World-renowned theologians can be off-base (1)

I learned to respect the name N.T. Wright when he was on the “good side” (contra Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, widely considered to be bona fide heretics) of the “Jesus at 2000” debate.  I have since picked up two of Wright’s commentaries and have glanced a few times at his website.  He’s a good communicator and is renowned as an Anglican bishop, theologian, writer, and speaker.

However, Wright is not always right.  Case in point from Part One of his commentary on Acts:

As a bishop, one of the things I do quite a lot is to go round laying hands on people and praying for God’s holy spirit to come upon them.  It is often a very moving and exciting time, not least at the Easter Vigil when we come in darkness into the great cathedral, led by the candle symbolizing the risen Jesus, and then, with lights coming on, playing on the organ and other instruments, and shouts of “Alleluia!,” we celebrate the resurrection.  We renew the vows made at our baptism; and then, sometimes pausing to baptize people as well, we welcome into our fellowship through confirmation (the laying on of the bishop’s hands, with prayer) those who had been baptized earlier, probably as infants, and who now want to make real for themselves the promises which had been made on their behalf some while before.

When people ask me, as they sometimes do, what it’s all about, the present passage (Acts 8:4-25 -bc) is one of the ones we usually go back to.  I do not imagine for a moment that our modern practice, in the church to which I happen to belong, is an exact reproduction of what Luke says took place in Samaria on that occasion.  I am not an apostle come from Jerusalem, and the people I confirm are not Samaritans, needing for the first time to know the presence and power of the spirit.  But since there is in fact no single, identical pattern of Christian initiation running right across our earliest documents, the church has, in my view wisely, developed patterns which broadly correspond to what seems to have been done by the first apostles themselves, as much by decisions taken as they went along as by carefully thought-out regulation.  I should say, by the way, that sometimes when I meet people I have confirmed a year or so before they have remarkable stories to tell of what God has been doing in their lives since then.  It is by no means, as sceptics sometimes assume, an empty and irrelevant old bit of ritual.  (N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One, Chapters 1-2, pp. 125-127)

Now, before I protest several elements of the good bishop’s words above, I want to say that I am not throwing away or defacing his books.  They’re borrowed from the library.  I am not returning them in disgust.  I can still learn from this man, this Anglican official who has a great deal of insight and communicative gift.  But he can be off-base, and here, off-base he is.

I’ll also say that there are a couple of very important, apt insights contained in the middle of Wright’s messy, mixed bag.  The very first problem is his conclusion to this topic of discourse:  we are apparently supposed to believe that because he says people have great stories to tell, his “confirmation” practice is valid.

I enjoy poking holes, or at least attempting to poke them, in other people’s logic.  In so doing, I am probably not doing my best “Golden Rule” work, but as a perpetually aspiring neo-Protestant, I continue to believe this is important work.  So, here I go.  I count five subjective (or less-than-fact-based) elements in the quoted passage above:

  1. Wright’s memory (in his humanness, he may be conflating and amalgamating events)
  2. Wright’s perception of the people’s genuineness (his judgment is not flawless)
  3. The people’s actual genuineness (they may be as interested in impressing the great bishop as in recounting actual happenings)
  4. The people’s memory (they are human, too, and could have forgotten sequences and times)
  5. The people’s perception of what God is “doing in their lives” (this phrase is always dubious)

Conclusion:  never trust a bishop.  Just kidding.  Actually, never trust any human.  (Not kidding.)  We are all flawed.  (Yes, even the Pope.  If any Catholics are reading, you need to know this.  Don’t get all hot-and-bothered and take leave of your senses.  Down deep, you know that the assertion of papal infallibility is ridonculous, and you need to toss it overboard from the ship of your life and beliefs.)

Despite the goodness of heart and thoroughness of thought that N.T. “Tom” Wright manifests so regularly, he is not always right.  The implicit suggestion that the laying on of a denominational bishop’s hands means something is questionable.  And the pragmatically, morally absurd notion of “baptizing” an infant (of course, they are just sprinkled or poured upon, not really baptized, for that would be child abuse) is eclipsed in the spiritual plane by the inability to see that there was actually a pattern of initiation–shown pretty clearly in the record we call Acts of the Apostles.

Denominational loyalties and mass marketing are enemies of truth.

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