Russell and Duenes

N.T. Wright and What the Scripture “Can’t Mean”

with 14 comments

Well-known scholar, N.T. Wright, critiqued C.S. Lewis’ view that Jesus’ claim to forgive sins was also one of Jesus’ claims to be divine. Wright argues that the Jewish cultural milieu of Jesus’ day shows that his forgiveness of the paralyzed man is no apparent claim to deity. He writes,

What Lewis totally failed to see—as have, of course, many scholars in the field—was that Judaism already had a strong incarnational principle, namely the Temple, and that the language used of Shekinah, Torah, Wisdom, Word, and Spirit in the Old Testament—the language, in other words, upon which the earliest Christians drew when they were exploring and expounding what we have called Christology—was a language designed, long before Jesus’ day, to explain how the one true God could be both transcendent over the world and living and active within it, particularly within Israel. Lewis, at best, drastically short-circuits the argument. When Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” he is not claiming straightforwardly to be God, but to give people, out on the street, what they would normally get by going to the Temple.

This is a textbook example of how Wright and many others, including many who claim to be conservative evangelicals, try to use their reconstruction of the socio-cultural background of the New Testament to tell us what the text “can’t mean,” even though the plain reading of it clearly means what they say it can’t. Wright would be correct in his assessment of Jesus’ deity in the above case except for the little problem of the religious leaders’ response to Jesus’ act of forgiveness found in the text itself: The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21) Evidently the Jewish leaders, confronted with Jesus’ claim to be able to forgive sins, did not think to themselves, “Doesn’t Jesus know that the Temple is the only place where sins can be forgiven?” They saw Jesus’ words as a unmistakable assertion of his God-like status.

Is this being nit-picky? I don’t think so. For we see this kind of thing in other important areas. Two come to mind: “biblical” feminism and homosexuality. Too often today we read of some biblical scholar who argues that Paul simply could not have taught that women are disallowed from teaching and having authority over men in the church. And how do we know Paul could not have been teaching this? Because the Hellenic-Jewish background of the 1st century clearly informs us that women were uneducated and treated as inferior to men, and thus, Paul must have been making a temporary accomodation to the culture. Of course it doesn’t matter what Paul actually says in the text about Adam being formed first and then Eve, we “conservatives” must be reading it wrong.

The same goes for homosexuality. Clearly we know that 1st century homosexuality was reduced to pederasty and other perversions, and Paul simply couldn’t have imagined monogamous homosexual relationships like we have today. So we know that even though the text in Romans says nothing about pederasty, our scholarly study of the relevant cultural setting lets us know that this is what Paul was talking about. The text simply “can’t mean” that all homosexual behavior is sinful and wrong, even though that’s what it plainly says without any qualification whatsoever.

The truth is, N.T. Wright is the one who is not reading the text, rather than C.S. Lewis. The text simply gets in the way of what we “know” it must say and imply. With a procedure like this, the Bible ultimately becomes a wax nose in our hands, putty for “every wind of doctrine” that we desire.


HT: Donald T. Williams


Written by Michael Duenes

May 27, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Posted in Duenes, Theology

14 Responses

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  1. Excellent word, Mike. Very helpful. I think the title should be, “Could Wright Be Wrong?”

    Duke Dillard

    May 27, 2010 at 11:01 pm

  2. Well, he’s certainly wrong on how the listeners took Yeshua’s (Jesus’) statement. He’s also wrong that claiming to offer the forgiveness nominally available only in the Temple wasn’t a de facto claim to Diety.

    So I guess the real question here is, “Do two wrongs make a Wright?” (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    Return of Benjamin

    May 28, 2010 at 7:28 am

  3. I’m in the middle of a large work on the idea of “plain meaning.” I, like Wright, consider myself orthodox. The point he brings up is worth debating. Though I personally side with Lewis, I see some merit in Wright’s arguments. In the end, I think it the answer, if there is one, come from historical-cultural analysis of the linguistic idioms of the time. I’m not really qualified to do so.

    This is to say that to dismiss one interpretation as being “plain-meaning,” and another as not, is asks the question: how do we find the plain-meaning? Both men are trying to find what the original plain-meaning was. The task of doing so is difficult. Translations can differ, cultural norms change, the meaning of idioms will differ, and so on. Courts differ on the meanings of laws passed only years before; can we really expect to actually fully understand texts written thousands of years ago?

    God has provided guidance in this interpretation. First, the holy spirit in guiding us through our prayer and meditation. Second, the human mind’s capacity for debate and argument. This second point is crucial. There is a role for conservatives, who want to favor traditional interpretation of texts (and make no mistake, it is favoring tradition, not “plain-meaning”). However, there is a role for ‘liberals’ who want to translate the text and make it relevant and meaningful to current generations. Remember, once upon a time, Luther was a liberal. Both sides must contribute to debate. Reason and rationale debate is beautiful and, I would say, is a process that brings us closer to God. It is not finding the “answer” (if one even exists) that should be our goal. When we think we’ve found an answer, we become pharisees. When we think we know something for sure, we think we are gods.

    People like to pretend that they know what scripture says, because it allows them to tell other people how to live – and have “right answers.” It ignores the fundamental truth that, since we are not God, we don’t really have the answers to anything. There are multiple applications of this line of thought, but they and the principles for them have been expounded on, much better than I ever could, in the writings of Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, and Jaspers.

    Joshua House

    May 28, 2010 at 10:01 am

    • Josh – There’s much I could say in response, but my first thought is that your line of reasoning is self-refuting. A man of your intelligence and learning should know this. If, as you say, we are mistaken when we think we know something for sure, then you are mistaken in claiming to know that we can’t know anything, for you are making a claim to knowledge. Bultmann has been thoroughly discredited and is eschewed even by respectable “liberal” scholars. Barth’s neo-orthodoxy further separated the interpreter from the text, which has born poisonous fruit. But most importantly, I think you are mistaken because Jesus himself assumed that his audiences should have come to “right answers” from the Scripture, which is why he said to the Sadducees, “Is this not why you are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” Jesus never, ever assumed that the Scriptures were unable to lead its readers to “right answers.” But of course, on your argument, I can’t know anything that Jesus taught for sure. This kind of radical skepticism leaves us in an epistemic fog of nothingness. Further, no one really adheres to it in practice.



      May 28, 2010 at 6:12 pm

  4. Actually, it’s a mischaracterization to say that I am not claiming we know anything for sure (perhaps I phrased it wrong in my post). Rather, if we are operating from the assumption that there is an omniscient, omnipotent, eternal being in existence, and that we are not that being, then we don’t know everything. Moreover, in order to know a single piece of knowledge for certain, we must know every possible variable in existence (I’m assuming this for this post, but I can prove it). Thus, because we are not omniscient like God and, accordingly, don’t know every possible variable, we cannot know anything for sure.

    Revelation, I believe, breaks this agnostic state. Both reason and scripture are God-inspired, one natural and the other special, respectively. However, neither reason nor scripture has “plain-meaning”. I contend that perhaps the struggle in perfecting our understanding is part of our state of existence. It is not that we are in a fog where we make no decisions. Rather, it is that we live in constant argument and debate.

    To make an analogy from law, it is true that the law is dynamic and changing. Policy debates rage on. Both judges and legislatures debate policy. But, at the end of the day, every judge must make a decision based on his good faith assessment of the current state of the law. However, just because he is forced to make a decision does not mean he claims to have the absolute “right answer” over that issue of law. Practically, yes, a supreme court justice is claiming to have the right answer. But, behind the curtain, they are much more willing to admit something was difficult. Indeed, sometimes we even see justices change positions over the years.

    Likewise, I agree that everyone must choose his way of life. I agree that no one lives in an agnostic state. However, it is essential that we not force others to live according to the interpretive judgments we make – that we accept the possibility we may be wrong. Thus, my claim that we acknowledge debate is not a claim of impracticable agnosticism. Instead, it is a mandate that we not force others to obey our interpretations under the auspice of what we consider to be God’s Word.

    In another sense, I also believe that debate exercises godly characteristics not otherwise visible. Reason is part of natural revelation and should not be discouraged.

    Pastor Mark Driscoll always separates theological issues into primary and secondary – issues of theology within the church that are up for debate and issues that are not, respectively. All I am contending is that there are a lot of issues considered primary by some reformed christians that are, in my opinion, actually secondary. I do not doubt the existence of primary issues (though sometimes I question the means by which primary issues are communicated).

    Joshua House

    May 28, 2010 at 11:43 pm

    • Josh – One of the primary issues, of course, is whether Jesus claimed to be God. But you are simply incorrect in asserting that the Bible (as well as other texts) does not have a “plain meaning.” Jesus said it did, and he expected his hearers to know, not simply debate, what it was. Yes, all of our knowledge is provisional, but that does not mean that all of it is subject to doubt or debate. “Jesus is Lord.” We can debate the various implications of this statement, but it is not subject to debate. You are incorrect in saying that I must “know every possible variable in existence” in order to know that Jesus is Lord. I can also know a good many other things without having exhaustive knowledge of every variable.

      I do not discourage the use of reason. It is indispensable. But reason would be of no help to us whatsoever if we had to have exhaustive knowledge. Further, I once again point out that your entire comment here is claiming to tell me something that is true. You hold it as true, which is why you wrote it. Are you telling me that you can’t really know whether what you wrote above is true because you don’t have exhaustive knowledge of every variable?

      And let’s stop talking about “forcing” anyone to believe anything. I’ve never said we should, so that’s a red herring. What I do say is that God tells his church to exercise church discipline and sometimes to expel certain members. This would be impossible if we were never able to arrive at settled truths about what God’s word is teaching.



      May 29, 2010 at 9:07 am

  5. 1. Completely agree it’s a primary issue. My comment was more general (though I think saying Jesus was not claiming to be God in this specific instance could be up to debate).

    2. Again, you mischaracterize my position. I completely agree that there is an actual meaning. I just don’t think we are capable of knowing it. “Jesus is Lord” has a meaning. But if my definition of the word “Lord” is different than yours, we would need to discuss what it means before the phrase fulfilled its intended message. We would need to know the meaning and connotations of the original language. Even through all that, there are various phrases that we may just never know the meaning of. Again, judges are often confused at the meanings of words written only years before.

    3. Another mischaracterization is that you would need to know every variable to to “know” something. As Kierkegaard said, “Subjectivity is truth.” This idea means that you can know something for yourself – but you cannot know objectively, in such a way that you can communicate it to me, unless it is deductive reason or scripture. And even those methods of knowledge are subject to the sin and interpretive errors flowing from our humanity. Thus, in order to know something in complete certainty, that is, to claim it as truth, you would would need to know everything. I if say “the table is black,” I cannot make the claim it is also black for you, because I do not know what you see. I am required to experience the existence of every being in existence in order to make an objective claim – and even then there could be some external being that perceives things completely different than any being in our plane of existence.

    4. Yes, I am actually claiming that many presumptions in the process of my logic may be false. But the reasoning, the syllogisms, that I perform can be measured as correct or incorrect, because reason is a universal. Scripture is also a universal, in that we know what it says. We debate the meaning, but not the existence of the text. The text is plain, the meaning is not. If any text had a plain meaning, we wouldn’t need as many lawyers/theologians.

    5. Again, I am talking about the church, in general, not your claims. I appreciate that you realize I am getting at the topic of church discipline. The church needs to recognize the good arguments for non-traditional claims (e.g., the example of homosexuality that you gave).

    In conclusion, I can’t help but feel that many statements of doctrine are episodes of human pride – no different than would happen outside the church. I’m not claiming that there is no truth, I’m claiming that we are unable to know truth unless it is revealed. I also claim that we may make mistakes in interpreting said revelation. I just don’t see how claiming to perfectly understand the meaning of a text in such a way as to claim that our interpretation is “God’s word” is not self-worship. God is the perfect interpreter. We are not.

    Joshua House

    May 29, 2010 at 10:00 am

    • There’s more to unpack here than I can deal with in this space. Suffice it to say, I largely agree with your last paragraph. No mortal human, other than Jesus, can claim to know truth exhaustively, but we can know provisional truths, and it is not prideful to say so. In fact, one thing I would suggest you do is a biblical word study of the words “know” (and all its cognates) and “truth” (and its cognates). Jesus strongly disagrees with your assertion that the Bible “has an actual meaning” but we “just aren’t capable of knowing it.” Jesus says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Peter says, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul says that even unbelievers “know the ordinance of God.” Jesus knew very well that people could “make mistakes in interpreting his revelation.” But he did not then follow that up with your radical skepticism. Rather, he held them guilty for not knowing what they clearly could have and should have known. I’m not particularly interested in the epistemological assertions of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Bultmann, Barth or a whole host of others who contradict the meaning of the text. I don’t in any way accept the false views of language perpetrated by the modern universities. And frankly, I’m sick and tired of the whole postmodern project whereby we’re supposed to always be “pursuing” but “never arriving” at knowledge and truth. The Scripture says we can know things; it doesn’t say we can know all things, nor does it say we can know anything exhaustively. But the Scripture itself says that “all Scripture…is profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” If there were no proper interpretations at which you and I may arrive, then 2 Tim.3:16 is false, and indeed, all the Scriptures are profitable for, well, nothing.

      By the way, Josh, because I take you seriously as a human being and a friend, I have tried to carry on this dialogue with you in manner free of personal attacks, and I’m grateful that you have, too. If you are interested in what I think is one of the best books on this topic, I would highly, highly commend to you, “The Gagging of God,” by D.A. Carson. His shorter book, “Christ and Culture Revisited” is also very worth reading. I grant that you don’t have a lot of time for free reading these days, but I can’t recommend Carson highly enough on this topic.



      May 29, 2010 at 1:26 pm

  6. I like with your distinction between exhaustive and provisional knowledge.

    There is circular reasoning in your statement that “I’m not particularly interested in the epistemological assertions of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Bultmann, Barth or a whole host of others who contradict the meaning of the text. I don’t in any way accept the false views of language perpetrated by the modern universities. And frankly, I’m sick and tired of the whole postmodern project whereby we’re supposed to always be “pursuing” but “never arriving” at knowledge and truth.” Post-modernists, neo-orthodoxists, and modern scholars are proposing ways to read the text. You can’t say that they are going against meaning, because they are debating the way you arrive at your meaning. In other words, one can’t claim the Bible says “read me this way” because you would have to read it a certain way to get that meaning out of the Bible in the first place. Circles.

    The post-modern paradigm is a different way of seeing the world. It consists of many things, including a different language. The Bible needs to be translated into that language. I have arrived at probably 95% of the same theological truths you have, but through a paradigm of post-modernism, because that was what best communicated to me the Truth. If it weren’t for Kierkegaard, for example, my faith would have been hit hard by my philosophy classes. He is incredibly orthodox in his beliefs- he just speaks a language that is frightening to those who are justifiably worried about the follies of existentialism entering the church.

    I have so much to say about this because I completely intend to write a large work on it one day. We’ll see if that ever happens. You have no idea how helpful our dialogues are! I always need to see where the holes in my logic/explanations are. Carson book is added to the amazon wishlist!

    Joshua House

    May 30, 2010 at 8:21 am

    • I never said they were “going against meaning,” so I’m not sure who’s argument you’re trying to refute here. I said that they “contradict” the meaning of the text, which is quite different, and I stand by that. Texts have meanings, just like this one I’m writing, which is why you and I can have a dialogue. Otherwise I could just say in response to your writing, “Well, Josh, I’m sure glad you disagree with everything Kierkegaard ever wrote. That’s great.” To which you would say, “But I said that I like Kierkegaard.” To which I would say, “But that’s not how I read your writing. I read it to mean that you despise him, and since you have no basis for objecting to my interpretation, then I guess it’s settled.” But of course, this is absurd. And it’s this absurdity to which postmodern theory leads, whether you want to admit it or not. The problem you have is that you’re smuggling in an extra-biblical epistemology. You want to say that I should read the Bible a certain way based on a theory of language and meaning that comes from outside the Bible. But I would then like to know upon what basis I should accept YOUR theory. You’re arguing in a circle, too. What you need to see, Josh, is that every position is a faith position. I take the Bible as my starting point and try to reason from it. You want to start somewhere outside the Bible and reason TO the Bible. But you’ll have to explain by what right you can begin outside the Bible. And please don’t say, “Reason,” for apart from a biblical epistemology and starting point, there is no basis for supposing that humans have reason, much less reason that can be trusted as in any way reliable.

      I appreciate these dialogues as well, Josh. Thanks for your faithful readership and commenting.

      By the way, are you getting fired up for the World Cup? I’m looking forward to it.



      May 30, 2010 at 12:32 pm

  7. “Every position is a faith position” <– that is the basis of post-modernism. As I was trying to get at earlier, we are arriving at mostly the same conclusions, but through different paradigms. An I agree with you that language has meaning. I just don't those meanings are always completely visible.

    In any event, I do think we can and must begin outside the Bible. The text only has spiritual significance because it is divine revelation. The biblical patriarchs did not come to faith through scripture, but through revelation. I think we start our reasoning with natural revelation which, along with the Holy Spirit, convinces us of divine-inspiration of the Bible. From there, we can deductively reason from the text. The pre-textual analysis, which among other things regards the existence of an Ultimate Reality and need for revelation, informs our hermeneutics which we then apply to the textual revelation. I'm not arguing for a world sans revelation. I am arguing that, in order to avoid any circularity, natural revelation must inform our interpretation of special revelation. Natural revelation is a universal (e.g., logic or math). Special revelations like scripture or direct revelations are, as the name implies, specific to a time, place, language, etc. They are useful, but must be interpreted, like my use of these very words, in order to grasp a fuller meaning. Language is not a perfect conduit of meaning (see Wittgenstein). Natural revelation, on the other hand, is a perfect conduit of principles.

    I haven't really fully developed my idea of the primacy of natural revelation. I think the reason many evangelicals avoid such a concept is that it is much easier to just point to a text and say "you're wrong," as if it were that easy. I suppose maybe it is easier to run a church that way. I don't know, it's all very confusing. Maybe I'm just upset that some people act like they have all the answer because they have the text and then I am stuck here fretting away over a single verse. I'm not implying you are so confident in your interpretations; in fact, I have a feeling that you can probably relate to my anxious reading of scripture.

    Joshua House

    May 30, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    • I can relate, Josh, and fortunately, you and I know each other a bit. You were my student twice, so it’s not a secret where I’m coming from. I’m trying to press you a bit on some of your premises, as you are me. That’s all to the good, as I see it. You and I may arrive at similar doctrinal positions, but it certainly matters how one gets there. The mainline denominations also said that they arrived at the same doctrinal conclusions but through different means, and look where they are now. I would encourage you to take a historical perspective on these matters. We can trace the historical progress of Christians who began departing from a biblical epistemology and see where they ended up. Orthodoxy would not be their destination.

      Again, I wouldn’t want to burden you with too much reading, but it seems to me you’ve read a good bit of philosophy and such, which is great. Again, all to the good. But I would direct you to some good Christian thinking on these issues, and perhaps you’ve already read them. I would recommend Greg Bahnsen. He’s dead now, but you can find some of his stuff online, and I have started his book, “Presuppositional Apologetics,” and I’ve no doubt it will prove to be indispensable. Further, you might want to get a hold of John Frame’s “Apologetics to the Glory of God,” and also the work of Cornelius Van Til. That would be a good place to start if you want to interact with some top flight Christian thinking on this topic.

      Once again, I appreciate you as a brother, and I’m grateful for these interactions.



      May 30, 2010 at 8:16 pm

      • Just realized I never answered your comment about the World Cup! Of course I’m excited. Especially because there are lots of foreigners here in DC – lots of people love soccer. I think the watching the all the young players for the US will be great, even if we don’t win the whole thing.

        By the way, Carson book shipped and should be here soon. I saw a preview of it and I am super excited. It will perfectly compliment the other book I am reading right now which is Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. I highly recommend it, though getting through it requires familiarity not only with scripture but also a good amount of existentialist philosophy.

        Joshua House

        June 2, 2010 at 11:41 am

  8. i just read this entire thing and i love being challenged with these different ideas! so thanks to both of you. And kevin is going to begin tutoring me in greek to get me ready for you class! I am so exited!

    john tounger

    June 10, 2010 at 2:07 pm

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