N. T. Wright and Penal Substitution

N. T. Wright has written an essay in which he “strongly” affirms penal substitutionary atonement. Adrian Warnock has thoughts on how this relates to the theological controversy in the UK. Justin Taylor quotes important excerpts from an insightful review by D. A. Carson on one of Wright’s recent books.

Wright claims to “strongly” affirm penal substation, but he never says that Christ satisfies the just wrath of God against sin. He rejects the caricature of a vengeful Father, but vengeance is not the same thing as just wrath. Wright speaks of Jesus absorbing evil and dying in place of his people, but he seems to carefully avoid stating that Jesus satisfied the just wrath of God against sin, which is at the heart of the traditional understanding of penal substitionary atonement. We are left wondering whether or not he thinks that God feels personal wrath against sin, and whether he includes this in his understanding of penal substitution. If he does not, even though he claims to strongly affirm the doctrine, one must wonder whether he is affirming what most others who affirm it mean by it.

18 Comments

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18 responses to “N. T. Wright and Penal Substitution

  1. Dr. Hamilton, what from Wright would you commend? I was thinking about picking up one or two of his books (on Jesus, not Paul!) this summer.

  2. Blake,

    My recommendation is usually to read the big books: New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God, and maybe Climax of the Covenant.

    The short stuff presents the big stuff on a more popular level with more application. So if you want to go the shorter route you could read The Challenge of Jesus and What Saint Paul Really Said. Those two would give you the flavor.

    Hope this helps!

    JMH

  3. David Reimer

    I can’t help wondering if we have read different articles, but I don’t think we have. You say: “Wright speaks of Jesus absorbing evil and dying in place of his people, but he seems to carefully avoid stating that Jesus satisfied the just wrath of God against sin…”, so that “[w]e are left wondering whether or not he thinks that God feels personal wrath against sin, and whether he includes this in his understanding of penal substitution.”

    Consider the following from Wright’s article:

    “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.”

    Wright cites Cranfield with approval: “We take it that what Paul’s statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved. (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. 2 vols. Edinburgh: T & T Clark; vol. 1, 1975, p. 217.)”

    Wright also says: “He [God] is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself.”

    What am I missing?

    David Reimer

  4. David,

    Thanks for your note.

    After reading the article slowly and talking with some learned friends about it, I copied it into a word document and did a search on the word “wrath.” Almost every usage of the term occurs in Part 2 where Wright is disputing with Jeffrey John. Reading this section, one would think that Wright really does strongly affirm penal substitution.

    But then when he disputes with the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions, as he lays out his own views on things, he never says that Jesus propitiated the wrath of the Father through his death on the cross. Moreover, he describes his position as “something like” penal substitution and “a form of” penal substitution.

    Even the context around the Cranfield quote seems to allow for the possibility that while Wright sees Cranfield’s view as a valid interpretive option, he’s not necessarily endorsing it as his own.

    Wright even wants to change the word in the hymn “In Christ Alone,” and recommends that instead of singing “Till on that cross as Jesus died//The wrath of God was satisfied” we should sing that “The love of God was satisfied”.

    All this just makes me wonder. I would love to ask him directly: does your understanding of penal substitution include the notion that the just wrath of God against sin was satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross?

    I sincerely hope the answer would be a simple “yes.” My fear is that he would need to qualify his “yes” with some long explanation that might make me wonder if what he means by “yes” is the same thing I would mean by “yes.”

    Perhaps that long answer would be prefaced with a comment about how I just haven’t taken the trouble to try to understand what he’s saying. I think that would be unfair. Most people who strongly affirm penal substitution aren’t this hard to get clear on what they mean by that strong affirmation.

    I really want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I pray for Wright and the people under his pastoral care. I pray that he’ll boldly proclaim the Word of God to them and that they will trust in Christ alone through grace alone by faith alone for the glory of God alone.

    Hope this helps!

    JMH

  5. David Reimer

    Thanks for this, Jim. It is helpful. A couple quick thoughts in reply:

    You write: “Wright even wants to change the word in the hymn ‘In Christ Alone,’ and recommends that instead of singing ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died//The wrath of God was satisfied’ we should sing that ‘The love of God was satisfied’.

    Yes — I paused over that passage of Wright, too. However, his positive claim (that Scripture presents Jesus’ propitiating death as a response to God’s love rather than God’s wrath) gave me pause, too. And on that level his recast lyric, “at first blush”, is at least worth pondering.

    You go on: All this just makes me wonder. I would love to ask him directly: does your understanding of penal substitution include the notion that the just wrath of God against sin was satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross?

    My sincere hope is your sincere hope — although, as Wright also expresses somewhere in that piece (or cites someone to this effect!), that God’s wrath is also God’s love. So that the cross, then, is the ultimate demonstration of both.

    Hope that helps! (Thought I’m not so sure it will!)

    SHALOM, David.

  6. Jim, I enjoyed your analysis of Wright’s article, and also the dialogue in the comments. I have found all of it helpful in my own analysis of Wright’s article.

    Reading Wright’s article perplexed me, too, because of the apparent disjunctions between part two (criticizing Jeffrey John’s rejection of substitutionary atonement) and part three (criticizing Pierced for Our Transgressions). Wright’s transitional paragraph at the front of part three eases the disjunction somewhat, but there are places–and you have pinpointed the exact places I noted–where it sounds as though Wright is arguing against himself.

    The critique of PFOT reads a lot like a turf war between biblical and systematic theology. Cannot anyone address the subject of penal substitution, and biblically defend the doctrine that Jesus’s death propitiated the just wrath of God against sin, without recounting with the kind of particularity Wright seems to demand here the call of Abraham, the vocation of Israel, and the achievement of Israel’s vocation by God Himself in Jesus Christ? Surely we ought to be able to say (as Wright himself does) that God hates sin, and that he executed judicial sentence against it on the cross (as Wright himself does) without saying all that could be said about Israel.

    The irony is that Wright himself has bemoaned the fact that people will sometimes accuse him, based on one article or lecture, of denying something when he simply didn’t have time or space to affirm it. I cannot help but wonder if Wright isn’t doing the same to Ovey, Jeffrey and Sach in his rather overheated critique of PFOT.

    (By the way, I say this as one who enjoys reading Wright and has learned much from his body of work.)

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  8. When Dr Wright says that he would like to change the wording of the hymn from “the wrath of God” to “the love of God,” it does indeed sound like he is trying to blaze a circuitous route around God’s wrath. But I think his thesis statement explains why it sounds like it does. Many, many people believe that God’s wrath and God’s love are equal and opposite forces that can only co-exist within this infinite, inscrutable Creator God. Thus, God’s wrath often gets divorced from discussions about His love, and vice versa. I believe Dr Wright would change the wording of the hymn in order to get first things first. God IS love. He is a consuming fire of love, but He IS love. God IS NOT wrath, justice, power, authority. God possesses all those attributes, but they are FUNCTIONS, DERIVATIVES if you will, of his nature, the essential heart of His Being. Singing that Jesus’ death ONLY satisfied God’s wrath is simply NOT AS TRUE as singing that Jesus’ death satisfied God’s love.

    in HIS love,
    Nick Gill

  9. Peter Head

    Hi Jim,

    You said: “Wright … seems to carefully avoid stating that Jesus satisfied the just wrath of God against sin, which is at the heart of the traditional understanding of penal substitionary atonement.”

    I wonder whether this is really true. I can’t see any mention of God’s wrath in connection with the atonement in the Westminster Confession, the 39 Articles or the UCCF/TF Doctrinal Basis (the ‘traditional’ statements with which I am most familiar). Nor is it used in the summary statement of Ovey et al: “The doctrine of penal substitution states that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.” Nor does divine wrath appear in any of the patristic texts provided on their web-site (as patristic examples of up-holders of penal substitution): http://piercedforourtransgressions.com/content/category/5/15/52/

    Any thoughts?

  10. Peter,

    Thanks for your note.

    The WC (8.5) has this line:
    “The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father. . .”

    The word “wrath” isn’t used, but it speaks of the Son satisfying the justice of the Father. This seems close to the “caricature” that Wright is eager to deny.

    Article d. of the UCCF TF basis says this:
    “Since the fall, the whole of humankind is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.”

    On the positive side, a friend of mine sent me this quote from Wright yesterday:

    Wright, Matthew for Everyone:

    “The Old Testament prophets speak darkly about the ‘cup of YHWH’s wrath.’ These passages talk of what happens when the one God, grieving over the awful wickedness of the world, steps in at last to give the violent and bloodthirsty, the arrogant and oppressors, the reward for their ways and deeds. It’s as though God’s holy anger against such people is turned into wine: dark, sour wine which will make them drunk and helpless. They will be forced to ‘drink the cup,’ to drain to the dregs the wrath of the God who loves and vindicates the weak and helpless. The shock of this passage is that Jesus speaks of drinking this cup himself” [pp. 60, 61]

    I find this quote very encouraging. It says everything that I would want it to say. Nevertheless, some I’ve been corresponding with think these words don’t cohere with the stance Wright took in that essay where he disputes with PFOT.

    I was also encouraged that the editors of PFOT basically said that Wright was disputing with them over methodology, and they didn’t suggest in their response any hesitation about his affirmation of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

    Perhaps all this will be cleared up by the next installment of Christian Origins and the Question of God. . .

    I welcome your thoughts,

    Jim

  11. Dr. Hamilton,

    To follow on Peter’s comment, I do not think the BF&M 2000 says anything about “wrath,” or even uses the term “penal” in its description of substitutionary atonement (although I have little doubt that its framers affirm both). Nevertheless, it seems these aspects are issues of confessional freedom among the SBC.

  12. Peter Head

    Jim,

    I see that you agree with me that the creeds cited do not specify the satisfaction of God’s wrath in the atonement. Specific concern has focussed on the satisfaction of divine justice. This presumably reflects Roms 3.25ff and 8.1-3 (even as escape from wrath is also present in the context, as 5.8 etc.).

    The view quoted from Matthew is defended at length in Jesus and the Victory of God, ch12.

    In any case, I don’t see that he could be much clearer than:
    “God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved.”

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  14. Peter,

    Thanks for your note. I’m not ready to concede your point on the creeds/confessions. I think that their logic leads to the conclusion that it’s God’s wrath that is satisfied. After all, humans who sin incur God’s wrath (they will drink the wine unmixed, as Revelation puts it), and if Jesus took what they had coming, surely he drank the cup of God’s wrath.

    So, and this applies to Michael’s comment as well, I think that even if the words “wrath” and “penal” aren’t used, this is probably what is in view.

    I’m open to being corrected. . . And I think I’m satisfied that Wright does indeed “strongly affirm” Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Post on that coming soon.

    Thanks for your interaction!

    Jim

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  16. James Palmer

    Hi all,

    how interesting this should come up. I wrote this about a month ago when I had been working ona lecture on the levitical sacrifices and was asked aquestion about the atonement. There is, as far as I know, no one word exact equivalent for “atonement” in Spanish (they use “propiciación and expiación) and this was what made me crystalise something I have felt for a while:

    “Propitiation and substitution are not the same thing and neither one is all that happened on the cross. There seems to have been a terminological collapse in conservative protestant speech about the cross (especially of the more popular, less confessional type) which fuses some of the key categories

    (1) Atonement, general category of how God and man are made “at one” with each other by the cross (translation of atonement by either “propiciación” or “expiación” is incorrect as atonement it both of these things and several others).
    (2) Propitiation is a sacrifice to placate the anger of God against sin (Burnt offering).
    (3) Substitution is taking the place of another. In terms of the cross it means that Christ died our death so that we can inherit his resurrection life.

    Just to be quite clear, i think both are biblical (OT and NT) and both essential in our understanding of th cross.

    Gotta get to church now!

    James

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