By In Scribblings, Theology

Does the Moon Exist if Doug Wilson Can’t See It?

If the Bandwagon of Reformed Pop-Theological trends were a Jewish family, they would always set an extra place at the dining room table for big names willing to sock it to N.T. Wright. Tonight, Doug Wilson’s coming to dinner. In the interest of full disclosure (and, more importantly, of honest charity), Wilson is a former teacher who taught me many valued and treasured lessons, as well as a man I still harbor a great respect for. However, any man who can consider his heroes honestly will be able to identify not only the qualities he admires in them, but those he does not. Wilson is many things–most of them admirable–but he is not always as careful or consistent as one would like. In his recent blog post, “In Which N.T. Wright Discovers the Moon Again,” Wilson complains that Wright makes the same urbane revelations over and over again, all the while asserting their novelty (this from a guy who has published a dozen versions of the same book on parenting):

Here is an example from this chapter, but there are other little comments like it scattered here and there. And it is why somebody once coined the word insufferable. “It is my belief that the broad sweep of Western theology since way before the Reformation, and continuing since the sixteenth century in both Roman Catholicism and the various branches of Protestantism, has been subbiblical in its approach to that potent combination of themes, eschatology, and ecology” (p. 83). But in actual fact, the broad sweep of Protestant eschatology, from shortly after the Reformation down to the beginning of the nineteenth century, was postmill. The point here — for my non-postmill readers, love you all — is not whether or not postmillennialism is correct, but whether it was held by anybody significant who was contained within Wright’s dismissive “broad sweep of Western theology.” Anybody heard of Jonathan Edwards? B.B. Warfield? David Livingstone? William Carey? Iain Murray was right to label this as the Puritan hope. Anybody out there heard of the Puritans? Geez Louise, Tom.

Wilson’s problem with all this is, as he puts it, “Wright is here making claims about the broad history of theology, and he gets it spectacularly wrong.” This charge has the ring of irony, though, as Wilson’s own comments indicate that he doesn’t (at least for practical purposes) conceive of the Church /having/ any meaningful history prior to the 16th century. While this may not be entirely true, his comments still open him wide to such an inference. But, even giving him the benefit of the doubt, he still seems to be suggesting that because his friends and narrow selection of favorite time-locked theologians think one way or acknowledge some truth, everyone else at all times and in all places has thought or observed similarly. An approach such as Wilson’s reveals flaws in his own historical theology that (together with the disparate reputations of the two men as historical theologians) might weaken criticisms of the same kind leveled against Wright.

Wilson looks to strengthen his argument with a thinly veiled ad hominem by pointing out Wright’s reluctance to use the term “postmillenial.” It is not perfectly clear why Wilson would upbraid Wright for propounding an eschatology similar to his own while diplomatically shying away from us-and-them polemics in order to impact a broader audience (or why it’s relevant to the main thread of his post). The entire encounter leaves Wilson appearing consciously tribalistic while Wright is unwilling to define himself over and against other groups of Christians unnecessarily.

Wilson has always possessed an admirable willingness to say the same thing over and over–as many times as it takes to be heard. It’s hard to see the sense in criticizing a brilliant theologian for doing the same thing.<> раскрутка а этапы

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14 Responses to Does the Moon Exist if Doug Wilson Can’t See It?

  1. jeers1215 says:

    I’m normally very pleased to read this blog. What is the purpose of this article?

    • Sean Johnson says:

      We’re grateful for your normative appreciation, and hopefully I can help it along further with a brief explanation. It would probably be too simplistic (and not very satisfying) to point to the title of the site and simply call this piece “commentary.” Nevertheless, commentary is what it is. Wilson used what he knows to be a very large platform to broadcast to a very large audience poorly-conceived comments that (I can’t be alone in perceiving) are unhelpful in cultivating unity of thought or purpose within the Church while nevertheless being of little or no theological or pastoral importance/urgency. The whole thing seemed too facile to get a pass, so it got some commentary instead.

    • jeers1215 says:

      Thank you for the explanation. I was confused about what the overall takeaway from your article should be, because it seemed to be addressing minor, surface-level issues. But the whole reason you are focusing on the superficial content is to point at it and say that it is superficial and that it sets an unhelpful example. Thank you again for breaking this down for me, I now see your broader point and why this would be problematic.

  2. I do see some of your argument here, especially the historical theology stuff. However, in your criticism of Wilson being repetitive like Wright I think you miss an important detail.

    I don’t think Wilson would ever deny that he is repeating himself or that he is repeating truths that have been common to Chriatian thought for centuries. It seems that Wilson’s criticism of Wright’s “repetition” is that Wright is recapitulating century old truths (as well) yet seems to always be coming across as “Hey look at this ‘new’ theology”.

    At least that’s how I seemed to be reading it.

    Please understand that I’m no theologian and don’t know either Wilson or Wright personally (moreover I’ve had very little contact with Wright’s work but have enjoyed what I have read) so I’m probably missing things. That being said I do feel like there is a difference in the nature and acknowledgement of each authors’ “repetitiveness”.

    Always enjoy the blog and found this post extra engaging!


  3. Joshua Butcher says:

    I’ve remarked from time to time and from person to person for a couple of years now (at least) that Doug Wilson seems to have a greater love for the ethos of rhetorical flourish than for the ethos of dispassionate precision. His literary heroes are Chesterton, Wodehouse, and Lewis, after all–each of which (well, I cannot speak for Wodehouse) liked to go for the big flourish over the small, but precise point.

    But I ask, “Why does Wilson wish to take on a chapter by chapter critique of Wright’s newest book, of all the books he could choose?” And then I ask again, “And why is the book by Wright that he chooses a collection of lectures and not Wright’s final installment in his magnum opus on Paul, Paul and the Faitfhfulness of God?” I don’t have a window into Doug Wilson’s reasons, but the choice seems a bit odd to me.

  4. Josh C. says:

    Sean, your analysis and insight is normally spot-on, but this one’s pretty wide of the mark (or “too facile to get a pass,” as you put it). Wilson’s beef with Wright is not that he’s repeating old stuff, but repeatedly taking credit for its discovery as something new. You don’t see the relevance of “Wright’s reluctance to use the term postmillenial”? Come on. Pointing to the “Welcome to Pensacola” sign is a pretty good response to the guy claiming discovery of uninhabited lands. (“Sure, you can call it Wrightsville, but look — the folks living here have a name for it too.”) That’s not “perfectly clear”?

    You say that “Wright is unwilling to define himself over and against other groups of Christians unnecessarily,” but this is completely backwards. Wright is purposefully defining himself over and against “the broad sweep of Western theology,” so the problem isn’t that he’s “unwilling” to draw lines between Christians — it’s that, having drawn them himself, he doesn’t want to acknowledge that anyone is standing on his side of the line. It’s not “tribalistic” to point out that Wright doesn’t need to start a new tribe.

    You ultimately charge Wilson with “doing the same thing” as Wright, but without apparently understanding the “thing” that Wilson is talking about. There’s a world (or moon?) of difference between “say[ing] the same thing over and over,” and saying—over and over—that no one has ever said this before.

    • Sean Johnson says:

      All fair points, in the abstract, though you seem to do some arguing for Wilson that he does not (in the piece in question) necessarily do for himself–but that comes naturally in defending someone you like very much over and against someone you (presumably) like less. The problem is not with Wilson himself (unless it is, but at this distance it is impossible to say), but with the rhetoric of the piece of writing in question, my criticism of which I am comfortable to let stand.
      If someone tells me the moon exists (no matter how novel they think their discovery is), I find it much easier to understand the impulse to agree with them and marvel at the admittedly marvelous thing they have pointed to (old OR new), far more than the impulse to linch them.

    • Josh C. says:

      Given your response to Wilson’s post, your professed difficulty in understanding the “impulse to l[y]nch” seems a bit modest. 🙂 If it’s his rhetoric you don’t like, fine; but you charge him with “doing the same thing” that he finds fault with in Wright, without giving any example of how he actually has. Being comfortable with this accusation as a criticism of “the rhetoric of the piece of writing in question” doesn’t really work when it’s not a criticism of his rhetoric. “I don’t like his rhetoric, therefore he is a hypocrite” is not really a fair criticism.

      I must admit, however, that I don’t think I quite picked up on one of your points the first time, being that Wilson overstates his case on how widespread the historic postmill view was. Whether or not he does overstate things, I don’t know; I’m sure that he, and you, are far more qualified to debate that. But Wilson’s name-dropping of folks from the sixteenth-century onwards does seem to be a response to Wright’s remark about Western theology “continuing since the sixteenth century.” And nothing Wilson said suggests that *everyone* therefore believed that way; just that there were folks who did, and some of them (however time-locked they may have been) even wrote books. Assuming for the sake of argument that the case *is* overstated, and there has only ever been a small post-mill minority, the point still seems fair as to someone like Wright. As you mentioned, given the “disparate reputations of the two men as historical theologians,” the fellow *with* the reputation for historical theology ought to perhaps be acquainted with theologians from history, no? Wright’s expertise is hardly an excuse for ignoring something so close to his own field.

      And that seems to get close to the heart of Wilson’s issue with Wright, as he describes it. If someone tells you the moon exists, sure — agree and marvel together. (And Wilson does, throughout his piece.) So far so good. But however much you like the guy and rejoice with him in his “discovery” of the moon, you have to admit that it doesn’t do much for his bona fides *as an astronomer*. It’s not “lynching” the guy to point this out.

      If that’s more than what Wilson argues for in his piece, I’d be curious to know what I’m adding — it all seemed pretty hard to miss in Wilson’s own post. In the interests of full disclosure, I do generally really like his stuff, with quibbles here and there, and I haven’t read much N.T. Wright for myself, including the book under discussion — so your presumption as to my personal preferences may be correct there (a bit hard to judge for myself). But I’m also, seriously, a huge fan of your writing, and this was the first time I’ve taken issue with anything. So if your impression is that my support of Wilson vis-à-vis Sean Johnson is simply a matter of picking favorites, you’d be sorely mistaken. I just think you happen to be wrong on this one. 🙂

      Sorry to be a lurker who has been silently enjoying your writing and only pipes up to cry foul. Your pieces on literature, typology, movies, and, well, everything else—with a special mention of the fantastic one on cemeteries near Easter—have been absolutely brilliant. As to everything but this particular post, a hearty thanks and well done — keep up the good work, brother.

  5. Jon Swerens says:

    Joshua: We actually do have a window into Wilson’s reasoning for a critique of this book. He tells us, in his first blog post on the topic.

    • Joshua Butcher says:

      I saw that post, Jon, but I didn’t find it particularly illuminating as to why Wilson chose the book. The only reason he states is that the book is an assembly of lectures, which lends itself more easily to a chapter by chapter review. I find it hard to believe that this stated reason would be the only reason, or even the most compelling reason, for Wilson in choosing the book. I could be wrong, though.

  6. Andrew Lohr says:

    I mostly like Wilson, and Wright, and Kuyper, and differ occasionally with each, but Wright does sometimes define himself against conservatives (e.g. favoring women’s ordination), and I think Wilson knows the ancient and medieval church did exist, tho he may not know much about it, but cites the Puritans, etc, as the bunch he’s most familiar with and enough to make his point that Wright’s point is not new.

  7. wsensing says:

    Completely different types of things that Wright keeps “discovering” and repeating versus the pastoral instructions and admonitions that Wilson regularly and admittedly repeats.

  8. Mrs. Bee says:

    Just wanted to pipe in as a former reformed presbyterian turned Anglican: We don’t say “postmillenial” because we don’t identify it as such. We just call it “prayer book theology.” 😉 Which is to say biblical theology. It is a glorious thing to be taught by the likes of Doug Wilson all about paedo-communion and postmillenialism and all those fringe presby doctrines, but when I got tired of all the wrangling (which, GO DOUG, wrangle away, do your bit! We love it!) I just meandered over to the church of the prayer book and found out that there were people who had been doing this normatively for centuries now and it was settled. So, it’s not some kind of fear of the uncool to not use the word. It’s just the water we swim in.

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