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.