Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Wright or wrong?

This afternoon I breezed through Wright’s breezy new book entitled The Last Word (HarperSanFrancisco 2005). It comes with glowing blubs from John Franke, Timothy George, Brian McLaren, J. I. Packer, and Ben Witherington.

This immediately raises reservations. If a book is equally appealing to such a theologically diverse readership, then it must be one of those painfully even-handed treatments (“on the one hand, on the other hand”) in which every side can find something to agree with without agreeing with the other side.

Wright does have some good things to say along the way, such as:
“If we are taking the Bible itself as seriously as we should, that we need to think carefully what it might mean to think that the authority of Jesus is somehow exercised through the Bible” (xi).

This is useful against liberals like Barth and Brunner who try to pit allegiance to Christ against allegiance to Scripture.

At the same time, this is hardly original advice. Bible-believing Christians have always understood that God’s word is the instrument through which he governs his church.

Speaking of Barth, Wright takes a nice swipe at him:
“Perhaps theologians have been warned off by the example of Karl Barth, who provided a great deal of exegesis within his Church Dogmatics, not much of which has stood up to sustained examination” (15).

Then there’s his take on the priority of the church over the canon:
People sometimes suggest, indeed, that the process of canonization is the sign that the church itself was the final authority. This proposal is sometimes made by Catholic traditionalists asserting the supremacy of the church over the Bible…This makes a rather obvious logical mistake analogous to that of a soldier who, receiving orders through the mail, concludes that the letter carrier is his commanding officer. Those who transmit, collect and distribute the message are not in the same league as those who rite it in the first place.

“Such proposals have, in fact, little to recommend them historically…They represent, among other things, a serious de-Judaizing of the Christian tradition…canonization was never simply a matter of a choice of particular books on a ‘who’s in, who’s out’ basis. It was a matter of setting out the larger story, the narrative framework, which makes sense of and brings order to God’s world and God’s people” (63).

1.But along with occasional highpoints are a number of low points. To begin on a somewhat trivial point, Wright has a nasty habit of taking potshots at the US. For example:

“The greatest of the Enlightenment-based nations, the United States of America, has been left running a de facto world empire which gets richer by the minute as much of the world remains poor and gets poorer” (13).

“The extraordinary and sometimes horrible excesses of behavior on both sides in the localized social and cultural politics of North American must of course be borne in mind during debate. So, too, must the oddity (as it seems to an outsider observer) that those who are most keen on ‘conservative’ Christianity on some issues often choose to ignore what the Bible says about loving one’s enemies and about economic justice, and choose to forget that many of the earliest and finest exponents of Christian scripture—the early church fathers—were firmly opposed to the death penalty” (93).

This type of literary drive-by-shooting is quite unscrupulous. It’s deliberately vague enough to elude specific rebuttal, but with just enough calculated innuendo to smear the target while conveniently evading the need to document the charge.

The insinuation of the first quote is that America enriches herself by impoverishing the rest of the world. And that’s just warmed over Marxist class warfare rhetoric. The assumption is that there’s only so much wealth to go around, so if some countries are wealthier than others, that must mean they are grabbing more than their fair share.

Yet is arguable that the American economic engine, through trade, education, and technology, has done a good deal to enrich the rest of the world. Let us also remember that America started from scratch. We got to where we are through industry and ingenuity.

Conversely, if a country is poor, that is often due to internal factors, such as a corrupt government, a dysfunctional culture, or a lack of natural resources.

To the extent that we have a “de facto world empire,” it’s because other countries have chosen to emulate our success.

Of what “horrible” excesses are conservative Christian Americans guilty? Is this an allusion to slavery? No doubt that was horrible, but hardly distinctive to North America, being something of a cultural universal—sad to say.

He insinuates that Christians who support the death penalty are hypocritical, but no exegetical argument is forthcoming to support this charge. So this is just another scurrilous calumny.

And what does the statement about failing to love our enemies have reference to? Is this a veiled allusion to the war against global jihad? Does he think it would be more loving to all concerned if the jihadis were to win?

2. Then you have this assertion:
“So-called conservatives…highlight…’personal salvation’ which owes its real shape to a blend of Reformation, Enlightenment, romantic and existentialist influences” (21-22).

One would like to see the historical evidence by which he is able to abstract an “influence” from each period and “blend” them together into “personal salvation.”

3.Or what about this assertion:
“Nor, for that matter, do the pragmatic, rule-of-thumb conclusions of some other writers of the 16-17C, who saw the ‘civil’ and ‘ceremonial’ laws being abolished while the ‘moral’ ones remained, ignoring the fact that most ancient Jews would not have recognized such a distinction” (57).

But one wouldn’t expect Jews living under the Old Covenant to give this much consideration since they were duty-bound to keep the totality of the law. In the nature of the case, this is a comparative and retrospective concern in light of its historical fulfillment and subsequent reflection upon the final character of that fulfillment.

4.Wright’s primary agenda is a reductive redefinition of Biblical authority. This is how he tries to pull it off:

“All this alerts us to the fact that scripture is more than simply ‘revelation’ in the sense of ‘conveying information’; more even that ‘divine self-communication;’ more, certainly, than simply a ‘record of revelation.’ Those categories come to us today primarily from an older framework of thought, in which the key question was conceived to be about a mostly absent God choosing to send the world certain messages about himself and his purposes” (30-31).

“God does indeed speak through scripture. But we cannot either reduce God’s speech to scripture alone…And we must not confuse the idea of God speaking, in this or any other way, with the notion of authority…[Authority] is the sovereign rule of God sweeping through creation to judge and to heal” (33).

“We find the elusive but powerful idea of God’s ‘word,’ not as synonymous for the written scriptures, but as a strange personal presence, creating, judging, healing, recreating” (38).

“First, scripture came to be regarded as a ‘court of appeal,’ the source-book or rule-book from which doctrine and ethics might be deduced and against which innovations were judged” (65).

i) The fundamental error here is to confound the literal word of God with the figurative word of God as a personification of the Lord’s creative and providential power. So Wright’s whole thesis teeters and totters upon an elementary equivocation of terms.

ii) That, in turn, invalidates his suggestion that the traditional categories are deistic. It is only deistic if you confound revelation with providence.

iii) Even if authority were a broader concept than Scripture, that doesn’t lessen the authority of Scripture. Not all quadrupeds are dogs, but all dogs are quadrupeds. The fact that there are more quadrupeds than dogs doesn’t make dogs any less quadupedal.

Conversely, by confounding revelation with providence, Wright does dilute the authority of Scripture by diffusing authority in “the rich dynamic life of his creation” (31).

iv) To date the status of Scripture as a court of appeal or rule of faith to Augustine (64-65) is grossly anachronistic. The Mosaic Law was certainly a rule of faith. Just reread Exodus through Deuteronomy. And the Prophets constantly cited the Mosaic law as a final court of appeal. Throughout the Gospels and Acts and Epistles, Jesus and the Apostles cite Scripture as a rule of faith and court of appeal.

In the end, what Wright offers the reader is a typical piece of Anglican fudge, a via media from nowhere to nowhere. Like half-measures generally, it is neither principled nor practical.

Wright reminds the reader that he was one of the drafters of the Windsor Report. This, remember, was that brilliant ecclesiastical compromise which attempted to split the difference over the ordination of homosexuals in the Anglican Communion. We all see what a smashing success that was, don’t we?