Sewanee, N.T. Wright, and Those Strange Biblical Scholars

It’s hard to be surprised these days at anything, but I must admit that I was surprised at the posting by one Paul A. Holloway, Professor of New Testament at the School of Theology at The University of the South, Sewanee, TN.  He is evidently upset that a) his institution gave N.T. Wright an honourary doctorate, without consulting him and b) people who object to his objection aren’t being very nice about it.

First: I’d have to admit, I was surprised that Sewanee bestowed upon him any kind of accolade.  This is the institution that has placed on display a giant clitoris.  Why such an institution would honour someone who has defended the basics of Christianity is beyond me.  Perhaps they’re trying to butter him up to defect.

Holloway, however, makes a long case that Wright isn’t a legitimate Biblical scholar.  As he put it:

What I dared to say in my letter is that properly speaking Wright is not a “scholar” who comes to the evidence with honest questions to be puzzled out and whose conclusions are always subject to revision, but an “apologist” who comes with ideologically generated answers that he then seeks to defend. I also said that Sewanee’s awarding Wright an honorary degree in my field on my watch was a professional embarrassment and that I felt like a biology professor who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science. The vitriol protesting even my questioning Wright’s preeminence was instant and more than a little revealing.

You can read the rest of his case in his article.  My thoughts on all of this are as follows:

  1. Vitriol and the Internet are just about synonymous these days.
  2. Holloway assumes that, if you don’t agree with the “consensus” of Biblical scholarship that basically started with Richard Simon and moved forward, then you cannot be part of the conversation.  The problems with this “consensus” (which can be shown to be a moving target, especially with the advent of Biblical archeology) is that it renders the Bible unworthy of the study that people like Holloway supposedly give it.   Putting it simply, if they’re right, it’s not relevant.
  3. He characterises Wright’s supporters as “…marginalized and other socially anxious groups (who) construct and rally behind cult figures of their own construction.  These figures offer the social and cultural capital these groups feel they need.”  That’s a high-handed, classically Episcopalian snob approach to the situation, but I suppose one cannot expect otherwise given the institution.  It’s also a handy way of attacking people by denigrating their followers (kind of the reverse of the appeal to authority fallacy).
  4. He leans to heavily on the peer-reviewed literature system.  As a sometime academic working on a PhD, I’ve come to realise that the literature system is in trouble.  I am reluctant to accept stuff in the literature without some prior reflection; that’s especially true in the fields I work in (numerical analysis and geotechnical engineering) where what’s being analysed can be maddeningly complex and the results ambiguous and subject to manipulation or misinterpretation.  Wright challenges a lot of that scholarly consensus, which is why the “establishment” doesn’t care for him.  Once again Holloway needs to get off of his appeal to authority and get to where Wright has got it wrong.
  5. Holloway needs to define what he means by “Biblical creationist”.  Most people mean a “Young Earth Creationist” like Ken Ham, but that’s not universally the case.

Several generations of Episcopal ministers have been trained on Holloway’s idea of the Bible.  The results speak for themselves: a declining church which doesn’t believe in its fundamental tenets and which cannot differentiate itself enough from the society around it to justify involvement.  ISIS reminds us that things in the Middle East haven’t changed as much from Bible times as most would like to think.  Instead of teaching this and other things that get overlooked in Bible studies, Holloway is too busy eviscerating the truth value of what he studies to make it relevant.

And that’s a tragedy for all of us.

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