N.T. Wright on Atonement

N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, is an outstanding biblical scholar, and is always worth reading very closely--even when you ultimately disagree with him.

As you may recall, he weighed in on the Jeffrey Johns BBC Radio commentary on atonement before Johns had given the speech. While I was very disappointed in Wright for doing so, he has redeemed himself with a very interesting (if biting) commentary on atonement. In particular, he discusses three recent pieces on atonement: (1) the Jeffrey Johns Radio commentary (which he attacks in detail), (2) an article on atonement by Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson (which he praises), and (3) a book by Mike Ovey, Steve Jeffrey and Andrew Sach Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (a defense of penal substitution from an evangelical point of view that Wright also criticizes as unbibical).

In the end, Wright defends penal substitution, but offers a far more nuanced approach than the evangelical authors. Some highlights:

I am one of those who think it good that the church has never formally defined 'the atonement', partly because I firmly believe that when Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn't give them a theory, he gave them a meal. Of course, the earliest exponent of that meal (Paul, in 1 Corinthians) insists that it matters quite a lot that you understand what you are about as you come to share in it; but still it is the meal, not the understanding, that is the primary vehicle of meaning. What is more, I happen to believe, as a reader of the New Testament, that all the great 'theories' about atonement do indeed have roots there, and that the better we understand the apostolic testimony the better we see how they fit together.

. . .

The biblical doctrine of God's wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates - yes, hates, and hates implacably - anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise. To trivialize - almost to domesticate! - this massive biblical doctrine, rooted as it is in the doctrines of God as creator and as the one who will restore his creation at the last (in other words, in the biblical sense, 'judge'), into a few anecdotal trivialities about God petulantly hurling thunderbolts around is hardly the way to begin a serious argument.

But it gets worse. Dr John declares that the earlier parts of the Old Testament operate with a simplistic sin-leads-to-judgment philosophy in which sinners are struck down on the spot, good fortune follows virtue and misery follows vice. Now of course there are parts of Deuteronomy which do indeed sound like that, just as there are one or two Psalms (one of which Dr John quotes and tells the Psalmist he ought to get out more) which offer something like that. And no doubt, as general prudential wisdom goes, it is fairly commonplace not only in Israel but in much of the ancient, as indeed the modern, world. There is some truth in it: avoid crime and folly and you will normally have a more peaceful life than a fool or a criminal. The catch, of course, is the word 'normally'; and in Psalm after Psalm, and in Jewish texts from every period, we discover that the 'normal' is regularly thwarted. The Bible is far, far more complex than Dr John allows. Genesis itself, which he quotes in relation to the judgment of Sodom (though that had been delayed some while, it seems, and was by no means a foregone conclusion in Genesis 18), is quite clear in chapter 15 that God's moral providence is keeping an eye on the wickedness of the Amalekites and will only bring judgment upon them when they have manifestly and richly deserved it. (Curiously, right at the end of his piece, Dr John describes the view he rejects as one of God 'inscrutably allotting rewards and retributions', but the view he has been attacking is precisely that God's actions are not inscrutable, but can be read off on a quite clear moral index. Does Dr John think God acts in the world? Does he think that some, or any, of God's acts can be understood within some kind of moral index? Is it not Dr John, for most of his piece, who is advocating an 'inscrutable' providence?)

. . .

I am not saying, then, that Jeffrey, Ovey and Sach have got it all wrong. Far from it. They point in all kinds of good and helpful directions. But there is no evidence that they have actually listened to what other people are saying - including people like myself who strongly affirm the biblical doctrine of penal substitution but equally firmly insist on its being understood within its truly biblical context and not some other. There is much more to be said about their book, no doubt, and what I have said here has inevitably been unbalanced in terms of a proper review. But I have thought it important to make it clear that, in rejecting the sweeping dismissal by Jeffrey John of any kind of substitutionary atonement, I am making a plea for some vital and deeply biblical distinctions between different types of that doctrine.

. . .

Sadly, the debate I have reviewed - with the honourable and brief exception of Robert Jenson's article which began this whole train of thought - shows every sign of the postmodern malaise of a failure to think, to read texts, to do business with what people actually write and say rather than (as is so much easier!) with the political labelling and dismissal of people on the basis of either flimsy evidence or 'guilt by association'. We live in difficult times and it would be good to find evidence of people on all sides of all questions taking the attitude of the Beroeans in Acts 17, who 'searched the scriptures daily to see if these things were so', instead of 'knowing' in advance what scripture is going to say, ought to say, could not possibly say, or must really have said (if only the authors hadn't made it so obscure!).

Read it all. What do I think? I think that I need to do some more thinking in light of this very rich piece by Wright. I still like my own take on penal substitution--that it was our human nature, and not God that demanded a sacrifice.


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