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)

Conclusion

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.

 

Mere Fidelity: Christmas v. Advent?

Mere FidelityMerry Christmas! Well, presuming that you haven’t had N.T. Wright steal away your Christmas fun. The usual crew shows up this week to discuss this article by Peter Leithart (a self-proclaimed Grinch of sorts). In a sense, what do we gain and what do we lose when we start to pit the Christmas of Faith against the Nativity of History? Is it Christmas v. Advent? Do our cultural expansions of the Christmas stories add or detract from our understanding of what happened all those years ago?

We hope this conversation deepens your Christmas reflections as it has ours.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement (500th Post)

christ-on-the-cross-1587The cross of Christ has always been a scandal and an offense. As a symbol of social shame in the Greco-Roman world, the idea of a Crucified God elicited scorn from the cultured elites. For 1st Century Jews, a crucified Messiah was a nonsensical contradiction in terms. Even today, speaking of Jesus’ death as the saving center of history provokes a quizzical response both in the pews and the marketplace. Beyond that, there has been a wide variety of debate around just how Jesus’ death saves us within the church itself. Historically, there has been no binding ecumenical statement on the issue comparable to those on of the Trinity and the person of Christ. The result is that many different approaches to explaining the way the death Christ exercises a saving function in the economy of the Triune God.

Though widely-held by Evangelicals and Protestants of all stripes (and even some Catholics like H.U Von Balthasar), among the most controversial views is that of “penal substitution” or “penal representation”, PSA for short (penal substitutionary atonement). At its heart, the idea is that Jesus’ death on the cross was the divine means of dealing and dispensing with the guilt incurred by sinners who have rebelled against the true God. Humanity through its sin violated the divine law, wrecking God’s intended shalom, bringing down condemnation upon them, and alienating them from proper relationship with God. God being just as well as loving and merciful sends the Son, Jesus, as an innocent, representative person, the Godman, to take responsibility for human sin and suffer punishment on behalf of sinners. Or rather, he suffers the legal consequences of sinners, the judgment and just wrath of God against sin, thereby relieving them of guilt, bringing about reconciliation. Roughly.

As with just about any idea in theology, there has been no little confusion around this issue, provoking a number of criticisms and responses over the years. Now, I happen to be convinced on the basis of Scripture that some form of penal substitution is at the heart of Jesus’ saving work on the cross. I thought it might be helpful, then, to have some sort of post dedicated to listing and answering most of the standard objections against the doctrine, as well as engaging some of the modern objections against it. Mind you, this post is not intended to be extensive in every sense. I will not and cannot go into detailed exegetical arguments establishing the doctrine according to a number of key texts, nor establishing the long-range biblical theology that undergirds it. I think the case is there, but I will point you to resources for that along the way and at the bottom of the post.

That said, I do want to engage some of the broadly theological objections against it, as well as correct popular caricatures of the doctrine along the way. I have to say that a number of the issues that people have with penal substitution are quite understandable when you consider some of the silliness that passes for biblical preaching on the subject in popular contexts. Those who affirm the doctrine as true and beautiful do our hearers no benefit when we defend misshapen, caricatured versions of the doctrine. I’ll try to do my best to avoid that in what follows.

First Principles

A few principles will serve to ground the rest of the discussion.

First, many problems arise when advocates treat penal substitution as a totalizing theory of atonement set against Christus Victor or moral influence, or some other kind of atoning action. Proponents all-too-often hold it up as “The One Atonement Theory To Rule Them All”, as one friend put it. Instead, I’ve already argued before that all of these “theories” are more properly seen as containing insights into various aspects and angles of one great work of atonement. I do think there is a place for ordering these elements logically, and penal substitution is something of a lynchpin here, but there is no excuse for downplaying or ignoring the other themes. For more on this, see here and here.

Second, one important principle to observe is that when it comes to theology “abuse does not forbid proper use.” In other words, because the doctrine has been misused in the past, that doesn’t mean it cannot be properly taught or deployed again. Virtually any can be and has been abused at some point. Growing up Evangelical, I’ve certainly seen distortions and caricatures of the doctrine. We should be prepared to find, though,  despite the distortions, there is a properly biblical truth to be held on to here.

Well, with those caveats out of the way, let’s get to it, shall we?

1. Critics often allege that penal substitution is anti-trinitarian in that it pits an angry Father punishing a loving Son, introducing a false split in the Godhead. While this can happen in popular preaching, when it comes to the tradition, this charge is manifestly false. Penal substitution is inherently trinitarian in that it follows the best Patristic pattern of thought in seeing atonement as the work of the whole Trinity. All trinitarian action begins with the Father, is accomplished through the Son, and perfected by the Spirit. In a properly-trinitarian PSA the Father hands over the Son, while the Son willingly offers himself up in obedience to the Father, and he does so through the empowering work of the Spirit.  It is a costly work of love and sacrifice that posits no split purposes within the Godhead, but only one redemptive plan born of mutual love and mercy towards sinners.

Also, contrary to popular mischaracterizations, the Father never hates the Son, but always looks on the Son in love, even while the Son suffers the penal consequences of sin in place of sinners. Calvin says as much:

Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom his heart reposed” [cf. Matthew 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” [cf. Isaiah 53:5] by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God. –Institutes, II.xvi.11

In fact, it is precisely because of the Son’s willingness to suffer on their behalf that the Father loves the Son (John 10:18). What’s more, classically, advocates of PSA have also held to divine simplicity, thereby ruling out tout court any thought of a split in the Godhead. All of the best exponents hold this up from Calvin all the way to J.I. Packer and John Stott. For more, see Thomas McCall’s excellent little book Forsaken on this.

2. Others charge that PSA has God directly “killing”Jesus. Alternatively, in another version, the charge is that if PSA is true, then the mobs who crucified Jesus were doing God’s will. There are a number of issues with these charges. The first, and most obvious, is that it rejects the appropriateness of distinguishing divine intention from human one. If God “wills” the death of Jesus in any sense, he is a killer, or murderer, or we have no room to say that the Romans were guilty of a crime because they were only doing God’s will at that point. However, biblical thought is not that cramped.

Instead, we are trained by Scripture to see God and humanity working at different levels with different aims at their own level of being. In other words, God’s being and activity is not “univocal” but “analogical” with ours. God is Creator and so he does not operate on the same level of being as we do. His purposes for history are different than ours, even in the same events of history. As Joseph tells his brothers of their sinful actions in selling him into slavery, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.” God might will an action or an event for a good reason, concurring and allowing human actions, even while the humans perpetrating it are doing so for evil reasons that God does not share. This is sort of thing is common throughout the Old Testament. Various events of judgment such as the Exile at the hand of the Assyrians and Babylonians are both the wicked work of evil empires, all the while being God’s own judgment through them. It is clear from the biblical witness at numerous points that God intends Jesus’ (indeed his own!) death on the cross (John 12:27; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). Most of the exegetical gymnastics at this point are simply astounding. To reject the cross as divinely-intended in some sense is to simply reject the witness of the Gospels, Paul, Hebrews, and Jesus himself who says that these things “must” (dei) happen to fulfill Scripture.

3. Related to the last claim, PSA has been infamously referred to as “Divine Child Abuse” and charged with encouraging victims of abuse, especially women, to identify with models of passive, redemptive suffering in imitation of the Son. Let me say at the outset, if there are people who have suffered under preaching that encourages women, children, or anyone else to passively suffer under the abuse of the violent, I am deeply sorry to hear this. This is a gross distortion of Christian doctrine that I strongly repudiate. Penal substitution properly preached does not encourage that kind of passive submission to abuse.

First, I would point out that the abuse the Son suffers is at human hands. The Father does not abuse the Son, though it is by God’s will that he suffers in this fashion. Remember that divine and human intentionality need to be distinguished here. Second, it also teaches that the Son’s work is uniquely redemptive. Moreover, this point is important. Not everything that God does in Christ is strictly imitable. You cannot create reality out of nothing. You cannot pour the Spirit out into creation. You are not the Eternal Son who is going save anyone by suffering that abuse. Your abuse is not atoning in the least bit. It is a sin against you and God is very angry with it. In fact, God’s judgment on the cross is a testimony to his judgment against abuse and injustice.

Still, there is a place for self-denial and cross-bearing in the Christian life. This is simply a matter of the biblical record and at the heart of Jesus’ own path of discipleship.  However, with every piece of biblical insight, there needs to be careful, wise application. Paul tells us that we can serve Christ in whatever station we find ourselves in, but there’s nothing wrong with getting your freedom if you can (1 Cor. 7). There is nothing in PSA that requires us to passively endure abuse in imitation of Christ. What’s more, if anything, PSA properly though through ought to be deployed as a testimony of the non-selfish, sacrificial life of all, including men, or anyone else in authority ought to lead in their dealings with others.

Finally, and this is crucial, in PSA the Son is not some weak child subject to an all-dominating Father. He is the Eternal Son who willingly and authoritatively laid down his life, offering himself up through the Spirit. The Son is an active, willing adult. No one takes his life from him, but he lays it down willingly (Mk. 10:45; Lk. 23:46; John 10:11, 15, 17-18; 13:1; Gal. 2:20). He heroically gives up his life for others and is not simply a victim of violent forces beyond his control.

4. Classically, some have objected that PSA is morally repugnant because moral guilt is not transferable. It is wicked to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. In response to this, some have noted that some forms of debt are transferable. People can pay off each other’s financial debts all the time. Why not Christ? Well, as long as it is thought of financially, yes, that seems unproblematic. But moral debt seems different and non-transferable. We are not usually supposed to punish the guilty in the place of the innocent. At this point, it seems that a few things ought to be made clear.

First, Jesus is the Christ, not just any other person. Christ is not just a name; it is a title meaning “Messiah”, the Anointed King. In the biblical way of thinking, kings of nations stood in a special representative relationship with their people. As N.T. Wright says, when you come to the phrase “In the Messiah” in the NT, then, you have to think “what is true of the King, was true of the people.” So, if the King won a victory, then so did the people, and so forth. The King was able to assume responsibility for the fate of a people in a way that no other person could. This is the underlying logic at work in the Bible text. We do not think this way because we are modern, hyper-individualists, but he is the one in whom his people are summed up.

Though sadly this gets left out of many popular accounts of PSA, this is actually what classic, Reformed covenant theology is about.  Jesus occupies a unique moral space precisely as the mediator of the new covenant relationship. Most people cannot take responsibility for the guilt of others in such a way that they can discharge their obligations on their behalf. Jesus can because he is both God and Man, and the New Adam, who is forging a new relationship between humanity and God. This, incidentally, is just a variation on Irenaeus’ theology of recapitulation (re-headship). As all die in Adam, so all are given life in Christ (Rom. 5:12-20). If Christ dies a penal death for sins, then those who are in Christ die that death with him (2 Cor 5:14). His relationship is, as they say, sui generis, in its own category.

This is where modern, popular analogies drawn from the lawcourt fail us. We ought not to think of Christ dying to deal with the sins of people as some simple swap of any random innocent person for a bunch of guilty people. It is the death of the King who can legally represent his people in a unique, but appropriate fashion before the bar of God’s justice. He is our substitute because he is our representative. Strictly speaking there are no proper analogies, but there is a moral logic that is deeply rooted in the biblical narrative.

5. Some say that any idea of justice must not be retributive, but only restorative. It is repugnant to think that justice must include some tit for tat “balancing of the moral scales.” I would first point out that pittingretribution against restoration is a false dichotomy. Retribution has claims of its own alongside distributive and restorative concerns when it comes to a broader, holistic biblical account of justice. Theologians such as Miroslav Volf, Oliver O’Donovan, and Garry Williams have pointed out that in the biblical record, retribution is not merely about getting payment for a debt, but about naming evil. Judgment is about calling evil what it is, as well as giving it what it deserves. According to the Scriptures, a God who does not name evil, and does not treat it as it deserves is not good. Quite frankly, it is impossible to screen out any notion of retribution from the biblical account without simply chopping out verses and narrative wholesale.

Herman Bavinck establishes quite clearly the retributive principle in Scripture and worth quoting at length:

…retribution is the principle and standard of punishment throughout Scripture. There is no legislation in antiquity that so rigorously and repeatedly maintains the demand of justice as that of Israel. This comes out especially in the following three things: (1) the guilty person may by no means be considered innocent (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; 24:24; Isa. 5:23); (2) the righteous may not be condemned (Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Pss. 31:18; 34:21; 37:12; 94:21; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23); and (3) the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the day laborer, the widow, and the orphan especially may not be perverted but, on the contrary, must be upheld for their protection and support (Exod. 22:21f.; Deut. 23:6; 24:14, 17; Prov. 22:22; Jer. 5:28; 22:3, 16; Ezek. 22:29; Zech. 7:10). In general, justice must be pursued both in and outside the courts (Deut. 16:20). All this is grounded in the fact that God is the God of justice and righteousness, who by no means clears the guilty, yet is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger, and upholds the rights of the poor and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan (Exod. 20:5–6; 34:6–7; Num. 14:18; Ps. 68:5; etc.). He, accordingly, threatens punishment for sin (Gen. 2:17; Deut. 27:15f.; Pss. 5:5; 11:5; 50:21; 94:10; Isa. 10:13–23; Rom. 1:18; 2:3; 6:21, 23; etc.) and determines the measure of the punishment by the nature of the offense. He repays everyone according to his or her deeds (Exod. 20:5–7; Deut. 7:9–10; 32:35; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Isa. 35:4; Jer. 51:56; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:1–13; Heb. 10:30; Rev. 22:12).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pp. 162-163

For those interested in following up, it’s instructive to peruse Bavinck’s Scripture references, to see they are not merely proof-texts. Upon examination, one is struck by the massive amount of biblical material that has to be reinterpreted or shunted to the side in order to screen out the retributive principle. (Also, for those who have access, the entire section examining justice, retribution, and punishment is worthwhile.)

Also, it should be said here that the judgment of the cross is not simply about God matching up ounces of suffering according to some pecuniary punishment scale. It is about Jesus suffering the final, ultimate judgment of alienation on our behalf. Instead of thinking about it in terms of units of suffering matching up for sins, think of it in terms of total exile and alienation. Sin ultimately alienates and cuts us off from God in a total sense. We reject God and so in his judgment God names and answers our sin by handing us over to the fate we have chosen: exile from the source of all good, life, and joy, which is simply death and hell. This is what Jesus suffers on the cross on our behalf. He takes that situation of total alienation and damnation upon himself.

What’s more, retribution can be part of a broadly restorative aim.  Christ’s penal death was not simply a strict act of retributive justice whose sole aim was to satisfy God’s wrath or a strict, economic tit for tat exchange of punishment for sin. God could have had that by simply leaving people in their sins so that they might pay out their just wages, death (Rom. 6:23a). Instead, God’s atoning act through the cross transcends strict retributive exchange, not by ignoring, but by fulfilling the claims of justice and pushing past them to the gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23b). God did not simply want to deal with sin; he wanted to save sinners. God did not only want to be vindicated as just, but instead wanted to be both “just and the justifier of one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). Wrath is dealt with to be sure, but it is dealt with in Christ in order to clear the path for the gift of the Spirit that enables believers to live new, reconciled lives now which will issue in the final total restoration through the gift of resurrection. “God pours himself out for us, not in an economic exchange, but in an excess of justice and love.”  The gift of God far outweighs the trespass of man (Rom. 5:16). The penal, retributive justice of God has a more-than-retributive goal; it aims at the “restoration of community and eternal peace” with God and others. Peace happens through the gift of life in the Spirit, which is peace (Romans. 8:6). Thus, the retributive justice of God has a restorative goal which transcends strict, economic justice through his gift-giving grace which comes out only when developed in light of its Triune goal: the gift of the Spirit.

Finally, for those still struggling with the necessity of thinking in terms of retribution, I would direct your attention to C.S. Lewis’ classic essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” Vintage Lewis, the discussion is still relevant to the issues addressed in this section.

6. From another angle, some charge that PSA encourages moral passivity. It is said that is no active ethic that can be derived from Jesus’ sin-bearing work on the cross. Indeed, it seems to mute it. There are a number of points to be mentioned here. First, we should question the idea that PSA even has to be justified on this account. We must not fall prey to the populist, pragmatic idea that for a doctrine to be true, it has to be immediately practical and imitable. As theologian Karen Kilby has pointed outwith respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, we do not need to be justifying our model of what God is like based on what kind of political programme it generates. We measure our account on the basis of what God has revealed of himself, not of what use he can be to us. The same thing is true for atonement. We affirm our understanding of atonement on the basis of Scripture, not simply because it is useful. What’s more, we have to remember that each doctrine has its place within the wider structure of Christian truth. Atonement is not the only doctrine in our toolkit for constructing our ethics. We get to work with a lot of truth. So the formal charge does not hold water.

All the same, the charge is materially false as well.  For Christ to be able to offer up the sacrifice that he did on our behalf, he had actively to resist the satanic powers and principalities arrayed against the kingdom of God. In other words, precisely through his obedience that qualified him to be our representative and substitute, he embodied the kingdom of God among us. His holy life was a perfect testimony to the perfect will for human flourishing according to God’s covenant standards. Advocates of penal substitution get to read all of the same gospel stories, teachings, commands, and so forth.

It must be remembered that PSA does not need to be separated off from other aspects or angles of the atonement such as his victory against the powers. As we said earlier, just because PSA is seen as the lynchpin securing the victory of Christ over the powers, that doesn’t mean that we have to sidelines the Gospels’ testimony about Christ’s cross-bearing life as an active resistance against the powers of oppression. That is a false dichotomy that needs to be forcefully rejected. Jeremy Treat’s newest book The Crucified King decisively answers it. Indeed, in this he is only following the tradition. Witness Calvin who seamlessly integrates both understandings:

Therefore, by his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell, he was victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up [cf.1 Peter 3:22, Vg.]. –Institutes, II.16.11

Quotes like this could be piled up from Luther, Calvin, and countless other Protestant stalwarts.

Finally, the cross as judgment does not undermine the moral life for a number of reasons. First, we are provoked to a life of obedience in gratitude for God’s great forgiveness. Second, we only participate in the benefits of Christ’s cross-work only when we are united with Christ in the power of the sanctifying Spirit. The aim of PSA is the restored, regenerate disciple who is being increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.

7. Is the God of PSA a God who says “Do as I Say Not as I do?” Does he tell us to forgo vengeance and then go and exact it? Isn’t that inconsistent? Actually, no.God is God, and we are not. The Creator/creature distinction is the grounding of a lot of ethics in the Bible. God often says to us, “Do as I say, not as I do precisely because that is only mine to do.” In general, there are a number of things that are appropriate for God to do given his role as God, King, Judge, Creator of all the earth, that it is not permitted for us to do as humans, created things, sinners, and so forth. For instance, it is entirely appropriate for God to seek and receive worship. In virtue of his infinite perfections, his beauty, his glory, his majesty, his love, and goodness, God is absolutely worthy of worship and for him to demand or receive it is simply a right concern for truth. On the other hand, it is wicked for us to receive worship or to seek it. I am a created thing as well as a sinner, and therefore I am not worthy of worship.

Turning to the subject of judgment, punishment, and retribution we find Paul writing, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’ “(Romans 12:17-19). In this particular passage Paul says not to inflict judgment on your enemies, not because God never does that sort of thing, but because he is said that’s the sort of thing only He should do. The explicit logic of the text is, “Don’t do that. It is my job. I do not want you taking vengeance. Vengeance is mine.” Paul was not squeamish about this sort of logic the way a number of anti-PSA advocates are because it’s all over the Old Testament. The Law (Exod. 20:5), the Psalms (Ps. 75:7), and the Prophets (Ezek. 5:8) tell us that God is the judge of the world and so it is his particular job to take care of things, vindicate whoever needs vindicating, rewarding those who should be rewarded, and punishing those who ought to be punished. He is the sovereign Lord of the world with the authority and might to execute judgments (Ps. 94). There is no thought that judgment or punishment is inherently wicked in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the hands of the righteous Lord of all the earth.

8. God tells us to just forgive, so why can’t he just forgive? Why does he need to punish us? Isn’t that the negation of forgiveness? Forgiveness at its most basic level is the generous release of an acknowledged debt. In commercial terms, which is where we derive the image in the NT, it is saying, “You owe me this, but I’m not going to make you repay.” Transferring it to the moral realm, “That was wrong, but I’m not going to make you suffer for it.” Instead of payment, though, condemnation of sin is at issue. For us to forgive someone is for us not to condemn them for an acknowledged wrong-doing. Taking into consideration God’s role in the universe, it is entirely reasonable to think that God’s forgiveness will look slightly different from ours. As we’ve already noted, God is King and Judge of the world. Part of his faithfulness to creation is to execute justice within it, to maintain the moral order he has established–which is not some impersonal justice, but one that is reflective of his own holy nature–in essence, to make sure that that wrongdoing is condemned and punished. Justice involves more than that, but certainly not less.

Given this, forgiveness cannot be a simple affair of “letting it go”, or passing it over for God. His own character, his holiness, his righteousness, his justice means that he cannot treat sin as if it did not happen. And it bears repeating that we don’t want him to. We honestly don’t want a God who looks at sin, idolatry, murder, oppression, racism, sexism, rape, genocide, theft, infidelity, child abuse, and the thousand dirty “little” sins we’d like to sweep under the rug, and just shrugs his shoulders and lets it go. That is a God who is lawless and untrustworthy. As a number of the Fathers said, a God who doesn’t enforce his law is a God whose word cannot be trusted.

All the same, the cross is the way that God makes that sin is punished and yet still forgives sinners by not making them suffer for sins themselves. PSA is not a denial that God forgives, but an explanation of how God forgives justly. It is how He, as King of the universe, goes about lovingly forgiving His enemies who deserve judgment. He suffers the judgment in himself. Once again, this whole explanation is articulated within a Trinitarian framework in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are all cooperating to achieve atonement. The Father is not pitted against the Son because the Father sends the Son in love and the Son, out of love, voluntarily comes in the Spirit to offer up his life in our place. The Son suffering judgment on the cross is God forgiving us.

The second thing to recognize is that our forgiveness is dependent upon his forgiveness, on the basis of Christ’s atoning work. We can let things go, forgive as we’ve been forgiven, forgo vengeance, and avoid retribution because we know that these things are safely in God’s loving hands. We do not have to exact judgment. Justice for the sins I suffer are handled the way my own sins are handled–either on the cross or at the final assize.

9. Some charge that PSA points us to a God who has to be convinced to love us. He can only love us after he gets rid of his wrath against us. Again, I am sorry if you’ve heard presentations like this, but against the classic accounts, the charge just misses the point. In PSA, the Father sends the Son precisely because he does love us. He sends the Son out of love to deal with the just judgment that hangs over us because of sin, to defeat the powers the stand against us, and to bring us back into relationship with himself, though justly. Calvin himself says quite clearly that God’s love is the deep motivation for Christ’s atonement:

Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight. Therefore, by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, “because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19], he afterward reconciles us to himself. But until Christ succors us by his death, the unrighteousness that deserves God’s indignation remains in us, and is accursed and condemned before him. Hence, we can be fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him.

I could go on to find text after text and multiple analogies here. Say my friend wrongs me. I am angry with him because he stole from me and he has made himself my enemy. I might go pursue him out of love and friendship and yet still insist that there be an apology and acknowledgement of wrongdoing even while I look to forgive the debt.

I suppose it is appropriate here to clarify what is meant by wrath. God’s wrath is not some irrational flare-up of anger and foaming hatred. Wrath is God’s settled, just attitude of opposition towards all the defaces creation. It is his stance and judgment of displeasure towards sin, as well as his will to remove it. It also must be noted that God’s wrath needs to be qualified by the doctrine of impassibility and analogy. God moves to remove wrath, or his stance of opposition to our guilt and rebellion, precisely because he already loves us. It is quite possible for God to have complex attitudes towards his creatures.

For those still thinking of denying wrath, or aiming to pit wrath as antithetical to love, I’d suggest you consult Tony Lane’s excellent article on “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God.” Indeed, for those who affirm it a little too violently, I’d suggest you read it as well as it corrects a number of unbiblical exaggerations and distortions preachers can fall into in their zeal to be “biblical.”

10. Related to this, it is claimed that PSA pits divine attributes against each other. Holiness v. mercy, love v. justice, and so forth, threatening the unity of God.While some popular presentations trend this way, as I mentioned before, classically the truth of God’s action on the cross has always been held consistently with the truth of God’s simplicity. It functions as a qualifier on every statement about God’s attributes and actions. So God’s holiness is not at variance with his mercy or his love with his justice. God is fully loving, just, righteous, and fully himself in all of his acts in history. And yet in the narrative of his historic dealings with Israel, it is not always easy to see the consistency and unity of his character. At times he judges immediately, and yet in others he shows mercy and delays wrath. He is named variously as Father, Judge, King, Lover, Friend, and the roles seem to come up in apparent conflict within the narrative of Scripture itself.

Properly conceived, though, PSA is about demonstrating the fundamental unity and consistency of God’s good character by resolving the narrative tension given in the Bible’s portrait of God. In that sense, God’s action on the cross is the revelation and enactment of his mercy, justice, love, holiness, wisdom, sovereignty, power, and grace, all simultaneously displayed. It is not about pitting his attributes against one another, but displaying their glorious, harmony as the culmination of his historical redemption. It is holiness as mercy, love through justice, and so forth.

11. It is often said that PSA as an account does not need Resurrection. It just stands alone, concerned only with Christ’s death for sin.Let me say that, yes, many popular accounts have been presented in this fashion. However, once again, this is not necessarily the case. If you look at the best exponents and defenders of penal representation as a strand of atonement, there is absolutely a place for Resurrection as part of God’s act in Christ. First, the resurrection is the public announcement that Jesus’ death for sin counts. Second, resurrection is itself the public vindication and justification of the Messiah and his people. As Paul says in Romans 4:25: “he was handed over for our sins, and raised for our justification.” According to N.T. Wright, Michael Bird, and a number of Reformed theologians, resurrection itself is the justifying act. The cross clears away our guilt, but it cannot stand alone.

Also, again, PSA is an angle on, but not the only truth of atonement. It deals with guilt, wrath, and the grip of death, but not death itself. Resurrection is still very much needed to accomplish Christ’s victory over all that stands against us. You can find this in Calvin, Bavinck, and many other stalwart defenders and exponents of penal substitution. There simply is no conflict and definitely a place for the resurrection in a system with penal atonement in it. On all of this, I would further suggest Michael Bird, Michael Horton, and Robert Letham as well.

12. Penal substitution is presented as an abstract legal transaction that sort of floats above history, concerned with a sort of celestial mathematics to be solved. It is a legalistic abstraction. While this might be true of Evangelical youth camps, it is definitely not of classic Reformed presentations. The “law” whose judgments must be satisfied is not some abstract idea floating around with other Platonic ideas in the realm of the forms. No, the idea of the law is grounded in the history of the covenants, which are inherently legal documents.

Adam broke the covenant in the Garden by explicitly violating God’s express command. That law is God’s revealed will in history. Law refers to God’s covenant charter with Israel expressed in the Sinai covenant, the book of the Law, and the Deuteronomic covenant. You can think of these laws as Suzerain-Vassal covenants where Israel’s love and loyalty are pledged, and blessings are given out with obedience, while curse/punishment is threatened for disobedience. Or again, it is like a marriage covenant, a set of promises with binding stipulations enforced by law. There is the promise of love, blessing, and joy with fidelity, but for infidelity/disobedience there lies the curse of divorce from the covenant God. The concept of law, blessing, and curse is present throughout the whole of Torah, the historical narratives, the Psalms, and the Prophets who act as God’s covenant enforcers. This is the background for Paul speaking of Christ suffering the curse of the law for us. It is within this framework in which Christ acts as the covenant representative. On all of this, I suggest consulting Michael Horton’s Lord and Servant.

We have, then, not some abstract legal theory foisted upon the text because Anselm could not think past his medieval, feudal context. Indeed, if anything, this was something that Anselm’s feudal context allowed him to pick up on better than our modern one can. No, in PSA we have careful reflection on the shape of the biblical narrative and an atonement derived from its own categories.

13. Another more political charge is that somehow PSA is tacitly supportive of the status quo and prevailing power structures of oppression. Honestly, I have a hard time taking this one as seriously as the others because the connections are so tenuous. It is usually caught up in the dubious narrative of the Constantinian fall of the Church, Anselm accommodation to the cozy church/state relationship, and other theological conspiracies. Still, say for the sake of the argument that PSA has been associated or used as a way of supporting power structures, I would argue that it is not inherently so. If it has, this is an abuse of the doctrine and the quirk of historical happenstance, not the necessary inner-logic of the position.

First, we must again note that PSA is not necessarily separate from Christus Victor themes. To the extent that it has, that has been a serious a doctrinal mistake. Through the cross Christ is reestablishing his rule against the powers, exposing their false claims, and releasing people from the fear of death. Beyond that, it’s been often pointed out by advocates of other theories that on the cross, God stands with the victims by identifying with them. I think there is a real truth there. Still, I would move on to say that the unique contribution of thinking of the cross as judgment is that it stands as a warning against oppressors. Yes, there is repentance available because Jesus has dealt with sin on the cross, but also note that God’s judgment is coming. Those are your options: repentance and forgiveness, or God’s just wrath against your consistent oppression of the weak, the poor, and the powerless.  This seems to be is a powerful witness against oppressive power structures that deface and destroy all that God loves.

14. It could also be argued that  PSA could be used as a supporter of inequality among the sexes or races. If guilt is simply atoned for, we can passively accept unjust social situations. If people have used PSA as an excuse to sit comfortably with abuse, this is a gross abuse and caricature. The cross as judgment for sin is the great leveller of human pride that declares all have fallen short of the glory of God, Greek and Jew, male and female, and all stand in need of grace, forgiveness, and the mercy offered. All have offended against God by violating his law and in violating each other, his Image-bearers in some way or another. And so all go to Christ together for mercy. Indeed, the cross is where these inequalities go to die. As the old phrase has it, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

By placing the vertical claims of justice at the center of the cross, PSA does what Christus Victor and many of the other atonement angles can’t do: reconcile us to each other by dealing with the history of wrongs, sins, oppression, guilt, shame, and violence. In Christ, the dividing line is torn down through the blood of his cross and one new humanity is wrought in him, the Church (Col 1:15-20; Eph. 2:10-20). For a beautiful exposition of the way Jesus’ cross-work brings about reconciliation and repentance, see Trillia Newbell’s little book United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity.

15. Many charge that PSA is legalistic due to its narrow focus on law, punishment, and so forth. While we’ve already dealt with this to some degree, the Bible does say that while it is more than this, sin is at least law-breaking (1 John 3:4). The legal dimension of sin is real and needs to be dealt with definitively. In that sense, PSA is as legalistic as the Bible is. Now, it is true that insofar as PSA has been divorced from other angles on the cross it becomes narrowly legalistic, sure. But as we’ve seen over and again, that need not be the case.

16. Many claim that PSA encourages violence. Divine violence against sin is imitated by humans on earth, unleashing violence against one another.First of all, this objection usually assumes a theological pacifism based on quite contestable interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount (and even then, usually only a few verses within it). Then, this pacifistic hermeneutic is extrapolated and superimposed upon the entire Scriptures. Often it is connected with some Girardianism that sees “violence” as the aboriginal heart of sin to be avoided in all instances. Despite the copious amounts of biblical evidence that God uses force or “violence” in his judgments, an idiosyncratic, non-violent Jesus is held up as counterpoint that rules all of that out. Indeed, in many cases this hermeneutic is used to simply eliminate texts from the canon, or create an overriding canon within the canon that simply rules out key verses on atonement.

But for those intending to be faithful to Scripture, it is simply a matter of the biblical record that God is not personally a pacifist. Hans Boersma has argued that God’s hospitality requires him to employ coercive force and violence. God hates human violence, but in a violent world, at times God deals in the violent exigencies of history. God judges the unrepentantly violent by handing them over to their own chosen means of living and dying. God is not violent in his being, but in order to hold back the tide of chaos and rage that threatens to destroy creation, he says, “this far you may come and go no farther”; and he backs it up.

Beyond that, this objection, again, assumes that all divine action in Scripture must be imitated. But this is simply not the case. In fact, there is plenty of space for those wanting to maintain a generally pacifist stance to see God’s judgment in Christ as his exclusive prerogative. In fact, Miroslav Volf has argued that the soundest basis for rejecting violence as a path for dealing with conflict at the human level is if we reserve it for the just, perfect judgment of God:

One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword. Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love? A counter-question could go something like this: Is it not a bit too arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with God’s love are so much healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity? Recalling my arguments about the self-immunization of the evildoers, one could further argue that in a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship. Here, however, I am less interested in arguing that God’s violence is not unworthy of God than in showing that it is beneficial to us. Atlan has rightly drawn our attention to the fact that in a world of violence we are faced with an inescapable alternative: either God’s violence or human violence. Most people who insist on God’s “nonviolence” cannot resist using violence themselves (or tacitly sanctioning its use by others). They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane than to believe in a God who judges! That we should bring “down the powerful from their thrones” (Luke 1:51-52) seems responsible; that God should do the same, as the song of that revolutionary Virgin explicitly states, seems crude. And so violence thrives, secretly nourished by belief in a God who refuses to wield the sword.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

–Exclusion and Embrace, pgs. 303-304

So then, even for those who accept a pacifist reading of the Sermon on the Mount, it’s not clear at all that one must embrace contemporary non-violent atonement theories.

17. A fairly important charge that is often made is that PSA is simply not found in the Fathers. It is a theological novelty that ought to be at least suspect.There are two responses to be made here. First, I am a Protestant and so while I hold a significant place for the witness of the tradition and the theological interpretation of the Fathers, what matters most is whether the doctrine is found in Scripture. As I indicated earlier, I think a very strong exegetical case can be made that it is indeed in the Bible and that has been amply demonstrated.

All the same, a number of scholars have been doing more research in the Fathers and indicating that while penal motifs are not the dominant picture of salvation in the Fathers, it’s definitely an exaggeration to say it is entirely missing. Indeed, there is good evidence that Fathers like Irenaeus, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Hilary of Poitier, Augustine, and a number of other Fathers included considerations of Jesus’ death as penalty and curse born on behalf of sinners. Consult the link for extensive quotations.

18. Some have charged that PSA is an inherently individualistic theology of sin and salvation linked to Western, modern categories of jurisprudence. It should be clear from what was said above about Jesus as our Messianic representative that this is simply not the case when it comes to a more classic Reformed account of things. The whole logic runs against individualistic notions of sin and punishment. Now, it is true that it has often been presented individualistically in our modern context. But that is nowhere inherentto the theology. Instead, penal substitution is the work of our covenant head Jesus, who takes responsibility for the sins of his people, the Church. My sin and guilt are dealt with as I am united to Christ and brought into the broader family of his forgiven, set-apart people. For more on this and the similar charge made against Anselm, see here.

19. PSA as a theory is fairly divorced from the narrative of the gospels, floating above them, like oil on water.While many have constructed the doctrine on the basis of Pauline proof-texts, I cannot see this charge holding water. I myself wrote four papers in seminary demonstrating penal dimensions to each of the Gospel-writers thought about the cross. Consulting N.T. Wright or Jeremy Treat’s work, or any number of other scholars doing biblical theology will reveal the way penal representation fits squarely within the mission and message of Jesus. I can’t to the exegetical work here, but roughly, Jesus came to restore the kingdom of God, fight the great battle against God’s enemies, and bring about the end of Exile of judgment for Israel. Jesus does this in accordance with Isaiah’s picture of the Suffering Servant, David’s Seed and true heir, who brings about a New Exodus by suffering a representative Exile for Israel on the Cross. This is how the great forgiveness of sins is brought about and the basis on which people are invited into the new Israel of God that’s been reconstituted in the person of Jesus. Again, roughly. For those who know the biblical themes, it all starts fitting together quite nicely.

I don’t have the time or the space, but we could talk about the Temple theology here, or Jesus the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, or Jesus the innocent sufferer, or the ransom-sayings, or A.T. Lincoln’s work on the trial motif in John, and a half-dozen other sub-themes that connect Jesus’ mission in the Gospels to the penal dimension of his work. Indeed, N.T. Wright has said that his own work in Jesus and the Victory of God as the most extensive modern defense of penal substitution grounded in Jesus’ own self-understanding. Penal substitution isn’t an extraneous, foreign element needing to be grafted onto the Gospels, but an idea that sits quite comfortably at their heart.

Conclusions and Resources

While this has been absurdly long for a blog post, I’m well aware that this is ultimately inadequate. I am sure there are a number of questions I’ve left unaddressed, or addressed too quickly to be satisfactory for some. Still, I think it is been demonstrated that a number of the largest objections rest on misunderstandings, or mischaracterizations of the doctrine. What’s more, though I did not address every variation and objection out there, I think the seeds and forms of basic answers to those challenges are present in the various responses given. Many of the new objections are simply variations on older themes.

As I said before, though it is not the only work Christ does on the cross, his sin-bearing representation is at the heart of the gospel. While we need to be careful about using it as a political tool to establish Christian orthodoxy, the issues at stake make it worth defending with grace and care. The justification of God’s righteousness in the face of evil, the graciousness of grace, the finality and assurance of forgiveness, the costliness of God’s love, and the mercy of God’s kingdom are all caught up in properly understanding the cross of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

For those looking for more concrete resources, I would point you to these excellent works.

Articles

Books

These are generally holistic accounts that do an excellent job with the biblical material:

  • The Cross of Christ by John Stott. The classic Evangelical standard.
  • God the Peacemaker by Graham Cole. A newer, all-around balanced account.
  • The Crucified King by Jeremy Treat. New favorite on reconciling PSA and CV, and setting them both in biblical-theology categories
  • The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris. Older, but still solid exegetical and linguistic work.
  • Mysterium Paschale by H.U. Von Balthasar. Though this only has 30 pages on Good Friday, they’re absolute gold. I cannot overstate how good that chunk is.
  • The Glory of the Atonement An excellent collection of biblical, historical, and theological articles on atonement. Vanhoozer’s essay on atonement in postmodernity alone is worth the price.

For those interested in postmodern critiques from violence, Girardianism, feminism, postcolonialism, and so forth, I highly commend these works:

(Finally, I must say thanks to Alastair Roberts and Andrew Fulford for looking at earlier drafts. Their advice made this much better than it was. Any failures that remain are mine.)

Mere Fidelity: N.T. Wright and his Reformed Critics

So, this is the week you’ve all been waiting for: N.T. Wright and his Reformed critics. On this episode the boys and I chat about the sort of criticisms lodged by American Reformed and confessional Reformed against Wright’s theology, discussing their merits and shortcomings. As always, we think this is a pretty lively discussion.

Also, we throw out a lot of article references in this show. You can go get those at the show links over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity Cast: Surprised by N.T. Wright

Mere FidelityWell, we finally did it–now that Andrew got back from a jaunt to France, we sat down (figuratively) to chat about N.T. Wright. This will be a two-parter and in this episode we introduce Wright’s work, chat about his popularity, a few criticisms, and so forth. The second will follow up and address Reformed criticisms of Wright’s work. I’ll be honest, this was a fun one that I think you’ll enjoy.

As always, please feel free to share, review, and rate us on iTunes. Also, various show notes are linked over at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wright on Election in Ephesians 1

"Yes, I really did write that."

“Yes, I really did write that.”

N.T. Wright makes two points about election in Ephesians 1. The first is that it’s real:

Verses 4–6 celebrate the fact that God’s people in the Messiah are chosen by grace. This is, perhaps, the most mysterious thing of all. God, the creator, ‘chose us in him’, that is, in the king, ‘before the world was made’; and he ‘foreordained us for himself’.

Many people, including many devout Christians, have found this shocking, or even unbelievable. How can God choose some and not others? How can being a follower of Jesus Christ be a matter of God’s prior decision, overriding any decision or freedom of our own?

Various answers can be given to this. We have to be careful here. Paul emphasizes throughout this paragraph that everything we have in Christ is a gift of God’s grace; and in the next chapter he will declare that before this grace reached down to us we were ‘dead’, and needing to be ‘made alive’ (2:5). We couldn’t lift a finger to help ourselves; the rescue we needed had to come from God’s side. That’s one of the things this opening section is celebrating.

Contrary to what some might think (even myself initially!), Wright affirms in a very careful, tentative, but apparently open way that God’s election of some and not others really is a thing. Now, very quickly he moves on to make a second point that many who affirm the first can tend to forget if they’re not careful:

The second thing, which is often missed in discussions of this point, is that our salvation in Christ is a vital stage, but only a stage, on the way to the much larger purpose of God. God’s plan is for the whole cosmos, the entire universe; his choosing and calling of us, and his shaping and directing of us in the Messiah, are somehow connected with that larger intention. How this works out we shall see a little later. But the point is that we aren’t chosen for our own sake, but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish through us. –N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (8–9)

God has plans for his elect beyond their election. They are chosen for a purpose–various purposes really, such as mission, worship, and so forth, all culminating in the glorification and enjoyment of God. An awareness of God’s saving grace in election, then, ought not be an invitation to sit on your stump, but to get on the move and fulfill God’s proposed purposes through us in the Church (Eph. 2:8-10; 3:9-11). Yes, that grace outrages and amazes, and it should also enliven us to worshipful service in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. If someone wants to post clear evidence to the contrary about Wright’s views on election, feel free to correct me here. I know he typically pushes a number of election passages in a corporate direction saying they’re not really what former dogmatics has said. Still, I’ve never seen him out and out deny individual election, and have seen him make statements like this that seem like affirmations of it.

P.S.S. Here’s the sort of thing I’m referring to in the P.S.: Wright on Election in Romans 9. (HT: Michael Bird and Matt Armstrong.)