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Wheaton Theology Conference: Richard Hays on Wright’s Methodology

Richard Hays opened the conference and set the tone for charitable criticism in a paper punctuated with good humor (audio/video). His paper served partly as a rebuttal to N.T. Wright’s stinging critique of Hays’ previous book. The book and the critique exposed a clear field of disagreement between Hays and Wright, something that caught Hays off-guard after 20–30 years of what I gathered to be affable, collegial exchange. I liked that Hays waited a year or two to formulate his rebuttal. It reflects a patience and lack of indigestion. I appreciate that (some) scholarship retains this sort of long view of sustained dialogue and premeditated critique, even stretching out over the course of years—that in a world of daily blogging, trending topics, and gut-reaction comments sections.

For Hays, the demarcation between him and Wright was their attitudes toward Karl Barth’s theology. Wright is “deeply suspicious of Barth’s postliberal theology.” But this division is more one of methodology than of conclusions. While Wright disagrees with Barth’s hermeneutical methods, Hays seemed to suggest that Wright comes back into alignment with Barth in his conclusions about who Jesus is. (In my mind, this reinforces Jesus’ singular identity and its resistance to distortion by those who delve honestly and deeply into his Person.) Wright did not speak directly about Barth; but later in the conference, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, another speaker connected Wright’s thought to T. F. Torrance, a student of Barth’s.

Hays further critiqued Wright’s methodology, saying that Wright looked for a Jesus behind the text. He did not look at the Synoptic Gospels but instead looked through them. Instead of seeing them as pictures of Jesus, Wright sees them as windows to see Jesus. This, Hays argued, flattened the literary texture of each book’s concerns and aims. Wright disavowed this critique, arguing instead that he was recovering the Gospels as they would have been understood in their original Jewish context. Wright argued that they’ve been shrouded by creedal traditions, which have screened out Jesus’ socio-political context. Thus, the Western church has been reading its own context into the canonical Gospels, overlaying our own invented Jesus on them, and thus missing important details and shifting our interpretation out of gear.

In his conclusion, Hays argued that faith must coincide with history for a clear understanding of Jesus, as the Gospel of John works to do. Because Jesus is Lord over the whole world, Hays argued, world history and Jesus himself can only be understood when Jesus is affirmed as Lord. Recognizing this reality from the outset positions one to do right historiography (of any kind, he seemed to say). Hays seemed to suggest that Wright started without any such affirmation, although he still reached that conclusion after all. (So even if Jesus is not the Alpha, he turns out to be the Omega.)

Elsewhere:

J. R. Daniel Kirk (NT Prof, Fuller) has interacted with Hays' analysis on his blog. There's also some good discussion in the comments, including comments from at least one presenter and from other academics.

Dr. Michael J. Gorman has posted on Hays' paper and more on his blog. He also interacts in the comments at Kirk's blog above.

Vera Icona also has a post and includes Hays' masterful dialogue between Wright and Barth.

William B. Evans offers a Reformed perspective on the whole conference for the Reformation 21 blog. In his opinion, "Wright does not always handle criticism gracefully" but "really does love the Lord and genuinely strives to be biblical."

Phil Johnson at PyroManiacs and Michael F. Bird at Euangelion take issue with Brett McCracken's CT guest editorial. Your mom taught you well