Is N. T. Wright an “Apologist”?

Paul Holloway, who is Professor of New Testament at the University of the South, has written a much-publicized letter criticizing his institution for awarding an honorary doctorate to N. T. Wright. The letter begins by criticizing Wright’s stance on LGBT issues. Yet that, says Holloway, is not the real bone of contention he has with the awarding of this honorary doctorate.

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.

There are several points with which one could take issue in this statement. We might ask, for example, what the criteria are for “honest questions,” or whether Wright’s positions are more ideological than those of most other scholars. We should also inquire after what the term “critical” means when Holloway claims, “I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work.” Sometimes this term is used to identify methodologies that take as a prima facie assumption that religious beliefs must be excluded from serious historical investigation. The classic work arguing this position is Van Harvey’s book, The Historian and the Believer. (If you haven’t read this book and have an interest in historical investigation, you really should order a copy. There are also a couple of very fine critiques of Harvey’s work.)  If this is what Holloway means when he refers to “critical” scholars, then such scholars would naturally not trust at least some of Wright’s work, since Wright has argued that we should not rule out faith claims prior to beginning our investigation. In this way, Wright has taken issue with some of the ideological presuppositions of modernist historiography.

Can Wright, however, rightly be considered an “apologist”? The term “apologetics” refers to the act of defending one’s faith tradition by means of rational argument. This is, at times, a helpful—even necessary—undertaking. Yet as Paul Griffiths has pointed out,

“Apologetics” has itself become a term laden with negative connotations: to be an apologist for the truth of one’s religious claim or set of claims over against another is, in certain circles, seen as not far short of being a racist. And the term has passed into popular currency, to the extent that it has, as a simple label for argument in the service of a predetermined orthodoxy, argument concerned not to demonstrate but to convince, and, if conviction should fail, to browbeat into submission (An Apology for Apologetics: A Study in the Logic of Interreligious Dialogue, Orbis, 1991, p. 2).

Holloway is clearly playing off of the negative connotations of the term “apologetics” to which Griffiths calls attention. It is worth noting however, that there are orthodoxies besides those of explicitly religious traditions. There are academic orthodoxies as well, and in many institutions one of those orthodoxies is that traditional Christian belief is not to be trusted. To the extent that this position is presupposed, argued, and defended, one might say that the professors who put forward such a position are engaging in apologetics.

Education is not simply the transmission of facts. It also involves the transmission of values, and therefore involves some type of ideology into which students are inculcated. As the philosopher Basil Mitchell points out,

It is obvious that political, moral and religious conceptual systems are products of a community, which is responsible for transmitting its beliefs and the language in which they are expressed. Although genuine originality occurs, it does not and cannot consist in the repudiation of the whole of an existing tradition. However radical the transformation it effects, it maintains a certain continuity with the past. It is only in this way that succeeding generations can avoid the impossible task of constructing an entire language and culture from scratch. For this reason education has to take the form of inducting the young into an existing tradition as a necessary condition of equipping them to criticize and amend it (The Justification of Religious Belief, Oxford, 1981, pp. 122-23).

If Wright is an apologist, then, so are other educators insofar as we argue for and defend various ideologies. Fred Schmidt has pointed out quite clearly how Marcus Borg was an apologist for modernity. Schmidt isn’t saying this to suggest that Borg’s work is somehow substandard. Borg was not only a friend of his, but someone who influenced his own work early on. Schmidt is simply pointing out how Borg’s work often attempted to sway people into certain positions particular to the period of history we know as modernity. Likewise, Holloway’s letter itself could be seen as an apologetic piece.

When Holloway refers to Wright as an apologist, however, he means to belittle Wright’s academic prowess. He means that Wright’s work is not to be trusted, that it does not reflect the same scholarly rigor and honest investigation as, say, Holloway’s own work. Given the breadth of Wright’s body of work, this is a sweeping claim, and one that will require more extended argumentation. Additionally, it dismisses the process of peer review that any of Wright’s scholarly work would have to undergo. Peer review tends to militate against the publication of sloppy or poorly argued work. Of course, bad work is published from time to time, but one does not make a name for oneself as a scholar by the consistent production of shoddy work. Before Wright was ever a popular writer, he was well known within the guild of biblical scholarship. It is important to note, then, that while Wright does produce popular works on a regular basis, he has also produced numerous academic works written for the scholarly community, and for which many accomplished scholars have expressed deep appreciation.

Is N. T. Wright an “apologist”? The answer depends upon how we define this term. Yes, he does argue for the truth of certain important Christian faith claims, and, in that sense, one could consider him an apologist. Is he the hack scholar that Holloway makes him out to be? Absolutely not. Very few people in the guild of biblical scholarship would agree with Holloway’s assessment.

11 thoughts on “Is N. T. Wright an “Apologist”?

  1. Holloway also seems to diminish himself by allowing professional rivalry between Scottish universities to come into play as well. Holloway was at the University of Glasgow while Wright is now at Scotland’s oldest university and one of the three oldest English-speaking universities.

  2. This is a splendid expose on the nature of the modern church crisis. At the heart of these disputes is a battle for hegemony. Who are the principalities and powers, the ascendant elites? Who gets to control the microphone or the timetable or the agenda? Even as Dietrich von Hildebrand repudiated the possibility of Catholic compatibility with National Socialism, so must courageous scholars now resist the advance of (falsely) so-called progressive ideology in the church.

    • Well stated. The comparison with Von Hildebrand is extremely pertinent. My problem is, at what point do we pack up and leave Austria, and, if we do, where would we go?

      It was only a matter of time before the inquisition would set out to Brandon Eich Tom Wright.

  3. Thanks so much for this helpful and succinct treatment of the place of apologetics (and how it is defined) in contemporary scholarship. Would you mind sharing with us the titles of those critiques of Van Harvey you mentioned?

  4. Les, check out C. Stephen Evans’ book, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith, and William J. Abraham’s book, Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism.

  5. I’m stunned by Professor Holloway’s assertion that no critical scholar respects NT Wright’s work. I’m pretty sure my New Testament professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Lewis Donelson counts as a critical scholar. When NT Wright was in Austin, Professor Donelson embraced the opportunity to engage in a panel discussion with him, and generally shows a great deal of respect for NT Wright’s work, even though Donelson and Wright disagree on LGBT issues. Maybe this is all about LGBT issues, or maybe by “apologetics” he simply means “theology that’s accessible beyond academia.” Either way, I’m struck by the hyperbole from an academic, though maybe that shouldn’t surprise me anymore.

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