Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Commentary on an interview with NT Wright (installment 2)

Here's we having a bit of a fire-side chat in which I attempt to introduce people who are interesting in the "New Perspective(s)" and the theology of N T Wright to the topics, using a recent interview as our guide - in bite-size chunks!

Part one (introduction): http://mothwo.blogspot.com/2008/02/interview-with-n-t-wright-with.html

Link to the interview (which you'll need to have open to folow this commentary): http://trevinwax.com/2007/11/19/trevin-wax-interview-with-nt-wright-full-transcript/

The interview starts off with a few softballs. The first answer, given to the question from Trevin Wax "Would you tell us about your spiritual journey, how you came to faith in Christ?" is rather interesting for what it omits.

Firstly, Wright's polemic when explaining the "New Perspective" is often aimed against conservative evangelicals. Interestingly, Wright omits to mention his time as president of that historical bastion of 20th century conservative evangelicalism, the Oxford University Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. During that time he co-authored (together with some of his fellow OICCU executives) a book "The Grace of God in the Gospel" published by the Banner of Truth Trust, in which pulled no punches in setting out and defending the historical Calvinist position. This is particularly interesting to Calvinist critics of Wright (such as myself), because Wright is often guilty of putting forward some fairly ugly caricatures of historic Reformed orthodoxy. This might be excusable if Wright were coming from somewhere completely different and just didn't know what he was talking about - but in fact, he actually in the past wrote a book to defend that position, which makes it something else entirely. I found it interesting that Wright chose to omit this phase of his life from his answer to the question. I think there is a strong case to be made that a lot of Wright's later theology is a manifetation of "the zeal of the convert" - he displays an excessive zeal to downplay or combat the position that he once stood in.

A second omission also struck this critic as being in line with Wright's theology in general. Asked to explain his experience of Christian conversion, Wright omitted any mention of conviction, sin, need for atonement, the cross of Christ, personal repentance, awareness of free grace, etcetera. Now, don't get me wrong - I well know that Christian conversion is a varied experience and that there is no merit in testimonies being tediously formulaic. We don't want to sound as if we were all drilled in the same barracks! There are no set phrases that we must trot out to prove the reality of our love to the Lord Jesus. The point, though, is that this testimony is also reflective of the omissions which Wright's critics have identified in his theology - without being denied, important fundamentals (and always the same ones) of the gospel are all but missing, hovering somewhere in the background. What makes this omission all the more interesting is the fact of these things' prominence in Wright's first book, "The Grace of God in the Gospel". Whereas in his 60th year Wright's testimony has very little to say about these matters, at the other end of his scholarly career he could hardly be quiet about them. I think this is reflective of the direction in which Wright's theology has taken him and no doubt we'll unpack this a bit more as the interview goes on. Note that Wright says that his theology before his twenties wasn't sacramental enough.

Trevin Wax: Why is it that you have never pursued exclusively an academic post? Why have you chosen to remain so connected to the local church?

The answer to this question has a few interesting insights into Wright's personality. Valuable as that may be though, it's not hard to feel disapointed that the answer completely focused upon personality, and had nothing to say about the importance of local churches in Christ's kingdom. Really the answer is rather weak from a spiritual point of view.

Trevin Wax: How is the worship of the church central to your calling?

This is the last of the soft-balls! The answer, though, is again spiritually very weak. Now, because I'm a critic of the distinctives of Wright's theology it's very tempting just to fall into nit-picking everything the fellow says. Tom Wright is an intellectual and theological giant and nit-picking won't impress anyone who can see that fact. However, if we were interviewing a candidate for the Christian ministry we might hope that a question about worship would give us an answer telling us something about the worthiness of the one being worshipped rather than his great love of eclecticism in music, or the beneficial, renewing effects upon the worshipper.


This is all a bit of by the by. We haven't learnt much about Wright's theology here. My point in looking at the answers to the easy questions is that I see the whole bent of Wright's theology reflected in them. Historical evangelical distinctives aren't denied, but are shoved out of view, and replaced by something rather weak. At this point if you're unfamiliar with Wright I think you may feel I'm being harsh. I think though that as we get into the meatier theological questions you'll be likely to become a lot more sympathetic.

More next time!

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