Debating the Rights and Wrongs of N. T. Wright

This is a fascinating panel discussion on Pauline theology, focused on the scholarship and interpretive work of the great N. T. Wright.  As the discussion makes evident, Wright’s grasp of the Old and New Testaments and the extant writings of Second Temple Judaism is remarkable.  Few scholars can match the breadth of his erudition.  The discussion also makes evident that not all biblical scholars are convinced by the arguments advanced in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  This, of course, is to be expected.  Only time will tell whether Wright’s overall interpretation of the Apostle will withstand vigorous scrutiny and debate.

The discussion begins with Wright describing his basic thesis that a meta-narrative of the return of YHWH and the achievement of a new Exodus underlies Paul’s theological reflections.  I remember finding this thesis not only plausible but convincing when I first encountered it in Wright’s books many years ago.  “Of course Paul interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus as the antitype of the Exodus. Paul was a Jew, wasn’t he?  He celebrated celebrated Passover annually, didn’t he?”  Yet as the responses of the panelists demonstrate, not everyone agrees with Wright. If the new Exodus is a controlling story for Paul, they argue, one would expect it to be more explicit in his letters.

Doug Campbell takes the lead in the critique.  He vigorously disagrees with Wright’s salvation history approach, preferring instead what is often referred to as an apocalyptic reading of Paul.  I found the exchange between Wright and Campbell confusing on this point.  I do not see why the two approaches are necessarily mutually exclusive.   It often seemed to me that the two scholars frequently talked past each other.  Why cannot it have been the case that Paul believed that Christ had come in the fulfillment of prophecy and that his surprising revelation incited a revolution in thinking?

I confess that I found Campbell’s performance disappointing.  At times he comes off as more concerned to score debating points than discussing the substance of Wright’s arguments.  I am sympathetic to his reading of Paul and would have liked to have heard more from him. I had to chuckle when Wright quips that Campbell is really more a systematic theologian than biblical scholar. There have been times when reading Campbell when I have wondered the same thing. Of course, the same might also be said of Wright. Campbell needs to work on his oral presentation.  He also needs to completely eliminate the expression “ok?” from his speech. It’s insulting to the audience.

I also would have liked to have heard more from Richard Hays.  Next to Wright, he’s the most accomplished biblical scholar on the panel, and I know that he disagrees with Wright on key points. I realize he was the moderator of this discussion, but I do not see why this had to exclude a more active engagement with his old friend. It would have been interesting.


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5 Responses to Debating the Rights and Wrongs of N. T. Wright

  1. Pingback: Morning no coffee yet 2014-11-15 – Is Wright right? | Mangy Dog

  2. brian says:

    Hi Father,

    I’m at work right now, so I can’t play the video. Strangely enough, I was reading some of NT Wright’s massive work on Paul yesterday while my car was being fixed. I personally make a distinction between the kind of creative theology that a Balthasar or a Bulgakov does and the kind of biblical exegesis plus theological commentary that Wright does, but this is not intended to diminish NT Wright. Indeed, I think his basic argument is incredibly persuasive. His notion that a lot of bad theology has resulted from a misreading of the fundamental biblical narrative or a dismissal of narrative as fundamental is very sound.


  3. Charles Twombly says:

    Must listen to this more than once. Thanks, Aidan!


  4. Mark Stone says:

    I’m looking forward to Campbell’s continued scholarship. I think he’ll really continue to flesh out the details of his approach and improve his presentation. His next book (Framing Paul) definitely looks interesting.


  5. Grant says:

    One of the problems I often have when reading others summarizing and/or critiquing some of NT Wright’s interpretations is they often don’t deal with the wider framework of ancient world-views and societies in which he bases his interpretations, of how things were approached and understand then and therefore what those things that say Paul wrote might means when heard within the peoples it was written within and to (rather than say the 8th century, or 15th century etc).

    And I think this has to do with the fact that NT Wright is a trained ancient historian as well as a biblical scholar, and it not just leads him to a familiarity with wider texts around the period but a understanding of approaching the wider texts as well as the historical events and cultures in which all of this was located in. This I feel is often only partially or not really addressed at all, and this I think is the problem (and it isn’t just a problem with ‘conservative’ biblical scholars but also with ‘liberal’ ones too), they don’t as a whole have the needed training in ancient history and classics, not just the texts but the wider study, knowledge and historian’s craft, which is reflected in the criticisms offered. This doesn’t refute questions and critiques in themselves, but it does make them partial (or so it seems to me) at best, and somewhat blunted right from the start, and not able to address the fuller argument given by not addressing the context it is being argued from.

    I certainly think it would benefit biblical scholars and theologians more to gain an understanding of ancient history and the ancient historian’s craft (and that would be more than just the church history courses offered) as these events, texts and arguments happened in real communities and cultures of the world bringing in all the meanings, understandings and assumptions and debates going around in that time, and wasn’t abstract issues separated from their historical cultural and social context, so it would be something that could only benefit. And personally I have often felt reading discussions of NT Wright it is an aspect and understanding that is lacking.


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