Wheaton Conference Report

William B. Evans Articles
For the first time in a number of years I decided to attend the Wheaton Theology Conference.  This year's conference title--"Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright"--obviously proved enticing to many.  A conference that normally draws about 300 people quickly filled up and was capped at 1,100 advance registrants.  Thus Wright, a New Testament scholar with an enormous corpus of published works who currently serves as the Anglican Bishop of Durham, proved to be the theological equivalent of a "rock star." 

Despite the large number of extra people on campus during a term, the Wheaton organizers handled the logistical details with aplomb.  The campus's cavernous Edman Chapel, where most of the conference events were held, was largely filled for the sessions by conference registrants, Wheaton students and faculty, and interested locals.  
I had fears that the conference would be an exercise in hagiography, but that concern was quickly dispelled when the first conference speaker, Richard Hays of Duke University, came out swinging.  Still miffed over a critique by Wright at the 2008 SBL meeting of a book that Hays had edited, the Duke Neuestestamentler contended that Wright's historical treatment of the Gospels, with its emphasis upon historical proof, still operates out of an essentially modernist/historicist mindset, and he complained that the individual voices of the Evangelists seem to disappear into Wright's synthesis of the Synoptic Gospel accounts.  Hays also asked the probing question of how the picture of Jesus which emerges from Wright's historical reconstruction relates to the church's confessional tradition, before concluding with a call for a rapprochement between Wright and Karl Barth.  
Marianne Meye Thompson, a Johannine scholar from Fuller Seminary, followed Hayes with a paper responding to Wright's omission of the Gospel of John from his Jesus and the Victory of God, suggesting that Wright was consciously or unconsciously following the critical tradition's skepticism regarding the Gospel of John.  She encouraged Wright to engage the Fourth Gospel and opined that John and Wright would get along quite well.  
In his response to Hays and Thompson, Wright noted that he was responding to the skepticism toward the Bible that was rampant in academia when he was a student, and that he was seeking to confront the world on its own terms.  He also claimed that he was not trying to find a Jesus behind the Gospel accounts, but rather to do justice to those accounts.  In a rather telling comment, Wright then asserted that his account of Jesus is more true to the canonical witness than the confessions of the church!  Finally, Wright maintained that his omission of John was done for apologetic reasons rather than because of any skepticism on his part toward the Fourth Gospel.  

After lunch on Friday, the husband and wife team of Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat presented a paper in dialogical form (opened with a Phil Ochs song performed by a local musician) in which they suggested that Wright's focus on Israel's "nationalistic zeal" as the great problem facing the New Testament writers results in a lack of attention to more individual economic injustices.  Such a focus, they said, fails to do justice to the Old Testament prophetic witness.  The Walsh/Keesmaat presentation also included a sustained polemic against the "crucifixion economics" of contemporary capitalism, and this apparently did not resonate with some members of the audience.  

Next up was conference organizer and Wheaton New Testament scholar Nicholas Perrin, who in a paper on eschatology and kingdom ethics commended Wright for his critical realism that broke decisively with the contrived "criteria of authenticity" approach of Bultmann and the earlier quests for the historical Jesus, for his attention to Jesus as a reader of Israel's Scriptures, and for his remarkable insights into the ways that the New Testament presents Jesus himself as the locus of the identity, hopes, and destiny of Israel.  Perrin did, however, chide Wright for neglecting the personal and transcendent aspects of the gospel.  Echoing some of the concerns of Walsh and Keesmaat, he contended that Wright's focus on "nationalistic zeal" does not offer much of a basis for individual ethics.  

In the first of his two keynote addresses, Wright spoke of the method and usefulness of his approach to the historical Jesus.  Arguing against the Bultmannian tradition, with its radical skepticism, and pietism, with its focus on the present experience of Jesus but without much attention to historical foundations, Wright argued for a "critical realism" which seeks to recover both the deeds and the aims of Jesus by utilizing all relevant historical data.  Once again, the confessional tradition of the church came in for some pointed criticism, as Wright complained that Chalcedon presents Jesus as an example of abstract deity and humanity rather than as the distinctly Jewish Messiah and bringer of the Kingdom of God.  Wright closed with an apologia for his apologetic approach to the historical Jesus.   Here Karl Barth's rejection of natural theology and apologetics came in for pointed criticism--if Barth is right then Paul should not have gone to the Areopagus in Acts 17 and argued for the truth of Christianity.  As the church we need to know who Jesus is in order to respond to him properly, and we need the flesh-and-blood historical Jesus because, after all, we are flesh-and-blood people.  

The Saturday sessions, which were devoted to Wright's approach to the Apostle Paul, began with an entertainingly "punny" paper by Wheaton systematic theologian Kevin Vanhoozer entitled "Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and in Protestant Soteriology."  Responding to Wright's rejection of imputation and his contention that Luther, and to a lesser extent Calvin, misread Paul on justification, Vanhoozer questioned whether the covenant theme of God's plan to bless all of humanity though the nation of Israel is as prominent in Paul as Wright suggests.  The Wheaton theologian went on to argue that the emphasis on covenant and the corporate dimension, while helpful in itself, has tended in Wright's work to undercut the genuinely biblical emphasis on individual salvation.  Focusing specifically on Wright's denial of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer, Vanhoozer referenced speech/act theory (without which no Vanhoozer presentation these days would be complete).  Here he insightfully suggested that Wright's presentation of the divine law court implicitly views that court as civil rather than criminal, and he asked whether justification for Wright means "in" (the people of God) or "innocent." 

Vanhoozer then closed with a commendation of Calvin's doctrine of adoption as means of bridging Wright's concern for incorporation into Israel as the family of God with the Reformed concern for imputation.  

The next paper, by Jeremy Begbie of Duke University, opened by posing the intriguing question of why emergent church types, with their suspicion of the institutional church, should be so drawn to the work of an Anglican bishop.  Begbie went on to outline the Wrightian ecclesiology as intrinsically connected to soteriology, as eschatologically focused on the work of the Spirit in anticipation of the eschaton, as cosmically situated with a concern for the whole world, as concrete and empirically grounded, and as improvisational in its flexibility and openness to engage new contexts.  The multi-talented Begbie concluded his paper with a brief piano performance of a Bachesque fugue based on the letters of Wright's name.
At this point in the conference my zeal for detailed note taking was largely spent, and so the remaining summary will be brief.  Markus Bockmuehl of Cambridge University presented a paper entitled "Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died?," in which he questioned whether Wright's focus on the eschatological renewal of this world does full justice to the biblical language that speaks of heaven as the abode of believers.  Thus Bockmuehl's answer to the rhetorical question of his paper's title was "yes."  Edith Humphrey, a New Testament scholar and Orthodox layperson who teaches at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, presented a paper on Wright's view of the Pauline gospel.  The conference concluded on Saturday evening with another entertaining keynote address by Wright on the current state of Pauline studies.  

As a theologian and church historian rather than a professional biblical scholar, I came to the conference with limited exposure to Wright's work, and with mixed feelings about what I had read by him.  On the one hand, I had found his work on the historical Jesus to be interesting and suggestive.  On the other hand, the margins of my copy of his Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision are littered with question marks and comments.  Regrettably, I came away from this conference with most of those questions still unanswered, and at times there was less detailed interaction between Wright and the other conference participants on specifics than I would have hoped.  It seems that Wright does not always handle criticism gracefully (his dismissive response to Bockmuehl's paper struck this observer as rude), and he largely failed to engage Vanhoozer's criticisms on the critical issue of imputation.  Instead, we got a rhetorically powerful reiteration of grand Wrightian themes.  

Wright's theological method--which I would characterize as contextual and oppositional--may account for some of this.  He is a highly contextual thinker, constantly triangulating and responding to others.  In particular, he repeatedly places his theology over against the excesses of skeptical historical criticism and the individualism of pietistic Protestantism.  The upside of this approach is that the results are relevant to the current context (though the long-term significance of Wright's work awaits the verdict of history).  A danger of such an oppositional approach is that it can lead to the positing of false dichotomies--faith vs. history, inclusion vs. imputation, etc.  This in turn seems to support Vanhoozer's contention (echoing the famous dictum of F. D. Maurice) that Wright is often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.  

That being said, I suspect that no sentient being could come away from the conference without an appreciation for Wright's rhetorical gifts and power.  I had heard Wright speak in other contexts but had never heard him preach until Friday morning, when he preached to the students in the college chapel service.  His sermon, in which there was nary a pause or break, consisted of a thirty-five minute guided tour of the book of Ephesians with application.  I came away from that service with a sense of just how relentlessly verbal Wright can be, and of how he has been able to churn out some many books of such consistent quality.  I also came away sensing that the Wheaton invitation was not a misstep and that Wright is a man of authentic evangelical (small "e") piety even if, in my judgment, he is not "right" on everything--in short, he really does love the Lord and genuinely strives to be biblical.  

But there are also, in my opinion, at least three significant dangers lurking in his theology.  First, without a deeper appreciation for the role of faith commitments in historical scholarship, Wright's historical endeavors run the risk of lapsing back into the historicism he so abhors.  Second, his nearly constant preference for corporate inclusion over against the individual's experience of forensic justification risks a tragic obscuring of essential Reformational insights.  Finally, his apparent distaste for the church's confessional tradition is unlikely to serve the church well in the long run and is, in fact, likely to undercut his ecclesiology.

A self-described "paleo-orthodox ecclesial Calvinist," Dr. Evans is the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, SC.  He holds degrees from Taylor University, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Vanderbilt University.   He is the author of Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Paternoster, 2008).  He also served as an Assistant Editor of the New Geneva Study Bible/Reformation Study Bible and as Moderator of the 2005 General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  In his spare time he writes the ARP Adult Quarterly Sunday School curriculum for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.