N.T. Wright in the Lions' Den

N.T. Wright in the Lions’ Den

When he stepped to the rostrum at the final plenary session of the Evangelical Theological Society meeting last Friday morning, N.T. (“Tom”) Wright faced both a large audience (2,500) but also a formidable rhetorical challenge: To convince these people that what they had heard about him was false, and that he really is a bona fide evangelical who believes as they do.

To be sure, some there were favorably disposed towards him, as are many evangelicals around the world. After all, his massive defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (The Resurrection of the Son of God. Augsburg Fortress, 2003) has been hailed as the definitive treatment of this vital subject. Readers of the earlier two volumes in that series (The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Augsburg Fortress, 1992; Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2. Augsburg Fortress, 1996) have hailed his proof that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were obsessed with political power and that Jesus’ refusal to endorse that goal was central to both his message and his intention to die. I found both volumes powerful and persuasive at some key points.

On the other hand, noted evangelical scholars like John Piper and D.A. Carson have criticized Wright’s views in print and in lectures; more than one book has come out to combat some of his views; and the previous two plenary speakers at the meeting, Tom Shreiner and Frank Thielman, had delivered detailed refutations of his views on justification and evidence for something like the traditional view that Wright says he rejects. Other sessions at the conference, like one that I attended, featured papers that called Wright’s understanding of justification in Paul’s letters into question.

The controversy had come to my attention when I read his earlier book, What Saint Paul Really Said. You may read my review of it (http://www.chinainst.org/en/articles/christianity/nt-wright-what-saint-paul-really-said.php)  to see why I was not positively disposed to Wright when he stood before us in Atlanta.

As a one-time student of rhetoric, however, I was eager to see how he would overcome the rhetorical challenge to which I referred above. On that score, I was not disappointed. Seldom – perhaps never – in my life have I heard such brilliant, persuasive rhetoric.

He began with a couple of harmless and humorous stories that got everyone laughing and identifying with him. With the audience in this relaxed, happy mood, he moved into his introductory argument. Among other things, he said that he adheres to the sola scriptura  (“Scripture alone”) approach of the Reformers, rather than the obeisance to tradition characterized by their Roman Catholic opponents. In other words, Wright seeks to discover what the Bible says and to proclaim it, even if the message does not conform to traditional understandings.

Since his own method starts with a certain interpretation of first century Jewish thought, this move was stunning. Surely, the best defense is a good offense! Throw your critics off guard by branding them as crypt-Roman Catholics, with yourself as the only courageous defender of the Word of God against the traditions of men. The rhetoric student in me was impressed, to say the least.

As his lecture progressed, he returned to the criticism that he has allowed extra-biblical texts to frame his basic assumptions and his interpretation, this time deflecting that charge in two ways: First he quoted a passage of the Old Testament to show that he really does begin with the Bible, then twice he dismissed charge simply by saying that he had been faulted for relying on some “dodgy” (I suppose that is a pejorative term) non-canonical text. Everyone laughed with him. Well done, Tom. You have convinced much of your audience that (1) you – and not your critics – stand for the supreme authority of the Bible,  and (2) your critics’ charge is, well, laughable.

When he got into his talk, the tactics changed a bit:

First, and repeatedly, he insisted that no one really understands him. Indeed, he is the innocent victim of truly outrageous statements. To prove his point, he quoted a few, to everyone’s amusement or horror, as we groaned at the injustice of some obviously extreme and unwarranted charges.

The other device, equally effective, was to set up a straw man and  then knock it down. I had seen him do this often in earlier books, especially the one on  Paul, so I wasn’t surprised. You know the technique: You first state an opinion which is clearly false, then contrast it to your own very reasonable one. The difference is so stark; the choice is so clear. You merely have to present your view to show the essential soundness of it compared with the other one.

As the tone became ever more solemn, Wright responded to some very serious charges with an outraged protestation of his orthodoxy and his piety. One couldn’t miss the sense of injury that has resulted from what he considers to be baseless slander.

Then came the presentation of his own theory of justification. It was elegant and powerful, and corresponded to what other speakers had told us he believed. It seems that they, at least, understood him, even if they disagreed.

One point which I greatly appreciated was his insistence that, for Paul, works are essential for final salvation – not as grounds for justification, but a necessary result of having been given God’s grace.

Finally, he concluded with a powerful, even beautiful, description of God’s grand plan of salvation for sinners and even of the whole world. Thunderous applause greeted his closing words.

Sadly, I  could not join in with any enthusiasm.

You will have gathered by now that I was tracking his rhetorical moves, which made me more and more uneasy, though I had encountered them earlier in his books. Merely stating your innocence does not prove it; knocking down straw men does not clear the battlefield of stout warriors; posing false contrasts may work for a while, but will not stand up to scrutiny.

He told us that he had seen the other two plenary papers, so he knew of the arguments that Shreiner and Thielman had employed to say that his view on certain key words and concepts were not correct interpretations of Paul, yet he chose basically to ignore these. He simply re-stated what we had been told, admittedly with some elaboration here and there. But we heard no response to the substantive criticisms of his views, only derisive, even outraged, reactions to caricatures.

So, did Tom Wright come out from the lions’ den unscathed? I don’t know, because I had to miss the ensuing panel discussion with Shreiner and Thielman.

I do believe that he won over much of the audience with two out of the three strategies of ancient rhetoricians: Ethos – whereby you show what a great guy you are, especially in contrast to your opponents. And pathos – by which you pull out all the emotional stops to move your hearers to join with you.

What was lacking? Logos – that rational defense of your case with evidence and reasoning that is necessary to persuade a competent judge or jury. In the context of the meeting, and especially as the third of three addresses, his talk was strangely out of place. Much more elegant; more humorous; more entertaining; perhaps, for some, more moving. But not as solid or satisfying intellectually.

Sound and fury, signifying nothing? I would not that far. Wright is too learned, intelligent, and committed to some basics of the faith to mouth platitudes.

I  would have to believe, however, that many  a serious seeker of the truth, someone with a desire to know what Tom Wright believes in contrast to what competent critics have argued, would have left the room deeply disappointed.

As I did.

G. Wright Doyle