N.T.Wright on the Enlightened Church

bishop wright

We are all children, grandchildren or at least stepchildren of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and have cause to be both grateful for the consequent privileges and anxious about some of the consequent problems.

So says N. T. Wright, in his little yet important book “The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God – Getting Beyond the Bible Wars“. In a brief chapter devoted to the challenges that the church has faced from the Enlightenment, Wright talks of how Modern thinkers have successfully proposed that all the Earth’s sordid history had been making its way to this pivotal point, the point where humanity had finally come of age. From that point on, through the auspices of science and philosophy, mankind would thrive as it never had before. War, suffering and disease would soon be things of the past.

This meant that the Enlightenment was offering its own rival eschatology, a secular analogue to the biblical picture of God’s kingdom, inaugurated by Jesus. Christianity had declared that God’s Kingdom had been decisively inaugurated by Jesus himself, particularly through the death and resurrection. This sense of a one-off historical moment in the first century, however, had been so muted in much Christian theology – eschatology being replaced by systems of salvation and ethics – that the Enlightenment’s cuckoo-in-the-nest move was made all the easier, and has in fact often gone unremarked. It was this eschatological takeover bid which caused Enlightenment thinkers to pour scorn on the Bible’s picture of the coming Kingdom, in a move which is still taken for granted in many circles today; first, to misrepresent it (“All the early Christians expected the world to end at once”) and then to rubbish it (“They were wild fanatics, and they were proved wrong.”) This “we-know-better-now” move, so characteristic of various strands within Enlightenment thought (and now forming part of the mental and emotional landscape of most modern Westerners), disguised the fact that the Enlightenment’s alternative was equally wild and fanatical: the belief that world history, up until now a matter of darkness and superstition, had turned the decisive corner – in western Europe and North America in the eighteenth century! – and come into the light, not least through science and technology.

The Enlightenment proposed a new perspective and a new solution to the problem of societal evil. Not to be outdone, the church caved in;

Much would-be Christian thought (including much would-be “biblical” Christian thought) in the last two hundred years has tacitly conceded these huge claims, turning “Kingdom of God” into “the hope for heaven after death” and treating Jesus’ death , at the most, as the mechanism whereby individual sinners can receive forgiveness and hope for an otherworldly future – leaving the politicians and economists of the Enlightenment to take over the running, and as it turns out the ruining, of the world. (This political agenda, by the way, was of course a vital part of the Enlightenment project: kick “God” upstairs, make religion a matter of private piety, and then you can organize the world to your own advantage. That has been the leitmotif of the Western world ever since, the new philosophy which has so far sustained several great empires, launched huge and horribly flawed totalitarian projects, and left the contemporary world thoroughly confused.) Scripture itself, meanwhile is muzzled equally by both sides. It is squelched into silence by the “secularists” who dismiss it as irrelevant, historically inaccurate and so on – as you would expect, since it might otherwise challenge their imperial dreams. Equally worrying, if not more so, it is squashed out of shape by many of the devout, who ignore its global, cosmic and justice-laden message and treat it only as the instrument of personal piety and the source of true doctrine about eternal salvation.

In an attempt to “prove” the Bible true to those “Enlightened” critics its defenders strove to demonstrate it’s historical accuracy by redefining what a “literal” interpretation meant:

There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is “true” after all and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes. Which is the bottom line: “proving the Bible to be true” (often with effect of saying, “So we can go on thinking what we’ve always thought”), or taking it so seriously that we allow it to tell us things we’d never heard before and didn’t particularly want to hear?

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  1. #1 by inWorship on October 19, 2007 - 12:14 am

    My brain hurts when I read his stuff. But Dang I love his insight.

    “proving the Bible to be true” (often with effect of saying, “So we can go on thinking what we’ve always thought”), or taking it so seriously that we allow it to tell us things we’d never heard before and didn’t particularly want to hear?

    This should be a creed

  2. #2 by Jason on October 25, 2007 - 9:47 am

    Hiya,

    “In an attempt to “prove” the Bible true to those “Enlightened” critics its defenders strove to demonstrate it’s historical accuracy by redefining what a “literal” interpretation meant:”

    This is only kind of true and not really in the way that you think it is. But I understand that you think that, Wright likes to paint in a broad brush, that them or us crap, accurate or not. Those who pursued the historicity of the bible (Harnack, Schweitzer) in response to the “it’s out there you just have to find it” stuff of Schleiermacher Most amusingly, considering Wright as the source, a look at his “What St. Paul..” should show you that he actually thinks quite highly of the people you think he is deriding.

    Sure “the last word” is a read for the layperson, and (presumably, I have not read it) has much of value in it, like his other stuff.

    But my experience in reading other Wright stuff I find that he happily changes the words he uses and, much more importantly, what he thinks they mean. So, if you characteization of this section of the book is true, I am not surprised that, once again, Dr. Wright is talking out of both sides of his mouth.

    For a really, really great Wright read do a Google for “Taking the text with her pleasure” A paper he did for the Society of Biblical Literature laughing off the herrmeneutic lens of the Jesus Seminar guys.

  3. #3 by Christian on October 25, 2007 - 11:17 am

    Who am I deriding? I am just quoting (and with that particular sentence, paraphrasing) Wright – just food for thought.

    Wouldn’t Schweitzer and someone like Ken Hamm be like opposite sides of the same coin? Both of them placing a lot of emphasis on the need for historical proofs?

    Wright certainly is no fan of the Jesus Seminars (neither am I btw) but he is able to maintain a dialog with those folks i.e. the book he wrote with Marcus Borg.( I am sure you are no fan of Borg’s but even he takes exception to the JS boys)

    I think that Wright, like many people, is able to see more than one meaning in many of the Biblical stories. So he can see it one way at one time and another way at another time. (sort of what Buddy is always trying to pound into me about the nature of God 🙂 ) I wouldn’t say that he speaks out of both sides of his mouth as that implies dishonest duplicity.

    To see more than one meaning does not mean that he is guilty of being relativistic as long as he is centered in the core of the Bible, which, as a Christian, would be Jesus Christ.

  4. #4 by Jason on October 25, 2007 - 11:52 am

    Hiya,

    Oh geez the “literal” in quotes is totally your M.O. Your derision greatly visible in multiple other posts. To say that you don’t deride those under this rubric of yours is bigtime disingenuous.

    OK, now Ken Ham was a 19 Century german academic responding to enlightenment thought? Welcome to non-sequitur island. I am Mr. Christain, your host. Wow, cross your paradigmatic legs, your prejudicial slip is showing.

    I agree that Wright has great vision in some matters. His “Resurrection…”, “Jesus and the Victory…”, and “Christ of the Covenants” books integrate different lines of Judaistic research very well and helpfully to the biggest of brains as well as the the most driven of lay persons. And I am quite certain I didn’t address that. But he DOES speak out of both sides of his mouth in some matters. I don’t care what it implies, even if it is just that he can’t keep track of his backhanded retractions/affirmations. Oh that is too much to get into.

    Again, Christian, never accused him of relativism. Again, focus on what was said like a laser.

    Christian…Borg IS a Jesus Seminar guy. He was right there with Crossan, Price and Funk with their multi-colored beads, and their unfalsifiable presupposions about narrative criticism and the Gospels. If he has chosen to separate himself from them in some way, great. But I think any person of his erudition would diverge in some academic matters from even his closest contemporaries.

    Lastly, as an example of Wright’s duplicitousness, his “I’m just saying what the bible is saying,” is a conveniently revisionisitic. In “What St. Paul…” Wright does us a great service by showing that he is saying, at times, what HE is saying quite in spite of what the bible says. In order to make Paul out tot be primarily politically driven in his persecution of Christians, he poses that Paul was of a school of thought (Shamaite) which, by Paul’s own testimony by his statements and facets of his theology, he was not (Hillelite). Wright’s answer to this is that the Bible, either in facts or in narrative, must be wrong. Let me repeat that, because, what the bible says doesn’t fit his paradigm, he discards that portion that doesn’t fit his mold. He just throws it out and for no textual reasons at all.

    “There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is “true” after all and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes”

    Both sides of his mouth.

    you bet.

  5. #5 by Christian on October 25, 2007 - 12:13 pm

    I thought Ken Ham was the guy with the Creation museum? Oh deary, me…. You may not like it, but you still get my point. Both sides -those that want to disprove the bible and those that defend it – have been stuck in the same historical mire for some time. It’s like this debate between you and me – it’s not going anywhere too soon. 😉 (BTW – literal was in quotes because we often take this word to mean that everything in the Bible is factual, when to take things literally would mean accepting and understanding the literary tools used within the writing. Don’t be so defensive. 8) )

    Sorry to be out of focus – I was just trying to anticipate and pre-empt a charge of relativism. Please excuse me for being presumptious.

    Wright contends here that much of Protestantism became afoul of modernism and in it’s attempts to defend the Bible they ended up adopting modern thoughts and processes. The result of this is that we have been much less than effective in how we serve God and humanity. Whether or not you agree with every remark Wright has made in the past doesn’t address this particular contention.

    The last remark you quoted makes sense to me. Or do you believe that unless you can prove (or at least accept) the historicity of the Bible it becomes invalid? Seriously, I hear many people say that if it didn’t happen precisely the way it is reported then it is not ‘true’. And if you don’t think everything in the Bible is true, then you cannot possibly believe any of it.

  6. #6 by Jason on October 25, 2007 - 1:14 pm

    Hiya,

    False dichotomy alert:

    “BTW – literal was in quotes because we often take this word to mean that everything in the Bible is factual, when to take things literally would mean accepting and understanding the literary tools used within the writing.”

    This is an all or nothing look which I worry about.

    Yeah, I know who Ham is, and there is virtue in parts of what he says. But the scientific presuppositional apologetics in which Ham partakes is and extremely, extremely small facet of the broader issue of apologetics. For instance, the work that Meredith Kline, Kenneth Kitchen, John Woodbridge, Richard Bauckham, Doug Stuart have done is highly modernistic, in many places literalistic, (possibly, in your opinion, to a fault, but I don’t know that) and historically tight. So I agree with you and Dr. Wright in matters of much of theology and praxis, modernism is an albatross, but in the work which is ancillary and at times, redoubt to varieties of skepticism, modernism and its methods are a gift from God. I have a greek NT on my shelf which is the accumulation of the 5000 greek manuscripts and several tens of thousands of manuscripts in other languages. I get to read what is, most likely, a bible which is statistically identical to what was written. Thanks to modernism.

    Perhaps check out David F. Wells “Above All Earthly Pow’rs”, in which he makes similar criticisms of The Body’s synergy with modernism.

    Ah, a doctrine of preemption, very wise, and a great call on my presuppositions. I got my buck-and-a-quarter staff, HO! haha!dodge!parry!dodge!spin!thrust! (who got it?)

    “Seriously, I hear many people say that if it didn’t happen precisely the way it is reported then it is not ‘true’”

    “1 Corinthians 15:12-17 Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”

    in much of it, yes, I do believe that. But each idea in question would have to be looked at individually and I also agree with you in that I disagree with the all or nothing proposition, people grow in their undertstanding of Christ, nobody gets, or automatically buys it all……..Ohhh, i just lost consciousness…..you didn’t mean that I made sense to you, did you. You must have omitted a negation. It’s a sign, an omen! Off to Megiddo with the remnant! This is the big one!

    Please, laugh.

  7. #7 by Christian on October 25, 2007 - 2:39 pm

    You always make sense. I just don’t always agree with you. Anyway, once my head stopped spinning……

    Good example with Corinthians. First, I am in complete accord with what Paul is saying here. But Jesus’ is the pivotal point of the Bible for us. Paul doesn’t make the same statement about Flood. A points and B points? ( As an aside, what do you suppose he means when he says:

    “…because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised;” ? I think I have it figured out, but in Greek his prose couldn’t have been so ponderous, could it?)

    I think (gasp!) that we are in agreement, especially concerning over last paragraph.

    You just want me to laugh because he who last laughs last last laughs laugh last. You won’t get me on that one.

  8. #8 by Jason on October 25, 2007 - 3:12 pm

    laugher getter.

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