Monday, May 3, 2010

NT Wright v The Gospel (Part 2)

I realise it is easy to quote Wright in support of Penal Substitution in some of his earlier writings. But there are two things worth noting. One is that Wright himself confesses to having a theology that has changed over the years (ie moving from the old perspective on Paul to the new perspective). Secondly, that like emergents, Wright sometimes holds to a terminology but changes the definition. This is evident in Wright's support of Steve Chalke's book (The Lost Message of Jesus) and his refusal to retract that support and all the while claiming to hold to Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). Here is how Wright responded to calls for him to retract his endorsement for "The Lost Message of Jesus":

NT Wright And Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Steve Chalke's new book is rooted on 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. Part of that was quoted prominently on the front cover. I stand by every word I wrote. Imagine my puzzlement, then, when I heard that a great storm had broken out because 'Steve Chalke has denied substitutionary atonement' . . .

And what did Steve Chalke say that was so controversial?

"The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse - a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that "God is Love". If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus' own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil." (p182 The Lost Message of Jesus)

Wright continues:

Now, to be frank, I cannot tell, from this paragraph alone, which of two things Steve means. You could take the paragraph to mean (a) on the cross, as an expression of God's love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one. Or you could take the paragraph to mean (b) because the cross is an expression of God's love, there can be no idea of penal substitution at all, because if there were it would necessarily mean the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story, and that cannot be right.

Clearly, Steve's critics have taken him to mean (b), as I think it is clear Jeffrey John and several others intend. I cannot now remember what I thought when I read the book four years ago and wrote my commendation, but I think, since I had been following the argument through in the light of the arguments I myself have advanced, frequently and at length, about Jesus' death and his own understanding of it, that I must have assumed he meant (a). I have now had a good conversation with Steve about the whole subject and clarified that my initial understanding was correct: he does indeed mean (a). The book, after all, wasn't about atonement as such, so he didn't spell out his view of the cross in detail; and it is his experience that the word 'penal' has put off so many people, with its image of a violent, angry and malevolent God, that he has decided not to use it. But the reality that I and others refer to when we use the phrase 'penal substitution' is not in doubt, for Steve any more than for me. 'There is therefore now no condemnation' in Romans 8.1 is explained by the fact, as in Romans 8.3, that God condemned sin in the flesh of his Son: he bore sin's condemnation in his body, so we don't bear it. That, I take it, is the heart of what the best sort of 'penal substitution' theory is trying to say, and Steve is fully happy with it. And this leads to the key point: there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others. (

The real problem here is that both models, (a) and (b), are not PSA. The caricature (a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son) Wright refers to is his own caricature. That is not what the Macarthurs, Pipers, and Sprouls of today are preaching. Wright's vague "forces of evil" never quite get specified. The issues of personal guilt, God's specific wrath aimed against guilty individuals, and Christ's love demonstrated as a substitute, is ignored in Wright's version whereas they are beautifully harmonized in the reformed understanding. This probably explains why Wright, when singing "In Christ Alone", changes the line "the wrath of God was satisfied" to "the love of God was satisfied". So much for authorial intent! There is a constant theme of absence when Wright discusses the Gospel and it makes sense in the light of his understanding of PSA. Wright believes that PSA must submit within the Christus Victor model of the atonement. Wright gets this back to front - and it also confirms that Wright holds to a different/wrong version of PSA if it is not the transcendant theory from which all others flow and find their meaning. This view again reveals Wright's faulty understanding - "it is only in Penal substitution that God must punish evil in order for His defeat of Satan to be consistent with His rightoeusness" (p142 Pierced for Our Transgressions).

What surprises me is that people focus only on the "cosmic child abuse" quote in Chalke's book. Here is a little more revelation of Chalke's view of the Gospel:

People are desperate for a message that they can buy into, that they can see will make a difference to them and to the world in which they live. The truth is that you can't engender a sense of lostness or need into people simply by pointing out that they are sinners. It just doesn't work. (p117-118 The Lost Message of Jesus).

So it would seem that they believe there are good pragmatic grounds for rejecting PSA.

But Wright's gross error on PSA, and the Gospel continue to manifest in his understanding of imputation which I will discuss in Wednesday's post.

Go On To Part 3
Go Back To Part 1

1 comment:

Cameron Buettel said...

I am amazed that anyone would support Steve Chalkes book unless they hate the Gospel.