Wright and Enlightenment Arrogance
Trevin Wax: You have criticized very strongly the arrogance of Enlightenment modernism, especially in Enlightenment thinkers’ hasty rejection of the supernatural, Jesus’ resurrection, etc. – an attitude that claims we have needed 1700 years for modern science to tell us that dead people stay dead and so on and so forth. Yet, you are advocating what’s called the “new” perspective on Paul’s theology, a recent innovation in the history of Christian thought. Could it be that, ironically, even as you critique the arrogant attitude of the Enlightenment, you have opened yourself up to the charge at least, that you are sort of embodying that same attitude by discounting years of Christian theology, in effect saying, “Now, finally, we are coming to what Paul or Jesus actually meant to say!”?
N.T. Wright: Good question. There are several parts to it.
First, when I critique the Enlightenment, I critique, I hope, the arrogance of the Enlightenment, but I would agree with the Enlightenment that some questions needed to be asked in the 18th century, which the Church was avoiding, not least the historical question. Insofar as the Enlightenment was saying, “Wait a minute! Do we have to take all this stuff the church is telling us simply on trust because the Church is the Church? Or did it actually happen?” And of course, they said it in a way that was hopefully going to produce for them the answer, “No, it actually didn’t happen. And all that stuff’s rubbish! And we’re free and enlightened! That’s great!”
But actually, the historical question was a great question to ask, and the Reformers at their best would have agreed that you should ask that question. And it’s really somewhere between the early 16th century and the late 18th century that things got much more fudgy in the church.
So I accept the historical challenge, and with that, I accept the essentially Christian position that God always has more light to break out of his holy Word. And there’s all the difference in the world between humbly saying “I want to find more light from Scripture than we have yet had” and saying “I’m going to prove the rest of the Church wrong and do something totally new!”
Now, having said that, two points about the New Perspective.
1. I am an advocate of one form of the New Perspective. But there are as many new perspectives as there are people writing about it. Actually, Sanders, who started it, has been one of the main stalking horses in a lot of what I’ve done. I’ve very consciously been opposing Sanders in a great many ways, so if somebody thinks, Oh, well, Sanders = New Perspective. He’s a liberal. He believes this and that. He thinks Christianity and Judaism are all going the same way. Tom Wright = New Perspective. Therefore, he thinks what Sanders thinks. Come on! Read my lips. This is very, very different and always has been.
Sanders made some points about first-century Judaism which have to be taken extremely seriously and despite a great deal of labor on certain parts have not been overthrown. They need a bit more nuancing, but the idea of Judaism as a religion of grace with works coming in as gratitude for grace rather than to earn grace (OK, there are some rabbis who come in and say some silly things here and there), but substantially that is how it works structurally.
The other thing to say is that the New Perspective actually is not a matter of somewhere between AD zip and AD 2000, they’ve all got it wrong and we’re now getting it right. The New Perspective starts with Ephesians. I actually think Ephesians was written between Romans and Galatians, but whenever you think it’s written, it’s in Ephesians that you get this close correlation between “by grace you are saved through faith, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works” and therefore, “you Gentiles are part of the same family with the Jews.” That’s Ephesians chapter 2. I didn’t invent that. I merely sort of observed.
It’s interesting that many evangelicals have done implicitly what liberal scholarship has done explicitly and put Ephesians and Colossians in a kind of sub-category and elevated their reading of Romans and Galatians to a primacy. Now, the liberal scholarship has said, “Well, Ephesians and Colossians were written later. That’s sort of deutero-Pauline.”
But many evangelicals have actually held that view as well. Because Ephesians and Colossians have a very high view of the Church, which many evangelicals have been suspicious of, and it’s actually often ecclesiology which is driving evangelicals to be suspicious of the New Perspective. That’s why there are questions about Roman Catholicism that sort of bubble up on the edge of all this. If we go this New Perspective way, either we become liberals or we become Catholics, and either way – that’s dire, so we don’t want to do it. And I say, lighten up, guys! This stuff is actually in Scripture! If you believe in the Bible, you’ve got to do business with it and not just screen it out.
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