My friend Grant invited me to a lecture at Samford last night by none other than Bishop Tom himself, the Reverend Doctor N. T. Wright. The main thrust of his talk – or what I took to be the main thrust – was excellent. He argued that natural theology is a good and worthwhile pursuit… as long as we agree that “Nature” includes the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was a part of the natural world, and so we must include him in the catalogue of “natural things.” Once we’ve done that, we ought to have no trouble reasoning our way back to God the Father. In fact, that’s kind of what the whole New Testament is about.
Whenever I listen to or read Wright, I come away with the same feeling: he is extremely concerned with how he comes across to his audience. Obviously, this can be a good thing. He (usually) takes care to explain himself in language the average person would understand, and he always defines his terms (sometimes multiple times).
But Wright’s concern for his audience can trip him up, as well. For example, last night, he kept putting down “theologians” for misunderstanding important aspects of the Old Testament, which causes them to misunderstand Jesus. Their vaunted theology gets in the way. (Nothing wrong there. I’d do the same thing myself, given the opportunity. No one is more fun to make fun of than theologians.) The trouble is, Wright simultaneously takes great pains to maintain his own status as a respectable theologian. He mocks the in-group, then assures us that he is a member in good standing.
You can also see this in Wright’s use of extra-biblical texts to support his understanding of the Bible. Do we really need Fourth Ezra to understand Jesus’s use of the phrase “Son of Man?” Should we read Cicero’s de Natura Deorum to get the gist of Paul’s argument in Romans? Neither of those texts is out of bounds, but neither is necessary to understanding the content of the Bible. The Bible is its own interpretive key. Radical, maybe, but true. Wright seems to be a humble man and a true Christian. Many of his theological positions, however, smack of the academy he dismisses so readily.