Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays (eds) (2011). Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Last week, Brian started reviewing the above mentioned book on the recent Wheaton Conference. You can see his review of the first chapter here. As I’m sure most of you know, this book deals with N.T. Wright’s scholarly work on Jesus and Paul.
Richard Hays begins his critical review of Wright’s JVG by reflecting on the 2008 Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. It was at this meeting, in which:
“Tom delivered a withering attack on my most recent book project. The book was Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” To Richard’s surprise, Tom didn’t seem to appreciate Hays’ book whatsoever. He “greeted the book with sharp criticism, chiefly because he saw its approach to seeking Jesus as insufficiently historical. Our ‘pilgrimage,’ he said, was overdetermined by dogmatic conerns and theological traditions, and inattentive to the realities of first century history. Real pilgrims, Tom observed, would get their feet dirty on the dusty roads of ancient Palestine. But this book of essays was instead ‘a pilgrimage by helicopter,’ and its authors and editors were ‘pilgrims with suspiciously clean feet.’”
Wright concludes by saying this recent book was a “pseudo-theological project of non historical retrieval of Jesus.” His scruples were that there is too much church-tradition induction onto the Gospel texts.
The purpose in Hays’ reflection on his encounter with his interlocutor at the SBL, was in large, the tool that revealed major differences between the two scholars. Primarily, where it seems they diverge is in the matter of tradition. Hays comes to the biblical text with the lens of church tradition over his eyes; a seemingly (and confessed as so) top to bottom, a la Barthian approach. Whereas Wright, in the vein of what seems to be Pannenberg, argues from a bottom-up historical approach.
Because Hays doesn’t like Tom’s dismissal of viewing Jesus through the eyes of the church, he poses the following five questions to him:
- “How are we to understand the relation between story and history?”
- “What roles, if any, do the the church’s scriptural canon and tradition play in New Testament hermeneutics?”
- “Is there a legitimate discipline of historical inquiry that operates outside and apart from that tradition? If so, what claim does such a discipline have one determining the ways in which Christians know Jesus?”
- “In what ways might the historical study of Jesus play a role in apologetic or in conversation with non-Christians?”
- “What is the significance of the resurrection of Jesus for our epistemology?”
Though these questions concern the essay in which Hays presented, he clearly couldn’t cover discussing them all. So he settles down to sketch his understanding of Tom’s approach to story and history, reflections on the theological gains and losses caused by Tom’s methodology, and thereafter proposals as to where they ought to go from there.
Hays’ Descriptive Observations of Tom’s Approach:
Some of what Hays mentions will presuppose that you have grappled with Tom’s work in NTPG and JVG. So, if you don’t understand, read those monster sized books. And just a note, it seems that Hays doesn’t seem to have many scruples (though some) with Tom until point 5. So my focus will primarily be on points 5-7.
- Critical Realism
- Hypothesis and Verification
- Skepticism in regards to form, redaction, and Synoptic source criticism.
- Extensive use of Second Temple Literature
- The exclusive focus in JVG on the Synoptic Gospels
- Inattentiveness to literary and theological shape of each particular Gospel
- Instead of focusing on each Gospel’s individual shape, he reconstructs a Jesus behind the Gospel tradition
Hays primarily seems to focus his critique of Wright on these last three points.
Point 5: He criticizes Wright for not including a study on the resurrection of Jesus and G. John in JVG. He argues their omissions effect the development of an adequate portrait of the historical Jesus that was presented hitherto. He says, “But I would suggest that the omissions of John and the resurrection from JVG are hermeneutically significant. Clearly it makes a huge difference whether or not one reads the Syntopic Gospels in dialogue with John’s proclamation that Jesus was the incarnation of the logos or in light of the resurrection as the true climax of the story.”
Point 6: Because Tom reconstructs a Jesus behind the Synoptic tradition in JVG, Hays’ complaint is that the “Voices of the writers disappear.” It is because of this, the voices of the authors disappear, and thus, the literary and theological shape to the Gospels are lost.
Point 7: It is because of point 6, that this portrait of Jesus depicted by Tom isn’t a biblical portrait; to the contrary, it’s Tom’s portrait of Jesus. He summarizes Martin Kahler by saying “the critical historian becomes in effect a Fifth Evangelist whose secondary reconstruction becomes the center of authority, perhaps even displacing the very texts it seeks to interpret.” For Hays, because of this, this Wrightian portrait of Jesus isn’t as fruitful as it could be for church theology.
Hays conclusion is that we diverge from the bottom-up approach of Wright, and the narrative theology of Frei, and meet the Jesus that is depicted in the synoptic tradition.
Tom responds to Hays in a very lucid and concise manner. In regards to his exclusivity with the Synoptic tradition in JVG, he states that “I put John to one side for (I imagine) a similar reason to why Richard omits Ephesians and Colossians (not to mention the Pastorals) when writing about Paul. If your opponents insist on playing tennis on a small court you’d better learn how to keep the ball in play.” On top of this, he mentions that up until this time, he barely had anything noteworthy published. Other critical scholars would have disregarded this work if he included G. John off the bat.
In response to Hays’ critique by going behind the evangelists backs to produce a portrait of Jesus, Tom points out that it’s good for readers to “reflect on the presuppositions and intentions of their central characters.” He goes on to point out, that when reading literature, we aren’t being sneaky by going behind their backs and placing aside the story, rather we’re trying to understand it. It is apart of the Gospel tradition that states “he wrestled with questions of vocation and mission, and went off frequently to pray. It is not going behind their backs to inquire what that wrestling was about and what conclusions Jesus came to.”
Tom then points out that church tradition is quite fallible, and that our trust in church tradition needs to be held loosely. He shows that it was by the fourth century the church traded out the heart of the synoptic tradition, the kingdom inauguration, for Christology. For the fourth century church, they saw Jesus do miracles, which meant divinity (to them), but in the first century it meant “the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
I personally think a lot of Hays’ criticisms are unwarranted. Though, in spite of this, I think Hays did a phenomenal job in presenting his scruples with Wright. It was clear, concise, and followed point by point in a deductive fashion.
Something I did find interesting in this chapter, is Hays’ epistemology. It seems that Hays assumes a reformed epistemology when it comes to interpretation of historical events. By this, I mean he presupposes the resurrection of Jesus, and from this point as his starting location, suggests we as the church interpret history. Though I disagree with the top-bottom approach, I think viewing history through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection might, in a profound way, bring insight into the interpretation of human history. I found this entirely intriguing and think there’s a lot of potential in the development of such an idea.
Schedule for this series:
06/01: Marianne Meye Thompson, “Jesus and the Victory of God Meets the Gospel of John” (Brian LePort)
06/08: Richard B. Hays, “Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth” (Daniel James Levy)
06/15: Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends: Jesus and the Justice of God” (Brian LePort)
06/22: Nicholas Perrin, “Jesus’ Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet” (Daniel James Levy)
06/29: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” (Brian LePort)
07/06: Edith M. Humphrey, “Glimpsing the Glory: Paul’s Gospel, Righteousness, and the Beautiful Feet of N.T. Wright” (Daniel James Levy)
07/13: Jeremy S. Begbie, “The Shape of Things to Come? Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies” (Brian LePort)
07/20: Markus Bockmuehl, “Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died? (Daniel James Levy)
07/27: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology” (Brian LePort)
08/03: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church?” (Daniel James Levy)