Fortress Press published The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG) in 1992. It is, one might claim, an old book to be reviewing now. But this review is timely, I think, for two reasons. First, NTPG is the foundational volume of what has become a three--and soon to be four--volume collection by N.T. Wright, "Christian Origins and the Question of God." My review of this first volume will set the stage for my review of the fourth--Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG).
Second, although it came out in 1992, the ideas in NTPG have not been discussed or applied practically as often as they ought by those interested in Christianity--whether that interest be related to theology or history or missions or apologetics. Problematically, many have been deterred by it's difficult academic styling and seemingly impenetrable density.
The fruit of working through this piece has been invaluable, for me at least. I've an increased confidence in God in the face of intellectual doubt and academic debate, and am more readily able to articulate my faith with those who are curious about this God who suffers for the sake of those whom he loves. And for many of us, for much of the time, as goes the head, so goes the heart.
This book is not only a powerful read from start to finish, its usefulness as a searchable resource in Christian epistemology, historiography and the context of the rise of Christianity is remarkable. The table of contents includes every chapter, subchapter and subheading, which are descriptive enough to guide the researcher to the appropriate pages.
Because the book is broken up into several definite parts, this will be a several part review. This first part will focus primarily on Wright's epistemology and briefly on his analysis of worldviews. Don't forget to subscribe by entering your email address into the box on the upper right hand side of this page. I'll be publishing more of this review in the coming weeks.
An Introduction to Parts I & II: Introduction and Tools for the Task
In the first several pages Wright lays out his aims and motivations for the project. As I already mentioned, NTPG is the first of what is now a three-almost four-volume project, which Wright has named “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” “I hope, then,” he writes of the project as a whole, “to offer a consistent hypothesis on the origin of Christianity, with particular relation to Jesus, Paul and the gospels, which will set out new ways of understanding major movements and thought patterns, and suggest new lines that exegesis can follow up” (xiv). And later, in the introduction, he writes, “Underneath all these puzzles, I suggest that there are two questions in particular from which we cannot escape. They are: (1) How did Christianity begin, and why did it take the shape that it did? And (2) What does Christianity believe, and does it make sense?” (10)
Wright is both an academic and a churchman, and it is from a synthesis of these two disciplines that he writes. Naturally, then, the first problem he addresses in the introduction is the ongoing battle between the churchman and the academician. The former thinks that the academic has come to nitpick and spoil the supernatural fruit of the Bible, and therefore calls the academy a house of heretics and leaves in a huff. The latter scoffs at the churchman and calls him uneducated and naïve. There is a great mistrust “that separates those who advocate simple piety from those who insist that faith must always be ‘seeking understanding’” (5). Wright breaks these two groups down further into four basic types of readers.
There are those who (1) read with what he calls a “pre-critical” eye, who “ask few if any questions about what it meant in its historical context, and listen for the voice of God as they read the text.” This is often coined, “fundamentalism.” Then there are those who (2) look at the text as primarily historical, asking only questions about context and leaving the supernatural at the door. (3) Next is the theological reader. This is the reader who looks at the text and asks only questions of Christology, New Testament Systematic Theology, atonement theory, biblical theology, and the like. I call this type the “dying seminarian.” The final type that Wright points out is the postmodern reader. This reader rejects “pre-critical piety on the one hand and the historicizing approach of the Enlightenment on the other” (9). This postmodern reader asks questions like, “What are we doing when we are reading this text? What do I bring by way of presupposition, and in what way am I changed through reading it?” The focus is subjective. That is, the reader is focused on himself and his own process of reading, and leaves alone questions like historicity and authorial intent.
After a detailed discussion of the key players involved with each of these four approaches and their respective philosophies, Wright points to what he claims is a better way of seeing the New Testament. He names this view the “critical-realist.”
Critical-realism is one of the most important aspects of Wright’s thought to grasp, because at the foundation of his approach to history and theology is the critical-realist epistemology. “This is a theory about how people know things, and offers itself as a way forward, over against other competing theories that have appeared in several fields (not least in the three with which we shall be particularly concerned) and that now seem to be in a state of collapse” (32). Wright proceeds by laying out the basics of the competing theories, which are the fundamental epistemologies employed—consciously or not—by the four types of readers we just looked at.
The first is “Enlightenment positivism,” which says, basically, that you and I have direct access to the facts of history, as one might when watching the security camera after a robbery. The positivist believes that he can have unquestionable knowledge concerning certain things, “things which can be tested ‘empirically’, that is, by observing, measuring, etc. within the physical world. Taking this to its logical end, things that cannot be tested in this way cannot be spoken of without talking some sort of nonsense” (33). And, because they cannot be tested using fruitflies or petri dishes, spirituality, theology, and usually ancient history, fall under the “nonsensical” according to this positivistic approach. “Positivism thus manages to rescue certain types of knowledge at the expense of others” (33). This view, Wright points out, has long since been abandoned by philosophers, but is still alive and well within our popular Western culture which highly prizes the physical sciences. Where, then, Wright asks, do we place historical knowledge, if it cannot be "empirically accounted for"? Is it objective information about which I can be absolutely certain, or is it purely subjective? The trouble lies in embracing this either/or dichotomy of “certain objective fact” versus “unsubstantiated subjective opinion.”
The other, opposite epistemological theory, is phenomenalism. The phenomenalist claims that the only thing he can be sure of is his own sense-data. When I pick up my coffee mug all I can really say is that I am aware of something warm and smooth and hard in my hand. The same is true of reading. “When I seem to be looking at a text, or at an author’s mind within the text, or at events of which the text seems to be speaking, all I am really doing is seeing the author’s view of events, or the text’s appearance of authorial intent, or maybe only my own thoughts in the presence of the text … and is this even a text?” (35) This epistemology is often associated with the postmodern reader.
In summary of these two fundamental theories, positivism claims absolute objective certainty about some knowledge while disregarding a great deal else as mere subjective opinion, while phenomenalism is pessimistic about any objective knowledge and instead turns inward and analyses all sense-perception as subjective.
Then, from backstage left, Wright’s Critical Realism walks coolly and casually onto center stage and takes a stand between Modern Enlightenment Positivism and Postmodern Pessimism, who by this time have taken up arms in enmity.
[Critical realism] is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’).
Critical realism is, basically, a compromise between positivism and pessimism, in that it accepts that there is in fact something “out there,” something objective to know, while also accepting that I come at whatever is “out there” through my own worldview and preconditioned understandings. Through critical reflection on my subjective experience with, say, reading a text, and through an ongoing dialogue (dare I say dialectic?) between that critical reflection and the “reality on the page,” I march in toward a truer understanding of both myself and external reality.
Here is Wright’s diagram of this critical realism (35):
is challenged by critical reflection
but can survive the challenge and speak truly of reality
After an in depth discussion of critical realism (which I’d recommend getting a good handle on) Wright moves to discuss worldviews, which play a major role in guiding our observations and reflections. “When, therefore, we perceive external reality, we do so within a prior framework. That framework consists, most fundamentally, of a worldview; and worldviews, as we have emphasized, are characterized by, among other things, certain types of story. The positivist and phenomenalist traditions are wrong to imagine that perception is prior to the grasping of larger realities. On the contrary, detailed sense-perceptions not only occur within stories; they are verified (if they are) within [them] (43).”
What Wright is saying is this: When I see an object or hear a fact, I don’t just see that object or hear that fact alone. These things fit into stories which fit into worldviews. That is, when I hear a fact about a certain speech given by Martin Luther King, I cannot erase from my mind the overarching story that he was a civil rights activist working for the equal treatment of African Americans. My mind will automatically fit the speech and its content within that story with which I'm already so familiar. The same is true of objects. When I see a Frisbee I cannot erase from my mind the story that this oddly shaped disc in my hand will fly if I throw it correctly. Nor can I erase the story of my past throwing Frisbees on the Oval at the University of Montana. A Frisbee fits into a story, which fits into a larger story.
And when I read certain stories about Jesus, I cannot help but fit them into the stories and the overarching worldview through which I perceive the New Testament, and reality in general, as a whole. It makes all the difference in the world that Jesus eventually suffered and died and bodily rose from the dead. Everything about my worldview changes when that becomes part of the true story I find myself caught up in. An atheist will approach those stories completely differently.
To be continued…
Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992. Print.