Saturday, February 7, 2015

Sewanee New Testament Professor Slams Bishop N. T. Wright

The University of the South (Sewanee) recently awarded an honorary degree to N. T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop of Durham, prolific author, and current Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary's College with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Dr. Paul Holloway, Professor of New Testament at Sewanee's School of Theology, will have none of it.  In a blistering letter to the editor of The Sewanee Purple, here's what Professor Holloway wrote:

I am writing to express dismay at Sewanee’s recent awarding of an honorary degree in Theology to Tom Wright, former bishop of Durham and now professor of New Testament at St. Andrews University in Scotland. I am the current professor of New Testament at the School of Theology at Sewanee, and Wright’s receiving an honorary degree during my tenure is a professional embarrassment. Some of the readers of this letter will know Wright as an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights and a vociferous critic of the Episcopal Church for its progressive stance. I find Wright’s position on these matters offensive and harmful. It is an affront to the School of Theology in general and to its LGBT community and its allies in particular. 
But that is not my complaint here. My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science. 
To be fair, Wright was voted his degree under a previous administration before I became professor of New Testament. And he was voted that degree when he was simply another conservative Church of England prelate of the sort we used to court. (A few of these are still in the pipeline!) But a number of things have changed. Not only are there a new administration and a new NT professor, but Wright has since retired as bishop and found a job at an under-funded Scottish university anxious to attract young full-fee-paying American Evangelical men questing for old-world cultural capital. My only consolation is that the embarrassment of Wright’s honorary degree was overshadowed by the even greater debacle of the stridently propagandistic Eric Metaxas, who was tapped to speak at this semester’s convocation. Sewanee seriously needs to rethink is honorary degrees. I am afraid that after last week they will bring a little less honor. 
Paul Holloway
Professor of New Testament 
The School of Theology 
The University of the South

Setting aside the caustically contemptuous and intolerant tone of the letter, as well as its open hostility to Christian orthodoxy, here's the gist of what Professor Holloway says: "N. T. Wright disagrees with my views on particular matters and he represents theological positions that contradict my own.  That offends and embarrasses me.  Therefore, Wright is not a real scholar and he doesn't deserve an honorary degree." 

It doesn't take a Ph.D. in logic to see how silly this "argument" is.

Nor does it take a genius to see that if Professor Holloway's letter makes the rounds among moderate-to-conservative lay and clergy graduates of The School of Theology, they just might decide to send their money to other institutions.  I'm aware of persons who have made just that decision before this letter was even written.  This letter will simply underscore that they made the right decision.  And there are others for whom Professor Holloway's letter may be the straw that breaks the camel's back when it comes to financially supporting The School of Theology.  I doubt that's the outcome the Sewanee administration had in mind when they issued the invitation for Bishop Wright to speak and receive an honorary degree!

Since I posted on this story yesterday, Fr. Peter Carrell of Anglican Down Under has offered a most worthy response to Professor Holloway's letter in a posting entitled "N. T. Wright dismissed as 'little more than book-a-year apologist.'"  Here's a money quote:

It is very surprising that Holloway misses the point of Wright's role in NT scholarship which is to generate fresh discussion of familiar texts. Wright's singular achievement is to make us think again - critically! - about what we read in the NT. Looking at Holloway's professional career I don't think that is going to be said about him! His output is of a different kind, and that is fine. But fifty year's from now students will still be examining Wright's writings for their doctoral theses and Holloway's works - like most NT scholars that ever lived - will be in a dusty corner of the library.

Read it all.


underground pewster said...

Fifty years from now the Episcopal church will still be suffering from the effects of having such an agenda driven teacher at one of their seminaries.

I would hate to be in his class when we got to Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; and 1 Timothy 1:9-10.

Unknown said...

As a former student of Dr. Holloway's, I am unsurprised by his position, even as I am astounded by his public clarity of it. Sewanee has nurtured for far too long, those who are hostile to Christian orthodoxy, and have marginalized those who adhere to that position. The only real question for the administration is this- will they publicly respond to it, or will they, in their silence, assent?

William H Smith said...

Very good, Bryan. Thank you.

Jonathan Williams said...

N.T. Wright not a genuine scholar? His bibliographies at the end of his books are longer than most people's books!

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Many thanks to you all for the comments. I note that Professor Holloway's letter has kicked off a firestorm of back-and-forth comments at Episcopal Cafe.

In that comment thread, the charge has been repeatedly made that Bishop Wright believes that LGBT persons are not created in the image of God. That's a very serious charge that could be construed as calumny if it's false. I note that no one making that charge offers any concrete evidence to back it up. It's merely asserted and allowed to go unchallenged.

So I did a Google search, and within two minutes I found the following comment Bishop Wright made in a 2007 interview:

"All human beings are made in God’s image, and it is this image which is the bridgehead to God. People know this in their bones even if they don’t consider themselves to be religious."

That sure sounds like a categorical affirmation of the intrinsic dignity of every human being!

Anonymous said...

So someone about 100 people have heard of attacks someone whose books are read by millions. Last time I checked that was called "envy." Best not to reveal that in print.

Having read the vitriol on the Cafe, I am stunned by this entire incident on multiple levels:

-The leadership of the seminary seeming not to mind intellectual brownshirts attacking their decisions.

-The willingness of folks to engage in slander and character attacks on what seems like a single-issue disagreement.

-The Cafe, which started out as a voice for the moderate left, seems to have been taken hostage by progressive jihadists determined to root out the few conservatives left in the church.

-Perhaps the greatest head-scratcher for me is the general lack of outcry from alumni. Is the faculty at our southern seminary generally hostile toward conservatives, Bryan, that there simply aren't many around to complain at the creeping progressive puritanism?

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Excellent points all around from "The Gospel Side," Matt.

As to your question in the fourth point, I'm not 100% sure, but it may well be true that by this point in time there really aren't enough conservatives around to serve as a counter-balance to "the creeping progressive puritanism" that seems to be taking over seminary faculties, including Sewanee. That's definitely true in other areas of church life (witness General Convention).

It's worth taking a look at what The Episcopal Café says about itself:

"The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition. The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity. Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ."

I'm not sure how you can be "an independent voice" that rejects being "a platform for advocacy" on the one hand, while simultaneously embracing the perspective and project of "Progressive Christianity" on the other. That sure sounds like a platform for advocacy!

I also find it interesting that the comments were closed. So if anyone did want to call out those who have made serious, even ad hominem, charges against Bishop Wright, those comments would not be allowed to see the light of day.

Rob Scot said...

I am a seminarian at The School of Theology, and a student in one of Dr. Holloway's classes. I share Fr. Matt's concern about "the willingness of folks to engage in slander and character attacks," and that from both sides. I can't say I am stunned though; such vitriol seems, sadly, to be in ready supply in online forums, including explicitly Christian ones. (Incidentally, the idea that the school administration should issue some sort of public statement and draw clear lines and take sides, seems to me an attitude normative in the blogosphere and among political candidtates, but not one conducive to healthy flesh and blood communities.) It's one reason I have had no desire to wade into this fray. However, as this is a blog which I respect, I feel compelled to comment out of concern for the reputation of my seminary.

I must say emphatically that, in my opinion, the concern that Sewanee is "generally hostile to conservatives" and prone to a "creeping progressive puritanism" is an unjustified fear. I am not shy in identifying myself as generally traditionalist as well as sympathetic to those more traditional than myself. Of course, such terms mean different things in different places and to different people (a traditionalist in TEC is not a traditionalist in ACNA is not a traditionalist in the Roman Catholic Church, etc.), but I have not felt at all targeted or discriminated against or lonely as a seminarian at Sewanee.

I disagree with Dr. Holloway on a number of things, including his criticism of Wright. But such disagreement does not preclude the fact that Dr. Holloway is a fine scholar and teacher. His scholarship is strictly historical-critical, but it is a brand of scholarship with which I need to be thoroughly acquainted, even if my own understanding of scholarship is more broadly embracing. And, apparently, it needs to be pointed out that Dr. Holloway's views, expressed as opinion in a letter to the editor, are not representative of the whole faculty. Indeed, I have found the diversity of opinion and churchmanship among the school's faculty to be inspiring. We talk a lot in the Episcopal Church about diversity, and about living together as loving Christian communities even amidst disagreements, but it seems to me that to actually find such a reality is rare. Sewanee is such a place. I'm very grateful to be here.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

I appreciate your comments, Rob. Thank you for taking time to share them.

I am pleased and relieved to know that your experience at Sewanee has been a good one. I know of others who self-identify as "traditionalist" who have not had that kind of experience. I'm sure that all kinds of factors play into the reasons why that has been the case.

I don't disagree that seminarians need to be acquainted with historical-critical methodology when it comes to biblical scholarship. But I do worry about instances in which that approach appears to be the dominant one. To be sure, seminarians need to be conversant with scripture at many levels. But at the end of the day, if they are going to be adequately prepared to serve as spiritual and moral leaders who can connect the meaning of scriptural texts with the needs and concerns of the persons they are called to serve, the historical-critical method alone won't cut it.

This is one of the many reasons why I admire and respect scholars like N. T. Wright. Wright is a historian and a theologian who can hold his own with academics of much greater weight than Professor Holloway. But his work also embodies the need for Christians to be able to unpack what scripture means and how it applies in our lives. And he's not ashamed to publicly affirm the truth of core tenets of the Christian faith.

Wright successfully bridges the worlds of academia, the church, and the general public. He may not get everything correct (who does?). But that makes him an exemplary Christian scholar, apologist, and evangelist. That's a fitting model for future ordained leaders of the church to follow. And that's yet another reason why I find Professor Holloway's letter repugnant.

Priscilla Turner said...

There is not the proverbial snowball's chance in Hell that Jesus our Lord taught, tolerated or practised homosex. We may be more certain of this on historical grounds (I say it in all reverence) than that He rose from the dead. It is therefore a mark not of competence but of ignorance of the entire New Testament background to attempt to defend homosex as good, beautiful or acceptable to God. I first published this claim as long ago as 1997.