04 July 2012

How Not to Begin Academic Articles on the Bible

A few opening lines from an essay by N. T. Wright on Paul:
I am aware that fresh interpretations of Paul, including my own, have caused controversy in evangelical circles, and particularly Reformed circles. My own name has been linked with proposals that have been variously dismissed, scorned, vilified, and anathematized. . . .

From time to time, correspondents draw my attention to various Web sites on which you can find scathing denunciations of me for abandoning traditional Protestant orthodoxy, and puzzled rejoinders from people who have studied my work and know that I am not saying what many of my critics suggest. . . .

It is blindingly obvious when you read Romans and Galatians--though you would never have known this from any of the theologians discussed in other essays in this volume--that virtually whenever Paul talks about justification, he does so in the context of a critique of Judaism and of the coming together of Jew and Gentile in Christ. As an exegete determined to listen to Scripture rather than abstract my favorite bits from it. . . .
And the bit that really makes me cringe--
Like America looking for a new scapegoat after the collapse of the Cold War and seizing on the Islamic world as the obvious target, many conservative writers, having discovered themselves in possession of the Pauline field after the liberals tired of it, have looked around for new enemies. Here is something called the New Perspective; it seems to be denying some of the things we have normally taught; very well, let us demonize it, lump its proponents together, and nuke them from a great height. This has not made a pretty sight. Speaking as one of those who are regularly thus carpet bombed. . . . 
--N. T. Wright, 'New Perspectives on Paul,' in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges (ed. Bruce McCormack; Baker, 2006), 243-47

A few thoughts.

1. On the spectrum of conservatives who engage with Wright, I would place myself quite far on the 'appreciative' side of that spectrum. I have quoted him positively several times on this blog, such as here. Tons of wisdom and clarity in his stuff. Puts the whole Bible together in amazingly helpful ways. Etc etc etc. Much more to be said here.

2. Wright is unfairly caricatured. And I too am ready to see it stop. I come from the world of conservative American Presbyterianism, and the blogs are scathing. Downright mean. Methinks that when Jesus said that 'on the day of judgment people will give an account for every careless word they speak' he didn't mean 'every careless word except those typed out on blogs' (Matt 12:36-37).

3. And yet there is a deep irony is Wright's last paragraph in the quote above. He grieves over his critics lumping him together with other New Perspective advocates. Yet in doing so Wright himself lumps together all his critics in just as unfairly a fashion. Like a dad yelling at his kid to never yell.

4. The impugning of motives in that last paragraph is horrid. What an awful example for younger scholars. 

5. Either you believe God is one day going to vindicate you publicly before all your accusers, a la many of the psalms or 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, or you do not. If you do, you will not feel the need to preemptively get a head start on that vindication process. Wright's immature complaining in passages like the above is a reminder to us all that when publicly misrepresented it is always the way of wisdom to err on the side of silence. Gentle correction of some publicly stated untruth about us may indeed at times be called for. But when we do so let us do it calmly, without exaggeration, soothing rather than stoking the flames of controversy and emotions, and without a tone of licking our wounds.

6. On a strictly pragmatic level, Wright's bemoaning is counterproductive. It makes his overall writing programme less compelling and convincing, not more. He had the same victim tone in his 2010 ETS lecture on justification.

7. I continue to benefit from Wright's work and I eagerly anticipate much more, as the Lord gives him strength.


Eric said...

Dane, thank you so much for this. I've wondered if the defensiveness and tendency-to-self-justify of a man who claims to have a new angle on justification casts doubt on his academic conclusions. But if that's me throwing another bomb, I'll be quiet and you can delete this comment!

Dane Ortlund said...

I've wondered the same thing, Eric.

Allen Doerksen+ said...

Hmm, a thoughtful piece Dane (I'm getting this through my friend Eric) but isn't there quite a distance between what Wright is doing and what the critics are doing? They are, as far as I understand it, calling him a heretic whereas Wright, in graphic terms, is defending his reputation as a scholar (didn't Paul do something analogous on crucial occasions?). We might want to quibble about this and that with Wright's tone but as far as I know Wright doesn't start all his work in this manner. The vitriol was particularly intense after his book on justification and I think in some ways he's standing up to the bullies for all of us who believe that if the Reformation meant anything it meant always being willing to expose ourselves to the best biblical exegesis and the best theological thinking. Surely the muzzling of folks like Bruce Waltke and others must give pause to all of us.

Dane Ortlund said...

Yes, Allen, the things that have been said of Wright have been, as I said in the post, quite mean at times. And yes (mercifully), he does not begin all his work in this manner.

ScottL said...

Eric -

I think what you are arguing is a bit ad hominem. It doesn't really negate an argument of Wright's, even if he were a man of bad character, since many other very strong men & women of God hold to a similar view.

Dane -

I think one has to be careful at defending themselves and how that is approached. We all have insecurities and don't like to be 'exposed'. It happened similarly in the neo-reformed world following the onslaught of blog posts aimed at Rob Bell and Love Wins just over a year ago. There was a whole lot of justifying amongst the neo-reformed as to why they wrote so many scathing reviews (or previews) of the Bell's book. If it was true, why the need to defend ourselves?

At times, we are called to answer folly, and at other times not (Prov 26:4-5). I've written before of how I would love to see a conversation (maybe public) take place between some of the doorkeepers of reformed theology (Piper, Taylor, etc) and some of the more progressive evangelical thinkers today (Wright, Enns, etc). And that maybe such a public conversation forum could be 'mediated' folks in the middle (Keller, McKnight).

Let us be filled with grace and be careful of our whining, and even whining about other people's whining. :)

Blessings, Dane.

Jude St.John said...

Thanks for this Dane.

One thing that comes to mind as I read this is how much I appreciate guys who have come under scrutiny and criticism and yet don't whine or defend themselves.

Guys like John Piper, and Doug Wilson come to mind. I've not read every piece these guys have written, but I can't recall ever reading of them complaining about the criticism they have received.

I think the maintaining of a stiff upper lip, especially in public discourse, is an admirable characteristic. Interestingly, I also find this trait has persuasive appeal in terms of one's argument.

Again, thanks.

mydigitalseminary said...

Thank you Dane. I appreciate your clarity and evenhandedness. I started off thinking negatively about Wright simply because I heard others do so, and more recently I've realized it's not fair. I still haven't read anything by him though! I have a number of books on 'the list'.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Dane. I have heard Tom Wright speak numerous times. In most of these instances he has expressed a derogatory opinion about the policies and/or culture of the US. Strange.

Doc B said...

You left out the 8th point; the one about Dr. Wright having a very poor grasp of motive in US foreign policy since 1989.

Steve Cornell said...

I share your appreciation for NT. I've often quoted him favorably but I've also been frustrated by him more than once. I think DA said it well in a review of Wright’s "Evil and the Justice of God," Carson acknowledged, “He (Wright) says some things so wonderfully well one cannot but be grateful for his contribution. And, as usual, he reserves a place for a few things that are doubtful, mistaken or (at best) out of proportion, or just plain annoying”

I also think there are lessons for all leaders when unreasonably attacked to restrain the temptation to overplay self defense. Respond to God; Don't react to man.

I posted related to this today if interested: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/insecure-leaders-are-dangerous/

Danny Daley said...


I personally have been greatly influenced in a very positive way by Wright's "whining", as some would call it. When I read Piper's "The Future of Justification" I assumed it's quality and wrote Wright off. His defenses allowed me to see that I needed to take a closer look, and I indeed discovered that Piper mistakes Wright in some unfair places. I then went out and bought some of Wright's books, and I love them. If Wright had not defended himself and pointed to the mischaracterizations of his work, I never would have given him the chance I did, and I've been blessed for it. Also, someone earlier said people like Piper haven't done this, but he has. He defended himself quite a bit when he had Warren at the 2010 DG conference, which was also a good move because his defenses were true and inviting Warren was a great move. I agree with your defenses of Wright, but disagree that silence is always best. If he is reasonable in defense, which I think he is, then he should do so as long as it points to injustice. Wright had to defend himself because too many of us in the reformed camp weren't doing so, but we needed to be more open to what he has to say.

Dane Ortlund said...

I didn't say silence is always best, Danny.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dane,
When I saw the heading to your post and then read the quote, I thought you were going to be referring to this:
"It is blindingly obvious when you read Romans and Galatians--though you would never have known this from any of the theologians discussed in other essays in this volume ..."

Ruth said...

Let me say first that I find Wright a great source of inspiration, but have not read him enough as yet to critically understand what he is saying. I came to your blog site from a book review by Wyman who said that Wright made him cry in surprised by hope when he presented a beautiful defence of the resurrection. The author said as a Southern Baptist he is 'supposed' to hate Wright, but he cannot. We are reading the book as a text in a missions training college, to give us perspectives on how to offer hope when spreading the good news of the kingdom. Could you possibly give me a heads up on what you find great about the book, and what you disliked?