N.T. Wright and the Death of Jesus: A Review of ‘The Day the Revolution Began’

An extensive focus on the meaning of Christ’s death, written for a broad readership rather than for academics.

So, the traditional view of penal substitution is constantly portrayed as an angry Father venting his anger on his innocent Son. He damns the traditional doctrine of penal substitution by constantly referring to it as pagan and capricious: ‘paganising “angry God punishing Jesus”’ [234]; ‘divine petulance’ [224]; ‘Capricious, or malevolent divinity longing to kill someone, and happening to light upon a convenient innocent victim’ [232]; ‘rescue this substitution from its pagan captivity’ [287]; ‘an arbitrary and abstract “punishment” meted upon an innocent victim’ [337]; ‘the paganised vision of an angry God looming over the world and bent on blood’ [349].

 

In this recent book N. T. Wright continues his prolific contribution to New Testament studies with an extensive focus on the meaning of Christ’s death.  It is written for a broad readership, rather than for academics. In it we find many familiar Wright themes, here used with specific attention to this one subject. The great strength of Wright’s approach is his work on uncovering the coherence and resonances of the big Bible story, and of showing how narrative both expresses and reflects this larger picture. I particularly value his constant attention to God’s people and to our responsibility for God’s world. This is a valuable correction to solely individualistic interpretations of the gospel of Christ.

I have some sympathy for some of his frustrations. How many series on Romans end with chapter 8, while chapters 9-16 are ignored! And how often the application of Romans 1-8 is personal assurance of salvation, or the need for right doctrine, or the key to the Christian life. Individualism often distorts our reading of the Bible, and our preaching and teaching of the Bible.

His final moving section on the sufferings of the church is excellent, and an apt message for the church in the West, as it is for the church in the 2/3rds world.

However, his positive aim of showing us the meaning of Christ’s death is undermined by his constant critique of the traditional doctrine of the death of Christ as our substitute undergoing God’s punishment for sin on behalf of sinners. He does this in the broader context of a sustained and extensive attack on ‘a platonic view of the ultimate goal [“heaven”], a moralistic view of the human vocation [“good behaviour”], and a downright pagan view of salvation [an innocent death placating an angry deity]’ [311]. There is no interaction with Christian tradition or scholarly views which hold traditional nuanced interpretations of penal substitution, but an attack on what he perceives as the common preaching and teaching on the atoning death of Christ in evangelical circles. It is an intentionally divisive book, and its criticisms are harshly expressed. It reflects an academic impatience with those of less theological ability, and a reaction against perceived errors which runs the risks of falling into opposite errors!

It is an unfortunate feature of the book that other views are pilloried, and given the worst possible interpretation. So, the traditional view of penal substitution is constantly portrayed as an angry Father venting his anger on his innocent Son. He damns the traditional doctrine of penal substitution by constantly referring to it as pagan and capricious: ‘paganising “angry God punishing Jesus”’ [234]; ‘divine petulance’ [224]; ‘Capricious, or malevolent divinity longing to kill someone, and happening to light upon a convenient innocent victim’ [232]; ‘rescue this substitution from its pagan captivity’ [287]; ‘an arbitrary and abstract “punishment” meted upon an innocent victim’ [337]; ‘the paganised vision of an angry God looming over the world and bent on blood’ [349]. Guilt by association is rhetorically effective, but intellectually weak. He is attacking a straw person. As GK Chesterton observed: ‘Any stigma to beat a dogma’.

Wright then opposes this pagan view with the not-so-novel idea of God’s love expressed in Christ: ‘not an angry father lashing out at an innocent and defenceless son, but … someone embodying the love of God … ’ [201]. One might have thought that the popularity of John 3:16 in evangelical circles would have reassured Wright that his fears are not justified. He writes, ‘we do not find a wrathful God bent on killing someone… Instead we find the image…of a covenant-keeping God who takes the full force of sin onto himself’ [185]. That sounds just like John Stott’s memorable phrase, ‘the self-substitution of God’. Words used to describe the death of Christ by those who are not trained as academic theologians may be unwise and simplistic, but to accuse them of paganism is grossly unfair. Wright does not even mention Christian theologians whose writings defend the Christian tradition of penal substitution, and who make the same point he wants to make, that Christ’s death reveals God’s love. This idea is not new! Calvin, for example, quotes Augustine:

The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled to him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin.

And Calvin himself writes:

[T]he secret love in which our Heavenly Father embraced us to Himself is, since it flows from the eternal good pleasure, precedent to all other causes…The true looking of faith…is placing Christ before one’s eyes, and beholding in Him the heart of God poured out in love.

And Calvin has a carefully expressed view of the relationship between the Father and the Son in the atonement:

How could (God the Father) be angry toward his beloved Son, ‘in whom his heart reposed’? [Matt 3:17]. How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father towards others, if he were himself hateful to God?

Christ endured the punishment of God in our place, and the Father delighted in his self-offering, and accepted his sacrifice. Any similarities between some pagan themes and the Biblical view of willing Trinitarian penal substitution do not mean identity of meaning, nor demonstrate derivation.

Wright holds the view that evangelical preaching of the cross has been entirely focussed on ‘getting to heaven when you die’. I think it is more often focussed on relating to God now, and knowing his love and acceptance. Wright’s negative assessment of evangelical engagement in the world is not justified. At its worst, evangelical Christianity can be solely individualistic, and retreat from involvement with the world. But at its best, evangelicalism has a fine record in planting churches, encouraging people to be prolific in good works, and making a significant contribution to global grass-roots improvements in education, health-care, and evangelism. The historian David Bebbington claims that one of the four characteristics of evangelicalism is ‘Activism’: sustained and effective service of God in the world.

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