Thursday, July 07, 2005

Wright and penal substitution, again

I hit upon the most blindingly obvious way to find out more on Wright's view of Christ's death. Use the Google search facility on the amazing N. T. Wright Page, created by Kevin Bush. That turned up the following quotes, which I could simply cut and paste (sigh of relief).

But, that said, I find myself compelled towards one of the well-known theories of atonement, not as a replacement for the events or the stories, but one which carries me further than the others towards the heart of it all, and that is the Christus Victor theme, the belief that on the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil. Once that is in place, the other theories come in to play their respective parts. For Paul, Jesus’ death clearly involves a judicial or penal element, being God’s proper No to sin expressed upon Jesus as Messiah, Israel’s and therefore the world’s representative. This is the point at which the recognition that the line between good and evil runs right through the middle of me, and of every one of us, is met by the gospel proclamation that the death of Jesus is pro me, in my place and on my behalf. Because, as Messiah, he is Israel’s and the world’s representative, he can stand in for all: for our sake, writes Paul, God made him who knew no sin to be sin, to be an offering for sin, for us (2 Corinthians 5.21). Throughout the New Testament, this death is therefore seen as an act of love, both the love of Jesus himself (Galatians 2.20) and the love of the God who sent him and whose bodily self-expression he was (John 3.16; 13.1; Romans 5.6–11; 8.31–39; 1 John 4.9–10). Within these, not as the foundation but as the outworking, we see that Jesus’ suffering and death are an example of how we are summoned to love one another in turn.

(his italics, Evil and the Crucified God, a lecture delivered in 2003 and writen up in 2004)

Here we see that Wright clearly believes in the penal substitution model but as something that flows out of the Christus Victor 'theme'. I personally think the relationship here is back to front, but time prevents me from further comment. The next quote is from a question and answer session with an email group dedicated to discussing Wright's work.


In your Romans commentary on 8.3-4 (page 578) you wrote, "What was at stake was not simply God’s judicial honor, in some Anselmic sense, but the mysterious power called sin, at large and destructive within the God’s world, needing to be brought to book, to have sentence passed and executed upon it, so that, with its power broken, God could then give the life that sin would otherwise prevent. That is what happened on the cross." You have affirmed substitionary atonement, but what do you see as the limitation with the Anselmic penal substitution view? Does it rely too heavily on a Greco-Roman legal understanding rather than a more Hebraic covenant-relational model? Or is it insufficient in taking into account the God whose honor was at stake was the one who sent Jesus in the first place?


A full analysis of Anselm himself and (a different matter) of those who have in some way or other invoked him is beyond possibility at this moment, but the key thing is that in his scheme God’s honour was offended and needed to be restored, like a mediaeval prince who had been publicly shamed. This is to import into Paul’s picture ideas quite extraneous to it. There are in fact all kinds of different ways of speaking of substitutionary atonement, and using that last phrase as a shorthand often in my experience masks disagreement between different types of theology. Paul is concerned to speak here, which I think is if not his clearest statement of the doctrine then certainly one of the two or three most clear, not about God’s honour being wronged and the death of Jesus making satisfaction for that wrong — something he never puts like that, actually — but of sin as a force and power at large in the world which needs to be condemned and executed, which condemnation and execution took place in the death of Jesus. This makes sense, yes, within the larger Jewish world of thought to which the entire section and indeed entire letter belongs.

Answers to questions from the Wrightsaid email list, November 2004)

Jonathan Edwards and Mark Seifrid (two names that do not really belong together) I am sure would strongly disagree that God's honour was not central to his concern in sending his Son to the cross. I think they put greater emphasis on it than the biblical writers do, but I still think they are closer to the truth than Wright. But once again I have no time to justify myself.

This is, I hope, the last post on Tom Wright for quite a while. I think there are better things to talk about. But I hope that my posts have spread a little more light into a heated discussion, even if there are very few people looking my way.


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