What N.T. Wright should have said last night (imho…)

Jon (Hi Jon; don’t you get more than enough of my ramblings in class?!) left a comment on the previous post, saying he wanted to ask Tom Wright a question: ‘Can a scientist believe in the resurrection?’ I wasn’t at the lecture, so can’t assess the implied criticism that it didn’t adequately address the title, but the comment got me thinking in the watches of the night. It is/was an odd question to address in a lecture, in that it admits of a trivial empirical answer:- even on the strictest possible definition of ‘scientist’ (say, doctorate; published research; currently employed in the field), there are several dozen scientists in my acquaintance who do believe in the resurrection, and actuality entails possibility (if they do, they clearly can…).

So, why might this have been an interesting question for Tom to ask, or to be asked (if the title was given to him)? I think I can see an answer; before outlining it, I ought to confess that, not only was I not at the lecture, but (embarrassing confession time) I haven’t yet read the third of Tom’s series on Christian Origins, The Resurrection of the Son of God, so I really am flying in the dark here!

Wright’s project is, even in his own estimation, a renewal of the quest of the historical Jesus. That is, it is an attempt to discern what can be known of Jesus by the methods of historical scholarship alone. Hence the various debates with the Jesus Seminar: they are about the same task with the same tools, if disagreeing how to use them. Hence also the enormous apologetic value of the project, if it works: the aim is to develop a body of knowledge about the person of Jesus Christ that is certain, and not dependent on a faith-perspective or prejudice or anything else.

Hence, finally, the various debates about the appropriateness of the project: can we really abstract questions of fact from questions of perspective so easily? The question of the resurrection is somewhere near the heart of these. Wright has tried to argue that the existence and nature of the early Christian movement is sufficiently remarkable that it demands explanation, and that it can only be explained historically by an astonishing event happening very soon after the crucifixion of Christ. He has, in the past, cautiously suggested that the account of the resurrection of Jesus, would, if true, be an adequate explanation for this fact. He has further suggested that no other proposed explanation is remotely adequate.

This, however, presents us with a big question: can the event of bodily resurrection be part of a historical reconstruction? There is a response to Wright’s programme that sees it as magnificent, but fatally flawed at precisely this point. Historical scholarship operates with a ‘methodological naturalism,’ that is, it refuses to accept, a priori, any explanation that does not accord with a purely naturalistic account of what may happen in the world. On such an account, Tom Wright’s work then becomes at best a massively elaborate reductio ad absurdum: purely naturalistic history cannot explain the existence of the Christian churches, one of the major facts of world history, without denying its own premises by accepting the possibility of bodily resurrection. It may be that Tom can demonstrate the premises of this argument, but even if he can, all he has proved is the inadequacy of naturalistic historical scholarship, not the truth of the resurrection—that’s the way the logic of a reductio works.

This response, however, probably credits the generality of historical work with more philosophical self-awareness than it in fact possesses. I suspect that most historians, if pressed, would not reach for words like ‘naturalistic’, but for words like ‘plausible’: they seek to give an account of events, and the connections between them, which is ‘plausible’ to the intellectual culture in which they write. Thus, eighteenth-century historians might have appealed to ‘extraordinary operations of Providence’ (at least until Gibbon), and nineteenth-century historians might have assumed the inevitable evolution of all human cultures until they mirrored the civilization of (Protestant) Europe, but such ideas are no longer culturally acceptable.

If this is right, then to shift the cultural plausibility status of the resurrection from ‘impossible’ to ‘extraordinarily unlikely’ would be a major gain for Tom Wright’s argument. And a discussion of the science of resurrection is probably the best way to attempt to do that.


  1. Jon
    Dec 21, 2007



    On resurrection, it seems to me that, to a certain extent, the resurrection is impossible. And, furthermore, I’m sure that NTW makes this clear whenever he talks about New Creation and eschatology – i.e. ‘Dead men just don’t rise’ – implied notion ‘no one should believe in the resurrection because it should never happen’.

    However, if (as I believe it did) the resurrection did happen, how is the question framed now? “Can a scientist believe in the resurrection?” Or “Can anyone believe in the resurrection?” I fail to see why it’s harder for a scientist to believe in it. It’s pretty much a human phenomenon not a particularly scientific phenomenon.

    Not that that would make for a good talk – which is why I’m not giving any James Gregory lectures in the near future – but I think the very question as it is framed presupposes that the resurrection MUST be proven scientifically for it to be believable.

  2. Steve H
    Dec 21, 2007

    Hi Jon,

    Asking someone to clarify a ‘no’ seems hopelessly academic, but…

    Do you mean ‘no; NTW should not have said that–your reconstruction of what he is trying to do is wrong.’ or ‘no; that might be what NTW is doing, but he shouldn’t be.’ If the latter, I think I agree with you. And will also be off the list for the Gregory lectures no doubt…

    I do think the ‘can a scientist…’ framing has a certain possible appropriateness, though. Being schooled in certain ways of thinking does just inevitably make it more or less difficult for us to conceive of certain possibilities, and there may be specific answers to those specific difficulties. I think I’m with you on not wanting to apply this to the resurrection, though.

    What did Tom say last night, btw?

  3. Steve H
    Dec 21, 2007

    For anyone, like me, who missed the lecture, Jason has posted a summary here: http://cruciality.wordpress.com/2007/12/21/nt-wright-can-a-scientist-believe-in-the-resurrection/

  4. Jon
    Dec 21, 2007

    I meant “No I haven’t had enough of your ramblings in class…”

    NTW said this – http://alastair.adversaria.co.uk/?p=713

    I suppose he could use the scientist framework but he was a little naughty about it. He talks about “ways of knowing” in the first part of the talk and thus has ‘scientific’ and ‘historical’ ways of knowing which are subsumed within a ‘transcending’ way of knowing categorised by ‘faith’, ‘hope’ and ‘love’. So he pretty much dodges the question by using a different way of knowing (mutatis mutandis) (i.e. historical way of knowing) to explore the notions. Why not just use the scientific way of knowing is my question…?

    Yeah NT – answer me that!

  5. Jason Goroncy
    Dec 21, 2007

    How ‘bout I throw a bit of Forsyth into the ring for you two (sorry Jon, but Shakespeare is useless here): ‘[The] Gospels were not there even to guarantee for a posterity of historians certain facts of Christ’s life. In regard, for instance, to a fact so great and sure as the Resurrection of Christ, the man who says that no fact in history is so well attested by documentary evidence has no idea of what strict historic evidence means. In the way of testimony we have evidence which the mere student of records would regard but as secondary. We have indeed the very high evidence of a historic effect on the despairing Church which is otherwise inexplicable. But we have not the first-hand testimony of any one who actually saw the authentic body of Christ emerge from the rocky cell. The matter of first-rate moment is that Christ has risen, and lives, and all for our salvation. The real evidence that Christ is risen is something I can verify, who am little skilled in handling documents and assessing evidence. It is that I have had dealings with Him. It is like the evidence for the whole Bible. It is layman’s evidence, not scientific but moral. It is the witness of the evangelical conscience, and of Christian experience to a risen Redeemer. The essential thing is not historic belief in the Resurrection of Jesus (which devils might believe and tremble), but moral faith in a risen Saviour. The real witness to the Bible is the believer’s witness to the Gospel of which Christ’s resurrection is an essential part. It is for a layman’s gospel that the theologian stands, not for the historic facts in their scientific selves. It is for something that appeals to the sinful soul in his salvation, and not to any experts of a pursuit’.

  6. Steve H
    Dec 21, 2007

    Hi Jason, thanks.
    First, can I distinguish between what I think, and ‘what I think NTW ought to think, given what I know he thinks’ (if that makes any sense…) Most of the above is the latter.
    Second, the echoes (anticipations) of Barth on ‘myth’ are striking, aren’t they?
    Third, I think I would want to be more ecclesial than this. ‘The real evidence that Christ is risen is … that I have had dealings with him’ reminds me rather too much of Billy Graham’s ‘I know God exists because I talked with him this morning’. And ‘[i]t is for a layman’s gospel that the theologian stands, not for the the historic facts in their scientific selves’ is a false dichotomy. The theologian–well, this theologian–stands for the church’s gospel; the evidence is the faith of the church, not my own spiritual experience–the fact needs better evidence than that!

    Fourth, and most importantly, Shakespeare is never, but never, useless!

  7. Jason Goroncy
    Dec 22, 2007

    Steve. On…

    2. Yes they are.
    3. I entirely agree … as would Forsyth (myriad of other passages can testify to that). All the same, you’re right to flag it here in this context.
    3b. Please don’t compare Forsyth to Billy Graham ever again 🙂
    4. mmmm.

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