Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Wright and Substitutionary Atonement

I know some people who, despite my protests, believe that Tom Wright does not believe in substitutionary atonement. I do not think they have read anything by him, but know that he is a little off the rails because he is a proponent of the NPP, even if they do not really understand what that is. However, I believe their main reason for their doubts about Tom Wright's theology of the cross, come from his enthusiastic endorsement of The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann (see posts by Al Mohler and Adrian Warnock). That book, I have no doubt repudiates the doctrine of Penal Substitution, although so far I have only read snippets.

I suspect that Wright endorsed it because of its strong advocacy of social action as necessary result of following Jesus, something that he passionately believes. Wright may therefore have been a bit naive about what most people would take out of it, but I doubt that. Rather I think the substitutionary atonement is just not a doctrine he holds very dear, although I think it may be more central to his thought than even he realises. I am on dangerous ground here as I do not know Tom Wright personally at all, and I have only read a handful of his books, but that is my preliminary impression.

Another problem that Wright creates for himself is that he tends to use different terminology and expressions to describe things than traditional Evangelicalism (or even wider Christianity) because he believes it slightly flawed. This also makes him seem further away from orthodoxy as we know it than he is. Because of these aspects of Wright's theology and writing, it is rare that you come across a passage you can quote as 'proof' that Wright believes in penal substitution (although I still have not seen him use that terminology, except in his Romans Commentary, if I remember correctly as I do not own it myself). However I did find this in his comments on Romans 3:25-26 in his for Everyone series:

God was obliged [an important word to note], in virtue of being the world's creator and judge, to act decisively with sin - which means to punish it [NB here sin is being punished, and the sinner is not in view, this description is not unusual for Wright]. Here we discover a further meaning in the idea of the 'place of mercy' in the previous sentence. The same root also refers to a 'propitiatory' [key word] sacrifice, that is, one which not only purifies people from sin but also turns away the wrath of God which would otherwise rightly fall on the sinner [NB not just the sin]. Though, again Paul does not spell out his meaning in any detail, there are all sorts of converging lines of thought which make it highly probable that he sees Jesus in this light as well, as the one upon whom the appropriate anger of God, directed against the sin of the world, has now fallen [again though it is sin and not the sinner which is the focus of God's anger]'God's righteous verdict against sinners has been meted out against the faithful Israelite, Israel's representative: the Messiah, Jesus.

(Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8, pp.57-58, London: SPCK)

Although this post is already quite long, I think it is also worth reproducing what he says on Romans 8:3:

The weight of the world's sin was focused on Israel; the weight of Israel's sin was focused on the Messiah. And the Messiah died a criminal's death, with 'King of the Jews' written above his head. At that moment, God condemned sin. He condemned sinHe‘in his flesh'. he had cornered it and condemned it. As the prophet had said, 'the punishment that brought us peace fell upon him; and with his stripes we are healed' (Isaiah 53:5).

Notice two things about the way Paul says this. He does not say that God condemned Jesus, but that he condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus.

(his italics, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1: Chapters 1-8, pp.138, London: SPCK)

Appendix (!)

The endorsment of the Lost Message of Jesus mentioned above runs as follows:

Steve Chalke's new book is rooted in good scholarship, but its clear punchy style makes it accessible to anyone and everyone. Its message is stark and exciting: Jesus of Nazareth was far more challenging in his own day, and remains far more relevant to ours, than the church has dared to believe, let alone preach.

The attraction of Wright to the book seems unconnected to any atonement theology. Although the acknowledgements thanks Wright for 'his time and considerable theological wisdom' although what how much of his 'wisdom' they used is unclear.

Wright on Romans - overpriced!Containining damaging theology from Chalke and Mann


At 1:38 pm, Blogger Alastair said...

I think that penal substitution is more central to Wright's theology than you present it to be (although I appreciate your points). This is from his Romans commentary:—

"The significance of Isaiah 40-55 here lies in its ability to tie together and explain what otherwise is inexplicable, namely why Paul should imagine that the death of Jesus, described in sacrificial terms, should be supposed not only to reveal the righteousness of God but also to deal properly, i.e. punitively, with sins. The idea of punishment as part of atonement is itself deeply controversial; horrified rejection of the mere suggestion has led on the part of some to an unwillingness to discern any reference to Isaiah 40-55 in Paul. But it is exactly this idea that Paul states, clearly and unambiguously, in 8:3, when he says that God “condemned sin in the flesh” — i.e., the flesh of Jesus.

"All this may be of help when it comes to the precise meaning of hilasterion. By itself, as we saw, it meant “mercy-seat,” the focal point of the great ritual of the Day of Atonement; and, thence, the place and/or the means of dealing both with wrath (or punishment) and with sin. Dealing with wrath and punishment is propitiation; with sin, expiation. You propitiate a person who is angry; you expiate a sin, crime, or stain on your character. Vehement rejection of the former idea in many quarters has led some to insist that only “expiation” is in view here. But the fact remains that in 1:18—3:20 Paul has declared that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness and that despite God’s forbearance this will finally be meted out; that in 5:8, and in the whole promise of 8:1-30, those who are Christ’s are rescued from wrath; and that the passage in which the reason for the change is stated is 3:25-26, where we find that God, though in forbearance allowing sins to go unpunished for a while, has now revealed that righteousness, that saving justice, that causes people to be declared “righteous” even though they were sinners."

"The lexical history of the word hilasterion is sufficiently flexible to admit of particular nuances in different contexts. Paul’s context here demands that the word not only retain its sacrificial overtones (the place and means of atonement), but that it carry the note of propitiation of divine wrath — with, of course, the corollary that sins are expiated. It should go without saying that this in no way implies, what the start of the verse has already ruled out, that God is an angry malevolent tyrant who demands someone’s death, or someone’s blood, and is indifferent as to whose it is.…

"…Jesus’ faithfulness was the means by which the act of atonement was accomplished, by which there took place that meeting between God and the whole world of which the mercy-seat was the advance symbol. Furthermore, just as the mercy-seat fulfilled its function when sprinkled with sacrificial blood, so Paul sees the blood of Jesus as actually instrumental in bringing about that meeting of grace and helplessness, of forgiveness and sin, that occurred on the cross. Once again, the sacrificial imagery points beyond the cult to the reality of God’s self-giving act in Jesus."

Reading this, and numerous other passages in Wright, leaves me with no doubt that he holds to penal substitution. However, his doctrine is considerably more nuanced than most evangelical forms of the doctrine. These issues have been thrashed out at length on the Wrightsaid e-mail discussion list. Join the list and check the archives on the subject.

At 9:16 pm, Blogger Dave K said...

Thanks for your comment Alastair.
It came as quite a shock when I found someone who has a blog I know of made a comment on one of my posts. The confusing thing for me as I learn to blog is that you never know what sort of people are going to read what you write.

Thanks for your quote from the Romans commentary I think I have searched out that comment before in the library, but as I mentioned do not own the commentary so did not have it to hand.

I am a lurking member of Wrightsaid and have alredy trawled through the archives to some extent. I will do so some more though on your recommendation.

After further reading I am 100%convinced that Wright believes in penal substitution, although I still need further convincing to consider it central to his thinking. Rather I think Christ's victory over evil (conceived far more as a [almost personal] power controling people; than something people commit) is closer to the centre of his thought. I am not convinced that this is the correct centre of atonement theology though. It requires more thought on my part anyway.

At 9:07 am, Blogger Alastair said...

For Wright, penal substitution is part and parcel of Christ's victory over evil. Whilst penal substitution is not absolutely central to Wright's thinking, it is far more central than many people appreciate; it is not a peripheral doctrine. He writes in his third lecture on evil:—

"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."


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