Letter to the Editor: Honorary degrees to bring a little less honor

I am writing to express dismay at Sewanee’s recent awarding of an honorary degree in Theology to Tom Wright, former bishop of Durham and now professor of New Testament at St. Andrews University in Scotland. I am the current professor of New Testament at the School of Theology at Sewanee, and Wright’s receiving an honorary degree during my tenure is a professional embarrassment. Some of the readers of this letter will know Wright as an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights and a vociferous critic of the Episcopal Church for its progressive stance. I find Wright’s position on these matters offensive and harmful. It is an affront to the School of Theology in general and to its LGBT community and its allies in particular.

But that is not my complaint here. My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.

To be fair, Wright was voted his degree under a previous administration before I became professor of New Testament. And he was voted that degree when he was simply another conservative Church of England prelate of the sort we used to court. (A few of these are still in the pipeline!) But a number of things have changed. Not only are there a new administration and a new NT professor, but Wright has since retired as bishop and found a job at an under-funded Scottish university anxious to attract young full-fee-paying American Evangelical men questing for old-world cultural capital. My only consolation is that the embarrassment of Wright’s honorary degree was overshadowed by the even greater debacle of the stridently propagandistic Eric Metaxas, who was tapped to speak at this semester’s convocation. Sewanee seriously needs to rethink is honorary degrees. I am afraid that after last week they will bring a little less honor.


Paul Holloway

Professor of New Testament

The School of Theology

The University of the South


  1. Thank you Paul Holloway
    Thank you!
    Thank you !
    Thank you !
    I wish i could find some sign – like some emoticon – of sincere joy.
    Your letter brings a light of hope in my heart; and that light exposes a question:
    why must the decision of a previous administration be honored? – isn’t that a bit like saying “i was just following orders.”
    unless this administration doesn’t disagree with the decision (?) – there dims my light of hope
    or are they trying to iron out embarrassing wrinkles, hoping that if “we just don’t make much noise” the whole thing will go away? – still ruling with an “iron” hand
    Gratitude expressed, and question shared
    God’s Peace and God’s Justice be with us as we stay together in Christ
    iané Sastre

    1. Being despised by the despicable is as good as being admired by the admirable.

      Mike Vanderboegh said that. He’s right.

      Bishop Wright is a wonderful man and a great teacher. I’m sure he prays for your repentance. I’m glad God is merciful instead of just.

      1. This kind of condescension does not advance the cause, Sir. One hopes you will find a way to express yourself directly to Professor Holloway.

      2. What pleasant honesty. It’s rare to find a Christian who’ll admit his god is unjust.

  2. Paul,

    Make sure to cc this letter to the fundies over at the Anchor Bible Dictionary, New Interpreters Bible, and Fortress Press.

    St. Andrews is obviously no Sewanee. Lolz.

  3. Professor Holloway thank you for this letter. I could not agree more. I informed The University of St Andrews, my alma mater, that I will not give them any more financial support after the appointment of Tom Wright to St Mary’s College.

    Deirdre Good
    Professor of New Testament
    General Theological Seminary
    New York City

    1. Well. That CV makes this author look both ill-informed and prideful. I’m certain Dr. Wright’s credentials more than speak for themselves

      Allowing matters of sexuality to color your opinion of one’s career is hardly professional.

  4. (Isn’t this the same previous administration that hired you, Dr. H? Biting the hand that feeds you?) My understanding is that every bishop of the owning dioceses of the University of the South receives an honorary doctorate. Surely one or more of these bishops is opposed to the progressive nature of the Episcopal Church and critical of LGBT rights. Why express frustration just at Tom Wright’s award? Do you want the University to rethink on a larger scale its criteria for honoring degrees?

  5. I am so very grateful that the reach of this “instructor” only goes as far as seminary. As a former student of his, I’m also grateful that my foundation in truth prior to seminary was solid enough not to be persuaded by his rhetoric and hate-filled intolerance of anything other than radical progressivism. It is disturbing that the only formal New Testament teaching at the School of Theology comes from this man. Fortunately, there are enough priests and lay people in the church still preaching truth, correcting his theological hate. It is also fortunate that every time he spews his ignorance (which seems to be happening on a more frequent basis), this professor become less and less legitimate, proving he can no longer be taken seriously in any academic, theological, or scholarly way.

    1. Bravo for saying this BWC! I was fortunate enough to have had Dr. Christopher Bryan for N.T., and am most grateful for the instruction he gave. I also think that Chris Bryan was a fan of N.T. Wright which I find somewhat comical in light of this airing of dirty laundry by Dr. Holloway.

  6. I’m embarrassed to say I graduated from the SoT after reading this. After attending Dr. Wright’s lecture just two weeks ago in Charleston, and I’m so grateful that the Anglican Church actually has scholars like N. T. Wright.

  7. As an ’03 graduate of the SoT, I’m thankful to have not suffered under the weight of the venom of this professor. While I wouldn’t attribute this to all of my professors I would say that having served in parish ministry for 11 years now with a broader sense of the thoughts, feelings, and minds of the people of the church, I can see how Mr. Holloway fits the mold of “those who can’t, teach.”

    1. As a teacher who takes his teaching mission quite seriously, sir, I find your comments horrific and a betrayal of everything we stand for as educators. You don’t have to agree with Professor Holloway, but your use of your disagreement to disparage an entire profession (which, incidentally ranks as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to St Paul) is offensive at best, and unbiblical (I assume you value the Bible) at worst.

      And just to add my own two cents: Tom Wright is an apologist, not a New Testament scholar. There is certainly room in the Church for apologetics, but let’s not confuse the two fields.

      1. Professor Peter,
        Would you be so kind as to off a reason why you say Dr. Wright is an apologist and not a New Testament scholar? I realize that # of pages is certainly no indication of ones prowess as a scholar, but his 4 vol. Christian Origins series is not mere apologetics, but quite meaty NT scholarship, and faithful scholarship at that.

  8. Tom Wright is a first rate scholar. Sewanee did well to award this degree. However, my money will not be going to the Alexander version of Sewanee or any seminary that bows to the LGBT agenda. So right now, its Nashotah House and Trinity. The author fails to realize that not everyone in TEC is a progressive and that there is a considerable young contingency that is committed to taking back our church from the hijackers.

  9. Envy wrapped in political correctness and sanctimonious self righteous indignation. Not terribly original.

  10. This letter is embarassing! I have to agree with Stephen Whaley. I had an excellent experience at Sewanee (T ’01) and Mr. Holloway’s predecessor at Sewanee was a wonderful professor. As someone who is committed to the full inclusion of LGBT folks in the church – and that’s not just lip service – I’m still broadminded enough to appreciate NT Wright. I may not agree with positions he’s taken in the past on TEC, but his work on the Kingdom of God is outstanding and actually supports much of what I work towards when it comes to welcoming and including ALL of the children of God. This letter sounds petulant, spoiled, and small-minded. What a shame.

  11. Holloway’s letter belittles both Wright and Metaxas. I attended Wright’s public lecture at Sewanee in the days leading up to Convocation. His lecture included a scholarly discussion of St. Paul, and it was articulate, well-thought, and well-delivered. Metaxas’ convocation address focused on tolerance in liberal education, and he included these statements: “We are standing up for the principle of freedom. Freedom means we are free — free to hold beliefs with which others disagree. Free to hold beliefs that might even be stupid beliefs. If we do not stand up for those with whom we disagree, we stand for nothing…. We must have Religious Freedom and we must tolerate and even encourage those voices and that freedom even if and especially if we disagree with them. As I say, this is at the heart of freedom and at the heart of liberal education.”

    So… Wright was scholarly and Metaxas was tolerant, and neither were mean-spirited. And Holloway’s letter… well… in the immortal words of Cmdr. Buck Murdock, “I guess irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.”

  12. As a graduate of the School of Theology at The University of the South (06), I want to express my profound disappointment in this letter. Certainly folks are entitled to their opinions, but I am saddened to think of the opinions Professor Holloway must be expressing in his courses. From the sentiments expressed, he doesn’t seem very open-minded, but rather like quite the “We’ve won the ideological/LGBT war, so let’s shoot the wounded traditionalists on the field” type of progressive.

    This is doubly sad because New Testament was a bright spot during periods of institutional ideological conflict in the past, some of which I experienced. If this letter is any guide, I would expect the current course to be filled with ideological politics more than respect for the text.

    If Holloway were teaching at a secular institution, where it would be expected that theology and biblical studies occupy totally separate silos and never the twain should meet, his criticism might have some purchase, if it were not so overblown. However, he is teaching at a Church affiliated university and a seminary. True, much of Wright’s work has been to popularize biblical studies and, even more recently, as an apologist, but his basic academic bona fides are beyond question. One would think that a professor at a seminary focused on training pious, learned, and useful priests for the Church would understand the importance of popularizing and apologetics that doesn’t fit into a fundamentalists mold. But apparently, he’s too concerned with puffing himself, and his perceived guild, up.

    If Holloway is so unhappy, maybe he will move on. From what I’ve seen, I can only say bravo to the direction Vice-Chancellor McCardell has taken the University as a whole. In terms of Metaxas, I have my own criticisms of his work, but the vitriol expressed in this letter is, I think, quite revealing.

    Where I have experience, I get the sense that many of The School of Theology’s new hires have been positive. I was completely ignorant of Dr. Holloway until I read this letter. The impression formed by this letter is not positive, and while one person shouldn’t poison the well of a whole institution, I’ll certainly make sure to express my concerns to any seminarians who may be sponsored from my parish or diocese in the future, so that they can take Professor Holloways statements with a larger than usual grain of salt.

    1. That’s a great response, Jody. Most people understanding (including NTW himself) that he writes for two different audiences. The fact that he is able to translate scholarship to make it relevant to the person in the pew is a strength, not a weakness. In this way he is no different from Borg (RIP), Crossan, and for that matter Ehrman. And I say this even while dissenting from some of NTW’s views, scholarly and apologetic.

      1. Thank you. Ehrman is a good example from the opposite direction as Wright. I dislike much of his popular work (or at least, I dislike *the way they’re marketed*), and I think he reveals a bit of a chip on his shoulder about Christianity because of his background (oh that he had remained a laodicean Episcopalian in his youth rather than sojourning among the fundamentalists, perhaps his story would be different). But that said, I have several of his readers in early Christianity, as well as couple of his translations of the Loeb Apostolic Fathers. Whatever qualms I have about his popular projects, his scholarship is first rate, even in areas where I follow/agree with other scholarly schools of thought.

  13. So you really think that NT Wright
    Is “Some of the readers of this letter will know Wright as an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights and a vociferous critic of the Episcopal Church for its progressive stance. ”
    Wow, professor , Meet Dr Gagnon, who make NT Wright look positively liberal. I have read most of Dr Wrights works, I’m not even sure your talking about the same man. Anyway go to Dr Gagnons Site and see if you still feel the same way about NT.

  14. What is truly disturbing is to have a member of the faculty, who instead of behaving in a mature manner and being an example of how to disagree with someone’s opinions or beliefs in an articulate and rational way, chose to take the low road and only spew hatred and venom in his message. Not only did he make a very hateful and personal attack on Bishop Wright but he added additional mean-spirited hits on a well-respected university and Mr. Metaxas as well. What a terrible example Professor Holloway has set for the students of the University of the South. I would challenge Professor Holloway to be more tolerant of views different from his own. He seems to take the position that all people in his field of study should agree with him or they are not worthy of note and that is a very narrow-minded attitude. Shameful!

  15. I have loved the scholarly world. I’m but a pastor who has learned greatly attending the SBL conferences. There is a nobility and ethos of honor toward one another, an amazing passion for truth and integrity, and members who seem to genuinely care for one another. It is easy in my “wannabe scholar” status to think too highly of these men of books. I have wondered if there was such an example of scholar who seemed to hold an opposite ethos.

    I have now experienced the opposite ethos, and I find it disturbing and hope that I never have to experience it again. I’m okay though. I also teach middle school, so I am used to this kind of response from people. May I suggest a different course next time? One that does not remind me of a young one with fingers in ears, stomping the floor, and shouting LA, LA, LA at top volume.

  16. I am grateful to belong to The Episcopal Church, an organization that is quite diverse in its views and yet united in its prayers. I don’t share the same views on LGBT issues as NT Wright. However, I’ve found his writing intellectually challenging and spiritually uplifting. That can be said of his “everyone” books and his academic works.

    That all of my friends and colleagues agree with an author or disagree with him or her means nothing more than that. Agreeing or disagreeing does not make one right or wrong. So hating on Wright and using agreement or disagreement as the reason isn’t worth a hill of beans. Actually that line of reasoning sounds much more like a Bill O’Reilly episode on Fox News. Funny how diversity is a good thing only when one agrees with something.

  17. A book a year apologist? The number of published books divided by years working would suggest an average closer to three. Not to mention endless lectures, debates and sermons delivered in a schedule that would exhaust men a third his age.

    N T Wright is a living saint. His YouTube videos alone have carried the Gospel as forcefully, with as much true Christian love as any Evangelist in Christs’ service today.

    A lesson about the internet, Dr. Holloway. Although you intended your diatribe with a very small audience in mind–Academic Theologians–you reached everyone doing a google search for N T Wright. I have absolutely no comment on your objection to Sewanee granting an honorary degree to Dr. Wright. But to everyone not a theologian or doctoral student your post seems as petty, small minded and distasteful as any academic cat fight played out in any university in any academic discipline.

    The difference is the subject matter. This is not the Geology department we’re talking about, or Math, or English Literature. If Dr Holloway feels slighted or jealous of Dr Wrights popularity, and that is certainly how it reads to someone outside the Sewanee circle, perhaps a little modesty and prayer is called for. He does, after all, represent Christ.

    Just so we don’t miss it, let me repeat: N T Wright is a living saint. He is a soul-saving Christian brother who radiates the Truth of the Gospel with love, modesty and humor to the world at large. As we used to say in Brooklyn, Dr Holloway, eh, not so much.

    Next time, Dr Holloway, I suggest you limit your rants an in-house email. Using N T Wright as a keyword will only bring his thousands–millions?–of supporters to his defense.

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  19. I may not agree with Bishop Wright’s views on LGBTQ matters, but I respect him as someone who through his popular writings has made biblical literature accessible to non-scholars. Professor Holloway is courageous enough to air an unpopular view (and open himself to critics) but I am troubled by his pettiness and slamming of Bishop Wright. A little bit of charity would go along way in advancing the conversation.

    1. Hi Doubt,

      If you watch the clip, Wright explains that several layers at issue cannot be discussed in that forum. You merely hopped on the politically correct band wagon. I agree that special interest groups should take care in changing the meaning of words that have been in tact for millennia. Words define culture; some words help designate boundaries of meaning. Any movement that deconstructs meaning for the sake of feeling accepted is not helpful to any culture. Invent new words or structures but do not re-define terms of the sake of expediency.

      1. Dear Mr. Archibeck,

        I’m afraid your logic is mistaken. 1) I did watch the clip. 2.) Simply saying there are “several layers at issue that cannot be discussed” does not somehow magically nullify the comments that Wright explicitly made about same-sex marriage in a public setting. 3) I am not ” ‘merely’ jumping on the politically correct bandwagon;” rather, I’m doing what scholars do, and I’m engaging Wright’s claims, claims which I believe are false and are poorly argued. 4) You say that “Any movement that deconstructs meaning for the sake of feeling accepted is not helpful to any culture.” Really, I wonder how well that argument would go along with African American slaves who challenged the culturally accepted “meaning” of their humanity as mere property. 5) It doesn’t matter how long a “meaning” has been accepted. Slavery was accepted for across the world for millennia as well, but I’m glad someone challenged the long-standing definition of “slavery” to acknowledge that slaves were not property, but humans. 6) Your claims are replete with fallacious reasoning and unjustified assumptions, and therefore your argument fails to convince.

  20. “found a job at an under-funded Scottish university”. Haud yer wheest. Dae ye nae ken ‘at St Andrews is the auldest university in Scotland?

  21. I heard about this rant, and had to see for myself. Ad Hominem attacks like this are embarrassing to the discipline. This is the sort of thing that helps keep good, young potential scholars out the field. I don’t agree with Wright LGBT opinions either. But an apologist-hack this does not make him. A more “adult” engagement with Wright, or even a discourse about what honorary doctorates are all about, would be more useful.

    Too bad.

  22. Professor Holloway, you might re-acquaint yourself (or, perhaps acquaint yourself for the first time) to the many debates, as well as the book _The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions_, as a model on how scholars such as Marcus Borg and Bishop Wright “agree to disagree” with charity, love, and respect. Just because a scholar approaches their work from a different hermeneutic than yourself does not invalidate their scholarship or their veracity. To label a scholar that you disagree with using your pejorative-laced use of “apologist” is beneath any scholar, and to make claims such as “no critical scholar in the field trusts his work” might just get your own veracity and reputation questioned by other scholars – in your own camp and in others.

    I expect such sniping from church pundits, denominational politicians, and religious bureaucrats such as myself. But I expect scholars to be all about being professional, with intellectual honesty and integrity. You may find yourself working harder to win back what you’ve worked so hard to stand for and instill in others.

    Sky McCracken
    District Superintendent, Paducah District of The United Methodist Church

  23. Did… did he just say St Andrew’s is an under-funded Scottish university???? huh?????…. and that is why they got Wright in????…. did he even bother to check this years RAE standings?

  24. Suppressing dissent shows open-minded scholarship exactly how? Shows moral courage how? Shows Christian charity how? If Bro Wright knows as many facts and understands as many theories as you, must he (er even a “Biblical creationist”) agree with you in scholarly conclusions and in sexual ethics to earn a doctorate? As an “apologist,” he is presenting arguments for his positions to an audience including, he knows, some who disagree. That comes across to me as open-minded, brave, and loving compared to your–(attempted) bullying?–re scholarship and ethics.

    And are you open-minded enough to consider the possibility that he’s right and you’re wrong? “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken”–Saint Oliver Cromwell the great.

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  26. P Holloway states ” I find Wright’s position on these matters offensive and harmful. It is an affront to the School of Theology in general and to its LGBT community and its allies in particular.”
    Interesting how “tolerant” he is of all those who DO NOT agree withe the “LBGT community and its allies in particular”.

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