Conversational [Dialogical] Theology: Being a Catholic Interpreter, with Advice for N.T. Wright

If the Christian life is dialogical, or shaped by conversation with God and His people; which it is (I would argue). And if Jesus Christ, according to Paul, promised that He would build His Church up by providing it with teachers/elders, evangelists, et al (Eph. 4); which He did. And this promise has come to fruition through all of the centuries since Jesus ascended, and into the present; then how can we ignore the fact that the Christian faith, and its self-understanding is catholic (i.e. universal, and reaches across all periods of the Christian church)?

I have learned much through engagement with N.T. Wright, but one lacuna or gap in his thinking (intentionally so on his part), is his failure to properly or thickly appreciate my point in the paragraph above. His common quip is that the Medieval church (and the early Reformed one) ‘got the right answers, but asked the wrong questions’ in regard to understanding the nature and ontology of Christian salvation. And that this, then, has had a distorting affect upon the subsequent development of the Christian church, since. And so, by and large (other than a head-nod, when he is pressed), Wright waves his hand over this whole period (from at least the 14th century into much of the present time—and he even goes after the ecumenical councils and the Greek Church Fathers), and acts as if he (and in many ways, he alone) can recover Christian truth about salvation, in particular, that had heretofore been lost; as if the gates of hell had prevailed against the Church of Christ, until he (and some of his company) have recently come on scene. Surely this is problematic, and overwrought! I have learned much from Wright, but Jesus has capably and conceptually been forming His church without Wright and our current situation, just as He said He would, through the teachers He has provided His church with through the centuries.

Thomas Torrance offers a better perspective on how to think about the dialogical nature of Christian interpretation and conversation/fellowship with God and His people. You will notice that in what Torrance communicates, he does not denigrate historical studies (which is what N.T. Wright’s discipline is), but gives them their rightful place; but he expands this idea of historical studies out beyond Second Temple Judaism, and into the history of the Church and history of interpretation, as if Jesus really has been offering fresh encounters with His people over all of the centuries of the churches’ existence. Torrance writes:

(iii) It is the combination of historical and ecumenical studies that is particularly valuable. Historical studies are necessary for the understanding of our brethren from another historical tradition, and yet it is only by engaging in conversation with those who belong to a Church that has embodied another historical tradition that we can fully understand the history of the Church. This applies not only to the separated Churches of the Evangelical world, but to the relations between so-called “Evangelical” and so-called “Catholic” Churches, between East and West, and indeed between the people of the New Covenant and the people of Israel who persist in living only according to the Old Covenant. It is thus that theological activity is enabled as fully as possible to engage still in conversation with the fathers of the Old Testament, with the Greek and Latin fathers of the ancient and mediaeval Church, and with the fathers of the Reformation in all its branches. We have to take very seriously the requirement of God to appear before Him, and to engage in conversation with Him, not alone, but with the whole company of God’s people past and present. It is thus that it belongs to the very nature of theology to be essentially catholic, and it is enabled to be that by historical and ecumenical dialogue with the fathers and brethren alike. [Thomas F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church, lxviii-lxix.]

It is clear how Torrance thinks about this then. And I think it is much more of a healthy and balanced alternative than the sense that N.T. Wright often portrays in his own thinking. Ironically, I would note, Wright does not actually move away from the classic redemptive-historical-soteriological mode of Reformed-covenantal exegesis; instead he simply reorients it, by re-shaping it, a bit, through his historical reconstructive work of Second Temple Judaism. So he hasn’t really asked new questions from the Reformers, he has simply come up with new answers, albeit largely in the same ecclesio-soterio/centric frame that many of the ‘Reformers’ were working through.

The difference that Torrance offers, from Wright, is that he grounds his dialogical approach to theology/hermeneutics in a doctrine of Christ/God; which has to be the hermenutical order we follow. We must follow a Christ-centered hermeneutic as the key to providing the proper frame through which the right questions can finally be asked. As Torrance also writes of the best of the Reformed tradition:

[…] It is in that light that the Reformation as a movement for theological reform is to be understood, that is, as a thoroughgoing criticism of all the received doctrines in the light of correspondence to the Gospel and coherence with the central doctrine of Christ, and a radical reforming and correcting of these doctrines by bringing them into obedient conformity to the doctrine of Christ. It was in that movement of faithfulness to Christ and His Gospel that Reformed theology came to understand both the nature of true theology and the nature of its systematic presentation through consistent obedience to the Truth as it is in Christ Jesus. [Thomas F. Torrance, “The School of Faith,” lix-lx.]

So it isn’t that Torrance, like Wright, is receiving medieval categories and thought forms uncritically; it is just that Torrance (unlike Wright) is critically ‘receiving’ the history of Christian thought by submitting it to the reality of Jesus Christ Himself. So the methodology is a principled Christological one, and one that is in constant flux as it is given fresh voice through conversation with God in Christ by the Spirit. We don’t need to toss the whole thing and start over (which is often the impression that comes across through Wright), but we need to be in submission to the Lordly voice of the Christian heritage and present, in a way that we operate, as Torrance would say, with ‘repentant’ thinking; Jesus’ voice, the voice of the living God, being that which regulates our reception of His voice given in the past through and to His people. So as in dialogue, healthy ones, this is an ongoing reality.

This entry was posted in Biblical Interpretation, Biblical Studies, Biblical Theology, Christian Dogmatics, Christology, Doctrine Of God, Doctrine of Scripture, Historical Christianity, Historical Theology, NT Wright, T. F. Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance, Tradition. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Conversational [Dialogical] Theology: Being a Catholic Interpreter, with Advice for N.T. Wright

  1. AT says:

    Hi Bobby,
    Good post! I certainly have a big admiration for Tom Wright, but the other Tom seems to be correct on this particular point. Wright’s point seems to be, more or less, quantitative: since the biggest part of the Gospels cover the life of Jesus, it means that it is there we have to start for interpreting His meaning. In the Pauline epistles the way of thought is the other way around. You might call that ‘qualitative’. Since only in the cross and resurrection, the true meaning of Christ is revealed to us, we have to start with these facts and interpret his life, words and works in this light.


  2. Jerome says:

    I appreciate the idea of the catholic church you present, being all of the church through all time. What is Jesus telling me through all of these periods, all of these people? It finally comes down to a basic trusting in his headship of the church over time. Not everyone has looked (or looks) at things in the same way, but still, Jesus had (and has) his followers, his church, through all of the time since Pentecost. By seeing the dialogical nature of the church, we see once again a reflection of the Triune God we are made in the image of, the God who has always been and always will be in constant communion in himself, and who shares that with us, his beloved children.


  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Amen Arjen,

    Couldn’t agree more!

    Amen Jerome,

    I agree; the Word is living!


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