N.T. Wright’s Assault on Moralistic Platonic Paganism? (A Review)

the-day-the-revolution-beganI suppose I’ll begin with a bit of a confession: I’ve been a devoted N.T. Wright fan since I was 20, or about 10 years now, during which I’ve read all his major monographs and most of his popular works (excluding the commentaries, of which I do own the majority). Surprising as it may be for some, before I read Calvin, Bavinck, or even Vanhoozer, I was reading Wright. While I have become critical of certain elements, or tendencies in Wright’s work, I cannot stress how massive his (massive) works have been in shaping my broader Biblical and New Testament theology. This is especially the case with his atonement theology, which I have discussed and defended here).

When I heard he was coming out with a big book on the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began, I was very excited (as were half the theological nerds in the Western Hemisphere). Having read it now, I will say it’s vintage Wright in just about every sense of the word. Whether it’s the story-telling, the punchy language and style that grips you and carries you along (I read the 400 pages in about 2 days), the stimulating biblical insight, the pastoral application, and the passionate polemics—good and bad—it’s all there in spades.

Against MPP

I mentioned the polemics because they’re central to his project. Wright wants to explain how Jesus’ death at 6 on a Friday managed to launch the revolution of love which transformed the cosmos. But he thinks in the Western church that message has been overshadowed by another, cut-rate gospel. Instead of worrying about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), though, Wright is interested in correcting Moralistic Platonic Paganism (MPP). He says the church has all too often moralized our problem (making sin about bad behavior instead of its root, idolatry), we have platonized our eschatology (making it about going to heaven instead of resurrection and New Creation), therefore paganized our soteriology (making it mainly about an angry Father randomly punishing an innocent Jesus, instead of the loving self-offering of God).

This alternative set-up he calls the “works-contract.” It’s a cut-down story that sounds a lot like some 4 Spiritual Laws, or “Romans Road”, or Chick-Tract presentations of the gospel. Humans are supposed to be good, they fail, God is angry with them, but Jesus comes and obeys for us, suffers the wrath of God in our place, and so we get to go heaven with a much calmer God now. Against this, he sets a much more comprehensive story beginning with Adam, continuing on through Abraham, Israel, the Exodus, the Exile, and down on into Jesus as the culmination of all of God’s ways with us. For those familiar with Wright’s earlier works, the story is fairly familiar.

Before jumping in, I’ll say that I think Michael Horton has given a very fair-handed summary and review of the work. He touches on a number of issues I pass over and probably better worth your time than the lengthy business which follows.

That noted, I’ll first note a number of the positives of Wright’s work and then jump into a couple of lengthier engagement/critique sections.

The Goods

First off, this is a good distillation of Wright’s broader project of telling the story of Jesus in the New Testament in its many-splendored dimensions. Wright is at pains to keep the story of the gospel properly complicated because historically-situated. Or rather, he wants to make sure that we appreciate the fullest sense in which the death of Jesus makes sense “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15).

And so, Wright tells the big story about God’s creative purpose in Adam, and the winding plan of setting that purpose back on its course through the call of Abraham, the election of Israel, and so forth. His expansion (not correction) of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works as the “covenant of vocation” is fruitful (on this, see the Horton review). What’s more, his foray into the prophets, especially his examination of the prophecies of the Servant in Isaiah are also very insightful.

This is also important because there is a tendency in some recent works in atonement theology to emphasize that language about atonement (sacrifice, justification, ransom, etc.) is metaphorical. Which is true enough as far as it goes. But some take that so far as to suggest that the metaphors were chosen by the apostles in a joyfully, haphazard way (and therefore culturally-relative one) to communicate something great had happened. Wright firmly insists that the apostolic presentation, indeed that of Jesus himself, is not random, nor interchangeable, but must and can only be understood in relation to the story of Scripture—as the culmination of the God’s works and ways with Israel.

Beyond that, his chapters on the First Century context and the Gospels might be my favorites. In a sense, much of this isn’t new, since the seeds were present in his Jesus and the Victory of God. That said, his special focus on showing Jesus’ self-understanding to be the broader matrix of the Passover and New Exodus, the forgiveness of sins which establishes the Kingdom of God is crystalized here with a clarity and specificity with respect to the atonement that hadn’t always come through in earlier works.

Indeed, I took particular delight in the section on the atonement in the Gospel of Luke. I took a special reading class in my M.A. in which I had to write on the atonement in each of the Gospels. Given the state of much of the conversation, I had a difficult time of it especially since I was probably too fixated at the time on finding particular sayings like the so-called “ransom saying” of Mark. But Wright’s attentiveness to the narratival-theological construction allows him to draw out representation, substitution, and the victory of the king in the stories of Barabbas, the encounters with thieves on the cross, and Jesus’ own depictions of his own suffering on behalf of Israel (213-216).

Which brings me to a final point of appreciation: Wright never loses sight of the fact that all of Jesus’ work must be held together, especially the cross and the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the goal of the cross and the cross is the shape of the kingdom. What’s more, the threads weaving the two together have been there from the very beginning of the story until its grand denouement.

As such, there is much to be commended and plenty that will preach nicely throughout any Lenten season series any pastor reading this may be planning.

These things being said, I must turn to a couple of criticisms and critical questions. This will be lengthy, but please bear in mind that the book is 400 pages long, so to engage any of his multiple arguments with any coherence requires more space than usual.

On Caricature

Probably the most distracting and potentially misleading part of the work is Wright’s polemical engagement throughout with his “works-contract” construct. Funny enough, it’s reminiscent of Douglas Campbell’s “Justification Theory”—an amalgamated construct of errors cobbled together as a foil for his own reading of Paul—something Wright dinged him for in Paul and His Recent Interpreters. Now, Wright has a sense many will suggest that’s what he’s doing: “Some will no doubt accuse me of caricatures…” (147). So he clarifies that what he’s describing is quite real in much of the popular preaching and teaching in the church and the experiences of average lay-people.

That is something I think we need to be prepared to admit. And not just as a concession that is a set-up for a counter-argument. I think there is plenty of bad cross-preaching of all sorts and much of it verges into the works-contract kind. Conservatives, especially the Reformed sort, need to be careful to correct the sorts of mistakes (trinitarian, Christological, covenantal) which lead our people to “hear” the sort of Moralistic Platonic Paganism Wright talks about. Indeed, we shouldn’t just avoid it, but actively try to correct it. Insofar as Wright is correcting those accounts, there is much that is helpful in his reframing of the narrative. (Though, that said, I think at the popular level, Joshua Ryan Butler’s recent work The Pursuing God probably is more helpful still.)

The problem, though, is at times he lets on that it’s not just bad pop-accounts under his scalpel. Rather, he suggests even the more nuanced accounts of the older views that “theologians” (those sad, well-meaning blunderers), fall prey to many of his criticisms. This actually comes out heavily in his big chapter on Romans 3. He throws out about 15 reasons why the “old” reading of the text doesn’t work. Again, if he’s talking about a simple 4 Spiritual Laws reading, sure. But if he’s addressing the nuanced views of say a Greg Beale, John Stott, Michael Horton, Jeremy Treat, or even more older covenantal thinkers like a Herman Witsius (see his Economy of the Covenants), I think only about 2 or 3 of those points would receive pushback. More on this later.

This is part of the problem of mounting the sort of criticisms he makes in a popular-level book. It’s “popular” in that it has no footnotes or endnotes, which is no sin in itself. But he is making much more complicated arguments than typical “popular” treatments, like certain arguments going on within NT scholarship (such as his subtle digs at the Apocalyptic school, etc.).

It seems that if you’re going to be throwing around charges like that, it’s only fair to name the names. It’s not only that the accused have the right to face their accuser—they ought to know if they’re being accused.

Which brings me to the point about novelty and the rhetoric of newness I have raised before. I joked online earlier that a key point in Wright’s book is that he’s “not a specialist in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries” (32). Which is fine. We have other specialists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for just that sort of thing. (I’m not one to talk as I’m not a specialist in anything yet!) The only problem comes when you decide to set up your own construction by way of explicit contrast with what was taught in those centuries. In which case, not misrepresenting or bowdlerizing them becomes more important.

With Wright, you get this sense that between the 1st and the 21st Century some decent things happened, but, it’s now that we can really get things sorted out. Past theologians are there mostly to be patted on the head for those things they didn’t botch, then corrected, but not so much to be learned from currently.

Now, I’m all for sola Scriptura, subjecting our tradition to the word of God afresh and so forth. There are any number of places where I’m going to side with Wright’s exegesis over, say, Calvin’s. But this sort of approach of Wright’s tends to have the danger of reinforcing in younger Christians a curiosity which is intoxicated with the novel and the “fresh” for its own sake. It’s the sort that leads you to think reading Calvin’s or Aquinas’ or Irenaeus’ exegesis probably isn’t worth your time in the first place. In which case, in our attempt to get free of 16th century cultural presuppositions, we’re exposed to the greater danger of becoming ensnared with 21st century ones.

Or again, for the parishioner who reads the book and loves it, if their pastor manages not to frame things exactly as Wright does here—if they happen to use theological shorthand at times that resembles the “works-contract” because they don’t have space to recap the entire biblical narrative—well then they’re now guilty of peddling MPP. I don’t think that’s Wright’s intent, but given the rhetoric, it might be (and likely will be) what people hear.

Puzzles Over Punishment

Moving to issues more properly exegetical and theological, I’ll admit that the status of punishment and propitiation in Paul leaves me a bit confused. I think it’s the result of Wright not saying a great deal, before he gets around to saying what he does mean. But even then, things don’t come out so clearly. Of course, it could just be my poor reading skills, but Horton also noted some confusion at this point, and Dane Ortlund was quite…frustrated  about this section.

What is clear is Wright is very sure he doesn’t want to tell a story about an angry, vindictive deity who gets angry we’ve done bad things and just needs to punish (i.e. kill something) to blow off steam, so he can love us in heaven. Good. Nor should any of us.

That said, Wright also doesn’t fit the vibe of the non-violent, post-Girardian (J. Denny Weaver, Brian Zahnd), or Neo-Anabaptist (D. Snyder Belousek) paradigm. Much of his rhetoric does at points, but he still says very clearly God has wrath, that he punishes sin, that Exile is the punishment of sin, and that punishment can even be a part of the righteousness of God insofar as it is part of his faithfulness to his covenant (in which he threatened punishment as the result of idolatry).

In all of this, Wright’s very good aim seems to be to show that there is nothing arbitrary about the connection between sin and the punishment of death. Choose the God of life, you get life. Choose the non-gods, the idols, obviously that will pay out in death. Now, theologically, I think his account of divine agency is fuzzy there as well. Since on the one hand he admits God is at work in the process in order to rule out a simple, mechanic process of cause and effect (338), but then goes on to the next page to almost reduce punishment language to merely a way of talking about the natural consequences of sin (339). So he seems to take with his left what he gives with his right at times in a way that is confusing.

But beyond that, in dozens of places, Wright says Jesus suffers the punishment of exile, the consequences of Israel’s sins, the curse of Torah, and so forth as their representative and therefore their substitute. The forgiveness of sins, “comes about because Jesus dies, innocently, bearing the punishment that he himself had marked out for his fellow Jews as a whole” (211; cf. 240, 337). So, again, this is quite explicitly not an anti-penal-substitution work per se.

Second, it is also clear he wants to make sure that nobody ever tells the story of Jesus and the atonement without setting it within and as the culmination of the story of Israel. That is precisely when the image of “punishment” can threaten to become central to the whole story, and turn things from a Biblical drama, to a pagan one (339). This is also an important thing to be avoided.

He affirms most of the component pieces of penal substitution, then, even if he rearranges some of them and modifies others, especially in the reading of key texts, especially in Paul. And it’s there in these modifications that many questions arise for me, and I think might confuse others.

Romans 8:1-4

In Romans 8:3, for instance, he repeats his long-standing claim that Paul God condemns “Sin in the flesh of Jesus”, but not Jesus himself. Okay. On one view, that might mean something like, “Jesus, enters the story of election as the True Israel, enters their accursed state, assumes responsibility for it, for all their sin and idolatry, and suffers the penal consequences in a representative, substitutionary way in his death. In that death, God condemns our sins, but we know what he really thinks about Jesus.”

Here’s one oddity about that view.

Right before that, Wright makes a point of saying that Romans 7 is telling us that the Law was given to Israel (at least in part) so that “Sin” could be drawn to one point, heaped up and shown for what it is, “so that it could be condemned there once and for all” (282). But “Sin” in the singular refers to “the powers unleashed by idolatry and wickedness”, a sort of short-hand personification of this, and maybe even “the satan” (284), who dominates and enslaves humans who have handed over their power to the powers in their idolatry; sins lead to and become and empower Sin (280). And so he says:

But the punishment is on Sin itself, the combined, accumulated, and personified force that has wreaked such havoc in the world and in human lives…Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus.  Now, to be sure, the crucifixion was no less terrible an event because, with theological hindsight, the apostle could see that what was being punished was Sin itself rather than Jesus himself… (287)

And so, he sees it as “penal” and even “substitutionary” since because of it “sinners who are ‘in the Messiah’ are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not” (287).

I have to be honest, I still don’t understand what it means that God condemns Sin personified in the flesh of Christ. Again, if you’re trying to parse the difference between condemning Jesus as a sinner loaded with guilt, or the one who assumes guilt for others, or the one who assumes liability to punishment, there are a number of scholastic distinctions that can help clarify this point. If that includes “the totality of what sin causes in the world and its nastiness”, sure.

But once you throw in condemning Sin as the powers, or even as the satan himself, there is a bewildering lack of clarity, as there seems to be no mechanism for metaphysical or moral identification in which Christ’s death equals the condemnation of the powers or Satan. Nor is it at all clear how this condemnation of the powers or Satan or the total situation deals with the guilt and liability of human punishment. So this is a coherence question I’m left with.  (If you have any suggestions as to where I’ve gone wrong, feel free to comment below.)

Romans 5:8-11

Another section I have questions about is Romans 5:8-11. Admittedly contradicting his own earlier reading in his commentaries and books (272), Wright rejects the view that Paul says Jesus saves us from God’s coming anger (5:9), by being a present propitiation, having wrath fall on himself instead (connecting it with Romans 3:24-26). He thinks that doesn’t make sense anymore, though, because being “being justified in by his blood” is supposed to save us “from the wrath or anger that is still to come.” But if wrath has been meted out in Christ in Romans 3:24-26, “why would Paul speak of it in chapter 5 as still future”, or as a store of wrath still to come (2:5)?

Now, on its own, I’m not convinced that argument is very strong. It seems easy to speak of a proleptic wrath executed now in the Messiah which counts for believers, which anticipates and corresponds to a judgment of wrath still to come in the future and would fall on them were they outside of Christ. Or it is at least analogous to speaking of a proleptic resurrection in Christ now, which corresponds to a resurrection still to come in the future. I suppose that we could be dealing with a proleptic declaration that no wrath is coming for you because of the event of the cross, but it’s not at all clear or necessary. Not enough to make me prefer Wright’s new exegesis over his old, at least.

Wright says again later on in his discussion of Rom 3:26-27, that if in 5:9 (which he takes to be summarizing the effects of 3:26-27) being “justified by his blood” just means “being saved from wrath”, 5:9 would be a tautology “(“being saved from wrath, we shall be saved from wrath”). To this, I’ll simply note that some repetitions, or pleonasms, can be clarifying since it’s really a way of speaking of the same reality from different aspects.

Second, it is not necessarily the case that if 5:9 is summarizing the effects of 3:26-27, we have a strict tautology. Rather, it could mean that “being justified by his blood” (being declared in the right in the court, etc. etc.), Paul is clarifying that one of the effects is being saved from wrath in the future.

These linguistic or exegetical points aside, I suppose my theological question is whether Wright believes Paul to be saying that wrath is something entirely future, which is staved off by an act which is definitely not the execution of wrath or propitiation in the present. Based on certain passages, that’s very fuzzy (see 330-331).

But then I wonder if Paul thinks “condemning Sin in the flesh of Jesus” in the present is an act of God’s wrath? In the Old Testament, wrath is not simply an emotion, but often is another way of speaking of God’s judgment, his condemnation in accordance with his law. Off the top of my head, Ezekiel 7 clusters wrath and anger with the punishment of idolatry together as largely the same thing (cf. also 2 Kings 17’s narrative of Israel’s deportation). Another way of saying it is that condemnation or punishment is wrath considered legally.

In which case, if Romans 8:3 does speak of the condemnation of Sin because of which those who are in the Messiah no longer face condemnation in the future (8:1), it seems that Paul does think that at least Sin has suffered the wrath of God upon himself in the flesh of Jesus on the cross, though there will be wrath meted out in the future against sinners as well.

On a similar note, jumping out of Paul (and I suppose that’s dangerously systematic), when Jesus speaks of drinking the cup of God’s wrath in connection to the cross (Mk. 14:36; Matt 26:39; p. 221 in Wright) does he drink it then? Because that would seem to be the natural reading (see Jeremy Treat’s examination of the removal of wrath through Jesus in the gospel of Mark in The Crucified King, 132-133).

And if so, does Paul disagree that is what’s happening there on the cross (that Jesus is experiencing God’s eschatological wrath then)? Or is it just that Wright thinks Paul is speaking of a different sacrificial logic in this passage? Or maybe it’s a different kind of wrath at the end-time? In which case, is Wright simply saying that in those verses (Romans 3:24-26, 5:9, 8:3) Paul isn’t talking about wrath being suffered by Jesus, even though if you asked him, he would of course affirm he had on an independent logic? But if so, does that deflate the argument that Paul pointing to the deflection of wrath in the future means he can’t be relating it to the suffering of wrath in the present by Jesus?

I get that Wright’s a biblical scholar who looks askance at certain systematic constructions for flattening out, or dehistoricizing too many edges of the various texts. At some point, though, the systematicians get to look back and ask whether those edges are too sharp that they’ve become a reading hazard.

Of course, on Wright’s older reading, the reading where Paul talks about Jesus propitiating God’s wrath against sin now in the cross, saving us from his eschatological wrath in the future, it appears there is an easier, or more straightforward fit with Jesus’ and within Paul on this point. In which case, for now I suppose I’ll retain that version of Wright.

Romans 3 and Purgation

Now, I should say something very brief about his argument in chapter 13 about Romans 3:21-26. In the first half of the chapter he drops anywhere between 10 to 15 arguments against taking it in a way that fits with a “works-contract” view, both the “bargain-basement” outline he sets up (301), as well as the more nuanced versions. Now, about 12 of them are great arguments against a very simplistic “Romans Road” presentation, but I think the points behind them can be easily incorporated in the “nuanced” versions as well (including Wright’s older view).

One point which doesn’t fit so easily concerns what he says about the redemption or Exodus that comes through putting Jesus forth as a hilasterion of Romans 3:25. Wright has changed his views from his commentaries and earlier books here. He still thinks the term refers to the lid of the ark, or the mercy seat in the Tabernacle or Temple. But Wright no longer connects it to the logic of covering (327), nor to propitiation as he used to, where in the past God over-looked sin, but now he punishes it in Christ. According to Wright, if that was the logic, then Paul shouldn’t have connected it with the Day of Atonement (330).

Instead, he has adopted a different view which connects the logic of the Day of Atonement with cleansing and purgation, not covering or punishment (though for that matter, he thinks covering didn’t imply punishment either). On this view, the death of the sacrifice is ancillary to the all-important releasing of the blood which the priest manipulates in the Day of Atonement ceremony. This blood symbolizes the power of life which cleanses. So death is necessary to the release blood, but isn’t central to its meaning in that sense (329).

The idea is that through idolatry, humans become sinful, their sins leads to and bring the pollution of death. But death is contrary to God who is the source of life and is a defilement of God’s holy Temple. This defilement accumulates throughout the year around the people, the land, and the sanctuary. In order to enter the Presence of God, then, “the sacrificial blood is the sign of God-given life, a life more powerful than death, a life therefore that purifies both sanctuary and worshipper. Cleansing thus enables meeting” (334). Jesus is the place where God and man, heaven and earth, meet, and this is enabled by his cleansing blood.

In the end, it seems he’s suggesting some sort of “propitiation via expiation” view whereby wrath is turned away by cleansing. Or in light of the way he connects it to the other texts above, a “future propitiation via present expiation/purgation” view. At least that’s the best I can come up with given the back and forth of affirmations and denials gives in the chapter.

Now, Wright has many things going for him. For one thing, he’s right that not every sacrifice in the OT has mainly to do with punishment and too often they have been treated as such in popular accounts. What’s more, there is definitely a clear element of purgation and cleansing in the Day of Atonement rituals as scholars as Jacob Milgrom and others following him have shown. Some of the more interesting bits of recent scholarship on sacrifice of late has been around pinning down just how that is supposed to work.

In response, though, I’d like to note a few things to complicate matters and suggest that death is significant as death for more than its life-blood releasing function.

First, I suppose I simply disagree about the blood. Leon Morris’ old linguistic work on the meaning of “blood” still has merit. Considering the wider use of the term blood in the Old and New Testaments, the dimension of life released by violent death within it cannot be entirely erased or reduced to life simpliciter.

Second, and this may be too broadly formulaic, but ever since Genesis 2-3, death just is the punishment for sin, the curse of the Law, the outworking of wrath, etc. in Scripture. While not all deaths are suffered as the direct judgment of God, theologically there is no death which is not the result of the curse and wrath of God. It seems very hard, then, to eliminate this meaning entirely from the Day of Atonement sacrifices.

Third, I am not sure Wright lets the Passover and the Day of Atonement interplay do enough work. At the Passover, though atonement isn’t the main point, the blood on the door acts as a covering protecting Israel from the angel of death, the judgment and wrath of God destroying the sinful flesh of the representative firstborn of every house. In the Passover, there is protection from the wrath of God against guilty sinners, yes through the covering of blood, but also through the death for death equation.

Finally, I can only note that Leithart’s recent account of sacrifice in Delivered from the Elements of the World (91-121) as a very helpful alternative. He takes into account all of the most recent developments in the very dense literature of sacrifice and comes up with a nuanced account of substitution and sacrifice, which includes all that Wright says and more. So he has purgation, but he also manages to retain the notion “covering” in kipper and kapporeth translated to hilasterion without reducing it strictly to purgation. What’s more, he also maintains the importance of the death of the sacrifice dealing with the problem of sinful flesh. Perhaps his attunement to the ubiquity of that problem accounts for much of their differences.

Or again, you could go back to Wright’s older reading.

I realize this last section on Romans 3 is my weakest in the subsection, but it’s gone far too long anyways, so let me make just one last criticism.

Disarming the Power of Prosecution

As I noted earlier, Wright is very helpful in not separating what God has joined together: kingdom and cross, the forgiveness of sins and the defeat of the powers. The quibble I have here is that I think he’s missed a key, linking element.

Take Colossians 2:13-15. Here Paul talks about the ironic stripping and defeat of the powers in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. For Wright, the powers are both the earthly principalities, rulers and authorities (Herod, Caesar, Caiaphas, etc.) as well as the “dark powers that stand behind them and operate through them”, or the demonic (259). How does the forgiveness of sins coming through the cross which “blots out the handwriting against us” (Torah which excluded Gentiles and condemned Jews), lead to victory over the powers?

Wright thinks that it happens because the powers gain power precisely in our idolatrous worship of them. We hand over power to them and they enslave and dominate us. But “when sins are forgiven, the idols lose their power” (259). Because sin is defeated, the idols power is broken. Because I am dead to the Law, it’s divisions don’t divide, and the blessings of God can flow to the Gentiles. Now, this is all true, but I think it misses the fact that part of the power of the powers is that of accusation.

The Devil is the Accuser, and part of his power over sinners the judgment of the Law itself which rightly condemns them for sin, even if Satan a perverted prosecutor. We are guilty. We do stand condemned, exiled from God’s presence. So when the powers accuse, they have a point. That is, until they are stripped of that point. Verse 15 logically follows off of verse 14 because the forgiveness of sins comes in doing away with our guilt and sin in it condemnation in the cross of Christ.  This is how we are “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). It’s also why in John’s vision, in one of the great cosmic battle scenes, the saints are said to conquer over the “accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10) by way of “the blood of the Lamb” (12:11).

I’m not trying to be nit-picky, but since one of the strongest points of Wright’s work is to tie these two themes together, that this key bit of analysis remains murky is puzzling and weakens the argument as a whole.

(For more on all this, Jeremy Treat’s The Crucified King is the best work to date treating both biblical and systematic categories. On Colossians and Revelation, see 111-127)


I suppose I’ll cap this all off by saying, this I think Wright is eminently helpful on the atonement in general, but that he is even more so in his earlier works. There is plenty to take, digest, preach, and indeed, live in this volume. But I worry, though, if this is someone’s first or second volume on the atonement or the cross, especially someone without theological training, the heavy polemic as well as a couple of the material proposals would be confusing and misleading. Of course, no volume is without its flaws, so go ahead and take it up, just bear some of these things in mind.

That said, I will continue to read Wright with anticipation and delight, and continue to recommend his books, but on the subject of the atonement, I will likely be referring to his earlier works.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: If you’re looking to read or recommend accounts that avoid MPP, but don’t quite fall into these issues a few volumes come to mind. I’ve already mentioned Joshua Butler’s popular work as well as Jeremy Treat’s. Both are top notch. Also, Adam Johnson’s Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed is fantastic. Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker didn’t get a lot of attention, but I think that’s a mistake since it’s a very balanced, recent offering.

Finally, I have my big, long post on answering objections and correcting mistakes around Penal Substitution which has more recommendations at the bottom.


A More Elemental Atonement (A Review of Leithart)

Delivered from the elements coverThis review was originally written for Books and Culture before its unfortunate closing. Thanks to John Wilson for encouraging me to write it. 

One mark of a constructive theologian is to ask the perennial questions of Christian theology in a contemporary key. In Peter Leithart’s new work Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, and Mission, he reframes St. Anselm’s famous question, “Why did God become man?” as,

“How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century, an event in the putative backwaters of the Roman Empire, be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and cross-roads for everything?”

To answer that question, Leithart believes we must reconstrue atonement theology as “as social theory”, making social and political questions and consequences central to our understanding of Christ’s work. In that sense, it must be a “theory of everything”, if it is to be a successful rendering of the events that changed everything.

Indefatigable polymath that he is, Leithart is “cheerful, even giddy” about his limitations as he sets about constructing the argument of his self-described “Big Red Book About Everything”, drawing broadly upon a variety of discourses to get the job done. Within its pages, one can find forays into comparative anthropology, religious theories of sacrifice, OT studies, Pauline studies, Gospel studies, theories of secularization, Medieval and Reformation metaphysics, and so much more. The through-line connecting the disparate fragments is Leithart’s typological reading of the whole of Scripture and even human history. Indeed, you can characterize the work as a “systematic typology.”

Cur Deus Homo?

The work defies simple description and summary. In brief, though, Leithart offers a “Pauline” reading of Scripture that takes its cues from the notion of the “elements of the world” or stoicheia tou kosmou in Galatians 4:1-7. Across cultures in time and space, the world has ordered itself according to the “elements”, the basic “socio-religious principles” and categories such as clean/unclean, sacred/profane, life/death, and so forth. These principles give rise to orders of ritual, sacrifice, and social stratification which, though they can be arranged in a bewildering variety of ways, are the same basic “physics” composing the old creation.

These elemental principles order life in the “flesh.” For Leithart, “flesh” is a master metaphor comprising everything from basic, human frailty all the way to the post-Fall, libido dominandi of phallic warfare, which mortal flesh uses to cover over the fear of death. Fleshly life under the elements is Adamic humanity’s lot: cast out of God’s Garden-house, flesh is divided from Spirit, living under the restrictive regimes of “taste not, touch not” aimed at (yet failing in) overcoming death and restoring communion with God.

On this scheme, Torah is God’s own redemptive set of rearranged “elements” (sacrifice, ritual, holiness codes) which God uses in his history-long war of justice to destroy flesh without destroying humanity. With Torah, God separates a new Adamic people, Israel, out of the rest of the divided world, and with a new set of pedagogical elements, taught them to enter into his presence through sacrifice and purity, though under the condition of flesh.

Of course, the Torah cannot work life, or overcome flesh. Indeed, under the condition of flesh, Torah became an instrument of injustice within and by Israel and worked the curse of death against Israel.

For that reason, the Son came in the flesh to be a new Israel—one who enacted all that Torah aimed at, living out the life of the Spirit. This life and ministry inevitably brought him into conflict with the fleshly authorities, both Jewish and Roman, leading to his crucifixion—a sacrificial (and penal) death on behalf of (substitutionary) Israel and the World in which the flesh was condemned. It also led to his subsequent vindication and justification by resurrection (a “deliverdict”), in which the flesh is raised to life in presence of God by the Spirit. (A similar construction is given by Fleming Rutledge in her notion of “rectification”, which makes sense, since they both draw on themes from the Union school of apocalyptic interpretation).

Baptism, faith, and union with Christ’s justifying life, death, and resurrection leads to the justification and deliverance of the individual (his “deliverdict”), as well as the formation of a new, “post-stoicheic” community animated by Jesus and the Spirit.  As one new man, a just community is made from Jew and Gentile, both now free from Torah and the “elements” of the world. As the of this new community around a new, ritual, and moral order eventually begins dismantling of the old socio-religious hierarchies that surround it, we can begin to grasp how Jesus’ atonement leads to the transformation of social life and human history as a whole.

Promise and Perils of Systematics

One can begin to see, then, that Leithart’s answer to the question is innovative, elegant, multi-faceted, and holistic. I have never read something quite like this.

For instance, in setting the stage for his nuanced, biblical account of Levitical sacrifice and Torah (a brilliant distillation of the complex, often-impenetrable specialist literature on the subject), Leithart offers a literary interlude, consisting of a first-person dialogue between the Apostle Paul and the priests of Egypt, Babylon, and Ancient Greece. It’s something of a crash course in Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman comparative studies that manages to set Israel’s religious life firmly in the religious world, without falling into either parallelomania, nor forcing it into some Procrustean bed of a pre-existing theory of sacrifice or religion as so many recent accounts (such as those following Rene Girard) have done. What’s more, it has a literary flair, proving again that theology need not be aesthetically anodyne.

At this point, though, I’m reminded of a story Graham Cole tells about the plight of the systematic theologian. When reading the systematician’s work, a NT scholar will come along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did with the Old Testament, but a few of those bits on the New Testament weren’t so hot.” And the OT scholar comes along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did in the New Testament, but some of those bits from the Old Testament weren’t so hot.” And the historiand comes along and says, “Loved what he did with the Bible, but his historical work could use a tune-up.” The comprehensive holism which systematics demands often leaves exegetical or historical specialists a bit cold (or hot and bothered, depending on temperaments).

Speaking broadly, I’d say that in his attempt to make up for gaps often left unplugged in other accounts, Leithart leaves open a few of his own. For now, I leave it to others to deal with his rough handling of Reformation history, or the idiosyncrasies of his hybridized New Perspective, Apocalyptic, & typological reading of Paul and justification, or even the fuzzy metaphysical status of “nature” in his schema. Brad Littlejohn has explored some of those in his lengthy review, and in the future I may take up his critique of Reformation theology along the lines of the natural/supernatural distinction. For now, I’ll just comment on the pay-out and loss of having opted for his particular reading of Christ’s victory over the elements.

Stoicheia Without Satan 

Reading the stoicheia tou kosmou as the “elements of the world” and the “socio-religious principles” of clean and unclean, etc. has significant payouts in Leithart’s system. As we’ve seen, it allows him to connect Israel’s history to world religious history in its original setting, as well as ecclesiology and the social dimension of atonement. It also allows him to forward a current reading of the scene in which Christian mission happens; the way societies, ideologies, and even other religions like modern Hinduism and Buddhism which have been transformed in their encounter with the continuing impact of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

They also allow him to venture into the contested waters of secularization theory, contending that “we have never been secular.” Rather, modernity is a post-Christian, rationalized reordering of the categories of clean and unclean, sacred and profane, with its own priesthood, and social categories of “other.” It is not the same stoicheic order as the old, but it is a stoicheic order, nonetheless. (Incidentally, this is one of the most interesting parts of the work).

With all these benefits accrued, however, there is one conspicuous absence in Leithart’s story of atonement and his “theory of everything”: there is no Serpent in Leithart’s Garden. (Quite literally, there is no mention of him in the account of Adam and Eve’s Fall.)

In one way this is unsurprising. The other, recent popular interpretation for the phrase stoicheia tou kosmou is to see it as a reference to malevolent, spiritual forces. Opting for the reading “socio-religious principles”, Leithart seems to shelve the alternative almost entirely. With the exception of a few approving references to N.T. Wright’s suggestion that demonic powers or “tutelary deities” stand behind the “powers and principalities”, or a paragraph about Jesus’ exorcisms, the Tempter, the Accuser of the saints, the Dragon, the great opponent of YHWH and his people has gone missing from Leithart’s landscape. Interestingly, the Christus Victor theme is still there, but sublimated—YHWH is still at war, but not so much with demonic powers, but with flesh.

While seemingly unintentional, and while one cannot deal with everything in a single book, this transposition threatens to throw off not only our account of atonement, but our account of churchly mission as well. With respect to the atonement, John tells us that Christ came to utterly destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Paul says one of the great blessings of Christ removed the record of transgressions that stood against us, is disarming the powers and principalities (Colossians 2:13-15). In so doing, Christ liberates us from the fleshy fear of death (Hebrews 2:14), at least in part, by freeing us from Satan’s accusation (Revelation 12:10-12).

Turning to mission, the sidelining of the demonic distorts our understanding of spiritual power at work, lurking behind the “socio-religious principles”, rendering their opposition so potent.  Ignoring this leaves us liable to forget that our struggle is against “the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), not only a recalcitrant sociology.

I don’t think the narrative he presents can’t be modified to include this line of Biblical theology, but as it stands, the modification is necessary all the same.

At the end of the day, though, even the gaps in Leithart’s exceptional work press us to continually expand the scope of our reflections upon Christ’s atonement to social, political, and cosmic proportions.

Soli Deo Gloria

Leithart’s 6 Criteria For A Successful Atonement Theology (+ 2 Of My Own)

Delivered from the elements cover.jpgWhen you read enough works on the work of Christ, to start to get a feel for the questions involved. What conditions must be met for this to qualify as a proper, full, or adequate explanation of  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Anselm famously thought the root question you had to answer was, “Why did God become man?” You can give all sorts of explanations for what Jesus’ activities meant, but if they didn’t justify the conclusion “for this, God needed to become man”, then you need to go back to the drawing board.

Peter Leithart has written a new book about atonement theology. Well, when you look at the title (Delivered From the Elements: Atonement, Justification, and Mission), you realize it’s about a lot more than that, but that’s still the main subject.

In reflecting on it, Leithart has come up with six criteria that he believes must be satisfied if we’re going to get a proper grip on our question:

Historically plausible: Atonement theology is an interpretation of events, not a recital of “bare facts,” which is impossible in any case. But that interpretation must make sense of the historical events, not by transcending phenomena into a noumenal realm of meaning, but by tracing and perhaps extrapolating the logic of the events. Successful atonement theology must, for instance, make sense of Jesus as a figure in the first-century Judaism dominated by Rome. A successful atonement theory has got to show how the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key to human history, which means that atonement theory has to provide and account of human history: It has to be a theory of everything.

Levitical: A successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events.

Evangelical: Successful atonement theology must arise from within the Gospel narratives rather than be an imposition from outside (even a Pauline outside).

Pauline: Atonement theology must make sense of the actual words and sentences and arguments in Paul’s letters.

Inevitable: A successful atonement theology should leave the impression of inevitability: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Lk. 24:26 NASB). Jesus should appear to be the obvious divine response to the human condition. Like the denouement of a well-constructed drama, the cross and the resurrection should emerge as the most fitting climax to the history of Israel among the nations, as the climax of the history of sacrifice.

Fruitful: A successful atonement theology must offer a framework for making sense not only of the history of Jesus but also of the subsequent history of the church and of the world. It must, for instance, not shrink from addressing the apparent failure of the atonement, the palpable fact that the world Jesus is said to have saved is self-evidently not saved. (19-20)

In surveying them, I have to say, I find it hard to disagree with them. Even that last one, which is probably the greatest stretch in terms of having burst the typical bounds of systematic focus on the work of Christ, leaves an impression on the mind after considering it for a while, “Yes, yes, you should be able to draw some line from that point to the present moment if this event really is the cosmos-shattering cataclysm that Christian preaching has always claimed it is.”

I suppose I’ll follow up by adding couple of my own criteria in something of an Anselmian key.

First, comes a Christological criteria. For your atonement theology to be successful, it must be able to say why Jesus had to be God who became a man for our sake. Why did Christ have to have all the attributes and qualities and exalted titles and power that the New Testament accords him in order to accomplish what he did? In other words,  Leithart’s criteria for atonement theology  are, for the most part, explicitly concerned with making sense of the plot. I’m saying, we also need to explicitly call for a careful account of the characters.

Which brings me to the second criteria, and that is the theological one. For a successful atonement theology, you need to be able to give something of a sketch of the kind of God who would and could become man and why. This is true both for sorts of moral attributes you might think are involved (love, justice, holiness, fidelity), as well as the “metaphysical” ones (impassibility, infinity, etc). And, of course, not only the attributes of God, but his personal being: does your atonement theology assume or dispense with God’s trinitarian being? Must atonement be accomplished by Father, Son, & Spirit, or can we get by with a monad or a binity?

Since I have a full review of Leithart’s work coming at another publication, I’ll simply conclude by saying that it’s Leithart’s ability to ask these sorts of penetrating questions that makes Delivered from the Elements such a stimulating and wide-ranging read. Well worth the time of any serious student of atonement theology.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: The Pursuing God with Joshua Ryan Butler

The Pursuing God.jpgJoshua Ryan Butler is a friend and one of my favorite newer authors. I got to know him after I reviewed his last book The Skeletons in God’s Closet for the Gospel Coalition and ended up loving it.

Well, now he’s back with a follow-up book The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That’s Dying to Bring Us Home.  In this book, he tackles the difficult issues like incarnation, atonement, wrath, and the Trinity in order to show that the God of the Gospel really is good, and the gospel really is good news.

Now, I’d typically give you a full review, but I sort of already blurbed it, so I’m just going to share my endorsement and urge you to pick the thing up:

Joshua Ryan Butler is enthralled by the vision of a beautiful God whose goodness goes down deep into his bones and he wants us to share it. Unlike so many today, though, his way of inviting us into that vision is not to paper over the dark stains that mar our popular pictures of God, but to face them head-on. In The Pursuing God, Butler sets out to restore a portrait of the biblical gospel of God’s incarnate, crucified, and risen Son, correcting our worst caricatures of sacrifice and atonement, and revealing the glory of the triune God who has been relentlessly seeking to restore us to himself.

Honestly, this is one of those books I’m sort of bummed I didn’t get to write myself. That said, I’m also glad Josh did. He’s got a way with images and metaphors that flip things on their head and show you that all the stuff in Christianity that we’re tempted to do away with are actually what we need most.

Also, I have to say, I was extremely impressed with the way he was able to take some of the best, recent scholarship on the issue of wrath, judgement, and penal substitution, and present it in a non-academic, life-giving way, without selling you short theologically. This is probably now my favorite, popular-level book on the subject to date, and I think it’s the place to start if you’re either having trouble with these issues, or are looking to preach to those who do.

Buy it. Read it. Get copies for your friends and family and you’ll have birthdays and Christmas covered for the next 6 months.

But in case none of this has sold you, yet, Alastair and I had Josh on the podcast to chat  about the book. I hope this whets your appetite to pick it up.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Historical Penal Substitutionary Atonement

pannenberg volume 2Wolfhart Pannenberg is known for many elements of his theology—eschatology, history, the resurrection, the Trinity—but I rarely see him brought up in discussions of the atonement. This is a shame, because as Peter Leithart recently reminds us, in both his classic Jesus-God and Man and his magnum opus, three-volume Systematic Theology Pannenberg has one of the most helpful treatments of recent times.

I can’t go into all the details, but I simply wanted to highlight a few of the key, brief points, skipping and condensing a large amount of careful material.

First, Pannenberg tries to make sense of the extensive New Testament (especially Pauline) witness about Jesus death being “for us” in an expiatory sense as an interpretation of Jesus’ history. In other words, he tries to trace out the logic of the apostles as they reflected on the history, acts, and words of Jesus to make sense of the death of Jesus as happening “for us.”

Second, the resurrection is actually a key part of that logic. Aside from the strong emphasis on eschatology and resurrection Pannenberg develops in general, he sees it as crucial to the recognition that Jesus’ death happened for us.

If we follow the Gospel accounts, we recognize that Jesus was accused by the priests and teachers of the Law on the basis of the Law. In their eyes, Jesus was a blasphemer and the rebellious son who was trying to lead Israel astray and so they prosecuted him (and with the Romans) executed him accordingly.

But “the resurrection reveals that Jesus died as a righteous man, not as a blasphemer” (JesusGod and Man, 290). The resurrection, for Pannenberg, proves what the apostles testified to over and over again, that Jesus knew no sin—for God would not resurrect him if he had any of his own sin to die for.

Given this resurrection, we realize that Jesus’ claims about his relationship with the Father are vindicated. In which case, “those who rejected him as a blasphemer and had complicity in his death are the real blasphemers. His judges rightly deserved the punishment that he received. Thus he bore their punishment” (ibid). Or again: “The Easter reversal of the significance of the events that had led to the crucifixion of Jesus shows that Jesus literally died in the place of those who condemned him” (Systematic Theology, Volume 2,  425).

One may even want to strengthen this by appealing to the Law which states that false witnesses are to suffer the judgment which they meant to fall upon the innocent they had accused maliciously (Deut. 19:16-21).

Third, Pannenberg highlights the representative dimension to this death. In their condemnation, the Jewish leadership did not merely act as a collection of individuals. They acted on behalf of their nation and as such, the nation condemned this true Israelite as a blasphemer. Jesus dies in place, not only of the leadership as such, but for Israel as a whole.

Pannenberg connects this to Paul’s statements in Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:3, which only make sense in connection to Jesus’ condemnation under the Law:

As Paul saw it, God himself by means of the human judges not only made Jesus to be sin but also had him bear in our place (and not merely in that of his Jewish judges or the whole Jewish people) the penalty that is the proper penalty of sin because it follows from its inner nature, i.e. the penalty of death as the consequence of separation from God. (Systematic Theology, Volume 2,  426).

Jesus’ death bears the character of the natural, non-arbitrary, and just penalty and consequence of sin—separation from God.

But as highlighted by this quote, Pannenberg sees Christ’s death not only as occurring for Israel, but also for the Gentiles. He was handed over to the Gentiles. “Roman participation in the events leading to the crucifixion was perhaps the occasion for extending the understanding of the death of Jesus as expiation to the Gentile world represented by Rome” (ibid. 426). Pilate’s death was not merely an irresponsible act of judgment, but one that involved the collision of human kingdoms with God’s eschatological representative.

What’s more, from another angle, Pannenberg notes the representative character Israel and her Law bore in relation to the nations beyond its borders. Israel is a representative nation and her Law testified not only the particular covenant relationship of God with Israel, but of the moral relationship of the whole world to its Creator. All had fallen under the predicament of death as penalty for sin and Israel represented the world in this. And so, in this way Jesus truly did die “for all” (2 Cor. 5:14), “thereby effecting representation in the concrete form of a change of place between the innocent and the guilty” (ibid. 427).

Fourth, it must be noted that for Pannenberg, the “substitution” in question is not an “exclusive” one, but “inclusive.” Jesus death is, in a very real sense, for us and in our place. We don’t die that death on the cross, he does: “only he died completely forsaken” (Jesus-God and Man, 296). All the same, his death does not exclude our own or mean that we ourselves do not die. Rather, it means that by faith we are included in his death—our deaths are linked with his in such a way that he dies our death for us. In which case, our death no longer means exclusion from the presence of God, but contains the hope of resurrection life which is worked out even now in a life of righteousness (Rom. 6:13).

Each of these points can and should be worked out at length. What’s more, many of the fine-grained discussions of historical theology, Old Testament sacrificial texts, and so forth, which Pannenberg masterfully engages with remain unaddressed. All the same, it should become clear that for Pannenberg, penal substitution is no abstract doctrine disconnected from the history of Jesus, or his resurrection, but as Leithart comments, it’s a plot summary of the hinge events of the Gospels.

Hopefully this whets your appetite to dig into Pannenberg yourself. For all of Pannenberg’s oddities, its a nuanced, robust, orthodox presentation of Christ’s work of reconciliation that might spare us some of the worst mistakes made in popular preaching today.

Even more importantly, it should serve as a reminder that our doctrines are not abstractions floating free from time and space, but rather they serve us best as hermeneutical keys enabling us to understand more fully what the God who does exist beyond time and space has accomplished for us and our salvation through Christ in the midst of history.

Soli Deo Gloria


Three Mistakes to Avoid in Good Friday Preaching

Preaching “Christ and him crucified” is core to the job description of any minister of the Christian gospel (1 Corinthians 2:2).  Good Friday drives this home more than any other day in the church calendar. On that day, the preacher’s task is to proclaim and explain why the bloody spectacle of the Son of God murdered upon Golgotha is “good news.” How is this moral rupture the center of God’s great act of atonement–of God reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19)?
Christ’s cross itself has always provoked hostility and scorn whether among pagan Greeks or Jews and is, in many ways, no easier to stomach now than it was then; it still confronts us with our sins and bids the old Adam to come, submit to death, so that the New Adam may rise to new life. But that’s not the only difficulty involved.
The fact of the matter is that many have rightly recoiled at some of the defective ways pastors have preached the cross–especially its penal and substitutionary dimensions–in the past. When we make mistakes in this area, it’s easy to give people a distorted and destructive view of both God and the gospel. This is tragic. Both because we deprive people of the beauty of the cross, but also because, as C.S. Lewis points out, the more powerful and good something is, the more destructive it can be if it goes wrong. Much as a doctor cannot be careless in wielding a life-saving scalpel, so preachers cannot treat the preaching of the cross lightly or carelessly lest we bring death instead of life.
While there are a number of ways preaching the cross can go wrong, here are three key mistakes to avoid in your preaching of the cross this Good Friday.
You can read the rest of the article over at Reformation21.
Soli Deo Gloria


The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

crucifixion rutledgeWhy the cross? Why this particular, bloody, grotesque means of execution? Why was this the necessary mode of the Savior’s redemption of the human race? Why not a life, leading into old age and peaceful death leading into resurrection? Why the seemingly Godforsaken horror of it all? This is the motivating question at the heart of Fleming Rutledge’s masterful tome The Crucifixion: It’s Meaning and Significance. After over twenty years study, research, and meditation, Rutledge has delivered a stunning piece of theological and pastoral reflection on the cross of Christ.

I originally intended to work through it for my Lenten readings every morning (being far too addicted and Protestant to give anything up for Lent), and found myself running far ahead of my intended, daily page-count. It’s really a beautiful piece of theology.

Aimed at reinvigorating the dying tradition of “Good Friday” preaching of the Church, Rutledge sets herself the task of examining the cross of Christ in its various biblical, theological, historical, and social dimensions. In other words, while she engages at a fairly academic level at points, she’s not so much concerned with the academy, but with the pulpit—which is why the book is rich with illustrations and reflective sections interacting not only with historical and biblical theology, but with literature, poetry, and newspaper headlines. Essentially, it’s a work aimed at pastor-theologians.

In what follows, I’ll simply highlight what I take to be some of the significant features (both positive and negative) of the work and hope that gives you something of a feel for the whole.

Sin and sins

One of Rutledge’s chief concerns is to get her audience to reckon with the reality of sin. Coming out of the Episcopal mainline, this is unsurprising given the theological trajectory much of the church has taken over the last forty years or so. Rutledge is not dour, or morbid, but after years of preaching, teaching, advocating for justice (especially on social and racial fronts), she is not naïve about the pervasive wickedness and corruption of both human nature and human cultures. As one of the blurbs put it, she wants us to “get real” with ourselves, open our eyes and truly look at the world as it is, and reckon with our dire need for redemption. Her work is a bracing antidote to any last vestiges of cheap sentimentalism in our doctrine of humanity that would blind us to our need for the kind of salvation only a bloody cross can bring.

Connected to this, Rutledge doesn’t simply want us to recognize personal culpability and “sins”, but rather the Power of Sin. This is partially due to her heavy leaning on the “Apocalyptic” school associated with J.L Martyn, De Boer, and the Union School. For Rutledge, we need rescue from the Powers of Sin, Law (used by Sin), and Death. We are not only culpable, but captives, sold and bound under the dark dominion of evil that overwhelms us and keeps us oppressed in sin.

Deliverance AND Substitution

It is this sense that gives shape to Rutledge’s main argument, which I take to be the resituating of the “substitution” motif within an Apocalyptic understanding of the Christus Victor motif. Because she takes both sins and Sin seriously, she wants to take both of those master motifs and develop them as well.

When it comes to substitution, Rutledge does a fantastic job slowly, carefully, and piercingly drawing our attention to the problem of injustice in the world. Whether to apartheid in South Africa, the struggle for racial equality in the Civil Rights movement, child abuse scandals in the Catholic church, to the millions of petty, untold sins in our own lives, she forces us to deal with both the biblical and the theological need for satisfaction, for an atoning sacrifice, for a judgment that says no to a culture of impunity, to cheap grace, or the sort of “forgiveness” that makes a mockery of the victims of violence throughout history. What’s more, she does it in such a way that is appealing, not so much to theological conservatives, but to those with more progressive and liberal sensitivities. You might say that as someone who has taken the social gospel seriously, Rutledge knows that you need a more classic theology to undergird it.

But, of course, we need not just sacrifice but redemption. The Exodus is a good model here. In the Exodus, the Israelites received both atonement in the slaughter of the lambs at the Passover, but also redemption from the social, political, and yes, spiritual, powers of Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. Rutledge forcefully argues that the cross of Christ (and his resurrection) were at the heart of a liberation, a deliverance from the powers of Sin, the Law (as used by sin), Death, and the Devil. In him, we have a liberating “Lord”, who transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son, who frees us for his glorious service.

And these two halves point to the broader concept of righteousness and justification she embraces. Following much 20th Century scholarship, for Rutledge, God’s righteousness is his saving justice that is more than forensic, but also transformative and liberative. She translates “justification” as “rectification”—God’s justification of the ungodly, then, is not merely their forensic vindication, but their total deliverance from the Powers and their “setting right.”

This “rectification”, though, that comes by way of the cross and resurrection of Christ is not merely individualistic in nature. In this regard, she joins the choir of many other recent voices in proclaiming a “cosmic” salvation, in which God sets the whole world to rights through the Son in his cross, bringing about a New Creation, while the rectification of individual comes within that broader schema. Indeed, over and over again, Rutledge emphasizes the “cosmology” implied in Paul’s theology (because this is a heavily Pauline work), in regards to both the aim and the characters involved.

Multiple Motifs

Within those two broader motifs, Rutledge does a good job at trying to give voice to the broader range of New Testament motifs surrounding the death of Christ. Sacrifice, justification, ransom and redemption, Apocalyptic war, and the descent into Hell. In many ways, this is one of the chief strengths of the work. I would say, though, in comparing it to Jeremy Treat’s similar project The Crucified King, Rutledge’s treatment could have benefited from a more synthetic, redemptive-historically organized account.

While she is no Marcionite (she makes fantastic use of the Old Testament, connecting it to the New), there is something of an atomism, typical of much of the critical scholarship she draws on, at work in the treatment of the themes that could be integrated to greater effect. That seems to be something of a side-effect of her Apocalypticism which makes less use of unifying, covenantal themes, and places a greater emphasis on the disjunctive, in-breaking work of God. Again, though, overall, she’s got a very sensitive eye for the diversity of the New Testament witness to Christ’s work. There’s nothing reductionistic about it. And this, I think is probably because she’s not exclusively “Apocalyptic” in her orientation, but has a strong regard for certain traditional, Western exponents such as Anselm, Calvin, and others.  Still, I would probably add Treat’s work as a complementary one, in this regard.

The Problem of Theodicy

Given her concern with the necessity of the cross, justice, and sin, it’s no surprise that the question of theodicy is a running theme throughout the work. Indeed, much like the great theologian of “holy-love” P.T. Forsyth, Rutledge connects the cross with the issue of the “Justification of God.” There is much to commend in this regard. I will say, I had my qualms about this thread in her work, though, as it drinks quite deeply from the Dostoyevskian/Hart-style anti-theodicy. There seem to be some equivocations at work with respect to thinking about evil as “purposed” by God, or “part of God’s purposes” because of a failure to distinguish different senses of the will of God, the decree, and so forth.

Again, though, she does tap the breaks on the cheaper, hasty work of theodicy that we see all too often from the pulpit and the counselor’s office. So there is much benefit in the section.

Defending Substitution

One of the major sub-themes of Rutledge’s work is defending the substitutionary motif both against critics and misguided supporters. I have to say, her work here is simultaneously some of my favorite and least favorite segments. Connected to the themes of justice and God’s rejection of a culture of impunity, Rutledge has excellent discussions of the pastoral use of the doctrine of the wrath of God. She does fantastic work defending the different, mutually supporting elements of substitution and representation in Christ’s work. Also commendable is her repeated, careful emphasis on the perfectly and beautifully Trinitarian character of the Son’s cross-work. And I especially appreciated her exposition of Karl Barth’s contribution to the subject and the way his work can help us think more carefully about the notion of God’s agency in the cross, guarding against some of the more ham-handed expositions we’ve all heard.

That said, there were moments I thought she gave too much ground to the critics of “cruder” expositions of “penal substitution.” While there’s plenty right about those criticisms, I think there are not as many as Rutledge credits, or they don’t have quite the force she accords them. Also, her tendency to beat on the Post-Reformation Orthodoxy and their schematizing, propositionalizing, depersonalizing, etc. ways, grew a bit tiresome, but that’s probably just some of the Post-Barthian influence.

Overall, for those of us in more Reformed, Evangelical circles, it’s a very helpful exercise reading Rutledge’s defense of substitution within a church context that in many ways has left it by the wayside long ago.

Indeed, this could probably said about many of her discussions. Yes, there are tell-tale marks of the liberal tradition she’s engaged with that I just won’t agree with. For instance, Rutledge will follow Riceour on the nature of the Adam narrative (no historical Adam), and gesture towards either annihilationism or universalism in her discussion, all the while giving us a discussion of both radical evil and the realism of hell that’s still quite useful in pastoral conversations and preaching about the issues for those rejecting some of her premises. This is particularly relevant for more conservative readers since many of the theological tendencies Rutledge is speaking to are still with us and more widespread than simply the mainline.


Instead of wrapping up with my words, I figured I’d give you a taste of Rutledge’s own work drawn from her concluding summary:

The power of God to make right what has been wrong is what we see, by faith, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day. Unless God is the one who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist, there cannot be serious talk of forgiveness for the worst of the worst—the mass murderers, torturers, and serial killings—or even the least of the worst—the quotidian offenses against our common humanity that cause marriages to fail, friendships to end, enterprises to collapse, and silent misery to be the common lot of millions. “All for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.” This is what is happening on Golgotha.

All the manifold biblical images with their richness, complexity, and depth come together as one to say this: the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross of Christ. The “precious blood” of the Son of God is perfect sacrifice for sin; the ransom is paid to deliver the captives; the gates of hell are stormed; the Red Sea is crossed and the enemy drowned; God’s judgment has been executed upon Sin; the disobedience of Adam is recapitulated in the obedience of Christ; a new creation is coming into being; those who put their trust in Christ are incorporated into his life; the kingdoms of “the present age” are passing away and the promised kingdom of God is manifest not in triumphalist crusades, but in the cruciform witness of the church. From within “Adam’s” (our) human flesh, the incarnate Son fought with and was victorious over Satan—on our behalf and in our place. Only this power, this transcendent victory won by the Son of God, is capable of reorienting the kosmos to its rightful Creator. This is what the righteousness of God has achieved through the cross and resurrection, is now accomplishing by the power of the Spirit, and will complete in the day of Jesus Christ. (610-611)

That’ll preach.

Soli Deo Gloria