N.T. Wright on Penal Substitution

I’ll come clean and say that I’m a huge N.T. Wright fan. I have been for years.

Wright and I are BFFs.

For those of you wondering, Wright is a British New Testament scholar who ranks among the top 2 or 3 most prolific, somewhat controversial, and influential churchmen on either side of the pond in a wide variety of theological circles.  I attribute my love for Biblical studies, and the New Testament in particular, to my early encounters with his lectures, essays, and books. I generally pre-order his books, both popular and scholarly, and have read all of his big pieces with the exception of a couple of difficult-to-acquire texts.  (I knew my wife McKenna was a keeper when she bought me his tome The Resurrection of the Son of God for my first birthday when we were dating. Later she took me to go see him speak on our anniversary.) Which is to say, I think I’ve got a decent idea of what Wright teaches on various subjects in New Testament studies and theology. Which brings me to the subject at hand.

As I mentioned, Wright is a bit controversial in some circles due to some of his, admittedly unclear/difficult to understand, teaching on Paul’s doctrine of justification.  Wright’s an adherent of the New Perspective on Paul and a unique one at that. What’s more, his sentences can get really long. (For those of you interested, here’s his most recent, clearest piece on the subject delivered at the Evangelical Theological Society a couple years ago. Note: I am not endorsing it. Just sharing for clarity’s sake.) One of the things that’s consistently surprised me, however, is the way that both friends and foes have misunderstood his teaching on the atonement, particularly penal substitutionary atonement (the idea that Christ’s death is in some way a representative one in which he suffers the judgment/wrath of God on behalf of deserving sinners thereby releasing them from guilt and obtaining forgiveness for them). Interestingly enough, you can find both conservative Reformed types being joined by emergenty Anabaptist types saying he denies it, the former accusatorially, the latter joyfully.

I just want to take a moment to clarify, with Wright’s own words, that Wright does affirm penal substitutionary atonement. He has been clear on this over the years, but somehow that’s been lost on many due in some cases to their willingness to read all sorts of faults into him because of his position on justification, or because to some people, affirming Christus Victor components to Christ’s atonement, the idea that in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus defeated the principalities and powers of satan, sin, and death,  means a necessary denial of PSA. It doesn’t. The Reformers all affirmed both themes because both are in Scripture. Wright isn’t any different. So, without further ado here is Wright himself.

Wright Speaks

First, a short little video where Wright says it clear-out, 1:19 onward:

Next, here’s a big long quote from an easily-accessed online article in which he is critiquing a lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Johns as well as a recent book on the subject. He is dealing with what he calls “caricatures of the cross”, correcting so many bad arguments against penal substitutionary atonement by pointing out that they are based on misunderstandings of the doctrine as well as misreadings of certain biblical texts which point to it. Don’t be scared by the length. It is absolutely worth your time, specialist or not:

Quoting 2 Corinthians 5.21 and Galatians 3.13 (‘God made him to be sin for us who knew no sin,’ and ‘Christ became a curse for us’), he [Dr. Johns] tells us the explanation of these verses he was given as a child and declares that, because that explanation is repulsive and nonsensical, we must reject it. His summary starts quite mildly: God was very angry with us, and had to punish us, but instead he sent his Son as a substitute to die for us, so that God stopped being angry with us . . . But then, inserting into this account the things Dr John realised he disliked at the age of ten, and which he wants to attack to bring down the whole edifice, he goes on: ‘What sort of God was this, getting so angry with the world and the people he created, and then, to calm himself down, demanding the blood of this own Son? And anyway, why should God forgive us through punishing somebody else? It was worse than illogical, it was insane. It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this we’d say they were a monster . . . It just doesn’t make sense to talk about a nice Jesus down here, placating the wrath of a nasty, angry Father God in heaven. . . sending a substitute to vent his punishment on.’

Well, yes. We must of course grant that many Christians have spoken, in effect, of the angry God upstairs and the suffering Jesus placating him. Spoken? They’ve painted it: many a mediaeval altarpiece, many a devotional artwork, have sketched exactly that. And of course for some late mediaeval theologians this was the point of the Mass: God was angry, but by performing this propitiatory sacrifice once more, the priest could make it all right. And it was at least in part in reaction against this understanding of the Eucharist that the Reformers rightly insisted that what happened on the cross happened once for all. They did not invent, they merely adapted and relocated, the idea of the propitiation of God’s wrath through the death of Jesus. We must of course acknowledge that many, alas, have since then offered more caricatures of the biblical doctrine. It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit.

This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’. I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire. So we must readily acknowledge that of course there are caricatures of the biblical doctrine all around, within easy reach – just as there are of other doctrines, of course, such as that of God’s grace.

But how does the caricature relate to what we find in the New Testament? Actually, how does it relate to Dr John’s initial summary? There he states, as we saw, that God sent Jesus to do this: yes, and that’s what the New Testament says too, at all the key points; and if we ask why, the answer is always, in Paul, John and everywhere else, the wonderful greatness of God’s merciful love. You can’t play off the juridical account of atonement, so called, against an account which stresses God’s love. As those Doctrine Reports rightly saw, they belong together. If God is love, he must utterly reject, and ultimately deal with, all that pollutes, distorts and destroys his world and his image-bearing creatures.

So what should we make of Paul at this point? Dr John never says. Is he content simply to say that the key Pauline statements must be left out of consideration as we construct an atonement theology we can believe today? If so, how can he later quote 2 Corinthians 5.19 (‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’), which, a mere two verses before the one he seems to reject, might be thought to be part of the same argument? What does he make of the explicit statement – this, I think, is as clear as it gets in Paul – in Romans 8.3, where Paul says explicitly that God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ? Paul does not say that God condemned Jesus; rather, that he condemned sin; but the place where sin was condemned was precisely in the flesh of Jesus, and of Jesus precisely as the Son sent from the Father. And this, we remind ourselves, is the heart of the reason why there is now ‘no condemnation’ for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1).

Or what account does Dr John give of Romans 3.24-26? Here, whatever we may think about the notorious hilasterion (‘propitiation’? ‘expiation’? ‘mercy-seat’?), in the preceding section of the letter (1.18-3.20) God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness, and by the end of the passage, in accordance with the ‘justice’ of God, those who were formerly sinners and under God’s wrath are now justified freely by grace through faith. To put it somewhat crudely, the logic of the whole passage makes it look as though something has happened in the death of Jesus through which the wrath of God has been turned away. It is on this passage that Charles E. B. Cranfield, one of the greatest English commentators of the last generation, wrote a memorable sentence which shows already that the caricature Dr John has offered was exactly that:

We take it that what Paul’s statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved. (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. 2 vols. Edinburgh: T & T Clark; vol. 1, 1975, p. 217.)

Now I do not ask that Dr John, or anyone else, necessarily accept this as the correct interpretation of Romans 3:24-26; nor that, whether or not they accept this exegesis, they believe that this is a true statement of God’s intention in the death of Jesus. All I ask is that Dr John admit that this very careful statement, in which the propitiatory effect of Jesus’ death is seen as the result of God’s overarching and overwhelming mercy and love, and in which the persons of the Trinity are held in extremely close union, is not subject to the critique he has levelled against what increasingly looks like a bizarre (if sadly still well known) caricature.

Not everyone likes Paul, of course – especially some Anglicans. But what about Jesus? Unless we are to go the route of the ‘Jesus Seminar’, and say that Jesus’ death was simply an accident which he never intended and for which, therefore, he offered no theological grid of interpretation, we must give some account of the self-understanding of Jesus in relation to the death which, as at least one substantial stream of scholarship has agreed, he must have known was just round the corner. There were ancient Jewish grids of interpretation available to him, and all the signs are that he made his own creative construal of them, understanding his vocation as the point of convergence of several rich strands of scriptural narrative, heavily freighted with the sense of Israel’s long destiny coming to a dark and decisive climax. In particular, the early Christians were clear that Jesus’ death was to be understood in terms of Isaiah 53, and they were equally clear that this was not a new idea they were wishing back on Jesus. ‘The Son of Man,’ he said, ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). These words – which many have of course been unwilling to credit to Jesus precisely because of the frantic attempt to prevent him alluding to Isaiah 53 – capture the very heart of that great chapter, and as I and others have argued elsewhere it is extremely likely, historically, that he made that entire section of the book of Isaiah thematic for his self-understanding.

Ironically, Dr John himself alludes to Isaiah 53 at the end of his talk, suggesting that Jesus ‘bears our griefs and shares our sorrows’, without realising that if you get one part of Isaiah 53 you probably get the whole thing, and with it not only a substitutionary death but a penal substitutionary death, yet without any of the problems that the caricature would carry:

He was wounded for our transgressions
and bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that brought us peace
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned every one to his own way;
And YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:5-6.)

It is with the Servant, and the theology of the whole of Isaiah 40-55, that we find the explanation for the otherwise bizarre idea of one person standing in for the many (which, as Dr John says, we might otherwise find incomprehensible and deeply offensive). The sense which penal substitution makes it does not make, in the last analysis, within the narrative of feudal systems of honour and shame. It certainly does not make the sense it makes within the world of some arbitrary lawcourt. It makes the sense it makes within the biblical world, the Old Testament world, within which the creator God, faced with a world in rebellion, chose Israel – Abraham and his family – as the means of putting everything right, and, when Israel itself had rebelled, promised to set that right as well and so to complete the purpose of putting humans right and thus setting the whole created order back the right way up. And the long-promised way by which this purpose would be achieved was, as hints and guesses in the Psalms and prophets indicate, that Israel’s representative, the anointed king, would be the one through whom this would be accomplished. Like David facing Goliath, he would stand alone to do for his people what they could not do for themselves. It is because Jesus, as Israel’s representative Messiah, was therefore the representative of the whole human race, that he could appropriately become its substitute. That is how Paul’s logic works. ‘One died for all, therefore all died,’ he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5.14; and thus, seven verses later, ‘God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin,’ he concluded seven verses later, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (5.21). And it is within that argument that we find the still deeper truth, which is again rooted in the dark hints and guesses of the Old Testament: that the Messiah through whom all this would be accomplished would be the very embodiment of YHWH himself. ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5.19).

Underneath all this discussion is a deep concern which has emerged again in our own day, notably in the writings of the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. In his magisterial Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), he demonstrates, with sharp examples from his native Balkans, that it simply won’t do, when faced with radical evil, to say, ‘Oh well, don’t worry, I will love you and forgive you anyway.’ That (as the 1938 Doctrine Report already saw) is not forgiveness; it is belittling the evil that has been done. Genuine forgiveness must first ‘exclude’, argues Volf, before it can ’embrace’; it must name and shame the evil, and find an appropriate way of dealing with it, before reconciliation can happen. Otherwise we are just papering over the cracks. As I said early on, if God does not hate the wickedness that happens in his beautiful world, he is neither a good nor a just God, and chaos is come again. Somehow I sense that Dr John knows this, since he writes movingly of Jesus Christ as God coming down into the midst of the mess and the muddle to be with us and . . . to rescue us – though he never says how this rescue is effected. But again and again I sense in Dr John’s writing the problem which Anselm already identified: you have not yet considered how serious sin is. It isn’t that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed what was going on. That is what the classic Anglican formularies and liturgy say.

Recently, looking for something else, I came upon this:

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

When I read that, it sounded as though Denney were addressing Dr John directly. And I was put in mind of a characteristically gentle remark of Henry Chadwick, in his introductory lectures on doctrine which I attended my first year in Oxford. After carefully discussing all the various theories of atonement, Dr Chadwick allowed that there were of course some problems with the idea of penal substitution. But he said, ‘until something like this has been said, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the full story has not yet been told.’ For myself, I prefer to go with Henry Chadwick, and James Denney – and Wesley and Watts, and Cranmer and Hooker, and Athanasius and Augustine and Aquinas – and Paul, Peter, Mark, Luke, John – and, I believe Jesus himself. To throw away the reality because you don’t like the caricature is like cutting out the patient’s heart to stop a nosebleed. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and all because of the unstoppable love of the one creator God. There is ‘no condemnation’ for those who are in Christ, because on the cross God condemned sin in the flesh of the Son who, as the expression of his own self-giving love, had been sent for that very purpose. ‘He did not spare his very own Son, but gave him up for us all.’ That’s what Good Friday was, and is, all about.

Finally, from the same article, Wright explains his confusion that someone could describe a work that had based its understanding of Jesus on Wright’s own scholarship as denying penal substitutionary atonement:

After all, the climax of my book Jesus and the Victory of God…is the longest ever demonstration, in modern times at least, that Jesus’ self-understanding as he went to the cross was rooted in, among other Old Testament passages, Isaiah 53, the clearest and most uncompromising statement of penal substitution you could find.

You can also find various statements elsewhere, including his big commentary on Romans.

The moral of the story is that N.T. Wright affirms penal substitutionary atonement. Sorry uber-conservative Reformed guys, he actually does get the Cross. Sorry, lefty, anti-PSA types, your Kingdom-minded hero says some really old-school Evangelical stuff about the atonement.

For everybody else, you’re welcome.

Soli Deo Gloria

Small Update: For more vindication of this point, John Piper has a statement in his critical book The Future of Justification (pp. 46-53) affirming the Wright, indeed, does affirm PSA.