Resources for Wheaton Theology Conference on N. T. Wright
Audio and video of the Wheaton Theology Conference with N.T. Wright is now available online for free

N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, and Karl Barth on Scripture and Tradition

Richard Hays began today's Wheaton Theology Conference with a fascinating appreciation and critique of N.T Wright's work.  Hays noted how surprised he was to find a couple of years ago that Wright was very suspicious of overly-theologically-determined readings of Scripture while Hays is trying to more explicitly ground his interpretation in the church's tradition.

As the day went on, it occurred to me that Hays and Wright have slightly different audiences in mind when they write.  The two opponents Hays usually has in mind are flaccid Christianity and supposedly benevolent secularism; whereas Wright is usually trying to combat Christian fundamentalism / dogmatism and atheists (like Hitchens, Dawkins and some members of the Jesus Seminar).  Hays is concerned about the assumptions of the New Testament guild, the excesses of the secular university, and the theological dilution of mainline Christianity.  Wright is concerned about calcified theological paradigms, systematic theologians acting as heresy police, and professors who bully impressionable students to jettison Christian belief.  Hays's opponents are grayer whereas Wright's are more black and white.  Hays noted and Wright affirmed today that Wright worries about the reading of Scripture being confined to the attic (by the fundamentalist) or in the basement (by the atheist bully).  

Hays prefers the method of unmasking hidden assumptions and out-churching his opponents with beauty; whereas Wright prefers the method of recovering the Bible and out-arguing his opponents with reason.  Hays thinks the presuppositions of his opponents are unexamined and need to be exposed as such.  He has little hope they will be persuaded but thinks that the witness of the cruciform community might win a hearing.  Wright believes his historical arguments may give his opponents pause or may at least slow them down and he hopes that his arguments will at least reinforce the wavering Christian.  

Hays said he would like to get his friends Karl Barth (1886-1968) and N.T. Wright (1948-) together for a chat with one another.  Wright expressed in the evening lecture that he is concerned about Barth's rejection of natural theology. In particular, I think Wright is concerned that Barth would be contemptuous of Wright's historical work with the Gospels--"Nein, Tom!"  More likely I think, Barth would want to more clearly situate theologically what Wright is doing (as Hays and Thompson attempted to do today).

In particular, I think Wright would appreciate Barth's 1963 book Evangelical Theology which describes how Barth thinks theology should be done.  Here are two quotes that I think theologically frame what Wright is doing in his work.

Barth explains that a Christian should approach the Scriptures by asking "what are the Scriptures saying about God?"  In order to attempt to answer this question, Barth endorses the use of any tool including historical work.

"Its [Theology's] searching of the Scriptures consists in asking the texts whether and to what extent they might witness to him [God] . . . Every possible means must be used: philological and historical criticism and analysis, careful consideration of the nearer and the more remote textual relationships, and not least, the enlistment of every device of the conjectural imagination that is available." (Evangelical Theology, 34-35). 

In his books which are often historical and apologetic works, Wright does exactly what Barth says above--Wright explores how the Scriptures speak of God.  Wright says to the reader something like, "This is what these texts seem to say about Jesus.  Here is where I looked.  This is what I found."  That is proclamation.  That is witness.  

Wright is concerned that dogmatic or fundamentalist Christian theology functionally discourages Scripture reading.  It says, "We have already found everything there is to be found.  Don't bother looking."  Barth would affirm Wright's concern.  Barth welcomes revisiting the tradition to test its faithfulness to the Scriptures.

Theology has to reconsider the confession of the community, testing and rethinking it in the light of its enduring foundation, object, and content. The faith of the community is asked to seek understanding. Faith seeking understanding, Fides quaerens intellectum, is what theology must embody and represent. What distinguishes faith from blind assent is just its special character as "faith seeking understanding." Certainly, the assumption behind all this will be that the community itself may have been on the right track in the recent or remote past, or at any rate on a not altogether crooked path. Consequently, fundamental trust instead of mistrust will be the initial attitude of theology toward the tradition which determines the present-day Church. And any questions and proposals which theology has to direct to the tradition will definitely not be forced on the community like a decree; any such findings will be presented for consideration only as wellweighed suggestions. Nevertheless, no ecclesiastical authority should be allowed by theology to hinder it from honestly pursuing its critical task, and the same applies to any frightened voices from the midst of the rest of the congregation. The task of theology is to discuss freely the reservations as well as the proposals for improvement which occur to it in reflection on the inherited witness of the community. Theology says credo, I believe, along with the present-day community and its fathers. But it says credo ut intelligam, "I believe in order to understand." To achieve this understanding, it must be granted leeway for the good of the community itself. (Evangelical Theology, 42-43). 

It seems to me Hays, Wright and Barth are quite close on all of these matters but that it is useful to have iron sharpen iron.


  • The audio and video of all of the talks are now available here for free at WETN (Wheaton College’s radio station). 

Evangelical Theology

Karl Barth

Best Price $5.32 

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  • I have access to the online digital edition of Evangelical Theology on the The Digital Karl Barth Library through Duke.  Your library may have subscription access to DKBL as well. 
  • Link for Duke students who have NetID and Password.

  • Other discussion of Hays's talk: