N. T. Wright and Method and Matter

I just received the newest issue of JETS and was glad to see that they’ve published the plenary papers from the 2010 meeting (Schreiner, Thielman, and Wright on justification).  As he works through some preliminary points in his paper, “Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” Wright touches briefly on method in Protestant theology in response to some of his critics:

Now I discover that some from what I had thought were Protestant quarters are accusing me of something called “biblicism.”  I’m not sure what that is, exactly.  What I am sure of is what I learned forty years ago from Luther and Calvin that the primary task of a teacher of the church is to search Scripture ever more deeply and to critique all human traditions in the light of that, not to assemble a magisterium on a platform and tell the worried faithful what the tradition says and hence how they are to understand Scripture.  To find people in avowedly Protestant colleges taking what is basically a Catholic position would be funny if it was not so serious.  To find them then accusing me of crypto-Catholicism is worse.  To find them using against me the rhetoric that the official church in the 1520s used against Luther – “How dare you say something different from what we’ve always believed all these centuries” – again suggests that they have not only no sense of irony, but no sense of history.  I want to reply, how dare you propose a different theological method from that of Luther and Calvin, a method of using human tradition to tell you what Scripture said?  On this underlying question, I am standing firm with the great Reformers against those who, however Baptist in their official theology, are in fact neo-Catholics (p. 51).

Lest I appear to be merely a cantankerous critic, I’ll say first that one of the things I appreciate about Wright’s work is the way in which it pushes us to coordinate the biblical themes of reconciliation with God and reconciliation between Jew and Gentile.  Whether he gets all the details worked out perfectly or not, the relationship between Jew and Gentile is a prominent issue in Paul and one that I probably take more seriously because of Wright underscoring it.

All the same, I think one of the problems in the paragraph quoted above is the insinuation that the theologians of the Reformation prized a methodological breakthrough over a material one.  If Wright’s understanding of justification is in some ways at odds with that of the Reformers (and Wright himself certainly seems to indicate this in endeavoring to provide a sturdier account of justification), I’m not sure that appealing to methodological continuity would generate a great deal of acquiescence if he, Luther, and Calvin were somehow granted an opportunity to have a conversation together about justification.  It seems to me that such a claim to be heir to Luther, Calvin, et al. based on (real or perceived) formal consonance overlooks how much the Reformation theologians valued the conclusions of their exegesis and not simply the ways in which they arrived at those conclusions.  This is not to claim that Wright is wrong so much as it is to question how fitting the invocation of Luther and Calvin is at this point.

Any thoughts on this?


6 thoughts on “N. T. Wright and Method and Matter

  1. Pingback: N. T. Wright and Method and Matter « Theology Forum - Christian IBD

  2. Personally, I follow a biblical theology – but for mostly practical purposes, rather than methodological. But? Abandoning that method (as perhaps many secretly have), leads to many problems and questions.

    1) Did Luther and Calivin really not care much about their method? Could you describe precisely where you feel that Luther and Calvin’s conclusions, departed from the “solus scriptura” or “sola scriptura” methodology?

    2) Are you accusing them of duplicity, when they appeared to favor this methodology, as their central principle?

    3) Perhaps after all, they would agree with Wright, on the basis of his better biblical argument regarding justification say. And change their views, the result, to his.

    4) What about Wright’s complaints that non-Biblical “Protestants” are … duplicitous? That they are merely pretending to be Protestants, honoring scripture; but they are really the new, Crypto-Catholics?

    5) If scripture is not the basis of contemporary “Protestant” theology, then what, precisely, is? What firmer basis than scripture, would a critic of “biblicism” propose? The Church? Again?

    6) No doubt, there are several other possible sources of morality and even theology: positive law, say; or academic Ethics; or natural law; or Reason. But are any of these fixed or solid enough? Most of them change every few years; much of what they do is highly speculative. Should we just cut loose the ropes to scripture … and go with whatever academic fad presents itself this week? As the holy and sacred?

    Should we be checking the academic journals and religious talk shows, to find out what is sacred this week?

    To be sure, I am reasonably sympathetic to the claims of Natural Law say; and academic Ethics; and Reason. Still?

    7) Then too, a huge number of people have read at least parts of the Bible; it is still a much bigger audience, than the readership for academic Ethics; Philosophy; even Reason. The Bible is still the “lingua franca,” the touchstone, of the world of at least popular ethics and morality, in the West. Few people would understand a formal ethical argument; many more would understand something based on a few lines of the Bible.

    To be sure though? You might find even in the Bible itself some lines indicating a study of God that would extend beyond the BIble. The Gospel of John for example, suggests that Jesus said and did many things that were not recorded in the Bible. While Paul might be taken to have proposed a kind of agnosticism, when he suggested that he listened “to an unknown God.” And suggested that his own “knowledge” and “prophesy” would “pass away.”

    Here and elsewhere the Bible itself – ironically, selfdeconstructively – might authorize a study of religion, that would include, but also extend beyond, scripture.

  3. Steve-

    I’m sorry, I don’t have access to the whole article but I would be surprised if this was in any way central to the discussion for Wright. This feels like rhetoric. A (I think perfectly legitimate) jab at the irony of those who have set themselves up as the evangelical protestant version of the Magisterium. I’m not a Reformed historian but as I recall method was VERY much at the center of the break with Rome. All the solas and the semper (reforming that is) are very much about method. This seems like a perfectly legitimate–even necessary–point to make in the current climate.

    • Beau,

      Thanks for your thoughts here. I agree that methodology played a significant role in the Reformation, but my point here is that it’s not the only thing the Reformers cared about. That’s why it seems dubious to me to say that someone is the true heir of, say, Luther when one doesn’t agree with the substance of what he advocated. If methodology alone is sufficient to claim continuity, then, frankly, just about anyone who’s trying to do exegesis and allow Scripture to norm their theology can urge that they represent, e.g., true Lutheranism. It may be that some of the critics of Wright have made appeals whose tenor is different from that of what Luther or Calvin would say if they were alive (I suppose it depends on which critics we’re thinking of). However, if Wright wants to say that his critics have deviated from the method of Reformation theology, I think it only fitting for him to acknowledge that, since in some ways he deviates from the matter of Reformation theology, Luther and Calvin probably would be equally unhappy with his theological moves.

  4. Can we really so clearly differentiate “method” from “substance” or findings? It is often taught in academic methodology classes, that different methods contain certain biases, for certain kinds of content. The kind of fish you catch, depends on what kind of line and bait you use.

    Indeed, “solus scriptura” isn’t just a method; it is also a statement about the very high value of scripture. Possibly in fact, it is the deification of scripture, of the “word.” Therefore? Protestant founders like Calvin might even – indeed – change their “substance.” If a new scriptural analysis suggested that scripture indicated some new conclusion, different from what they thought earlier.

    Is theology immune to progress? Can’t we find something in scripture that Calvin didn’t? And then? Change Protestantism somewhat. Even with a sort of approval in effect, from Calvin and others.

    I think the Protestant founders’ adherence to “method” and/or scripture, was such that they themselves would allow many of their own ideas, conclusions, to be questioned and in some cases reversed. If and when a scripture-based method indicated that need.

  5. Pingback: What Is the Fundamental Reformation Legacy? « Before All Things

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