Yesterday I mentioned some comments made by N.T. Wright on the Chalcedonian Definition found in his chapter “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” in Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright, edited by Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays. Earlier today I wrote a long review of the chapter. In the review I mentioned that there were two negatives that I observed: (1) In Wright’s criticism of the effects of Chalcedonian Christology it could be perceived that he dislikes those who formulated this creed, rather than those who have used the Christology of the creed to flatten the historical Jesus into abstract doctrinal ideas. (2) In Wright’s criticisms of Barthians/Neo-Orthodox it could be perceived that he dislikes Karl Barth, rather than his followers.

Now it is possible that Wright is aiming his criticisms directly at the Council of Chalcedon and it is possible that he is not fond of the work of Karl Barth. In some areas it sounds like this is what he is saying, but the broader context leans toward his criticisms being directed at the aftermath of these doctrinal paradigms rather than the paradigms themselves.

So while I am sharing Wright’s criticisms it makes sense to include the second one of interest (he has a lot to say about Bultmann as well, but who doesn’t?), which is what I am doing here.

Wright is concerned that we tell “the whole gospel story, the whole story as history. History then; history now.” (pp. 152-153). He doesn’t want this to lead into apologetics as classically defined, but he does say the following:

“…genuine historical research is very good at cutting back the undergrowth behind which skeptical arguments had been hiding, and showing them up as worthless. This process, while not a full apologetic in the high modernist sense, can and should be genuine praeparatio evangelica, clarifying and posing more sharply the ultimate challenge of the Christian message.” (p. 153)

Wright positions the apologetic of historical research over against that of high modernism on one end. On the other end he sees a danger in the approach of Karl Barth and the Neo-Orthodox. He says the following,

“Otherwise–and this is my perceived problem with Karl Barth, or at least with those who have followed through some aspects of his thought–it really does appear to me that the gospel is presented as a closed, charmed circle, where we don’t allow any natural theology, which protects itself against the ravages of negative historical scholarship at the massive cost of shutting itself off against any possibility of genuine inquiry form the outside. There is no way out and no way in. It is all very well to say, ‘Come inside this circles, and you’ll see it all makes sense,’ but that is no real argument to someone who says, ‘From outside I can see that you are living in your own deluded little world.’ And that isn’t simply a matter of apologetics; it applies to politics and similar spheres as well. What good is it if I say to the government, ‘You ought to remit Third World debt,’ or ‘You ought to treat asylum seekers as vulnerable human beings, not as criminals,’ if they can retort, ‘That’s all very well from within your charmed faith-based circle, but we live in the real world and you have nothing to say to us.’ No wonder Paul’s speech of the Areopagus has had bad press in neo-orthodox circles. Paul shouldn’t have tried to build, they have said, on the signals of God in their culture. Isn’t it bound to end up a compromise? But the whole point of Israel’s tradition–of Abraham’s vocation!–was that Israel should be the people through whom God would go out and address the world, in order to rescue the world. When Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world,’ he expressly warned against putting a bucket over that light. He presupposes that the world can and will see the light when it’s shining and will be attracted to it.” (pp. 153-154)

As you can see Wright isn’t committing to a critique of Barth, per se, but rather his followers (and only Barth if his followers correctly represent him). So I don’t get the sense that he has interacted much with Barth himself. I can be sympathetic since (1) I have tried to read Barth but always find myself wanting something that feels a little less lost in the ethereal and (2) frustrated by the writing and speaking of some Barthians who seem to say so much without saying anything that makes sense to the rest of us who live in the real space-time universe.

What do you think? Do you agree with Wright’s criticisms or not? Do you think they apply to Barth, his followers, or both? 

Advertisements