Presbytery

We have presbytery tomorrow. It is in Lemmon, SD. Hopefully, our study committee will get to have some time to discuss the New Perspective on Paul, the theology of Norman Shepherd, and the theology of Federal Vision. Clarity and humility, it seems to me, is the order of the day.

But one of my greatest pet peeves is that some people will say that someone doesn’t really understand someone else, when in fact, that someone really does. Sometimes this is used as a cloud of subterfuge, in order to cloak heresy with lack of clarity. Sometimes this is not the case. But it drives me bonkers sometimes to see well-respected scholars whine and groan because they think they are not being understood, when it is perfectly obvious that they are being understood. Who do they think they are? ARTISTS? But artists often intentionally cloud over their work with pseudo-intellectual jargon that only obfuscates, whereas theologians are supposed to be clear.

Only slightly tangential to the above was the discussion on the Wrightsaid group that I remember from a while back (when I was still on it), wherein people were constantly telling me that I didn’t understand Wright because I hadn’t read absolutely everything that he had written. These same people had no qualms about misrepresenting just about every traditional Reformed scholar there is or was. It was obvious that they hadn’t read them, or that they hadn’t read them carefully.

But in reference to the Federal Vision theology, I often see proponents of this theology say that their critics do not understand them. Frankly, this statement bothers me, because it is an accusation of lack of intelligence on the part of the critics. I think that Federal Vision advocates ought to give their critics just a little bit more credit here. I find it hard to believe that Rick Phillips, Chris Hutchinson, Morton Smith, Joey Pipa and others don’t know what they are talking about.

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9 Comments

  1. Alastair said,

    September 22, 2005 at 5:25 am

    I find it even less likely that Wright and others are wrong when they think that they are being misrepresented. Surely Wright has a better idea of what he is saying than Rick Phillips et al. I believe that we should take Wright and others seriously when they claim to be misrepresented by their conservative Reformed critics.

    Wright isn’t the only person claiming this. Many others who have read him carefully and extensively agree with him. I have more than a few areas in which I am critical of Wright, but I must confess that the picture of Wright painted by most of his Reformed critics is simply a caricature. I have read practically all that Wright has ever written (the major works a number of times over), from his unpublished doctoral thesis onwards and have listened to over 60 hours of his lectures. Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe that my claim has a right to be taken seriously. I daresay that I have spent a good deal more time studying Wright himself than the vast majority of his Reformed critics.

    I don’t believe that Wright’s Reformed critics are stupid and unintelligent (with the possible exception of John Robbins, if we will grant him the title of ‘Reformed’). However, Wright and those who appreciate him are not stupid either.

    Hostile critics and ardent disciples are less likely to be good readers of a particular person. They are more likely to see what they want to see in someone’s writing. Reformed folk on the warpath against Wright or on the bandwagon for Wright are at risk of skewing Wright, the former even more so than the latter.

    There are, however, numerous Reformed people who are in neither position. They see Wright as a gifted theologian who has much to teach us. They are slow to arrive at conclusions about Wright’s orthodoxy or heterodoxy. They would rather hear him out and assess the case when all the evidence is in.

    They are also determined to read Wright on his own terms and not on the terms of the WCoF. Once we have understood Wright’s position from ‘within’, as it were, we can begin to assess it from ‘without’. I simply do not see the evidence of an appreciation of Wright’s position from ‘within’ among Wright’s Reformed critics. There has been little sympathetic reading before people have launched into critique. Rather, Wright has been assessed merely from ‘without’, according to the WCoF, or something like that. The possibility that Wright might defend the same truths in different ways has not really been addressed.

    The problem is that people are being pressed to come out either for or against Wright. I like Wright, as do many others, but have no interest in jumping on the bandwagon of someone with whom I have many serious disagreements. Within such a climate it is hard to open one’s mind for long enough to receive and digest the material necessary to intelligently make it up.

  2. Nate said,

    September 22, 2005 at 10:00 pm

    As Reformed Christians we ARE to read through the eyes of our confessions…that is WHY we have them.

    We cannot drop our presuppositions inorder to “read someone on their own terms”.

    Just as we cannot read those outside Christianity by taking out our biblical presuppositions, we cannot read someone who claims to be Reformed without our historical positions.

    If he does not want the title of Reformed…then we can talk, but until then we read with Reformed eyes.

  3. Lee said,

    September 23, 2005 at 1:30 am

    I will agree with Alastair that we ought to read them on their own terms first, so that we can understand what they are trying to say. But then we do have to apply it through the lens of the confessions. It seems pretty obvious to me that Wright and many Federal Visionists have a view of justification and other issues that are not compatable with any Reformed Confession, and it should just be admited by all sides.
    I would also like to add that if Wright is being misunderstood by so many people than perhaps the fault should not be laid completely at the door of the readers. However, Alastair, I would be interested in exactly where you think Wright is being misrepresented by his conservative critics.

  4. Alastair said,

    September 23, 2005 at 4:59 am

    I agree that we need to assess Wright in the light of the confessions (I never denied the legitimacy of a reading from ‘without’). However, my point was that we need to understand what Wright is saying on his own terms first. The same principle would, I believe, apply to the darkest heretic that ever lived.

    Nate, Wright is probably not someone who will fight over the term ‘Reformed’. He wouldn’t care that much; he’s an Anglican. However, Wright has publicly expressed his willingness to affirm the Thirty-Nine Articles’ presentation of the doctrine of justification. The Thirty-Nine Articles are a Reformed document.

    It is important to recognize that the level of discourse that our confessions work at is not the same level of discourse that the Scripture works at. The terms of systematic theology tend to be defined far more precisely than the terms of Scripture.

    Take, for example, the term ‘elect’. A number of the times in which the term is used in Scripture it cannot take the more precise meaning that the Reformed confessions tend to give the language (e.g. Romans 8:33).

    The same thing can be observed with the term ‘regeneration’. Most Reformed definitions of this terminology could not include one or both of the two biblical occurrences of the term (Matthew 19:28; Titus 3:5).

    The terminology of justification is far more fluid in Scripture than it is in Reformed systematic theology. A number of Reformed systematic theologians (Turretin being one example) have claimed that a number of biblical occurrences of the language represent the language used with an ‘improper sense’.

    The problem comes when the overly precise language of systematic theology is read back into the text or when people who use the language of the text are accused of rejecting the Reformed faith because their use of the language is far less rigid and limited in semantic range. Jon Barlow has some good comments on the subject here.

    I believe that the terms of systematic theology have become overly-defined and we need to return to the text and see how this language is used in practice in Scripture. This is what Wright and the FV are trying to do.

    On the level of discourse of the confessions, I can affirm most of what they are saying. However, I do not believe that their level of discourse is the same as that of the text of Scripture itself. I think that the language of the Reformed confessions has gradually become divorced from the language of Reformed exegesis. It seems to me that Reformed Biblical theologians have long recognized this.

    Wright recognizes the different levels of discourse that exist (this is why he can affirm the Thirty-Nine Articles) and believes that his position protects the chief concerns of Reformation theology, when Reformed documents are read on their own terms.

    However, Wright is more willing to openly raise the fact that the exegetical underpinnings of the theology of the Reformation are highly suspect. This does not mean that he denies the theology of the Reformation or that he denies that their are genuine exegetical underpinnings for the Reformation’s theology. It means that he establishes a different and broader exegetical foundation for a theology that defends the same key points.

    The thing that frustrates me is when people say that Wright denies the theology of the Reformers. That is false. He is in general agreement on the key points. However, he sharply disagrees (in some places) with the exegesis of the Reformers.

    The debate with Wright is one that must take place on the level of the text itself. The fact that Wright’s Reformed critics focus primarily on exegeting the confessions, rather than the text of Scripture, in their response demonstrates (to me at least) that they are not truly appreciating the character of what Wright is presenting.

    Wright claims:

    “I do think that God has new light to break out of Holy Scripture. But it’s not new light in the sense of throwing away all that’s good in the past. People are always frightened that a reformation or a proposal for a new way of doing things will go this way. My aim here is freshness, something even better than what we’ve got.”

    I believe that if we accept the core of what Wright is saying we can have the best of the Reformed tradition and more. I do not believe that we turn our backs on what has gone before, but we stand to gain a lot more.

    I believe that, in the long term, this will entail a rewriting of the confessions. However, the rewritten confessions will retain the core concerns of the older confessions within a broader framework.

    Lee, I agree that Wright is partly to blame for the misreadings that exist. On some issues he has not made himself as clear as he could have. Nevertheless, even in these instances, I think that it is quite possible for a patient reader to come to a general understanding of what he is saying.

    It is worth remembering that Wright is writing to a very broad audience. Most Reformed theologians only interact with a very limited audience. The average Reformed theologian will not be read far outside of Reformed circles. As a result language tends to become more and more specific and precise in definition.

    Wright is read by all sorts of people; he is not writing to an audience bound together by any single tradition. If Wright were to accommodate his message to the Reformed confessions, he would confuse most of his readers. I don’t believe that we have any right to complain about this, any more than we have the right to complain that the national television reporter does not present the news in our regional dialect.

    Where do I think that Wright is misrepresented by his conservative critics?

    1. He is not teaching a Roman Catholic view of justification nor is he denying the principle points of Reformation theology on the subject of justification.

    2. He is not denying the substance of the doctrine of imputation.

    3. He is not at all denying the absolute necessity of a ground of grace outside of ourselves (in fact he maintains this more clearly than most of his critics).

    4. He is not claiming that our faithfulness earns or qualifies us for our salvation at any point.

    There are numerous other areas that I could mention. The key conservative critics that I believe seriously misrepresent Wright include such people as Guy Waters, J. Ligon Duncan, Don Carson, etc.

  5. Mr. Baggins said,

    September 23, 2005 at 10:50 am

    I think that NTW is an extremely gifted theologian in many ways, and that he has much to teach us. And believe you me, nothing bothers me more than “straw man” arguments. I have been on the receiving end of such arguments, and it is most unpleasant. Having read most of NTW’s major literature myself, there is much to appreciate.

    However, I do think that he does more to the Reformed position than try to preserve the substance of it. It may be intentional, or it may not, but I still think that he does not have justification correct.

  6. Alastair said,

    September 23, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    I believe that Wright is doing more than preserving the substance of the Reformed faith. He is calling for serious reformulation. If Reformed folk take Wright seriously they will have to think in terms of rewriting confessions in the longer term future. However, although such reformulation will give us a far broader doctrine of justification, among other things, it will not entail a sacrifice of the points that the Reformation won at so great a cost.

    That was the point that I was trying to make.

  7. berek said,

    September 26, 2005 at 3:36 am

    hi lane, i can’t speak for everyone who’s involved in the debate, but i’ll just let you know that as far as i can tell, Rick Phillips has really got it all wrong and is almost more than misreading my father (Ralph Smith) when he accuses the latter of tri-theism. i really can’t trust people like Phillips and McMahon as far as scholarship goes. This isn’t to doubt their raw intelligence per se, but to doubt their ability to put it to good, charitable, and edifying use.

  8. Alastair said,

    September 26, 2005 at 3:32 pm

    Berek,

    I thoroughly agree with you. I would no longer trust any ‘scholarship’ produced by Ligon Duncan, Rick Phillips, Guy Waters or a number of others (I am rapidly losing my faith in Don Carson) simply because I am well aware that they have grossly misrepresented and been very uncharitable in their treatment of N.T. Wright’s theology. As they have let me down so terribly in an area where I can assess the quality of their scholarship I do not feel able to trust them in areas where I am less informed.

    BTW, I read both of your father’s books on the Trinity (and his Trinity & Reality book) and thoroughly enjoyed them. I am also a long-time reader of your blog through Bloglines. Very thought-provoking, but you should produce some longer posts!

  9. Mr. Baggins said,

    September 28, 2005 at 11:50 am

    I do recognize that NTW claims that he is keeping the best of the Reformed tradition. But claiming and succeeding are two different things. But on justification, I don’t think that a broader definition is wise. This is what the Reformers died for, and fought for with every ounce of their energy. NTW does deny imputation (see WSPRS, the chapter on justification, and the Romans commentary), which is central to justification.–>


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