The Apocalyptic Challenge to NT Wright: Method

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 10.25.46 AMThis blog has given plenty of attention to the works of NT Wright, in part because his books are valued by our readers and in part because his books are accessible for the blog and in part because he’s in “my camp” (the new perspective on Paul). But with that comes challenges to NT Wright and to the new perspective, and the most recent is a full-scale study of NT Wright’s method. (There is a difference between methodology and method, the former reflection on method as a discipline.) The new study is by Samuel V. Adams, a professor at Kilns College in Bend Oregon, called The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N.T. Wright.

Here is the big picture: NT Wright’s method is, as he explains it, the historical method and Tom calls his orientation “critical realism.” The adequacy of Wright’s version of critical realism for the task of theology is challenged by Adams, and he challenges it by appealing instead to the theological method for knowing God one finds in T.F. Torrance, with brushes up against Karl Barth and Kierkegaard. Adams contends that the subject matter (God) requires a method that makes access to God intelligible, and he contends Wright’s critical realism is not adequate to the task Wright has in his Christian Origins and the Question of God multi-volume series.

Before I get to Adams’ summary of Wright’s method, a reduction to where this conversation may well end up: Adams accuses Wright of not doing theology as I suspect Wright will accuse Adams of not doing history (or of being an idealist). If this is a fair reduction, I side with Wright as I know no historians who do what Adams contends must be done. It may then not be fair to see J. Louis Martyn, M. de Boer, B. Gaventa, and D. Campbell doing history. Time will tell.

One more observation: Wright belongs in a long line of English historians, from JB Lightfoot, FJA Hort, and BF Westcott to the famous Hoskyns and Davey (The Riddle of the New Testament) and these English historians have been fighting off German idealism with realism, or in Wright’s case critical realism, for more than a hundred years. (You can see this all in S Neill, NT Wright, The Interpretation of the NT: 1861-1986.)

NT Wright, knowing our faith is grounded in concrete events in history, wants to apply to history to the events to show that what we know about them corresponds to the truth of our Christian claims. The famous gap of Lessing can be closed, Wright claims.

Wright presses for “critical realism” as a way of defeating both idealism and (naive) realism.

Wright’s project, then, can be understood to be a thoroughgoing attempt to halt the decline in the relationship between theology and history with a comprehensive methodological approach that takes seriously both poles of the Enlightenment, realism and idealism, and effects a kind of synthesis of the two that can maintain an orthodox Christian faith in an intellectually rigorous and philosophically credible way (32).

[Or, more completely:] N. T. Wright s historical method, understood within the context of his critically realist epistemology, can be summarized as follows: it is an epistemology that acknowledges both the reality of the object of investigation, external to the knower, and the fact that any external reality is only known through a process in which the worldview of the knowing subject mediates knowledge of that reality (49).

Now to some elements of this method:

1. Critical realism.

… way of describing the process of “knowing” that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence “realism”), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence “critical”) (42).

Wright thinks the Reformers established an idealism turn by diminishing historical knowledge and focusing on theological knowledge. He wants to halt the diminishment of theology by historians who are stuck in various sorts of empiricism or realism.

2. Worldview: all humans approach the objects of knowledge (the past, Jesus, including God) by means of a worldview, which includes story and praxis and symbol.

In Wright’s words, worldviews are “the basic stuff of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen, the blueprint for how one should live in it, and above all the sense of identity and place which enables human beings to be what they are” (44).

Adams thinks Wright’s theory of worldview and story belong to a coherentist theory of truth.

3. Knowledge occurs through what Adams calls “contact” — that is the human knower makes contact with the thing to be known, whatever that is. In other words, Wright’s critical realism (a process) is a “relational epistemology” shaped by stories that enable us to make sense of what we encounter and that can change us.

4. The issue for Adams is an epistemology that concerns knowing God. He begins to tip his hand in this opening chp by suggesting (1) that God can’t be classified with other items historians can know, since the object/subject matter determines epistemology and (2) that Wright’s examining not so much God as texts about God.

But if we follow Wrights graphic depiction of the movement of humans to knowledge of god(s), the point needs to be made that it is the (possible) objects of revelation—namely, texts and their stories, human experience, natural beauty, and so on—that are the subject matter of theological investigation, not god(s) directly (55).

Thus, Wright’s God-talk is second order and not first order God-talk (56). The story is the thing for Wright; it shapes what can be known through a process called critical realism.

About Scot McKnight

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