A Response to Paul Holloway’s Mockery of N.T. Wright (Gupta)

Holloway has recently expressed deep disappointment with his institution’s (Sewanee) awarding of N.T. Wright an honorary doctorate. Now, Holloway has every right to disagree with this, he is also entitled to protest this, but what concerned me was his basis for his protest – he claims N.T. Wright is not a scholar of the New Testament. In Holloway’s own words:

My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.

I take this mockery of Wright personally because (a) part of the reason I went to Durham was to learn from Wright (and Wright received an honorary degree from Durham, my alma mater), (b) I have followed his work quite closely (reading nearly everything he has written, including articles) and appreciated his thoughtfulness, and (c) the journal I used to co-edit (Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters) dedicated a whole issue to a series of reviews of his latest Paul and the Faithfulness of God. So, I feel the need to respond, at least to defend a whole segment of the Society of Biblical Literature that respects his work, even if we don’t always agree with him (and there are indeed some things that I think Wright gets wrong, but I would not mock him as if he were a pseudo-scholar).

1. Is Wright an apologist?

I remember the “New Perspective” wars and Wright was actually quite unpopular amongst most evangelicals for his strange and disturbing views, especially on justification. I can’t imagine anyone thought of him as an apologist. Certainly he advocates for orthodox Christianity, but he is a bishop after all! Perhaps that itself is what Holloway protests, but then I wonder what Holloway thinks of Lightfoot and Westcott.

2. Is Wright ideologically-driven, bad at looking at the evidence and facing it as a scholar?

When I was in seminary, we read The New Testament and the People of God, and Wright is quite emphatic that one must engage with the first century on its own term. He made it clear he wanted to establish a firm setting in history, and a clear academic methodology before embarking on his work on Christian Origins. One might critique his method (by all means, and with academic argumentation), but hardly his motives.

Also when I was in seminary, Wright had been invited to Harvard to serve as visiting chair of divinity. My guess is, Harvard  – while not “on board” with everything Wright taught –  respected him as a scholar of Christian Origins.

Several years back, N.T. Wright and John Barclay went toe-to-toe at SBL in a debate on St. Paul and the Roman empire. The place was packed, many hundreds of people. I think the general sentiment at the end was that Barclay had the better argument, but I doubt more than a few thought – Wright is not a true NT scholar.

I guess I am wondering if Dr. Holloway and his circle of scholars ought to fairly represent the rest of us.

3. Is Wright the New Testament equivalent to the unthinking biblical creationist?

Dr. Holloway published his first monograph in the prestigious SNTSMS of Cambridge. The SNTSMS is the series of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, the most elite society of New Testament scholars in the world. Dr. Holloway is a member of SNTS, and for good reason. Guess who else is a member? And Wright has presented at SNTS as recently as 2014, though of course he is a regular contributor in any case.

Wright is also recipient of the Burkitt Medal awarded by the British academy “in recognition of special service to Biblical Studies.” He shares this honor with Prof Tuckett, Prof. Luz, Prof. Bauckham, Prof. Stanton, Prof. Hooker, Prof. Gerd Theissen, and Prof. Hans Dieter Betz (and the award goes back further to Metzger, Fitzmyer, Moule, Barrett, etc.). Did the British academy forget to do their homework in 2014?

Perhaps the most objective way to tell if someone is a “legit” scholar is by journal articles in academic blind peer-reviewed journals – the “blindness” means that the review committee is not simply enchanted by “Wright the apologist.” I did a quick scan of ATLA and saw that Wright has published with many top-tier journals (blind review) including JSNT, JBL, NTS, Scottish Journal of Theology, and JTS. Now, Dr. Holloway might have a bone to pick with an ideological bend of a particular journal, but it is worth noting that Dr. Holloway himself has published with both NTS and JBL, so certainly he must admit these two journals at least meet his standard of genuine scholarship. According to the same standard by which Dr. Holloway wants his scholarship judged, Prof. Wright fits the category of (more than monkey-brained) scholar.

May I add that Wright wisely chose to publish his Christian Origins series, from the beginning, with Fortress Press, and I just don’t think Fortress is known for publishing mickey-mouse scholarship. In fact, I think it is an insult to the Fortress editors to question their intelligence and integrity by working with Wright.

Finally, Wright is contracted to write the Philippians volume for the ICC. The ICC has always struck me as a series that produces scholarship in the highest class (I am thinking of Davies/Allison, Cranfield, but also forthcoming volumes with Karl Donfried and David Horrell). I am pretty sure that is widely believed. Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but we are talking about guild-recognition of Wright’s scholarship and potential for contribution.

As a final word, I would like to make it clear that I am not defending UnS/Sewanee’s decision to grant Wright a doctorate; I do not have an opinion on that issue and Dr. Holloway may be right that it undermines their own institutional convictions. My concern is that Holloway is misrepresenting Wright, and mocking many of us who are in academic dialogue with him. We do not all agree with Wright, in fact I am going to disagree with him in several projects I am working on (I am sure he is used to that), but it simply does no good to mock him. He is a thoughtful scholar, and questioning his integrity does not serve our students well as future and current members of the guild (SBL, BNTS, SNTS and so forth).

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37 thoughts on “A Response to Paul Holloway’s Mockery of N.T. Wright (Gupta)

  1. Thanks, Nijay, for spelling out some of the details on this issue. I found the original letter by Dr Holloway embarrassing for everyone. It’s helpful when we debate the issues in an appropriate context, but this was not one of them. Misrepresenting in public someone’s scholarly credentials, no matter how small or large, hurts the entire guild.

    1. Thanks, Douglas. I am sympathetic to Dr. Holloway’s institutional concerns – and its not like Wright needs more doctorates – but I cannot imagine Dr. Holloway will come to reflect later on on his words and think this models how we speak of each other as scholars.

  2. Dr Holloway is referred to by his own institution as Dr (see Sewanee website), but Prof Wright is referred by his institution as Professor (see St. Andrews’ website). My aim was to refer to each according to their “in situ” academic terminology. Also, I appreciate commenters making it clear who they are, since it is clear to you who I am.

  3. No criticism for running ads on your blog but I’m guessing ones for ‘hot teen celebrities’ might be of concern (!)

  4. Well done, Nijay! I know that when I’ve written things that crossed the line, I usually felt pretty bad about it the next day or so. I only hope Dr. Holloway is experiencing some kind of “writer’s remorse” right now and will retract his letter. Something tells me that that’s wishful thinking, though.

  5. I am 71 years old and over the past few years got back into theology after a career in something else. N T Wright has been a huge blessing. His writing is lucid, his scholarship sound, his perspectives interesting, and above all they ignite a new found understanding of and love for Jesus and the New Testament. Our church is undertaking an in-depth study of Mark’s Gospel thanks to the inspiration of JVG. In other words, we are seeking to worship God with our minds and using Wright’s writing as a catalyst for that activity.

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  7. Thank you for this response Nijay. Am I right in thinking that Dr Holloway is currently scheduled to write the Hermeneia commentary on Philippians, which I find intriguing with N T Wright scheduled to produce the ICC commentary? There are verses in Philippians which are somewhat relevant to how we compare ourselves to others to our advantage, and their detriment.

  8. Yes, Jim. I consider them both worth reading on Philippians, but I wonder if Holloway will interact with Wright at all in Hermeneia – now I am guess he will not. But if not Wright, then also not Fee, O’Brien, etc. Shame.

  9. I noticed you completely side stepped Wright’s notorious homophobia, which he has displayed proudly in both the Synod and the House of Lords whenever any gay rights measure was being debated. He persists in viewing homosexuality as some sort of sinful disorder based not on modern science, which long ago shed such prejudice, but on sectarian religous beliefs grounded in passages from pre-modern scripture. He sided with Archbishop Akinola and the rest of the African Anglican prelates who supported repressive government laws such as Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Wright never missed an opportunity to degrade gay people but he even topped his usual bluster when he recently compared gay activists to Nazis in a video interview with his right wing evangelical fellow travellers. See http://jintoku.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/nt-wright-wrong-again.html
    Whilst you may be correct in your estimation of Wright’s standing in a pseudo-academic discipline such as theology, I can assure you that he is viewed as nothing more the a glorified apologist by secular scholars. Wright rejects methodological naturalism, the foundation of modern science, as “Enlightenment prejudice” in order to claim that the Resurrection, a christian fable, was a historical fact. This makes him no better than the fraudulent intelligent design creations and most scholars would laugh at such insanity. Your field will never be truly respectable as long as such nonsense is tolerated.

    1. etseq97 – if your beef is with confessional scholarship, that’s fine. But then why bother putting a comment on my blog when I am clearly confessional as well. Aren’t you trying to have your cake and eat it too? Why not just ignore the whole lot of us?

      1. Because waiving the “confessional” flag doesn’t exempt you from critique and the self-congratulatory, smug tone of your article and the fawning commenters patting themselves on the back fits a pattern of christian privilege and heterosexism even amongst so called “liberal” religionists. The Right Reverend Lord Bishop NT Wright, who sat in the House of Lords by virtue of the historic privileges attached to the See of Durham, was both a political and religious grandee and exercised his power repeatedly to oppose gay rights. Confessional indeed…

  10. Physician, heal thyself!

    I just can’t see that you stand in a better place to judge the discipline of New Testament studies than I or anyone else.

    I simply don’t see the “smug”-ness feature of my post. I was simply arguing that Holloway should allow Wright to be judged by the same standards that he judges himself.

    1. I am shocked, shocked that an evangelical christian is oblivious to how his defense of conservative evangelical Bishop of the Church of England, who was one of the most vociferous homophobes in a rogues gallery of fellow Peers who participated in many contentious House of Lords debates over gay rights, as well as mediocre pseudo-academic to all but a small subset of evangelical confessional scholars, rings hollow to those outside of the US evangelical echo chamber. My primary intervention in this lopsided love fest for his Lordship was to remind you good christians of the homophobic elephant in the room that you were ignoring, which was also one of the main objections that Dr. Holloway raised in his letter.

      1. So I take it you didn’t notice Holloway himself said, very clearly: “But that is not my complaint here” – his singular concern regarding the granting of the honorary doctorate was the issue of Wright being a pseudo-scholar, not his views on Scripture and homosexuality. Holloway’s outrage at Wright’s views on the LGBT issue is a digression to his argument as he states it, not the “main thing” so that is why I didn’t address it.

      2. Let no one doubt that white heterosexual male evangelical academic elites will deploy the same legalistic casuistry so typical of the hubris of their religious forbears – the late modern Jesuit or an ancient Pharisee. “Confessional” religious studies is one of the last bastions of such disgusting institutionalized homophobia and hopefully such rank prejudice will be the final nail in the coffin for a field already mocked and marginalized in the secular academy. I do find it oddly ironic that american evangelicals lionize as their academic hero an English Bishop of a corrupt established european Church, with his pompous royal titles and pseudo-academic degrees issued from Oxbridge theology faculties, the last redoubts of religious privilege embedded in the UK higher educational establishment.

      3. Is there space for someone who comes from a perspective similar to that of NTW to dialogue with someone from a etseq97 perspective? My ignorance on these matters is considerable but I really do not think that I dare raise anything, if only to be corrected. I fear that I will simply be blown out of the water rather than corrected. The language in the post is ‘homophobe’, ‘rogues gallery’ , ‘mediocre pseudo-academic’. Is there anywhere where I could discuss things without having to wear asbestos clothing?

  11. Can you remove the comments of ‘Jesus Christ’ from this blog. They are very inappropriate and contribute nothing. ‘Jesus Christ February 17, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    NKG: Done

  12. Excellent job, Nijay! However, living in a very Anglican city like Toronto, how much do the internal politics of the Episcopal Church of America play into some of these “theological” issues? I read enough of Wright while at GCTS to know he is a very thorough scholar, so I’m wondering if there is a hidden agenda?

    1. Chris – good question. Very messy issue with a long and complex history – this reminds us all that there is no such thing as disinterested or presuppositionless exegesis!

  13. Thanks wggrace – I wonder the same. I hope SBL can be a place where people from different backgrounds and presuppositions can come together to study, engage, and discuss, but we do talk about a lot of sensitive issues that can touch nerves. I am so proud of the faculty at Durham (my alma mater) for modeling graciousness in debate and difference.

    I am reminded of the word of Moltmann – “if we don’t talk to each other now, we shall be shooting each other tomorrow.” I wish Holloway had engaged directly (in his original letter) with Wright’s arguments, not his “scholarship in general” so to speak, because there are quite a few of us confessional scholars (thousands, and many thousands in history) who want a seat at the table, so to speak, but also want to accept correction based on text and method when it is due.

  14. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2015/02/the-n-t-wright-way-or-the-highway/

    Is Wright an apologist? Two twitter accounts?, major universities presented on his resume as having invited him for lectures when in fact those events were sponsored and arranged by the Veritas Forum? blind peer reviewed articles not present on the St. Andrews website?

    Per the ATLA reference, Holloway allows for 2 articles in top journals and says that can maybe extend to a handful with second tier journals. That is profoundly skimpy for a 30 year career for someone who is supposed to be a giant in the field.

    That chair at Harvard is (funded) and named as an evangelical chair. It is a position restricted to evangelicals.

    The Seventh Day Adventists have sessions at SBL. To join or attend SBL absolutely anyone can pay their 100 dollars and show up. Seems to me quite a perfect venue for a scholar quasi apologist.

    Your own language on this website characterizes your engagement in the academy as “infiltration” in order to “reclaim or sanctify” and then you assert yourself as a legitimate dialog partner?

  15. Holloway’s response is motivated by jealousy, the result of a bruised ego. I’m sure Jesus is very impressed by that pride.

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