Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Evaluation of NT Wright's Critical Realism

NT Wright is certainly a controversial figure within Evangelicalism these days. It seems like some accept everything he says as truth, while others see his mistakes and dismiss all of what he has written. I, being a Lutheran, reject his interpretation of Paul and adamantly disagree with his redefinition of justification. However, I do believe he has some helpful insights in other areas which the reader of the New Testament can greatly benefit from. Among these is his dismissal of both the pre-modern, modern, and post-modern ways of looking at texts. They all have truth to them, but all dismiss a vital aspect of exegesis. This information comes from his book "The New Testament and the People of God".

When reading the New Testament, we must read it like any other book, taking into account what the author was trying to say, and how it applies to us today. Thus, we must construct a theory of reading any historical text. Wright dismisses the idea that history and theology form a dichotomy and must be studied seperately. The New Testament itself always grounds theology historically, and interprets history within the realm of theology. The tendency of many to seperate the "natural" elements of history and the "supernatural" of theology is in itself flawed. The liberal camp has dismissed the supernatural, while the conservative camp has also fallen into this false dichotomy by focusing on the "supernatural" as if it is somehow seperated from the natural.

The modernist epistemology of Positivism is a completely wrong way of coming to the knowledge of a historical text, or anything for that matter. The positivist sees some aspects of knowledge to be absolutely certain. What is not absolutely certain then falls into the realm of the unknown and must be doubted. This view holds to the idea that one can have a "god's eye view" of the facts, without being influenced by any preconcieved notions. Since theological ideas cannot be objectively verified, they are rejected. This view has logically resulted in the relativism that is rampant today. When people realize that there is doubt in every sort of knowledge, and that nothing can be empirically 100 percent verifiable, they reject objective knowledge all together, thus one is only left with doubt. Some areas of knowledge such as science are seen as knowable, while facts about God and the afterlife are left to mere speculation.

The phenomenalist rejects the notion that one can have certainty of objective truth. However, phenomenalism goes too far in rejecting the false epistemology of positivism by asserting that one can only know his perspective of what the truth is. If one reads a New Testament text, he has no certainty what that text means, only what he percieves it to mean. In fact, one cannot even be sure that there is a New Testament, but that one percieves a book with understandable words telling the story of Jesus. Thus, the only knowledge one has is of oneself. Logically, this could cause one doubt the existence of everything but oneself.

So, what is Wright's position rejecting both the mere objective and subjective ways of viewing things? The objective and subjective categories to Wright are unhelpful. One must dismiss these categories and look beyond them. All truth involves both the knower and the known. There is a truth that is out there to be known. I need not question whether or not the New Testament actually exists while I am reading it. This is called Realism. However, though it is admitted that truth outside of oneself can be known, he does not accept the idea that the process of knowing is a mere intellectual excercise which does not engage the knower. The knower only views the known within his own preconcieved notion of reality. His worldview is not only shaped by evidence, but shapes it. We all have our own stories that we fit our experiences into. We must also realize that the New Testament writers also have their own stories by which they interpret their experience. There story involves the redemption of the people of God. This part of Wrights epistemology is Realism.

Having explained the epistemology Wright uses to come to the text, the question is now how that epistemology works itself out practically in New Testament exegesis. Let us look at four common methods used in the interpretation of scripture. The first is the pre-critical method. This was the method used by the Patristics often, especially in the practice of "lectio divina" wherein one sees the text outside of its historical context and interprets it in a way that it applies specifically to the reader's life. This, in the worst cases, resulted in an allegorical interpretation of the text. Fortunately this position sees the text as something which is alive, and not simply dead in the past with no relevance to the modern reader. Pietistic circles still practice the pre-critical method.

The next approach is the "historical approach" which became popular at the time of the enlightenment. In the approach one looks behind the text to see which parts are genuine historical events, and which are not. One studies the historical context of these statements and other statements at the time period like the one being studied, and tries to reconstruct it's original meaning. While this method is correct in looking at historical reality, it is overly optimistic of our attempt to reconstruct the past, and leads to a static reading which has no effect on the modern reader.
The third approach is the "theological approach." This takes the text and evaluates how it speaks of God and man. It is not so much concerned with the historical content, but with what point the author is trying to make with the text. This view, promoted by Bultmann, again promotes the false dichotomy of theology and history. Historical and theological interpretations are always connected in the view of the New Testament writers.

The postmodern approach rejects all the modernists questions about the text regarding "what actually happened" in history. Instead, the focus is on the reader himself. What presuppositions does the reader bring to the text he is reading? How does this effect how he understands the text? This may to some extent, involve his view of the historical question, it is certainly not the focus. Unfortunately, this approach only leads one to knowledge of self, rather than the text, thus the entire purpose of the New Testament is missed.

There are elements of each of these approaches which are certainly helpful. The enlightenment, though its beginings were greatly flawd, does have some helpful insight for the believer. The Biblical story is grounded in history, and is dependent upon history. We must not forget that fact. Scripture does not testify to mere "spiritual truths" whose only purpose is to edify individual believers, but to the coming of God into actual history through the person of Jesus. However, we must also remember that this recorded history is never merely "objective." This history is always recorded and interpreted by one who has his own set of preconcieved notions of the world. He fits this real history into his own story. It is to be remembered however, that the New Testament is not simply "about faith" as Bultmann would have it, but about Jesus. Some have mistakenly seen the purpose of the New Testament writers as showing transcendent truth which has no bearing on actual history. The New Testament includes both real history and transcendent truth. They need not be seperated.

So what do I think of Wright's proposition of critical realism? It certainly has much truth to it. The categories of "objective" and "subjective" are often unhelpful. Many see truth as something that either exists completely outside of oneself, or only inside of oneself. However, I feel the Wright goes too far in seeing all truth as involving both the known and knower. There is much truth that is unknown to us, and our ignorance in no way effects the reality of such truth. In my mind, the categories of "objective" and "subjective" need to be redefined, though not necessarily dismissed. One of my main concerns about NT Wright's exegetical efforts, is that he sometimes reads too much into the story of the writer. Narrative does certainly effect how all men think and write, however, this is not to the exclusion of propositional truth. One need not, as Wright does, read into Paul's discussion of baptism in the opening verses of Romans 6, the underlying narrative of the crossing of the Red Sea. The position I would opt for is a modified critical realism, accepting Wright's critiques, while not completely accepting his revision.

1 comment:

the Pole said...

Excellent - really enjoyed this post! Can you put spaces between the paragraphs to separate them & make them more readable?