Monday, January 26, 2009

I Respectfully Dissent

Why is N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, lionized by so many evangelicals? Three reasons. The first, many respect not only his New Testament scholarship but the massive outpouring of such scholarship he produces every year. Second, Bishop Wright is one of the few Biblical scholars who has been able to reach a wide secular audience defending the historicity of the books of the New Testament against liberal challengers. Third, so many in my theological tradition, Evangelical Wesleyan Methodism, are ecstatic over the presence of such a renown Christian scholar who is not only not a Calvinist, but who can effectively challenge our Calvinist brothers concerning much of their theology. Yet I find myself not able to wholeheartedly endorse many of Wrights conclusions the Bishop has formulated in the writings I have studied.

In seminary, I heard nothing but unqualified praise for Wright. It was said that in Wright Wesleyans had a publicly acclaimed scholar they could proudly call their own. Having no time in school to delve into Wright's writings, I greatly anticipated my first opportunity to learn from his great outpouring of scholarship. About a year after graduation I purchased Wright's "The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was And Is." My reaction was one of stunned disbelief. While in this book he was quite correct in maintaining that to know Jesus in the context of His Jewish background is to understand Jesus and His mission better, the Bishop goes off the theological deep end when he speculates about when Jesus knew His true identity. From there Wright strays from good Biblical exegesis into the realm of fanciful speculation. While Wright is rightly concerned that Christ's Church not ignore scripture's commands to seek justice for those most vulnerable, he has the bad habit of reading political messages into specific Biblical passages that just are not there. The result is that much of Wright's Biblical exegesis bears no relation to what the Bible actually says.

Sometime in the near future "The Challenge of Jesus" will be examined on this blog in detail. For now, I will examine Wright's views of Jesus that he expressed elsewhere. Recently I read philosopher Antony Flew's "There Is A God: How The World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind." This book contains an appendix in which Flew asks N.T. Wright about the evidence both for Christ being an actual historical person and for His resurrection. Much of what Wright says in his answers are very good, especially what he says about Christ's resurrection. But there is a section where Wright wanders off into the same unfortunate speculation that he engages in in "The Challenge Of Jesus."

"I think Jesus staked his life-quite literately!-on his belief that he was called to embody the return of Yahweh to Zion" Wright says. He goes on: "...I really do believe that Jesus believed that he was to act upon that assumption. I think that was hugely scary for Jesus. I THINK HE KNEW HE MIGHT ACTUALLY BE WRONG. After all, some people who believe that sort of thing might turn out to be like the man who believes he is a pot of tea." (Wright in Flew's There Is A God, p. 193-194, capitalization mine.)

This statement stems from Wright's speculation previously mentioned concerning just when Jesus knew who He was. I myself cannot conclude just when Jesus was aware that He was God's Son, the second person of the Trinity. But He must have possessed the knowledge of His full identity by the time He began His ministry here on earth.

If Jesus was not sure who He was, then He had no memory of His earlier fellowship with the Father as the second person of the Trinity before He obeyed the Father's will to take on human form. Scripture tells us that Christ, being in the form of God, "did not consider it robbery to be equal with God ." Yet He humbled Himself as a bond servant, He lived among sinful mankind as a man and became obedient to God even to the point of dying on the Cross. (Phil. 2:5-8) If Jesus had no memory of His earlier fellowship with the Father, how could he understand His own sacrifice in ending that fellowship to become a man? How could He remember Satan falling like lightning out of Heaven? If Jesus was not totally sure of His identity, but gambled his own life on the belief that He was the Son of God, how could He with any integrity command His disciples to lose their lives for His sake to gain their lives? Or how could He promise His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them in Heaven? How could He give them such a hope? How could He do these things with a clean conscience? Can anyone answer these questions? If so, please don't be silent; let me hear from you. Some might say "Is all this really important?" My answer, read "The Challenge Of Jesus" and see for yourself how such speculation can mess up one's theology and view of Christ.

Some Calvinists have been vociferous in their criticism of Wright's "New Perspective" on Paul. They claim that it is a departure from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. While I do not adhere to the "New Perspective", I would not go that far in criticising it. Perhaps because Wright challenges Calvinistic theology in his "New Perspective", and very effectively I say, these same Calvinists have failed to aim their criticism at Wright's views of Christ, which I find more disturbing than his views on Paul.

I would caution my fellow Wesleyans to be careful in claiming a theologian and public figure such as Wright as their own merely because he is not a Calvinist. The fact that he is not a Calvinist does not necessarily make him "one of us."

I had hoped to read more of Wright before I began publicly voicing my concerns about his theology. However, after reading Wright's comments in Flew's book, I decided to express a preliminary view of my concerns.

A friend of mine recently told me he liked an earlier article on Wright that appeared on this blog. You can access the earlier article by clicking the N.T. Wright label below.


Tim Sheets said...

I hope you get a chance to read more of Wright, you will be rewarded! I have really enjoyed, wrestled, and grown in my own faith by interacting, criticizing, and thinking with this great man of faith through his writings and sermons.

Surprised by Hope was beautiful!

Mr. Guthrie said...

Just for the record, I am not questioning his orthodoxy or his relationship with God. I do have reservations about his theology. I do plan to read a great deal more of Wright. Either this summer or fall I will begin reviewing "The Challenge of Jesus." Did you read my earlier article on Wright? I was much kinder in that article. There are some Christian writers whom I can appreciate but do not understand why they have the high status they enjoy among Christians. This puts me in a minority sometimes. Soon I will be asking readers just what they see in C.S. Lewis that they consider him the greatest Christian of the 20th Century? Perhaps I should call myself Mr. Crumudgeon. (Spelling?)

Tim Sheets said...

I don't know about C.S. Lewis being the greatest Christian thinker (I think that is what you were alluding to?) of the 20th Century, but he sure was outside-of-the-box in his creativity through literature.

I'm a fan of him (Lewis), so I'm biased in what I say, but books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce were revolutionary to me when I first read them. They spurred on my imagination all the while helping me grasp concepts of theology that were hard to understand (i.e. sanctification). I'm thankful for such a man like that.

Currently, I'm teaching a Sunday School class title The Devil and CS Lewis, some good stuff, based off of The Screwtape Letters. He is right on in saying God has no opposite equal and that Satan's opposite equal is Michael the archangel. That belief was somewhat of a surprise to everyone. I think many Christians settle for a ying and yang type of Christianity with God as the good guy and Satan as the bad guy.

Well, this has turned out to be a rant, so I'm stopping. Looking forward to conversations about Wright in the future. John Piper has been a critic of Wright's view of justification, would be a good read I bet. Wright is responding to his book with another book! So much to read, so little time!


Mr. Guthrie said...

I don't know if I will get to Piper or not. Of course he is responding in part to Wright's criticisms of Calvinist theology, which I think Wright is Wright-on!

Your Sunday School lessons concerning the Screwtape Letters sound interesting. They sound like they would make intersting blog posts. Next month I will be comparing Lewis's impact as compared in Francis Schaeffer's.

Remember, it is not my intent to question anyone's standing before God, but I do have questions concerning the possible impact of some theological writings they produce. How would you answer the questions I raise in this article?