Wright’s Surprised by Scripture Triumphs in Exegesis, Stumbles Over Apologetics



In its best moments, Anglican theologian N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Scripture rescues the Bible from the misinformed discourse that often surrounds it. Examining Biblical texts’ historical contexts and original language, Wright counters interpretations that owe more to readers’ ideologies than the Bible itself.

These essays, previously presented at conferences and often drawing on Wright’s longer works, touch on topics including the ordination of women, the problem of evil, and the Christian relationship with environmentalism. (Wright does not, however, address the controversies around same-sex marriage.)

Like C.S. Lewis, Wright guides the reader through his arguments in the stately first person, often using imagery and imagined conversations to illustrate his points.

To allow the most depth, I’ll focus on “Can A Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?,” as it includes one of this collection’s most important claims, and demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of Wright’s reasoning.

“The Christian claim was from the beginning,” he writes, “that Jesus’ resurrection was not a question of the internal mental and spiritual states of his followers a few days after his crucifixion but of something that had happened in the real, public world.” The claim in question might not be true, but it’s honest, as it provides something to disagree with. Wright avoids the happy, evasive school of thought that emphasizes the inner states religion cultivates while ignoring the external reality it’s supposed to connect us to.

By grounding these claims in the real world, Wright places an emphasis on social justice: “If Jesus, the Messiah, was God’s future arriving in person in the present, then those who belonged to Jesus and followed him in the power of his spirit were charged with transforming the present, as far as they were able, in light of that future.” Throughout Surprised, Wright condemns war and third-world debt, as well as strands of Christian thought that focus entirely on personal salvation.

He goes on to compare Jewish and early Christian views on resurrection, and uses similarities between the Gospels to argue that they were written soon after the crucifixion. For one, the Gospels contain women witnesses, who were not regarded as credible at the time, giving early Christians no incentive to make them up.

Here, as elsewhere, Wright finds meaning and patterns in the Bible, then makes a leap of faith. Yes, the Gospels contain women witnesses. But how does that—or other evidence that could be used refute the claim that they’re not historical documents—weigh against the absurdity of resurrection?

Wright doesn’t deny that he makes a leap of faith, though he doesn’t use those exact words. He argues that the resurrection is not an event within history but the beginning of a new history, and that it’s ultimately known by love. Love, he says, can know objective truth: “Precisely because this is love we are talking about, not lust, it must have a correlative reality in the world outside the lover. Love is the deepest mode of knowing, because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality.”

That’s eloquently put, and true in some situations. But it doesn’t quite prove his point. If objective truth can be known by love, how can an Anglican dismiss the literal truth of Mohammad or Joseph Smith’s revelations? The argument to knowing through love is so broad that it can’t prove one faith claim without proving many others, many of which contradict each other. This argument appears, in various forms, throughout Surprised.

Wright’s failure to justify a leap of faith—like all believers before him—doesn’t make this a bad book. A leap of faith can’t be justified (that’s what makes it a leap of faith), but Christian apologists like Wright do the next best thing by describing them and bringing skeptics as close to the edge as possible.

Surprised by Scripture succeeds in clearly and eloquently examining what the Bible has to say rather than what its loudest readers say about it. When it argues for the truth of faith claims like the resurrection, it deserves credit for placing those claims in the real world rather than the sphere of metaphor or pure feeling.

–Published June 3rd by HarperOne



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