Review: Rhetoric and Theology, Figural Reading of John 9, William M. Wright

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William M. Wright’s book, Rhetoric and Theology, Figural Reading of John 9, attempts to view the scene contained within the said chapter as a two level drama, based in two points of history, both on an action by Christ and, primarily, on the action of the community, later excommunicated from the synagogue.

Wright introduces Martyn’s groundbreaking reading, that the Gospel of John is an allegorical reading focused on the community rather than the historical Christ, as authoritative and while the author does this well, he fails to give Martyn’s reasoning which is detrimental to Martyn as Wright examines the view’s critique.

Wright, in trying to decipher a proper understanding of allegory, in support of Martyn against the allegorical critique of his opponents, uses three sources which only aids the opponents – Cornutus, Heraclitus, and Dante (p48). Martyn’s opponents, as Wright points out, criticizes the theologian on the grounds that his theology is more 20th century than 1st century, in that it appears that Martyn’s hypothesis was developed in the radical change in society away from the harsh views of the past, and in doing so attempted to make the Gospel of John, seen as an anti-Semitic diatribe, more palatable to academic studies (p40).  However, using Cornutus and Heraclitus who both saw Homer as allegorical, but in different respects, can come to conclusion on the ancient poet and his intentions which not surprisingly suited their own positions. With Dante, Wright makes the error of using the 14th century Italian poet to build to a definition of allegory. In doing so, Wright solidifies Martyn’s critical opponents by showing that interpretation of ancients texts is, more often than not, politically motivated.

While the author has a solid hand on the critiques of Martyn’s position, he doesn’t do so in support of it, which is odd given that he is intimately familiar with the allegorical position and supports it. While he lists Martyn’s influences on such side studies as contextual, historical, social oriented, and literary critical studies, he provides very little in the way of those who agree, even in a round about way such as Dr. Maurice Casey (From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God) and Dr. James McGrath (John’s Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology). If his intent was only to set himself apart while standing upon Martyn’s theory by offering both support and critique, Wright only accomplishes this haphazardly to the rest of his theory. He may have helped his case, and thus Martyn’s, had he rather used Clement of Alexandria, and other notable 2nd and 3rd century Christian philosophers who regularly made use of allegory instead of criticizing the Reformers for their break with the medieval trend of Catholic theologians (he notes that the celebrated Erasmus preferred allegory to that of Luther and Calvin’s literalism, p53).

His goal, stated in the conclusion to the first part, is to answer modern critiques to Martyn’s hypothesis, which itself is a modern invention, that it and thus John 9 can be taken in a variety of ways, including allegory, if, seemingly, allegory is redefined to allow Martyn’s theory to be seen as such.

While I cannot readily critique Martyn’s theory, as it would be difficult to do while reading his work and that much more so reading only a brief synopsis, Wright’s work is shaping up to provide a self-contained rebuttal. After his first chapter, in which he lays out, crudely, Martyn’s attempt at contextualizing John’s Gospel, the author moves into the second chapter by re-framing allegory as a figural reading. He is correct, that the one large gulf between the Alexandrian school of interpretation and the Antiochian method is closer now, he doesn’t make use of it to buffet Martyn, but uses it to move forward to criticizing the move away from allegorical interpretations of modern theologians.

After analyzing, crudely, Augustine’s method of interpreting Scripture, which is the highlight of the first two chapters, Wright concludes,

To be sure, the reading strategies of Martyn and Augustine are not identical, and they do differ in some key respects. (emphasis mine, p92)

The some differences (p93) which Wright correctly highlights are hardly ‘some’, as Martyn and Augustine are going in different directions. Martyn is attempting to find the Sitz im Leben while Augustine is looking for a modern application. Augustine is doing theology, Martyn resides in the biblical studies framework. The only thing which unites both Augustine and Martyn is both authors, instead of relying on the literal sense of the text, seeks to expand the meaning based on (perceived, in Martyn’s case) application. By not allowing Martyn’s work to remain within the older author’s setting, Wright is not only theologizing John 9 but Martyn as well. While Write is correct that a two-level reading of the Gospel is figural, Martyn was not attempting to read it figuratively, only to show that the first audience understood it to be so. Wright eventually acknowledges that Martyn may be incorrect (p96), but, as his work is shaping up to be, re-frames Martyn’s previous re-framing of John’s Gospel as a two-level reading as a theological allowance in the footsteps of Augustine, Chrysostom and others to be examined in the next chapter.

As Wright examines pre-modern interpretation, his thesis and goal takes shape, something that is harmful, not detrimental, to his overall work. He presents his skills in taking the interpretative careers of Augustine, Chrysostom, Bruno of Serni, and Thomas Aquinas and condensing them into short segments focused on John 9, in which each ancient author is given due time to explain his views. He then goes on to examine John 9, in light of these pre-moderns, as a ‘chreia elaboration’ and does so in a way which should not confront the conservative reader, but instead, present to the larger audience enough proof to see that John 9 was composed to mean something more than the plain sense. The one fault here is that Wright takes a long time to reach the ‘goal’ of his work, and even then, doesn’t fully qualify it until his Conclusion (215).

Wright would have better served his thesis, and thus his audience, had he forgotten Martyn and instead focused on the figural reading provided by the pre-moderns, many of which were trained in classical Rhetoric, as he more than adequately demonstrated that John 9 is well crafted in a rhetorical mode.

Further, his design is rather disjointed. Instead of beginning with Martyn, it might have been better to begin with an analysis of rhetoric, which he does superbly in 4.2-4.3 (156-194) and those proving that John 9 is inseparable from the ‘form and content’ of the ‘symbolically expressed rhetorical arguments’ (p210). Once this was established, Wright should have moved to the pre-moderns, showing that they could catch the rhetorical cues of this chapter, which again he does masterfully. Only then, should Martyn have come into view, because while Martyn’s critics are correct, he was among the first post-moderns to catch the fact that John 9 is saying more than the literal sense of the chapter. Had Wright attempted this design of his thesis, Martyn – and Wright – would have fared better. Instead, while Wright’s work stands as a well supported view on the figural reading on John 9, his it is difficult to keep track of his ultimate goal.

Wright is not ‘untrue’ to the Gospel of John, but brings the ‘spiritual’ aspect of it, as recognized by many of pre-moderns and other historical interpreters along the way, out into the light, allowing the current reader to focus on the rhetorical devices long hidden as the West moved away from rhetoric. His arguments are well supported and documented, providing an ample bibliography for the reader. Wright’s work should be well used as (post-)modern interpreters move beyond the extreme literalism of the text to a more rigorous rhetorical view in which the text is used to connect applications to the audience, both pre-modern and modern.

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