Sometimes Judgment is Mercy


At one point in his work Disturbing Divine Behavior, Eric Seibert presses his readers with a choice, “God either is or is not merciful” (173). If we decide God is merciful, then we should recognize that all texts involving violent judgment sit uncomfortably with that basic axiom.

At which point, we might realize it is wise to make a distinction as Seibert does between the “textual God” given in these violent narratives and the “actual God” who is merciful. You can have a coherent God or try to affirm all the contrasting portraits of God in Scripture, but you can’t do both.

W. Derek Suderman raises a number to telling criticisms of Seibert’s work (“Wrestling with Violent Depictions of God: A Response to Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior” Direction 40/2 [2011]), but the one I want to focus on is his complication of the matter of God’s mercy. He does so by pointing out the apparent contrast between the prophetic portrayals of God’s relationship to Nineveh in Nahum and Jonah.

The book of Jonah famously tells the story of God’s forgiveness–at least temporarily–of Nineveh in the face of their repentance. God threatens judgment, but then relents. Nahum, on the other hand, prophesies the Lord raining down judgment, fury, and violent destruction upon Nineveh for its iniquities, sins, and gross wickedness.

What’s funny is that both Jonah and Nahum appeal to God’s self-definition in Exodus 34:6-7. Jonah highlights the fact that he is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger” (Jonah 4:2), while Nahum notes that while he is “slow to anger”, he is “great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty” (Nahum 1:3). Both prophets are wrestling with what it looks like for the fullness of God’s character to be exercised and revealed in history.

Now, Suderman points out that against Seibert’s suggestion that we allow historical-critical criteria help us to discern the textual God versus the actual God, things don’t work out cleanly for him here. We know Nineveh and the Assyrians did actually have the hammer laid on them by the Babylonians. But that’s violent. Meanwhile, on a historical-critical read (which I’m not endorsing), Jonah is the historically more dubious prophecy–but it’s the nice, merciful God Seibert wants.

More than that, though, Suderman points out that the situation itself reveals how facile the choice between a God who either is or is not merciful is when posed with respect to God’s historical dealings. For one thing, mercy conceptually assumes the propriety of judgment. Second, consider the context of Nahum’s prophecy of judgment against the Assyrians: it is one of comfort and mercy for Israel!

This is what the Lord says:

“Although they have allies and are numerous,
they will be destroyed and pass away.
Although I have afflicted you, Judah,
I will afflict you no more.
Now I will break their yoke from your neck
and tear your shackles away.” (Nahum 1:12-13)

If God’s punishment upon Israel is the exile and judgment executed by the Assyrians, then the judgment of God upon Assyria is actually the exercise of mercy towards Israel. Judging Assyria is God’s way of breaking the yoke from their neck. The same thing can be seen in God’s mercy towards Judah after the Babylonian exile. Babylon had to be judged, to fall at the hands of Persia, for Israel’s salvation and rescue to come. Conversely, if God were to show mercy to Assyria and Babylon forever, he would never show mercy to the people of Israel who live under their boot.

The same tension is at work in many other texts in the Prophets and the Psalms. Consider Psalm 6, David cries out for God to have mercy upon him (v. 1), to save him from his afflictions, and by the end of the psalm we see that means turning back his enemies and putting them to shame (v. 10). God’s mercy upon David, hearing his cries and pleas, means working against his enemies.

In God’s dealings with Israel and the nations, then, it is not a simple matter of God being merciful or exercising punitive justice. Rather, the questions of whom, why, when, and how to show mercy all enter into the portrait. This is the work of merciful judgment. And at times, that merciful judgment looks like exercising punishment against oppressors.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tearing Evil Out At the Root

After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Psalmist famously ends Psalm 137 with these disturbing lines:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

Or again, in the middle of a prophesy against the Tyrant in Babylon, hear Isaiah 14:20b-21:

Let the offspring of the wicked
never be mentioned again.
Prepare a place to slaughter his children
for the sins of their ancestors;
they are not to rise to inherit the land
and cover the earth with their cities.


What do we do with such verses that seem to desire or prophesy the destruction of the children of the wicked as punishment? They seem bloodthirsty and an affront to justice, unfitting for God’s people. Perhaps they can be excused as the outburst of an angry populace who has suffered much violence, but why are they included in Scripture? How might Christians learn from them or approach them?

Dealing with these questions is too much for a short post, but Walter Brueggemann’s comments on the passage from Isaiah are illuminating:

The poem, however, is not yet finished when tyrant is incarcerated in the permanent land of the impotent. The poet looks past this former tyrant to the future. Such tyrannical clusters–dynasties, families, clans, organizations–have an amazing capacity for survival and reemergence. Always there is somewhere a hidden heir to the brutality who waits for a revival of power. Always there is a possible resurgence of barbarism. And so the poet is not content to carry the brutalizer to weakness. The heirs must be considered: the descendants of exploiters are prone to exploitation. For every Nebuchadrezzar, there is a neo-Nebuchadrezzar. Thus it is important that those now consigned to weakness should included all possible future carriers. The heirs must be obliterated. The sons must be executed. The name must be nullified (cf. Ps. 109:13). Steps must be taken to assure that the deathly possibility remains dead–to the third and fourth generations and forever. The permanent exclusion of the dynasty of abuse is the only sure way to guarantee that it will not happen again. (Isaiah 1-39, 132-133)

The language of prophecy aimed at the heirs of oppressors and destroyers of God’s people, such as Nebuchadrezzar, evinces a certain historical and moral realism that most of us trained in Western individualist societies often overlook. Evil and oppression are not merely matters of individuals, but systems and social inheritances. And the poor and oppressed who have seen their families ground into the dust by the sword cannot be blind to these realities.

The prayers, then, are not necessarily about overkill, or simple tit-for-tat vengeance against the possibly innocent children (esp. Ps. 137) of their enemies. They are testimonies to the depth of evil, as well as a hope that lies beyond the temporary reprieves from violence we receive in history. They are prophecies about the Lord eradicating evil by tearing it up at the root, not merely chopping down its largest branches.

This does not address the problem entirely, of course. We still need to decide whether this language is hyperbolic, where and when it is fulfilled by the Lord, and especially how we relate to it as Christians on this side of the cross and resurrection. How might Christians who serve a God who gave his own Son to be executed for the sins of his ancestors read this text for today? But whichever way we go, we cannot simple write off these prophecies as the perverse deliverances of a benighted people long dead. Somehow, by the Spirit of God, they speak to us about the end of evil today.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wrath-talk is Justice-Talk in Ezekiel (And in the Cross)

I have been reading Ezekiel in my devotions of late and I must say, the prophet has some of the most furious and instructive passages on the wrath and judgment of God in all of Scripture. While many texts extol the Lord’s coming salvation and eschatological restoration of Israel, few proclamations of judgment against Israel and her enemies are fiercer than Ezekiel’s (or the descriptions of her violent idolatry more grotesque, for that matter).

Consider a few snippets:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to the land of Israel:

“‘The end! The end has come
upon the four corners of the land!
The end is now upon you,
and I will unleash my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.
I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
I will surely repay you for your conduct
and for the detestable practices among you. (7:1-4)

I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered—with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath. 35 I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations and there, face to face, I will execute judgment upon you. 36 As I judged your ancestors in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will judge you, declares the Sovereign Lord. (20:34-36)

30 “I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one. 31 So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (22:30-31)

14 “‘I the Lord have spoken. The time has come for me to act. I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent. You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares the Sovereign Lord.’” (24:14)

17 I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them.’” (25:17)

The first text from chapter 7 can stand for the whole. It’s worth examining a few elements of the judgment of God upon Israel.

First, God’s judgment is “according to your conduct” and is a repayment “for all your detestable practices.” These phrases are repeated in the passage to be underlined. This characteristic is also present in most of the other passages. In that sense, it is retributive, and in kind. This fits with the principle of retribution articulated throughout Torah. There is no hint of arbitrariness, sinful vindictiveness, or overkill. God will, at worst, only bring “down on their own heads all they have done.

Second, especially in the first passage, you can note that despite God declaring “I will have no pity” and “I will not spare you”, these are acts of judgment long in the works. Now, finally, after much waiting, much excuse-making, much leniency, “the time has come to act.” God has been patient. At one point, he was looking for someone to stand in the gap, to build a wall, but when no one was found, he said “enough is enough.” The rhetoric of fury should not deceive us here or mislead us into picturing God has prone to anger, or liable to fly off the hook.

Third, there is a very clear conceptual and linguistic collocation of the judgment and punishment of God with the wrath and anger of God. For God to punish and judge sin is for him to execute, expend, and pour out his wrath and anger. They are two sides of the same coin, speaking of the same reality in a different idiom. Or rather, they are dimensions of the same reality. God’s wrath is a way of speaking of the retributive dimension of God’s justice in an affective register, as a matter of his will, inclination, and action connected to his moral character.

This is why the old Dogmaticians would say things like:

God’s anger is an excellence of his own essence, by which it is so displeased with sin, as it is inclined to punish the sinner; or a settled and unchangeable resolution to punish sinners according to their sin. (Edward Leigh, A Treatise of Divinity, II.ix)

Or again:

What must we understand by anger in God?

Not any passion, perturbation, or trouble of the mind as it is in us, but this word Anger when it is attributed to God in the Scriptures signifieth three things.

[ 1] First, a most certain and just decree in God to punish and avenge such injuries as are offered to himself, and to his Church; and so it is understood, John 3. 36. Rom. 1. 18.

[ 2] Secondly, the threatening these punishments and revenges, as in Psal. 6. 1. Hos. 11. 9. Jonah 2. 9.

[ 3] Thirdly, the punishments themselves, which God doth execute upon ungodly men, and these are the effects of his anger, or of his decree to punish them; so it is taken in Rom. 2. 5. Mat. 3. 7. Eph. 5. 6. (James Ussher, A Body of Divinitie)

That last quote, in particular, shows a care in paying attention to the manifold nature of Scripture’s attribution of wrath to God. Sometimes it speaks to his inner disposition of justice, other times to his public threat of it, and at times to his public administration of it. And this is all consistent with what we see in these texts in Ezekiel. And indeed, one could go ahead and reproduce the same logic elsewhere in the prophets and the rest of Scripture.

Now, where am I going with all of this?

Well, one objection I see in disputes on penal substitution is that no verse explicitly states that Christ suffers the wrath of God poured out upon him. And this even from some who admit that there is a penal and legal dimension to the cross.

While I would argue that there are some texts which could be read as implying this (“let this cup pass”, Rom. 3:25, 1 John 2:2, etc.), I simply want to note that in Scriptural thought, to speak of the judgment, or punishment, or condemnation of God, is to speak of the wrath of God. If in Christ, “he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), so that there is now “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), it’s roughly theologically equivalent to saying, “he poured out his wrath in the flesh,” so now there is “no wrath for those in Christ Jesus.” These concepts are irrefragably bound up together.

As always, there’s more to say. I’ll conclude by noting again that to speak of a doctrine as “Biblical” does not always mean “there’s a verse that directly spells out this exact idea.” Often it involves gathering together various Scriptural judgments into synthetic wholes which flow as “good and necessary consequence” from the text. Much of our Trinitarian and Christological doctrine works this way. Why imagine the atonement would be any different?

Soli Deo Gloria

Irenaeus and the Problem of (Greater) New Testament Wrath

kotskoIn his stimulating work The Politics of Redemption (88), Adam Kotsko calls attention to a fascinating, if a bit counter-intuitive, passage on the judgment of God in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. We encounter it in a series of chapters written against the Marcionites and their criticism of the violence and judgment of the Old Testament God. Ireneaus will have none of it. He argues in several chapters that God authored both testaments and displays the same character in both testaments, including the righteousness leading to wrath and judgment.

Here Kotsko calls attention to the way Irenaeus “revers[es] the normal stereotypes of the Old and New Testament.” Ireneaus goes further than many and argues that–if anything–the problem of wrath is worse after Christ:

Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God [displayed] when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, and more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, and more rigidly: for the fire is eternal, and the wrath of God which shall be revealed from heaven from the face of our Lord (as David also says, “But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth”), entails a heavier punishment on those who incur it — the elders pointed out that those men are devoid of sense, who, [arguing] from what happened to those who formerly did not obey God, do endeavour to bring in another Father, setting over against [these punishments] what great things the Lord had done at His coming to save those who received Him, taking compassion upon them; while they keep silence with regard to His judgment; and all those things which shall come upon such as have heard His words, but done them not, and that it were better for them if they had not been born, (Matthew 26:24) and that it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the judgment than for that city which did not receive the word of His disciples. (Matthew 10:15)

(Against Heresies, IV.1)

Even those of us who are not Marcionites, or try to avoid pitting an angry, Old Testament God against a loving New Testament God, tend to see a softening in the portrait from Old to New. But Irenaeus thinks that, if anything, the judgment we see in the Old Testament is lighter, being partial, limited, and therefore mitigated. Instead, in the New Testament Jesus himself threatens that the judgment of God waiting for those who reject him is worse than it was for those in Sodom and Gomorrah.

The problem of New Testament wrath, then, is at least two-fold. First, now that more revelation is available in Christ, there is less excuse for the hard-hearted wickedness of the disobedient. To disobey and shun righteousness now, to not believe the Word of God now, is to “despise his advent,” which merits a greater punishment. The logic here is similar to (though not exactly) that of the author of Hebrews who says:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Heb. 6:4-6)

Or again, he quotes Paul in speaking of the Heretics who reject God’s word:

For the apostle does also say in the Second [Epistle] to the Corinthians: “For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them which are saved, and in them which perish: to the one indeed the savour of death unto death, but to the other the savour of life unto life.” (2:15-16) To whom, then, is there the savour of death unto death, unless to those who believe not neither are subject to the Word of God? And who are they that did even then give themselves over to death?

Second, not only is the responsibility level higher, the stakes are higher. Ireneaus looks to Jesus and says, “For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, in the everlasting fire,’ (Matt. 25:41), these shall be damned forever,” just as those who heed his word are saved forever. Again, the Old Testament judgments were often temporal and limited, but Christ speaks of the absolute finality of eternal wrath and judgment.

Given my continuing interest with the problem of continuity between the testaments, judgment, and wrath, I want to point out a few things.

First, Ireneaus’ logic here is entirely driven by Scripture and Christ. I note this against Kotsko who seeks to find an explanation for Ireneaus’s non-universalist views, given his understanding of God as a non-violent, “saving being.” Kotsko suggests that Ireneaus is understandably frustrated at the perversity of his opponent teachers who are “culpably stupid,” “unpersuadable,” and seem “impervious to reason,” because “if people cannot accept the gospel, there is simply no hope for them.” Irenaeus, therefore, inconsistently ends up demonizing his opponents, mired in wicked unreason and deceiving others just as the Devil does, leaving God a perpetrator of the greatest exclusion and violence imaginable.

Now, that some of this is part of Ireneaus’s logic seems clear. But contra Kotsko, this is not a logic fueled by mere frustration. It is rather one he derives explicitly from both Old and New Testaments, but most clearly from the words of Christ himself and the unique, epoch-transitioning work of the Incarnation of the Son. Only the assumption that Ireneaus was retroactively applying texts to fit a logic derived independently of them (an assumption belied by Irenaeus’s programmatic attention to the authority of Scripture), could lead one to miss this point. Ireneaus, therefore, seems to define the peace and salvific nature of God according to the historical works of God revealed in Scripture.

Second, it is worth noting that, much as with Cyril of Alexandria, Ireneaus takes a cue from Christ’s words and assumes that God is the active agent of judgment in both the Old Testament as well as in eternity. And this is born out in the several chapters surrounding this one.

Third, it is common to some advocates of revisionist approaches to the Old Testament that you can more commonly find Church Fathers accepting OT passages of active, divine judgment and wrath at face value, post-Constantine, largely because the Church became accommodated to the ways of Empire and power. I simply want to note that Ireneaus of Lyons (along with Tertullian and arguably Lactantius) places a very large question-mark on that thesis.

Irenaeus was not a comfortable 5th Century bishop. No, he was a 2nd Century bishop who wrote this work around 180 AD. He died around 202 AD. This is long before (100 years or so), before the rise of Constantine or the birth of the Imperial Church. He was alive for the persecution of the Church under Marcus Aurelius. He succeeded the prior bishop at Lyon because he was martyred for the faith. Ireneaus was manifestly not someone who had been rendered comfortable with the notion of divine, active judgment because of his desensitization to the violent, coercive ways of Empire.

Instead, it seems better to recognize that Ireneaus read the Bible the way he did, and posed the problem the way he did, precisely because as a biblical theologian (arguably the first), he was radically attentive to the unity of God’s works and ways in the economy of salvation. Much as we ought to be.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Trinity in the Destruction of Sodom (Or, the Weirdest Argument for Consubstantiality of the Son)

Reading the Church Fathers on Scripture can be illuminating, surprising, and sometimes weird. This is part of what’s so fun about reading them. They come to the text of Scripture from a different time and place, with slightly different questions, exegetical instincts, and theological approaches, which present a question and a challenge to our own. I was reminded of this when diving into a little of Cyril of Alexandria’s work on the Gospel of John.

The Patriarch Cyril is best-known for his polemic against Nestorius and the central role he played in Christological controversies which leading up to the Council of Chalcedon (at which point Cyril was dead). Many will have read his little work On the Unity of Christ, which is what I have. I was not aware, though, that his commentary on the Gospel of John was translated until recently (Brandon Crowe quotes it in his excellent book The Last Adam). On a whim I looked it up and found online for free because, well, Cyril of Alexandria. Anyways, I started poking around and stumbled on one of the oddest bits of trinitarian reasoning I’ve read in one of the Fathers.

It comes in his comments on John 1:1, “and the Word was with God”, in his chapter arguing that the Son is consubstantial with the Father and therefore God in his own person. The trouble he’s dealing with specifically is the oddity of thinking of the Son as properly God but somehow also being “with God”, alongside him. Cyril proceeds to explain how this is so by commenting on various relevant Scriptures you might expect him to. For example, see this entirely unsurprising bit on John 14:

Consubstantial is the Son with the Father and the Father with the Son, wherefore They arrive at an unchangeable Likeness, so that the Father is seen in the Son, the Son in the Father, and Each flashes forth in the Other, even as the Saviour Himself says, He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father, and again, I in the Father and the Father in Me. But even though He be in the Father, and have again the Father in Him, Himself full well, as has been already said, perfectly exact unto the Form of Him Who begat Him, and depicting again in Himself without any shortcome, the Father whence He is:—-not therefore will He be deprived of His separate existence, nor will the Father lose His own special Being; but neither will the surpassing Likeness and Resemblance work any confusion of Persons, so that the Father Who begat and the Son Who is Begotten of Him should be considered as one in number. But sameness of Nature will be confessed of Both, yet the Individual Existence of Each will surely follow, so that both the Father should be conceived of as indeed Father, and the Son as Son. For thus, the Holy Ghost being numbered with them and counted as God, the Holy and Adorable Trinity will have Its Proper Fullness.

Alright, so far so classic Trinitarian. It doesn’t get more basic than Jesus’ discourses in the Gospel of John.

Now, jump down six or seven texts and we arrive at this fascinating bit of exegesis of Genesis 19:24:

Another. The Divine Scripture says that the cities of the Sodomites were burned by the Anger of God, and explaining how the Divine wrath was brought upon them, and clearly describing the mode of the destruction, The Lord, it says, rained upon Sodom brimstone and fire from, the Lord, since this too is the portion of the cup most befitting those who are wont to commit such sins. What Lord then from what Lord sent the fire on and consumed the cities of the Sodomites? It is clear that it was the Father Who worketh all things through the Son, since He is too His Might and His Arm, Who caused Him to rain the fire upon the Sodomites. Since therefore the Lord sends the fire from the Lord upon them, how is not the Father Other, in respect to His own Being, than the Son,, and the Son again than the Father? For the One is here signified as being from One.

I have to admit, Sodom and Gomorrah is not one of my top 10 go-to texts in proving the distinction-within-unity of the persons of the Godhead.

Still, the text is illuminating for a number of reasons. First, Cyril picks up on a real oddity in the repetition of the LORD twice in the verse. Calvin suggest the repetition emphasizes the God’s agency. Robert Alter says its a repetition of emphasis as well, but he focuses on connecting the phrase, “from the heavens” which links it to the destruction of the Flood. Gordon Wenham doesn’t comment on that repetition, but right before it he notes that the whole passage is riddled with ambiguities “the LORD”, “the men”, and “the angels” in chapter 18, but here in chapter 19 and in the encounter in, it is clear one represents or is the LORD, the Angel of the YHWH.

It seems, then, Cyril is picking up the Angel of YHWH reading and suggesting the repetition indicates something about the complexity of the agency of the One God being depicted. The argument depends on the doctrine of inseparable operations and its corollary: the outward works of the Trinity are undivided, but that doesn’t mean the persons are indistinguishable or confused in them either. In the incarnation, Father, Son, and Spirit are at work, but only the Son is incarnate and so forth. Cyril discerns a distinction of activity here as well.

Connecting this to the broader Patristic habit of seeing an order to the works of the economy as proceeding from the Father, through the Son, and perfected in the Spirit, Cyril focuses on the fact that all of God the Father’s works are “through the Son”, whom he has identified with the Angel of YHWH. And so, when “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven”, we should understand that it is the Son who rains down fire on Sodom from the Father.

Weirder still is that while in other places the Fathers might describe the Son as the Wisdom of God, or the Power of God, by which he acts, it seems Cyril may be identifying him as the “Anger” of God, or God at work in the execution of his judgment against Sodom. (Though, it could be the capitalization in the translation is misleading me here.)

In any case, the point is that Cyril wants us to see that while the text is clear that while there is an overall unity to the act of judgment as that of the One God, there is a distinction in the agency implying an internal otherness appropriate to the two persons of Father and Son. There is one Judgement, but it comes through the Son from the Father.

Turning a bit from “trinitarian” issues, it’s worth noting that Cyril sees no problem reading the affair at Sodom and Gomorrah as an instance of active divine judgment and retributive punishment, with no mediators involved. We have here a deeply Christological exegesis which places the Son plainly at the center of the Old Testament text, but does so by making him the active agent of judgment in God burning a city to the ground. Suffice it to say this is markedly different from other recent proposals for relating Jesus to Old Testament violence. Though, it does seem consistent with Paul’s reading in 1 Corinthians 10.

At which point, it’s worth reiterating that this isn’t some weirdo outlier. This is Cyril of Alexandria, revered Patriarch, central figure in formulating and consolidating the Christological Orthodoxy for the whole Church, East and West. Now, you may be unconvinced by his reading (and I’m not sure I buy it myself),  but it does present a striking instance of the way the Fathers often don’t fit our popular expectations on these matters, which are often shaped by 20th Century prejudices, Eastern polemics, or recent progressivish retrievals.

Now, I don’t really have a big point here except that sometimes you find odd, things reading the Fathers. Though, I suppose the next time you’re teaching on the Trinity, maybe consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Soli Deo Gloria

Jesus, the Resurrected Judge, Lives in Power

paul the judgeThis morning I ran across an unnerving bit of text at at the end of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. He has just spent a number of chapters encouraging their faithfulness, defending his ministry, and now he turns to warning them to put away sin before he arrives to visit:

This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you. (2 Cor. 13:1-4)

Though we’re not at Pentecost and the Ascension yet, we have just recently celebrated the resurrection of Christ. Christ is no longer dead, but alive. The Lamb who was slain does not hang on the cross into eternity, though he bears its marks as a risen champion (Rev. 5).

In so many ways, this is good news. Death is defeated. Hope is established. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh. The Church is born. The first-fruits of the New Age have broken in. Christianity is not simply a death-cult memorializing a fallen mortal. We have a living Messiah to commune with through the Spirit. If we are in Christ, we have so much to rejoice in this resurrection season.

While this is true, Peter Leithart points out that Jesus’ resurrection is still mixed news:

Jesus’ resurrection is still the best news and the worst news. It’s the best news for those who share His cross. But for those who set up those crosses, a risen Jesus is something from a horror movie.

But Paul’s words here remind us of another dimension to the mixed news of resurrection: we have a living Lord and Judge who is able to hold his people to account. As he says, though he was crucified in weakness, Jesus is currently alive with divine power. He is at work even now among the Corinthians, and if you look at the context, it is in judging and cleansing sin and unrighteousness among them.

This isn’t a unique theme in this letter. Paul hints at the same thing in 1 Corinthians 11, with judgment over false participation in the Lord’s Supper, there in a more direct fashion. Also in the matter of the man in incest with his mother-in-law, where Paul pronounces judgment in the power of the Lord, the Living Christ is at work through Paul and the congregation (1 Cor. 5:3-4). Peter also hints at this with his warning that judgment will begin with the household of God (1 Pet. 4:17). But we see it more powerfully and clearly in the letters of Revelation 1-3.

There, we have a resurrected, glorified Christ, brilliant with the light of righteousness, warning his churches to be faithful, to recover their love, to reject sexual immorality, to care for the poor, and shun false doctrine. And if not? He will come and remove their lampstands, extinguishing their light as churches (Rev. 2:5).

Of course, in the long run, this is still the goodness of God at work. He is alive and powerful among us to discipline as a father does his children (Heb. 12:7). Christ’s holiness means that he loves us enough to not leave us as we are. It is the consuming fire which burns away the dross of impurity and sin in order to leave us shining like stars (Phil. 2:15).

And while this is initially uncomfortable, it is for our good. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness” (12:10). This is glorious since “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (12:14). 

Still, it is healthy to remember, “he is not weak in dealing with you.” The resurrected Christ is alive with divine power and he will not leave you to your sin.

Soli Deo Gloria



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 an N.T. Wright fan since I was 20, or about 10 years now. During that time 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 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. 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. It’s reminiscent of Douglas Campbell’s “Justification Theory”, an amalgamated construct of errors cobbled together to set up as a foil for his own reading of Paul, which Wright rightly 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, where 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 saying what he does not mean 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 doesn’t want to tell a story about an angry, vindictive deity who is annoyed 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. Which is fine. None of us should.

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 flirts with them at points, but at points he still says very clearly that 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.

The problem begins when you see that his account of divine agency in punishment gets fuzzy. 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 very 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.