As one who appreciates N.T. Wright’s works, I am often challenged to explain the widespread opposition to him among Reformed theologians. I have often claimed that Wright has been widely misrepresented and misunderstood by his Reformed critics. Many see this as arrogance on my part. Can I really believe that I understand what Wright is saying better than theologians like Don Carson, Ligon Duncan and Guy Waters? Surely these people aren’t stupid and they know what they are saying when they critique Wright.
Having read and listened to the above-mentioned theologians (and many others besides) I am pretty certain that they seriously misunderstand and misrepresent Wright in a number of key areas. I have studied Wright’s theology in depth and so I don’t feel that I am unjustified in making such a judgment. I have read all of Wright’s major works at least once, most of them three, four or more times. I have read almost all of his more popular works at least once and all of the essays that he has contributed to various volumes that I have been able to lay my hands on. I have read almost all of his Internet articles. I have listened to over 70 hours’ worth of his lectures. I have read his unpublished doctoral thesis. I have read many of his critics and I have participated in lengthy e-mail and Internet debates on various aspects of his theology.
The issue here is not disagreement. It is quite possible to disagree with someone, Wright included, without misrepresenting or misunderstanding them. Whilst there are certainly areas where Wright’s critics have understood him and fairly represent him and choose to differ from him, I believe that there are many areas where the import of Wright’s theology has been badly misconstrued by his Reformed critics.
This is all the more tragic as a theologian with as sweeping a picture as Wright is badly in need of good critics to counterbalance certain elements of his thought. Good critical debate could lead to the various parties arriving at a more qualified and balanced position. In the current debate we tend to just have polarization.
So why has Wright been so consistently misunderstood and misrepresented by his Reformed critics? I think that the explanation can be boiled down to the following contributing factors. Whilst none of these explanations could be said to apply in every instance, I do think that, taken together, they can cover most of the cases that I have encountered. It should also be observed that (as someone remarked to me in way of criticism) the following can generally be categorized as worldview problems, sin or incompetence. I think that this is a fair assessment, but I stand by the following nonetheless.
1) Laziness. It takes a lot of effort to read Wright carefully and seek to understand him on his own terms, effort that many Reformed critics apparently don’t want to take. The idea that we ought to devote weeks of painstaking study to the work of someone we have been told is a heretic might be considered by many to be a waste of time.
Wright has written dozens of books and yet one will consistently see Reformed critics honing in on a couple of statements in a popular book when he has explained his views on the subject in question with far more clarity, nuance and detail in more weighty works. Once you read the more scholarly volumes, the ambiguous statements in the popular works begin to make more sense.
Indeed, the fact that some of Wright’s more popular critics repeat the same misrepresentations and focus on the same couple of quotes in the vast corpus of Wright’s works as some well known Reformed critiques makes me suspect that some have not even bothered to read one of Wright’s books from start to finish at all.
2) Impatience. Understanding Wright is not easy. It takes a long time before you will have anywhere near enough knowledge of the character of his position to be able to intelligently make up your mind about him. Most people don’t have the requisite patience. They expect to be able to grasp Wright after skim-reading What St Paul Really Said. Wright is a gifted communicator, but like most serious theologians, understanding him on his own terms takes a lot of work.
3) Presumption of heresy. We are frequently told that Wright is a great threat to the Reformed faith. Consequently, we come to our reading of Wright looking for the heresy that we expect to find there. If you approach any author in such a fashion you should not be surprised if you find what you are looking for. There are dozens of ambiguous statements in Wright’s works that are quite susceptible to uncharitable constructions. Giving Wright the benefit of the doubt in many of these instances, one will find that the ambiguity is elsewhere cleared up and that a negative construction need not be placed on the statement in question.
The fact that many who approach Wright are already convinced of his heterodoxy and are merely seeking proof has resulted in numerous misreadings and misrepresentations.
4) A sense of urgency. Given the heat of the debate concerning the theology of N.T. Wright in Reformed circles at the moment it is exceedingly difficult to approach Wright’s work with an open mind. One is pressed to either side with or oppose Wright from the outside. This sense of urgency has resulted in many Reformed readers of Wright having made up their minds about them before they have ever studied him carefully. The possibility of anyone keeping an open mind about Wright for long enough to come to a truly informed judgment is increasingly unlikely in Reformed circles.
Wider scholarship is a different matter. The debate is cooler there and I would strongly recommend engagement with what some of Wright’s more scholarly critics have to say about him.
5) Arrogance. Appreciation of Wright in Reformed circles has been dismissed (by leading critics such as Duncan) as a fad for the theologically naïve, former theonomists, those who are ignorant of much of the Reformed theological tradition, etc. I feel that many such critiques arise from a theological arrogance that is dismissive of anything that is not recycling the texts that Reformed people have been reading for centuries.
Furthermore, the idea that an Anglican bishop might score points against the Reformed tradition hurts Reformed theological pride (which is quite widespread, in my experience). What have the heirs of Westminster to learn from a son of Canterbury? Openness to learn positive lessons from other traditions is not the greatest virtue of the Reformed churches. Many Reformed people continue to approach Anglican thinkers with suspicion and a historical chip on their shoulder.
6) Theological romanticism. The idea that the acme of theological achievement was reached in 17th century Reformed confessionalism leads many people to reject the idea that the major Reformed confessions were products of their own time that may be revealed to have serious weaknesses. I think that many Reformed people are scared by the notion that God might have new lessons to teach His Church. God might even lead us beyond Protestantism and the Reformed faith to something even more glorious.
For those for whom Protestantism and the Reformed faith have become ends in themselves and the theological zeniths to which God will lead his people this is a very uncomfortable truth to swallow. It would involve uprooting them from their theological comfort zone and would also alert them to the fact that many other traditions (even more liberal ones) have proved far more willing to make progress than they have. They would find themselves in the position of the older brother once the prodigal had returned.
7) Peer pressure. The mimetic character of human action makes it increasingly hard for Reformed people to defend Wright against criticisms once the first stones have been thrown at him. People who do so risk losing friends, positions, credibility, etc. Even charitable and calm engagement with Wright might raise concerns of compromise in some circles. The mob is baying and it takes a stout heart to stand for the truth and refuse to put the worst construction on Wright’s theology.
There is a tendency for human society to degenerate into finding its unity in shared enemies. This is a particular danger in Reformed circles at the moment. One proves that one is on the right side by attacking N.T. Wright. Even though many of the criticisms levelled at Wright as a result of this may be legitimate, they are made for quite the wrong reasons. One of the things that has particularly irritated me about these debates is the degree of hair-splitting that many have employed in their critiques of Wright. The sense is given that one has the duty to disagree with Wright to the greatest degree that one possibly can and distance yourself from him by the largest margin, lest you become scapegoat too. If you can’t bring yourself to throw the big rocks, check pebbles. The important thing is that you join in the stoning.
Naming names, I think that Doug Wilson is a perfect example of this tendency. When Wilson’s orthodoxy is under attack and he finds himself associated with Wright, he feels the need to prove that he is on the right side by criticizing Wright. However, he is aware that Wright is generally innocent of the charges that many have levelled against him in Reformed circles. Consequently, he must split some hairs and find as many ways in which he can disagree with Wright as possible, just so that he can join in the scapegoating. As one who has an appreciation for much of Wilson’s work, I find this very sad.
8) Attempts to maintain ecclesiastical power and the status quo. I think that many people know that the effects of a widespread acceptance of Wright’s thought in Reformed circles would open up deep-rooted faultlines in Reformed circles and lead to a big shake-up of the present order. It is not surprising that people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo do not want Wright to gain a fair hearing and seek to poison people against him.
Admitting the validity of many of Wright’s points would also threaten Reformed identity, which is in too many circles one deeply affected with ecclesiastical parochialism. The idea that the Reformed tradition needs to get into the habit of listening to voices outside its walls is one that many Reformed people find hard to accept. The Reformed world is small and there are people who like being big fish in a small pond. They want to build the walls of the Reformed churches as high as possible to prevent the pond from becoming part of the large lake of the wider Christian Church, knowing that they would then occupy far less favourable a position within the theological foodchain.
9) A lack of charity. Reformed people love battling for the truth. Many Reformed people just love battling, period, and the idea of battling for such a noble cause as the truth appeals to them. Charity in Reformed theological debate is not easy to come by. The idea of calmly working out differences in a grown up conversation is alien to many Reformed people. The gospel is always at stake. The idea of theological diversity in Reformed churches is one that scares many people. This lack of charity is particularly evident when the views under discussion did not originate within the Reformed camp. There is a sensed need to keep the tradition hermetically sealed from others to avoid contagion. Cross-pollination does not fit nicely into the plans of many to create a pure Reformed breed of theology.
10) Paradigm problems. Many of Wright’s Reformed critics are systematically incapable of understanding him. Their minds have been formed by very narrow (though voluminous in quantity) reading and the ruts of their mental pathways are deep. Understanding Wright demands that they develop new ways of thinking. For the person who has largely limited his reading to theologians within a narrow tradition this becomes increasingly harder to do. Ironically, the more such people read, the harder it becomes.
Furthermore, many Reformed people think like moderns and cannot understand premodern and postmodern ways of thinking, which can work quite differently. They cannot understand the persuasive power of, for example, patristic exegesis, of medieval theology, or of N.T. Wright, because their minds are so bound to modern habits of thought. Such people translate Wright and others into their own categories of thought and badly caricature them in the process.
11) Stupidity. A few of Wright’s critics in Reformed circles are just in over their own heads. They are not theologically gifted or well read enough to give the sort of theological engagement that a thinker like Wright demands.
The above list may seem uncharitable to some. Perhaps in some respects it is less charitable than it could be. However, I find it increasingly harder to put a charitable construction on the actions and writings of many of Wright’s Reformed critics.
I just hope that one day the debate will cool down enough for genuine progress to be made. Wright’s theology is not, I believe, the final interpretation of Paul. He is not without his problems. Wright needs to be corrected, qualified and counterbalanced in many different respects. We should feel keenly the lack of careful and balanced critics and not take it as a cause for pride, nor should we dismiss those who oppose Wright. We need voices to question Wright, but we need them to question Wright for the right reasons. Perhaps it is time for us to pray for God to raise up such people.