Paul Holloway Responds to Michael Bird about N.T. Wright and Sewanee University

Paul Holloway Responds to Michael Bird about N.T. Wright and Sewanee University February 25, 2015

Over at Faith Forward, Paul Holloway responds to my earlier post about his denunciation of Sewanee University for awarding N.T. Wright an honorary doctorate.

Thankfully Holloway’s response attempts some actual reasoning and tries to provide some kind of substance to his criticism of Wright rather than resorting to hyperbolic and vitriolic protest as he did previously. Let me say that there is nothing wrong with robust criticism of Wright, for case in point, see John Barclay’s critique of Paul and the Faithfulness of God. The problem is that Holloway’s initial complaint about Wright was filled with inaccuracies, pejorative anthems, and was transparently tribal.

Let me address some of his recent claims.

First, Holloway thinks it impossible to take Wright seriously as a scholar because of his affirmation of the Reformation principle of “sola Scriptura.” Well, Wright is an Anglican and one thing about us Anglicans is that we regard Scripture as sufficient and supreme in the life of the church. In fact, I would point out that the majority of people engaged in biblical studies do so out of a deep reverence and high regard for Scripture as providing authoritative direction for the Christian faith. It is only unbelievers and perhaps some Episcopalians who  are dumbfounded as to why anyone would regard the Bible as somehow normative for their beliefs and ethics. Let me add that this same criticism could apply to a host of other scholars from Raymond Brown to Rudolf Bultmann. The reason why many of us have chosen to be biblical scholars is because we cherish the Bible as a divine Word even if we parse terms like inspiration, veracity, and authority in different ways. I do not think serious study of Scripture is impossible for those with a deep reverence for Scripture. If it does, then  maybe SBL needs some kind of Stalinist purge.

Second, Holloway complains that Wright does not have much scholarly capital because he has a limited number of publications in top tier journals like NTS and JBL. You can read Wright’s massive publication list here. I note that Wright has published in top tier journals including NTS, JBL, JNST, SJT, and several other lesser known journals like JSHJ, BJRL, JSPL, Ex Auditu, and even Sewanee Theological Review. This is not including his contribution to countless edited volumes in addition to his plethora of books. As a British academic, Wright has contributed to the five yearly Research Assessment Exercise (or whatever they call it now) which evaluates the research output of British Universities. In this hectic and competitive context, academics are encouraged to publish significant and internationally recognized monographs – not journal articles – that will contribute to the university’s RAE score. Wright has been recruited by Durham and St. Andrews in the past precisely because his scholarship contributes to a high RAE score. To put that into American-language, for the RAE exercise in theology and biblical studies in the UK, Wright is something of a # 1 draft pick! I am pretty sure that Durham, St. Andrews, or the RAE committee don’t share Holloway’s assessment on Wright’s work.

Third, Holloway complains about the hero cult surrounding Wright. I agree, there certainly is one, that is because some of us really, really love and benefit from his work. That said, the same is true of Marcus Borg, Jack Spong, and Bart Ehrman, who are authors who have their own cult following.

Fourth, Holloway has the gall to complain about the “name calling” and “vitriol” that has been directed at him. I don’t doubt that such has happened, and with Holloway I too lament that such a thing would take place in sectors of the church and the academy. However, his complaint is dripping with comic irony because the incendiary responses directed at him were themselves generated by his own invective and intemperate rant against Wright. I have no problem with folks disagreeing with Wright, disliking Wright,  disavowing Wright, or rolling their eyes at Wright and his acolytes. I have no problem with people questioning the scholarly and cultural appropriateness of granting him an honorary doctorate. But Holloway needs to go back and read what he wrote in Sewanee Purple. It is a transparently tribal rant full of inaccuracies and ad hominem attacks. Holloway rebukes defenders of Wright for their lack of manners and over-powering prejudice, so be it, but let me add, “Physician, heal thyself.”

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