Saturday, July 09, 2005

Wright and penal substitution yet again!

I said I would not post again on Wright for a while, but then I read the transcript of a lecture Wright recently gave at the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (which many people may know about). To avoid breaking my promise I was going to just update my previous post (which itself was an update of another post) but I thought that would make it too long. So here is a rather extended quote from the lecture:

Paul’s insistence on Solus Christus comes fully into its own, of course, in his theology of the accomplishment of Jesus in his death and resurrection. There is at this point a strange theory doing the rounds, according to which all of us who have adopted some variety of the so-called new perspective on Paul are, by definition, weak or vague on Paul’s atonement theology. The thinking seems to go like this: all new perspective writers are basically liberals in disguise (not least since they adopt some positions also adopted by some liberals a hundred years ago); liberals tend to be wooly or vague on the atonement; some new perspective writers are also wooly or vague on the atonement; therefore all new perspective writers must be wooly and vague on the atonement. And therefore, I discover, I am criticized in some quarters in exactly these terms. Frankly, I don’t know whether to be offended or amused by this. I am the author of the longest ever exposition and defence, certainly in modern times, of the view that Jesus himself made Isaiah 53, the greatest atonement-chapter in the Old Testament, the clearest statement of penal substitution in the whole of the Bible, central to his own self-understanding and vocation, and I have spelled out the meaning of that, in the sustained climax of my second longest book, in great detail. I have done my NT scholarship in a world where battle-lines were drawn up very clearly on this topic: those who want to avoid penal substitution at all costs have done their best to argue that Jesus did not refer to Isaiah 53, and I have refuted that attempt at great length and, I trust, with proper weight. What is more, I have expounded the truth of Jesus’ death ‘in our place’ from the very first sermon I preached, in Passiontide 1972, when I spoke to a small congregation on the faith of the dying brigand who turned to Jesus on the cross and saw him as the innocent one dying the death of the guilty. I have several volumes of sermons in print, and in many of them you will find sermons on the cross expounding this view of the atonement. If you look at my biblical commentaries, whether scholarly or popular, you will find the same thing. It is therefore bizarre to be told, in a recent book criticizing me on this and on several other counts, that my statements remain ‘vague’, just because I do not subscribe to a particular Reformed way of talking about imputed righteousness, about which we shall have more to say later, and just because I, like Paul himself in many passages, highlight the Christus Victor theme rather than penal substitution, even though when you ask how the powers of evil were defeated Paul’s answer is of course that God condemned them. Again, I invoke the Tyndale principle: I am determined to read exactly what is there in scripture, not to miss a thing on the one hand but not to insert things either into texts which do not state them.

That is why, for instance, I have been very careful to say that in Romans 8.3, where the penal note is struck firmly by Paul himself, the point is that on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh of his own Son. He does not say that God condemned the Son, though of course in physical and historical terms that is what it amounted to. That is why, as well, he declares in 2 Corinthians 5.21 that God made him to be sin for us, while adding a caveat that he knew no sin. And that is why, in particular, I insist on paying attention to the actual argument in Galatians 3.10–14, rather than seizing upon a few phrases there and making them support a systematic position which is not what Paul is at that point talking about. I have to point out, in fact, that there is no single passage in Paul where he says all, or even most, of what he believes about what happened on the cross. It is of course possible to present penal substitution in such a way as to remain open, if not even to invite, the kind of riposte which liberal theology has traditionally made, namely that it makes God look like a bloodthirsty tyrant who wants to kill someone and doesn’t much mind who. I have been accused of all kinds of things on this score from the liberal side, but I stand my ground because Paul stands his, even though some who agree with me in formulation have strange ways of putting things which make me embarrassed to be associated with them. But precisely because I believe that God gave us, through Paul, the letters we have, rather than the books of systematic theology which we have deduced from them (necessary though that task of theology obviously is), I have insisted and shall insist on understanding the full sweep of the letters themselves, giving exact and due weight to the statements and arguments that are actually being mounted, instead of ransacking them to fight in-house battles between rival schools of interpretation.

The crucial thing here, I believe, is that the Solus Christus of the Reformation struck a blow, not always understood by the successors of the Reformers, for a thoroughly eschatological understanding of the gospel. Solus Christus is a way of saying that the entire world turned its critical corner when God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus the Messiah and then when God began the new creation in his resurrection, the new creation which was at last possible because the forces of corruption, decay and death had been defeated on Good Friday. That, incidentally, is a theme not sufficiently noticed within Reformed theology and exposition of Paul, but it is one of his greatest subjects, fully integrated of course with everything else.

(Fresh Perspectives on Paul Lecture 1: Starting Points and Opening Reflections, delivered 3 January 2005)

Many thanks must go once again to the N. T. Wright Page. The lecture is a good introduction to what Wright is all about, with regards to Paul, addressing (though not kneeling to) Evangelical/Reformed concerns. In it he is unusually clear (IMHO Wright is often lucid, but not clear, if you know what I mean) and offers some challenging and insightful readings of some key texts. I would love to spend time posting on these but time does not permit.

PS I have graciously been granted a comment (worth reading) by a person who certainly knows much, much more than I. In my defence I am still in the process of processing all that I have read by and about Wright. I am horribly aware of the perils of push-button publishing (i.e. blogging). It does tend to encourage the voicing of ill-informed opinions that have had no time to mature, and, especially when they are about other people, should be treated with much care. Please bare with me.


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