Anti-Wright Bullshit

There are a few things that make me really angry. People who throw around accusations and insinuations of heresy without bothering to get their facts straight first or without seeking to read those they criticize carefully and charitably rank very highly on this list. This particular quote from Dr. Fesko has been making the rounds of the blogosphere (see here, here and here):—

On core issues, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, Wright stumbles about. He defines the Holy Spirit in the following manner: ‘In Genesis 1.2, the spirit is God’s presence and power within creation, without God being identified with creation’ 1:169). Here Wright avoids pantheism (the idea that God is the creation), but leans toward modalism (the idea that God merely takes on different forms, rather than being three distinct persons). … While one cannot be sure what Wright’s personal views are on the Trinity, his statements reveal no concept of the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Given this absence, one suspects that Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnessess would have no problem with his definitions and descriptions of the Holy Spirit.

I have long ago ceased to be surprised at the bullshit that many Reformed writers spout on Wright and the FV. This is the sort of bullshit that you should expect from theologians who want to retain an appearance of competence, but lack the charity, honesty, commitment to the truth or self-discipline to make sure that they study very carefully before they open their mouths. The sheer quantity of bullshit that the present debates have produced is, it seems to me, very good proof that they are at least as much about power and maintaining the status quo as they are about substantial theological issues. There are theologians attempting to save face. Such accusations and insinuations are thrown out with ease and one will seldom if ever see them taken back or repented of. Nor will you see such accusations and insinuations really substantiated. The truth-value of such statements is not really important, precisely because they are attempts at bullshitting.

Sometimes it is good to call a spade a spade.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, N.T. Wright, Quotations, The Blogosphere, Theological, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Anti-Wright Bullshit

  1. WTM says:

    What bothers me is that the person from whom this quote originates seems to think that with every exposition of the biblical text must come a systematic treatise on anything that is hinted at in that text.

    The doctrine of the Trinity is not in Genesis 1.

  2. Scott says:

    I’m sorry to see you so frustrated, Alastair. If it’s any encouragement to you, my seminary, though I can only speak for the Orlando, Florida branch of it, has dealt with these issues very patiently and maturely. The professor of Philosophy here has named Wright as “the most important Christian scholar today.” John Frame said he believes Wright is a “brilliant theologian; he thanks God for him and his contributions to the Church.” Paul: In Fresh Perspective is required reading in the “Acts to Paul” course here. Climax of the Covenant is recommended reading for our class on my upcoming Anthropology/Christology course (I will have to write a critical review of it). I have noticed that the language of one NT professor here is colored with Wright-ism’s. There is even going to me a senior seminar on The Federal Vision this spring, in which Wilkins’ book, Hays’ book, Paul:IFP, as well as Water’s two books will be read together. Students preparing to enter the pastorate, many of them PCA and OPC, will be forced to deal with these issues responsibly.

    See, it’s not all bad.🙂

  3. Scott says:

    Oh, dear. I just realized that Fesko is a professor at my seminary. ::blush::

    Well, like I said, I can only speak for the Orlando branch.

  4. Jon says:

    So why repay like with like? That kind of language usually betrays bad argumentation…

  5. Pingback: The Boars Head Tavern » Blog Archive »

  6. reminds me of something he said at Yale (MP3 from veritas.org)

    “Don’t assume that because I haven’t said something it means I don’t believe in it. Steven Sikes, one of our leading Anglican Bishops in the Church of England, once said in my hearing, ‘The trouble with theology is that you have to say everything all the time otherwise someone thinks that you’re actually saying you don’t believe it.'”

  7. Elbert says:

    If you find this post shocking, make sure you DO read Leithart’s post linked to, just underneath the quote…

    Then, it is still shocking, but for the right reasons. Are there mainly Reformed writers who respond with ‘bullshit’? Why is that so? I thought Wright challenges not just the Reformed…?
    And do those particular writers respond in this manner just towards Wright, or is it characteristic of their writing when they ‘feel the need’ to be critical (they surely are motivated)?

  8. Al says:

    Jon,

    Those who know me well will know that I don’t use such language lightly. ‘Bullshit’ is a word that, save for the post above, has featured in my vocabulary no more than a couple of times in my lifetime (if that). When I use such a word, I use it fully aware of the weight that it has. I am making a serious accusation here and am well aware of the fact. I want to people to be shocked, not by a word alone, but by the sheer ugliness of what is going on in Dr. Fesko’s statements.

    I do not use the word as a general insult. I am making a very specific claim about Dr. Fesko’s statements concerning Wright. This was the reason why I linked to Leithart’s post in my first use of the term. I wanted the reader to know that the word was knowingly employed to convey something very particular.

    This is not the first time that Dr. Fesko has insinuated serious doctrinal error on Wright’s part (his questioning of Wright’s belief in the virgin conception is a previous incident). Such insinuations are very weighty ones to make. There are those of us who are in a position to be badly hurt when trigger-happy theologians make such stupid and unsubstantiated statements. Our orthodoxy is questioned too. When one has been badly hurt by such people, when the orthodoxy of one’s faith has been called into question by bullshitters and even one’s own family and friends have begun to think that you are a heretic, you start to recognize how serious their crime is.

    Dr. Fesko is casting doubt on the orthodoxy of Wright’s understanding of the Trinity. Please pause a moment and just think about how serious an insinuation this is to make. The doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely central to our faith and any compromising of this doctrine is a very grave matter. To insinuate that someone leans towards modalism is to insinuate that someone is a heretic, quite outside of the bounds of the Christian tradition in any quarter of the Church. Such a thing can never be done lightly.

    It is the ease with which such claims are thrown around, without sufficient concern for their truth value, which really disgusts me. The problem is not that people like Dr. Fesko fail to get things right, but that they are not really trying. I do not believe that Dr. Fesko is trying to deceive. The liar, in order to lie, must think that he knows the truth and must be concerned to cover the truth with falsehood. Nor, however, do I believe that Fesko is really going to great effort to accurately represent Wright but is just not succeeding in doing so. He is neither on the side of truth, nor is he on the side of lies. He is just bullshitting.

    People who know that they will be held responsible for their words (and Dr. Fesko is writing in New Horizons, the magazine for the OPC denomination) do not make such statements. Bullshitters speak irresponsibly, because they count on not being held accountable for the statements that they make. If every Reformed theologian who claimed that Wright is a heretic in some area or other knew that they might be expected to present detailed substantiation for such statements and would risk losing their jobs and being publicly disgraced should their claims be disproved we would all be better off. Such accusations and insinuations put the orthodoxy of brothers and sisters in Christ into doubt. They lead to church splits, broken friendships and tensions in families. They lead to people failing to get pastorates and others being hounded out. Bullshitters show the indifference towards the truth that they do because they believe that they will not be called to account for their words, even though others might end up paying the price.

    I think that Harry Frankfurt is quite right when he observes:—

    Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

    Over the last year or two in particular I have been trying to make it a matter of principle to be honest about areas where I am not sufficiently acquainted with the facts to deserve an opinion. I have bullshitted in the past and still do on occasions. However, having realized how dangerous and sinful it can be I have determined to take radical steps to stop it and have tried to repent of it whenever I find myself slipping into it (which is particularly easy in the blogosphere and on Internet forums, for example, where one is expected to have an opinion on everything). The problem is even worse for church leaders who are expected to react instantly to ‘heretics’ such as Wright, before having had the time and space to study them carefully and charitably first. The level of bullshitting that results should not surprise us.

    You suggest that I am repaying like with like. I do not think that I am. I am not making weighty claims lightly. I am quite happy to substantiate my claims that Wright is being misrepresented by some critics who are not prepared to pay the price of their words. I haven’t insinuated that Dr. Fesko is outside of the orthodox Christian tradition.

    As for the claim that such language usually betrays bad argumentation: I quite agree with you. However, I do not believe that this applies to all cases and I trust that my claims are an exception to the general rule. Unlike many who use such language, I am not just trying to insult someone, but am making a claim that I believe to be the truth and am prepared to support with evidence.

  9. Al says:

    Elbert,

    I think the main reason why the ‘bullshit’ has tended to come predominantly from Reformed circles has largely to do with the issues that Harry Frankfurt raises in the quote in my previous comment. Reformed pastors and theologians are expected to respond immediately to the threat of men such as Wright. Given the amount of study that it takes to properly represent a theologian like Wright the proliferation of ‘bullshit’ is almost certain from the outset.

  10. Jon says:

    “This is the sort of bullshit that you should expect from theologians who want to retain an appearance of competence, but lack the charity, honesty, commitment to the truth or self-discipline to make sure that they study very carefully before they open their mouths.”

    I don’t have a problem with your language… Merely with your method… I guess I think that they suspect you of the same flaws and I’m sure they think they understand the issues fully too… I think what I’m saying is that all you can really fully control is your own understanding of what’s going on. If you are convinced of your own position then you can make claims. I just cringe at claims of other people’s positions. Don’t get me wrong… I’d be the first person to stand up and argue if someone is out of order. But you’ve done it before and you know that these people remain the same. I’d rather you protected your own sanctity (I mean by this your own “intellectual ability” – of which I and others have a LOT of respect) rather than descending into a slagging match. I’m saying this to the detriment of your opponents because I believe they are the ones pulling downwards and I wouldn’t want them to start pulling you down with them.

  11. Al says:

    Thank you for your concern, Jon. I really appreciate it. It is very easy for such things to devolve into name-calling. Whilst I stand by the claims made in the post above, perhaps making the claims in the context and way that I did was ill-judged to some extent.

  12. Steven W says:

    As another RTS student in a wholly different context from Orlando, I can attest that there is an overabundance of bullshit in the Reformed world these days. Al’s points here are really just scratching the surface. We could mention the ridiculous claim that Wright wouldn’t know what to say to someone on their death-bed. That accusation was bandied about with frightening ease. It is disturbing.

  13. AH says:

    And yes that ‘over abundance’ (see Steven’s comment) just happens to be in superabundance here at RTS jackson…yes that is correct…bullshit.

  14. Tony says:

    “Sometimes it is good to call a spade a spade.” Well said brother! Bullshit always smells the same regardless of how many letters one has accumulated after their name. Like yourself, I am also tired of the semi-literate, uniformed anti-Wright anti-FV crap out there.

  15. Al says:

    Fesko’s recent article reminds me that I have a lot of material on my harddrive that I wrote on the subject of his article ‘N.T. Wright on Prolegomena,’ from an edition of Themelios last year. I never got around to posting it. Perhaps I will do so sometime soon.

  16. David Richards says:

    Those who come against Wright do not seem to engage the scholarly work which he has done in order to arrive at his conclusions. That is indeed bullshit.

  17. Stewart says:

    It’s just sad to see reactionary politics being passed off as scholarship. This is a good example of that.

    I recently heard someone say that Guy Waters was “challenging top scholars around the world.” There are people who actually believe that Guy belongs in the same category with Wright. That’s just sad.

  18. Lane Keister says:

    It’s sad to reactionary bull being passed off as a reply, Stewart.

  19. Oloryn says:

    This brings up a couple of my own particular emphases:

    1. The importance of learning to really listen, to hear what the other person is trying to communicate even when their background, purposes, and perspective is greatly different from yours, rather than merely hearing what their words mean from your perspective or (worse) merely listening for some place where they seem to differ from you and jumping on it as though it is a deliberate affront to you. This is not an easy skill to master, but it seems to me to be of vastly more importance than it is usually given.

    It’s long seemed to me that a corollary of “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” is that if you allow yourself to become cavalier about the truth about the methods and motives of even those with whom you disagree, even if they *are* actually wrong, you may be disqualifying yourself for being used as a vessel to help set them free. All too often, once we’ve decided that someone is in error, any speculation about their methods, motives, and intentions are fair game, and can be assumed to be true. This may make for success in academic debate, and can put on a good show of ‘defending the faith’, but ultimately, we’re called not just to refute error, but to act as a vessel God can use to free those who are in error. Failure to develop your listening skills to the point where you can deal truthfully about what they’re communicating and what they’re not may put you out of the running to be that vessel if the other person actually does turn out to be wrong.

    2.

    Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

    When you get down to it, this is the one issue God dealt with Job about. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” In a situation where Job seemed obliged to defend himself, but lacked knowledge about the situation, Job failed to merely say, “I don’t know”. Instead, he continued to speak out of a lack of knowledge. This was enough of a problem that God corrected him on it (though it’s interesting to note that while God patiently corrected Job until he got it, His only word to the 3 ‘friends’ was “my wrath is kindled against you”. Is this something of a picture of God’s discipline of His children, vs the wrath He as for those outside the Kingdom?).

  20. Anonymous says:

    AL, you said: “The doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely central to our faith and any compromising of this doctrine is a very grave matter.”

    Christianity, then, is merely paganism re-dressed under a misleading nom-de-plume.

    The apostles preached that a man who was anointed by the Supreme Being had been crucified by men but resurrected by God from the dead, in accordance with Old Testament scriptures.

    When the scriptures fell into Greek, and subsequently Latin, hands, the teachings underwent a change in accordance with the predilections of those particular nationalities.

    Because their minds were set in the key of a different structure, they projected into the scriptures their own prevailing national religions.

    Doctrines were crystallised by the disputes among early Gentile church fathers who looked into the Pool of Narcissus (the scriptures), saw themselves imaged there, and then projected this, their own image, upon the world through the medium of ecclesiastical councils called by Roman Emperors from 325AD onwards.

    Christendom bears the image, not of the mind of Jesus and the character of the Supreme Being, but of early Gentile theology.

    The New Testament is emphatic that God has never been seen by the human eye:
    “No man has seen God at any time” (John 1:18, 6:46)
    “Whom no man has seen or can see.” (1 Tim 6:16)
    “No man has beheld God at any time.” (1 John 4:12)
    “(God is) eternal, immortal, invisible.” (1 Tim. 1:17)

    These texts were all written after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Taken singly or collectively, they completely refute the suggestion that a change occurred in God’s substance, nature, person, or…any other tortuous Trinitarian formula devised by theologians.

  21. vynette says:

    Sorry, accidentally posted above as ‘anonymous’

    vynette

  22. T.B. Vick says:

    OH MY GOSH!!! Thank you so much for posting this Alastair. You have said the very things in the exact verbiage I have wanted to say at my blog but did not have the moxy to actually come out and say it. I’ve posted around it, sort of hinted at it, but have never just come out and laid it all on the table like you just did. Wow! Thanks a million!

  23. I can relate, believe me. You should see some of the things we Catholics are accused of believing. It never ends. Talk about some SERIOUS “bullshit” . . . LOL

    I cited beliefs of mine with regard to the law-grace relationship that were akin (if not identical) to Wright’s, on a Lutheran blog recently.

    In my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, I have a lengthy citation from my friend Al Kresta, which is pretty much “Wrightian” in its thrust.

    I think he is a very exciting, insightful theologian. I always admire people who go against the grain.

  24. Al says:

    Vynette,
    Thank you for your comment. I apologize for the delay in my response. I will readily acknowledge that the early Church Fathers, by placing the Scriptures within the context of Greek and Latin language and theology, occasionally skewed certain doctrines in unhelpful ways.

    Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the Fathers also transformed Greek philosophical categories beyond recognition in the process. In general, I believe that, whilst the Fathers’ approach limited the Church in some ways, it strengthened the Church in others. I strongly disagree with your claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Scriptures.

    Trinitarian thinkers do not believe that ‘God’s substance, nature, person’ underwent a change. This is a claim that we would regard as heretical. Nor do we find a problem with the biblical verses that you bring forward concerning the invisibility of God. No one has seen the Holy Trinity. No one has seen the divine nature. We should also observe that it is common in the NT to use the word ‘God’ to refer to the Father in particular.

    For a more ‘Jewish’ argument for the deity of Christ (it is not hard to find these in contemporary theology if you look around), I would recommend a book like Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified (I summarize some of its arguments here).

  25. vynette says:

    AL, thanks for your response.

    I would disagree with most of Bauckham’s ‘Jewish’ arguments for the deity of Christ that you summarized in your post.

    In particular, “Bauckham observes that in texts like 1 Corinthians 8:6 we see an expression of Jewish monotheism in which Jesus is not presented as an addition to God’s identity, but is identified ‘as the ‘Lord’ whom the Shema’ affirms to be one.’”

    How does Bauckham equate the ‘Lord’ of the New Testament with the YHVH of the Shema?

    “He also points to the light that doxologies such as Romans 11:36a can shed on the formulation of 1 Corinthians 8:6. Christ is included in the ‘exclusively divine’ work of creation, by the claim that all things were created ‘through’ Him.”

    Are not Paul’s arguments here set within the framework of the ‘New Creation’ brought into being by Jesus?

    With regard to other parts of Bauckham’s arguments –

    “Whilst localized sovereignty could be committed to a servant, rule over all things was proper to God alone. Whilst this is not a matter primarily of divine nature, it is inescapably an issue of divine identity. Sitting on the throne of God (understood in terms of cosmic status and role) is something that only God Himself can do.”

    Is not Jesus described as a ‘servant?’

    “The exalted Jesus is also accorded worship, which is something unique to God Himself.”

    Does not PROSKUNEW denote an act of reverence paid to creature or Creator?

  26. Mike says:

    Nice job showing the word of God Vynetter. Any pro trinitarina verses you can easily read the greek or aramaic and see the difference between YHVH (GOD) and his son YESHUA so defined only through a mystical approach can you put them together, If you desire to do so that is fine but it is not truth.
    Thou shalt have no other gods befor ME (YHVH) yet that is the foundation of your church doctrine.. that’s wild, These days is truth really that important anyways?
    Check out myspace.com/churchfellaway
    YHVH Bless you all.

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