Andrew Fulford has demonstrated the ways in which N. T. Wright is consistent with classical Protestantism, at least on the basic level of principles. I agree with everything that Mr. Fulford has to say, with one significant caveat. While Dr. Wright does manage to remain within the ideological bounds of Protestantism, he consistently extends and aggravates one of its worst features, the love of novelty. Whether it be salesmanship or full-fledged progressivism, the former bishop continually claims to offer the world of theology “new,” “fresh,” and even “revolutionary” insights. These are, of course, almost always nothing of the sort.
When his popular work Surprised by Hope was released, it took Stephen Colbert to point out that the doctrine of the resurrection was not, in fact, a new discovery. Dr. Wright tried to blame its “loss” on the Middle Ages and Greek thought, but that’s a pretty weak dodge, seeing as how the resurrection managed to retain a strong shelf life within magisterial Protestantism and even 20th-century Dutch Biblical Theology.
There’s also that whole “new perspective” thing. While Dr. Wright cannot be singularly blamed for the controversy over the perspective’s supposed newness, it is still the case that much of what he has to offer is basically a rehash of the Reformed consensus. It is certainly true that Dr. Wright’s Protestant critics should have made this claim obvious from the beginning – and they did not – but that doesn’t change the fact that it was he himself who had advertised his perspective as advancing Pauline theology in a brand new way. Surely when he chides the “Lutheran” reading of the New Testament, he could at least interact with Luther himself, as well as the first, second, and third generation of Reformers, rather than going straight to 19th-century thinkers. It may not be fair to place the entire burden on Dr. Wright’s shoulders here, but he certainly didn’t do himself any favors.
And now we have his latest claim that “Nicene Christianity” and the Christians of the early church creeds were themselves out of touch with the Old Testament and the narrative of Israel. This sort of claim is not wholly false, but it is also bound to work only mischief in the hands of those contemporary Protestants who need no excuse to break with tradition and find their own way. One can’t really make the claim that our Protestant and Evangelical leaders have been “too patristic” over the last century. While it is true that a mere retrieval of Nicene theology will prove incomplete, it hardly seems a reason to blow the whistle on the whole project.
We have in the past pointed out the problems with some early church exegesis and methodology, and so we shouldn’t be misunderstood. The early church fathers are liable to errors of many kinds. The answer, however, isn’t then to start “afresh,” but to see the ways in which the early fathers’ immediate successors dealt with those problems and advanced the conversation. We are confident that the Renaissance and then the Reformation were great periods of exegetical and hermeneutical triumph in this regard. Certainly when it comes to “Old Testament” and “Rabbinic” studies, figures like John Selden and John Lightfoot ought to merit extensive interaction. In fact, practicing Jews and those interested in Jewish studies were known to consult Mr. Selden over all others in 16th-century England! Were Dr. Wright pointing us to a balanced historical perspective in his mild critique of the early church, we would have no complaint. He most certainly is not doing that, however, and given his record we can only expect the wrong sort of “moving on” from his observations.
And so perhaps Dr. Wright is a threat to classical Protestantism after all. He is not a threat because he undermines its strong points, though. No, he rather intensifies one of its perennial weaknesses. Viewed in this way, he’s not nearly refreshing enough.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.