13 January 2006

wright and the emerging church

Regarding the "emerging church" conversation, I'm certainly no expert, though I've read several of Stanley Grenz's works, along with at least a bit by Robert Webber and John Franke. I've benefitted from what I've read of them, even if I don't necessarily agree with all they have to say. I am, however, considerably less familiar with Brian McLaren who at present seems to be a topic of considerably more conversation than some others associated with emerging sensibilities.

On the other hand, I'm more familiar with the writings of N.T. Wright, having been involved in a couple of book groups that have worked through some of his writings, though (despite current rumblings) I've seldom blogged much concerning them. As far as I can see, Wright's work on the New Testament (as he himself has intimated) largely functions within the same general universe of discourse as Ridderbos, Vos, Cranfield, Gaffin, van Bruggen, and other Reformed scholars who take a broadly (so-called) "redemptive-historical" approach - though Wright obviously takes more time to interact with, respond to, and often critique the interpretation of Second Temple Judaism given by E.P. Sanders, et al, and its bearing upon New Testament exegesis.

While Wright is occasionally critical of some of the exegetical trajectories of various reformational traditions, he isn't necessarily any more so than others within those traditions and his proposals, even when questioning the particulars of exegesis, almost never unsettle the basic reformational theological paradigm, except perhaps to deepen and enrich it. Thus it seems to me that there is much of profit to be found in his writings, even if I wouldn't concur with his every conclusion.

At any rate, over on the Reformation21 blog, Justin Taylor made the observation that N.T. Wright's recent book on the authority of Scripture carries endorsements by two emerging church figures, Brian McLaren and John Franke, and solicited comments on what affinities there might be between Wright and the emergent folks. While I suspect endorsements on the backs of the books have much more to do with marketing than theology, several figures associated with the emerging church have admiringly cited Wright as influential, so the question is fair enough (even if the admiration and influence might not be wholly reciprocal).

I'm generally rather skeptical of the kind of armchair sociology that Taylor was calling for and imagine the contributors at Reformation21 would be rather less happy if the same method were applied to them. So I'll refrain from comment on most of what was said.

Nevertheless, as with Theodore Roosevelt's famous quotation regarding patriotism, sometimes one must criticize those individuals and organizations for whom one holds a sense of loyalty and affection, and sometimes failure to criticize is treasonous. In that light, I find it difficult to ignore Richard D. Phillips's comments on the matter of Wright and the emergent church.

Phillips writes:

Both Wright and the Emergents have set their sails to catch the wind of post-modernity, so despite any differences, they are being blown into the same port. The emergents are enraptured by new paradigms (e.g. Maclaren's New Kind of Christian), and Wright is the champion of the New Perspective. New wine and new wineskins go together. In this respect, I would suspect that the Emergents are attracted to NTW's rhetoric more than anything else. Imagine the emergent glow when Wright compares today's theological conservatives to soldiers who long after the war has ended are "still hiding in the jungle, unaware that the world has moved on to other matters" (Challenge of Jesus, 99).

First of all, perhaps Phillips meant "post-modernity" in the strict sense of the historical era in which we all find ourselves. But if he meant something more like "postmodern thought," then it is worth noting that Wright has generally been highly critical of what he understands to be "postmodernism," rejecting its relativizing influences and seeing it as, in many respects, fundamentally nihilistic and pagan.

Second, the quotation from Wright is taken out of context. It doesn't refer simply to "conservatives" in general. Rather, it refers to partisans in a particular scholarly theological debate from the 1950s and 60s regarding the divinity of Jesus, a debate that included both liberals and conservatives on opposite sides. Wright's point is that in the world of scholarship the conversation has moved on and the way in which the question was posed and debated half a century ago no longer has much traction in the academy. Thus, trying to continue the debate in those older terms, from either a liberal or a conservative stance, is not going to get one very far and, besides, in hindsight there might turn out to be better ways of having the discussion.

Moreover, Wright goes on directly to deny the radical discontinuity that his earlier metaphor might be taken to suggest, asserting instead that "the new battles are not totally different, of course, from the old ones," even though he thinks there are new possibilities for moving forward (99, emphasis mine).

Whether or not one thinks Wright is correct here in his assessment of the progression of debate over the past half-century on this topic, his point is perfectly understandable: if liberals are no longer giving the kinds of arguments they were once giving, then there's not much point in still responding with the same replies.

Phillips then goes on to say:

The admirers of both Wright and the Emergents feed off the excitement of being radical and daring. Somehow, neo-intellectual Evangelicals let Wright get away with saying that Jesus did not know he was God, but rather that in him "we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life." Wright adds, "One can maintain Jesus' 'divinity' only by holding some form of docetism" (Challenge of Jesus, IVP, 121-122). Oh, how radical and exciting! So along come these Emergents who are intellectually and emotionally opposed to the hard theology of conservative Evangelicalism, and who want a softer view of God, and how heady this must be to them.

There are several difficulties here.

First, Wright never says that "Jesus did not know he was God." What Wright actually says is, "I do not think Jesus 'knew he was God' in the same sense one knows one is hungry or thirsty, tall or short. It was not a mathematical knowledge" (121; emphasis mine).

For Wright even to say that "It was not a mathematical knowledge" presupposes that Jesus did, in fact, know he was God. The question is one of the character of that knowing. Moreover, lest one think this is unclear, Wright goes on directly to say that Jesus' knowledge of his divinity

was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by my family and closest friends; like the knowledge that I have the sunrise over the sea is awesome and beautiful; like the knowledge of the musician not only of what the composer intended but of how precisely to perform the piece in exactly that way - a knowledge more securely possessed, of course, when the performer is also the composer... (121-122)

One might not like Wright's choice of metaphor or one might think that a rather different christological epistemology is entailed by Chalcedon, but to assert that Wright says "Jesus didn't know he was God," full stop, is simply an unvarnished falsehood.

Second, just to be clear here, when Wright says that in Jesus "we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life," he is not, as Phillips seems to suggest, doing something less than maintaining the full deity of Jesus Christ. In the context of Wright's treatment, it is instead to say that the New Testament identifies Jesus with YHWH. This is to maintain the highest sort of christology, even if the categories are ones of narrative and identity before they are ones of substance or essence. On this point, see Richard Bauckham's God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament for further, helpful elaboration.

Third, Phillips quotes Wright as saying, "One can maintain Jesus' 'divinity' only by holding some form of docetism." But this, again, is taken completely out of context, making the tail end of a much longer sentence appear as a straightforward assertion.

Wright had been explaining his view that Jesus' awareness of vocation is a helpful way of thinking about his messianic self-consciousness. The full quotation is as follows:

"Awareness of vocation" is by no means the same thing as Jesus having the sort of "supernatural" awareness of himself, of Israel's God, and of the relation between the two of them such as is often envisaged by those who, concerned to maintain a "high" christology, place it within an eighteenth- century context of implicit Deism where one can maintain Jesus' "divinity" only by holding some form of docetism. (122, Phillips's quotation underlined)

Taken in context, Wright's idea that maintaining Jesus' divinity entails a kind of docetism is premised upon a particular and rather dodgy view of God, tied up with Deism and viewing the "supernatural" in such a way that God's operation in the world is seen as the interpolation of an external force. Wright's whole point is that we can maintain Jesus' full divinity without having to fall into those sorts of theologically questionable views which end up not only undermining Jesus' full humanity in a docetic way, but also presuppose the God of docetism who is too transcendent and too distant to fully commit himself and salvation to the instrumentality of a fully human nature.

Whether or not one agrees with Wright's assessment of such views of Jesus' divinity and self-awareness, either historically or theologically, it is intellectually dishonest to tear quotations out context in order to make someone you find disagreeable look bad.

Sadly, Phillips's treatment of Wright here is not dissimilar to his treatment of Wright (and some other figures) in variety of critical essays and comments. Nor, even more sadly, is it out of character for Reformation21 more generally, if some prior blog entries and articles are to be taken as representative (Helm's "review" of Franke comes to mind). If Phillips and Reformation21 wish to maintain what credibility they have (let alone live up to the "positive" and "pastoral" billing they've given themselves), then they must strive to do better than this.