My good friend Damon Reiss and I will be spending some time reading and writing together on the issues raised in N.T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God. This text is the first in a five part series that Wright is doing on “Christian Origins and the Question of God”. Wright is understood to be the leading spokesman for the “New Perspective on Paul” and is embraced by many in the “emerging church” as their key theologian (oddly enough he does not really fit there). He has recently stepped out of pastoral ministry to engage full-time in the academy.
I think my hope for these series of posts is to:
- Stimulate our own thinking about root theological issues.
- To encourage one another.
- To challenge you, the reader, to grab a text, follow along, and engage in the conversation.
The majority of the opening sections are filled with methodology. For some this is dense and feels somewhat pointless. However, let me suggest a couple of thoughts as to the inherent goodness of clearly stating one’s method:
- It provides a common language and framework to evaluate for intellectual integrity.
- It provides a look into the assumptions of the work and allows for dialogue at the root level of one’s argument.
The key to understanding Wright’s method is to understand the problem that he finds all of us bumping into in our post-modern world, he writes, “We must try to combine the pre-modern emphasis on the text as in some sense authoritative, the modern emphasis on the text (and Christianity itself) as irreducibly integrated into history, and irreducibly involved with theology, and the post-modern emphasis on the reading of the text. (27)”
This first volume, Wright insists, “argues for a particular way of doing history, theology, and literary study in relation to the questions of the first century; it argues for a particular way of understanding first-century Judaism and first-century Christianity; and it offers a preliminary discussion of the meaning of the word ‘god’ within the thought-forms of these groups, and the ways in which such historical and theological study might be of relevance to the modern world.(28)”
The approach that Wright argues for is what he terms “critical realism”. This approach is contrasted to the positivist and the phenomenalist.
Positivist: simply looks at the objective reality, tests it, if it doesn’t work its nonsense.
Phenomenalist: I seem to have evidence of an external reality, but I am really only sure of my sense-data.
Critical Realist: initial observation, challenged by critical reflection, but can survive the challenge and speak truly of reality.
Wright’s “critical realism” seeks to survive challenges through what he terms as “verification”. This method has some similarity to the “scientific method” of hypothesis, test, evaluate, etc…However, the difference being that it is tested within the context of worldview. The assumption is that each person has a worldview and seeks to make information “fit” into that worldview. As Wright says, “…there is no such thing as the detached observer. (36)" Therefore, knowledge and understanding comes through the process of "question, hypothesis, test hypothesis” in the context of story-telling which is the fundamental means by which humanity shares information.
I think that Wright’s approach is very helpful. There are two reasons I find this helpful:
- It provides for authorial intent because it forces us to take seriously the story/narrative of the original context.
- It provides for contemporary reading because we are forced to take our own context seriously.
The question that remains for me though is this: what determines the authority by which we modify our stories? What do you think? How and where do we give authority to change the stories? What is the basis of authority? Is it possible to find authority outside ourselves and if so on what basis do we argue for that?