In the previous post, I noted several comments from Wright on how the Church has misread and distorted the gospels. I found much in Wright’s essay that I appreciated, and as one who comes from a tradition that undervalues the Gospels and ‘spiritualizes’ the kingdom, I completely understand his reaction against this view. However, I have reservations about the way that he pits ‘tradition’ against historical reconstruction and particularly his assertions that ‘the whole church’ or ‘the entire Western tradition’ has misunderstood the Gospels. Let me make two points.
1) The goal of biblical scholarship (indeed of any scholarship) is to advance knowledge. Scholars identify unresolved issues and attempt to provide solutions; we reassess the sources in light of new evidence, such as archaeological discoveries or new philosophical theories about knowledge. We put forth ideas that are often in conflict with previous interpreters. But at what point is it correct to declare all previous interpreters wrong not merely on issues of individual verses but rather on whole subjects like the Gospels (or Paul)? Note, this is not just saying ‘Hey, we have missed this key issue that needs to be included’. Rather, this is declaring ‘Hey, you all have gotten the whole thing wrong! This is how it really is’. Wright’s claim in the quotes listed in the previous post is not merely that we have misunderstood some aspect, but rather that the whole church—every previous interpreter—has completely missed the whole thing. The church has sailed the ship in the wrong direction for 2000 years! Or, more strongly, the church has not even been on the right boat. This is a bold claim, and although Wright is arguing for the importance of understanding the Gospels and Jesus historically, it raises for me a theological question: If the whole of the church has gotten it wrong, does it mean that God’s Spirit has not actually been guiding his people in their reading of Scripture?
2) I’m no expert on the Reformation, but Wright’s claim to be upholding the Reformation seems mistaken. The Reformers certainly stood opposed to tradition, but they didn’t declare the tradition to be wholly wrong. Luther and Calvin regularly turned to Augustine, for example, for support for their interpretations. They certainly went beyond Augustine at key points, but they were keen to make sure that others in the church’s tradition supported their interpretations. Indeed, a number of scholars have appealed for Wright to give more attention to earlier interpreters, not least because Wright may well find supporters for his views (Mike Bird has made this point on several occasions particularly in his response to Wright at IBR in 2010; after drafting these comments I read Edith Humphrey’s essay, ‘Glimpsing the Glory’, in Jesus, Paul and the People of God and she makes some very pointed remarks to Wright about the issue ). The whole issue raises this question for me: when proposing a radical reworking of a particular issue (such as the meaning of the Gospels or justification), how important is support from previous interpreters?
I don’t think there are easy answers to these questions. I find neither a ‘blind’ acceptance of tradition nor Wright’s absolute rejection of tradition acceptable. There must be a middle ground that recognises the value of previous interpreters while also realising that they were humans. Michael Gorman makes some good points here about the role of the creeds (and tradition) that are worth reflection.
I hope that this post doesn’t come across as another bash Wright argument. However we treat the relationship between biblical scholarship and church tradition, there is much in this essay by Wright worth pondering and much that the church does need to hear.