Saturday, March 11, 2017

N. T. Wright's View on Penal Substitution

I recently posted the following on the Confessing Christ Listserv. Click here to access the archive page

Greetings once again, colleagues.  It is good to see that at least Janet and Herb are receiving CC messages through email. I assume others are; however, I am not among them and had to retrieve their responses through the archives. I am including my email into the To box in the hope that that will reactivate my receiving CC messages again. Obviously, there are some technological problems here which impede effective communication.

Herb writes: "I don’t have Wright’s book, could you summarize Wright’s position on the climax of the covenant and reformed thinking on atonement?  So we can begin a discussion.  I also wonder where the Incarnation relates? "Herb

I will attempt to do so by posting a very cogent evangelical review of Wright's view of Penal Substitution. (

The author, Trevin Wax, makes a number of keen observations in his very balanced discussion of Wright's view of the atonement. Among other things, he discusses the importance of keeping both the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth and Reformed theology in mind. Wright argues that Jesus of Nazareth envisioned his messianic call as ushering in the climax of the OT covenant in the restoration of Israel to its redemptive calling in healing the world to its right relationship with God calling. This he contrasts with the emphasis on individual salvation stemming from the atonement theology of the Reformed tradition based on such key NT passages as Romans 3:21-26, esp. vs 24-25, in which the history of Jesus of Nazareth, as the scholarship on the "New Paul" identifies, gets very little play. The result is that little attention is placed on the broader dimensions on God's work in restoring the world that comes through in the more comprehensive view of salvation that includes the personal, but extends to the healing of the nations and to the creation, itself, as envisioned by Paul in Romans 8:18-25.

I discuss this in footnote #16 in my book, The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith: Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright in Critical Dialogue:

Wright acknowledges an atonement theology “embedded within the earliest strands of Christian tradition,” though not one that focused, in its initial meaning, on the matter of individual sin and salvation. Rather, he views the sacrificial death of Christ, as first and foremost, an atonement for the sins of Israel, that “had now been dealt with,” in which, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the time of national forgiveness had arrived. Meaning of Jesus, 102, 103. Especially, in his more popular work, Wright does not deny the relevance of the atonement for personal salvation, but seeks to situate its individual significance in the broader narrative of Israel’s story as the climax of the covenant. Simply Christian, 108. Critics of the “new Paul” literature express profound concerns about the limitations they perceive Wright places on the importance of individual salvation through the sacrificial blood of the risen savior. In addition to Piper, Future of Justification, see Johnson, “What’s Wrong with Wright.” In my view, in situating the atonement theology of Jesus of Nazareth in and for the sins of Israel, Wright provides an important bridge between the consciousness of Jesus and the theology of the mature Paul found in Romans 3:21–25, when Romans 8:19–25 and 9–11 are factored in. While such a position is invariably theoretical, through the corpus of his work, Wright has amassed a substantial case in support of it.

Stated otherwise, the Jesus of history may not have had the entirety of NT theology in mind in his earthly calling, but there was a sufficient bridge between his role in enacting the climax of the covenant through his sacrifice and the understanding of atonement theology that has emerged throughout the history of the great orthodox theological and doxological tradition through which God took the impetus in Christ (both as the historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith) to reconcile the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). No doubt, there's a good deal of mystery here, but much revelation, as well.

I will conclude with a couple of passages from Wax's essay, "Don't Tell Me N.T. Wright Denies 'Penal Substitution.'"

Regarding substitutionary atonement, Wright offers this plea:
“I am often puzzled and distressed when people question whether I really believe in the substitutionary meaning of Jesus’ death. I would simply say: read my published sermons; read chapter 12 of Jesus and the Victory of God; ask yourself, not whether I go through the hoops of all the words that your tradition has told you we should say, but whether I represent fairly what scripture, and Jesus himself, said about the meaning of his death. That is my only aim.”

N.T. Wright complains that some evangelical presentations of the gospel uproot the message of Jesus from its historical context and transform it into simply an individual’s spiritual experience with God.
“So many popular presentations are far too abstract. They take the whole event out of its context in history, in the story of God and his people, and imagine it simply as a nonhistorical transaction between God and Jesus into which we can somehow be slotted. But the New Testament always insists on seeing the cross as what it was – a horrible and bitter event within history; and it insists that we understand its significance within, not outside, that context.”
The wedding of historical research and theological reflection has broadened Wright’s view of the gospel to include, not only individual salvation in the afterlife, but the present implications that the announcement of Jesus’ lordship have in our world. He claims the Scripture teaches both the personal nature of salvation and the cosmic implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Here Wax provides a very apt summary of Wright's view of the atonement:

Perhaps the best understanding of Wright’s view of the atonement is found in his contribution to the New Dictionary of Theology. History and theology come together at the cross. After several pages of historical research regarding Jesus’ life and ministry, Wright states:
“[Jesus] would carry out Israel’s task: and, having pronounced Israel’s impending judgment in the form of the wrath of Rome which would turn out to be the wrath of God, he would go ahead of her and take that judgment on himself, drinking the cup of God’s wrath so that his people might not drink it. In his crucifixion, therefore, Jesus identified fully (if paradoxically) with the aspirations of his people, dying as ‘the king of the Jews’, the representative of the people of God, accomplishing for Israel (and hence the world) what neither the world nor Israel could accomplish for themselves.”
Again placing Jesus’ death in historical context and the overarching biblical narrative, Wright adds: “As the story of the exodus is the story of how God redeemed Israel, so the story of the cross is the story of how God redeemed the world through Israel in person, in Jesus, the Messiah.”
In my view, history is important, but only so in a penultimate sense in a manner that needs to be grasped within the context of revelation, itself, rather than the reverse.  This is one of my major arguments in The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith: Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright in Critical Dialogue.

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