When it comes to New Testament scholarship, I’m an amateur at best. “Wannabe” is probably a more accurate description. I love fumbling through the Greek text and producing my own awkward translations. I enjoy studying the history and culture of the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds. I like seeing how different scholars from various traditions interact with and critique each other’s work.

As far as New Testament scholars go, N.T. Wright has been a hero of mine for several years now. I deeply admire the way he has been able to make the world of scholarship accessible, interesting, and applicable to the non-scholarly world. I am also grateful for his courage and commitment to go ad fontes, back to the sources, in his quest to understand the scriptures, even when doing so has led him to challenge established theological strongholds. His work has and will continue to shape my understanding of the ancient writings that are so foundational to my Christian faith.

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox philosopher and biblical scholar whose work I am less familiar with. My first encounter with him has been through his recent translation of the New Testament and some related articles. As those of you who follow me on social media are likely already aware, this first encounter has been an impressive one. In my opinion, his introduction to the New Testament translation alone is worth the price of the book, as is his scientific post-script. I am using his translation for my devotional reading this year and I have found it to be refreshing and thought-provoking.

Imagine my curiosity, then, upon learning that N.T Wright had written a review of Hart’s New Testament translation in The Christian Century. Imagine also the cognitive dissonance I experienced upon discovering that the review was a scathing critique, not just of the work, but also, it seemed, of Hart himself. It’s an odd feeling to watch an old hero taking swings at a new favorite.

The excitement continued when I learned that Hart had written a response to Wright’s critique. I was both somewhat entertained as well as somewhat disheartened when I discovered that his response was even more mean-spirited than the original critique. Hart’s response felt very much like the vindictive retort of wounded pride. I should know; I’ve offered responses myself on more than one occasion.

This public, and not to mention petty, battle of theological giants led me to a couple observations. First, polemics (the public refutation of another’s position) can indeed be healthy and helpful. When learned scholars of the caliber of Wright and Hart engage in public debate, we all learn something and the world of scholarship benefits from the exchange. Second, much learning, it seems, carries the dangerous possibility of much pride. When the pursuit of truth gives way to personal animus or prideful self-defense, we all lose.

When all of the contempt and pettiness is brushed aside, however, I think, from my own limited perspective (and much to my own surprise), that Hart, at least in this case, has done a better job of doing what I have for so long admired Wright for doing: stripping the text of centuries worth of theological dressing and letting it speak for itself in its own context (as clearly as one can in English) without regard to the theological consequences of doing so. This, I believe, is reflective of the true heart of the Reformation, even as his work tips over several of the Reformers most sacred cows.

3 Comments

  1. I’m 100% behind you on this. As someone who is still a relative outsider to academic debate, I find it hard to tell where the good-natured, scholarly banter crosses over into acrimony. DBH seems to indicate where, for him, that turn is in his paper, where he announces that he will be decidedly less genial moving forward. Yet I have to confess that I hadn’t found the prior writing particularly genial, nor did I notice a marked difference in the latter part of his response. To me, there was something about the whole back and forth that disappointed me, in that it doesn’t seem to speak well of the kingdom that is supposedly built on love.

    Several years ago, Pat Lencioni wrote a book called Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars. The thesis is that when departments of an organization cooperate to solve a crisis, all the politicking and acrimony disappears. In my mind, if Wright and Hart (and others) could somehow engage together with cooperative theologizing for the sake of the kingdom, more than intramural debate, some of what appears to be pettiness and mutual disrespect might disappear for the common cause. I’d pray for that.

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    1. (They would both bristle at my use of the word “kingdom” as an alternative to what they are doing. By “kingdom,” I more specifically meant “mission.”)

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    2. Thanks “MJK” 😉 for responding. I agree with you that there didn’t seem to be much difference between the first part and second part of DBH’s response. Thanks for a that book recommendation, sounds like something I should read. I think it’s a good observation. A similar thing is true in the military; the various branches pick on each other until they have a shared mission.

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