors disagree with NT Wright approach.

    I am trying to understand NT Wrights approach better by contrasting it to a different (worse) method/understanding. I hope that is clearer.

  • Rick G

    If I were defining these categories, I would place Wright in History of Redemption, and Carson in Theological Construction. But maybe I’m misunderstanding what the authors mean.

  • http://www.thethousandmarch.com Nathan Willard

    It seems that both BT2 and BT3 understand the OT in light of the NT, and both see the entire Bible as the telling of a narrative or history. The major themes of that story being understood more clearly from the NT, especially in the way the NT authors interpret the OT. They therefore do not reinterpret the OT, but understanding it more fully and in ways the orginal authors and readers may not have understood.
    So, I’m not sure what the difference between the two of them is, other than from what you’ve said that NT Wright may be doing a little more detailed historical work. It seems they both have the same basic understanding of how to interpret the Bible.


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