"I'm not persuaded that the fruits of historical science have suddenly put us in a position superior to pre-modern interpreters."

A few weeks ago James K.A. Smith wrote a bit about N.T. Wright’s new book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (see “Kings, Creeds, and the Canon: Musings on N.T. Wright”). Initially he praised the work, then he moved into his critique. To summarize Smith didn’t like (1) that Wright seems to present his views on the Kingdom of God in the Gospels as something of which everyone is woefully ignorant until he came to explain it; (2) that Wright talks about the creeds as if they are “…the villain that tempted us to miss this ‘forgotten story.’ “; and (3) Wright dismisses “canonical readings” of Scripture (if this true then what are we to make of this video titled ‘The Whole Sweep of Scripture’ produced by The Work of the People featuring Wright?) and “the rule of faith” because he sees “tradition” as a “blinder.” Smith announces, “I’m not persuaded that the fruits of historical science have suddenly put us in a position superior to pre-modern interpreters.” (This is his challenge to Wright’s “originality” as someone who is as much a historian as a theologian.)

To summarize, Smith doesn’t think Wright has introduced something new that the Reformed tradition overlooked. He doesn’t see historical research as having added something essential to our understanding of Christian doctrine that the canon and creeds failed to provide. This book says what people like Abraham Kuyper, Richard Mouw, or others in the Reformed tradition have said already.

Some people commented questioning Smith’s suggestion that Wright sees himself as delivering something new that is actually quite old. One person pointed out that even if there have been people saying the things Wright is saying this doesn’t mean it is not a message that many still need to hear. Then N.T. Wright responded:

"And, excuse me, what’s this about me being dismissive of ‘canonical’ readings?"

He began by clarifying that his experience has led him to come across many people who do not have a solid answer for why we need the “content” of the Gospels themselves. Many see the reason for Jesus as being his death, burial, and resurrection. What are we to do with Jesus’ life and teachings? I must say as someone who has been around Pentecostal and E/evangelical groups if it weren’t for the writings of Wright I wouldn’t have an answer to that question either. It is great that Smith’s tradition has addressed this subject. For the rest of us who are outside Reformed circles with little to no interest in entering we are thankful for the work Wright has done on this subject.

Second, Wright defends his appreciation of the creeds. I must quote a large section:

“I take care precisely NOT to ‘fault’ the great creedal tradition. I use the two classic creeds in my regular prayers and worship – in the Anglican manner: the Apostles’ Creed every day, and the Nicene Creed at the Sunday Eucharist. (Just as they do at Calvin, of course.) The creeds are not the ‘villains’. They were not written to provide a teaching syllabus. They are the symbol, the badge, the list of things that were controversial early on which the church had to hammer out. The problem comes – and at what point in church history this occurred I couldn’t say, that not being my period – when the creeds are used as teaching outlines; because of course they skip precisely over the ‘middle bits’ of the gospels, and thereby, quite accidentally and non-villainously, collude with a quite different movement, with which many of my readers tell me they are all too familiar: a form of Christianity in which it would be quite sufficient if Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin, died on a cross and never done anything in between. The rise of such a truncated form of Christianity is not at all (I suggest) the fault of the wonderful and beloved Creeds, but of quite different movements which have then (ab)used them as a teaching outline which has reinforced (quite accidentally in terms of the Creeds’ original purpose) the omission of the kingdom of God as a present reality. In other words, I not only don’t reject Nicene Christianity, I embrace it, affirm it, love it, live it, and pray it. But the best sort of Nicene Christianity has always insisted that you read the gospels themselves, and indeed pray the Lord’s Prayer, and that these are just as important for shaping who we are in Christ as the formulaic creeds themselves.”

'How God Became King' by N.T. Wright.

Third, Wright rejects that he dismisses canonical readings. He states that his book is “a plea to let the canon be the canon!” According to Wright appeals to “the canon” often mean appeals to a tradition and not the biblical canon at all.

Finally, Wright refutes Smith’s seeming dismissal of extra canonical literature. He states,

“So what’s this about ‘extra-canonical resources’? This is often said but it’s (frankly) nonsense. Without extra-canonical resources – e.g. lexicography – I would not be able to read the New Testament at all. Without knowing a bit about who the Pharisees were – and what the Sabbath meant to a second-Temple Jew – I wouldn’t understand Mark 2. And so on.”

Then Wright goes on to say a few more good things about the necessity of understanding at least some things about the context of Second Temple Judaism and the first century world. I am thankful to Smith for highlighting what he thought should be approved (I haven’t read the book yet), but as someone who has read a lot of Wright’s work over the years I am more appreciative of his response which I think frames his project as I have understood it. One comment said that the next generation will look at Wright’s work “as just another dead end project.” This is false already. For many of us in that already emerging next generation he has helped us rethink the Apostle Paul, the message of the Gospel, the Kingdom of God, the use of Hebrew Scripture in the New Testament, Second Temple Judaism, eschatology (one pastor friend of mine said he had given up on eschatology until he read Surprised by Hope), and so forth and so on. In some sense most scholars are forgotten in a generation or two. That is how the guild functions. To say Wright’s work is a dead end is to ignore the impact it has had already! (Of course, that person said in his comment that Barth’s project was “a dead end” and although I am not a Barthian I think this overlooks the reality that Barth remains one of the most influential theologians even now.)

Update (04/13): Smith replied to Wright and Wright has added a couple additional comments. Make sure to read those as well!