N. T. (Tom) Wright and Penal Substitution

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have received a few questions regarding Tom (N. T.) Wright’s stance on the doctrine of penal substitution. The questions have gone something like this: since Wright is a prominent proponent of the New Perspective on Paul, which by-and-large rejects the imputation of Jesus’ so-called active righteousness, does Wright, in turn, also reject the imputation of Jesus passive righteousness (that is, our sin to him)? Put more simply: Does Wright believe that on the cross Jesus bore the legal punishment (i.e., the wrath of God) that our sins deserve?

Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey and Andrew Sach in their profoundly helpful book Pierced for Our Transgressions, define penal substitution as follows:

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 (21).
So, where does Wright land on this doctrine?

N. T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans (NIB Vol. 10)
The idea of punishment as part of atonement is itself deeply controversial; horrified rejection of the mere suggestion has led on the part of some to an unwillingness to discern any reference to Isaiah 40-55 in Paul. But it is exactly that idea that Paul states, clearly and unambiguously, in [Romans] 8:3, when he says that God “condemned sin in the flesh”—i.e., the flesh of Jesus.

Dealing with wrath or punishment is propitiation; with sin, expiation. You propitiate a person who is angry; you expiate a sin, crime, or stain on your character. . . . [I]n [Romans] 1:18—3:20, Paul has declared that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness and that despite God’s forbearance this will finally be meted out; that in 5:8, and in the whole promise of 8:1-30, those who are Christ’s are rescued from wrath; and that the passage in which the reason for the change is stated is 3:25-26, where we find that God, though in forbearance allowing sins to go unpunished for a while, has now reveled that righteousness, that saving justice, that causes people to be declared “righteous” even though they were sinners.

The lexical history of the word hilastērion is sufficiently flexible to admit of particular nuances in different contexts. Paul’s context here demands that the word not only retain its sacrificial overtones (the place and means of atonement), but that it carry the note of propitiation of divine wrath—with, of course, the corollary that sins are expiated (475-476).
N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God
Having said that [that “theories of atonement are all, in themselves, abstractions from the real events”], I find myself compelled toward one of the well-known theories of atonement, of how God deals with evil through the death of Jesus, not as a replacement for the events or the stories nor as a single theory to trump all others, but as a theme which carries me further than the others toward the heart of it all. I refer to the Christus Victor theme, the belief that on the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil. Once that is in place, the other theories come into play their respective parts. For Paul, Jesus’ death clearly involves (for example in Romans 8:3) a judicial or penal element, being God’s proper No to sin expressed on Jesus as Messiah, as Israel’s and therefore the world’s representative . . . the death of Jesus is ‘for me,’ in my place and on my behalf” (94).

All theories of atonement adequate to the task must include both a backward look (seeing the guilt, sin and shame of all previous generations heaped up on the cross) and a forward dimension, the promise that what God accomplished on Calvary will be fully and finally implemented (95).

The personal message of Good Friday, expressed in so many hymns and prayers which draw on the tradition of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) and its NT outworking, comes down to this: “See all your sins on Jesus laid”; “The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me”; or, in the words which Jesus spoke at the Supper but which God spoke on Good Friday itself: “This is my body, given for you” (96).
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Part of the whole point of the cross is that there the weight of the world’s evil really did converge upon Jesus, blotting out the sunlight of God’s love as surely as the light of day was blotted out for three hours. . . . Jesus is “giving his life as a ransom for many” (20.28), and the sin of the “many,” which he is bearing, has for the first and only time in his experience caused a cloud to come between him and the father he loved and obeyed, the one who had been delighted in him. . . .

Jesus’ death—described by Matthew as “breathing his last” or “giving up his spirit”—is the point towards which the gospel has been moving all along. . . . [Jesus] takes with him, into the darkness of death, the sin of the world: my sin, your sin, the sin of countless millions, the weight that has hung around the world’s neck and dragged it down to destruction (190-2).
In response to Wright’s clear favoring of Christus Victor as the atonement’s organizing principle, Roger Nicole’s comments from the concluding essay of Hill and James’ edited work The Glory of the Atonement are particularly helpful. There Nicole describes substitution as “the major linchpin of the doctrine of the atonement”:
This central doctrine of the atonement has its own center in the substitutionary interposition of a sin-bearer who absorbs in himself the fearful burden of the divine wrath against our sin and secures a renewal of access to God and of the reception of his wonderful grace. . . . Substitutionary sacrifice is the fundamental basis of the whole process of salvation according to Scripture (446).

A linchpin in a mechanical contrivance makes possible the unified function of several other parts. If the linchpin is removed, the other parts no longer perform their own functions but float away in futility. This, I believe, is precisely what occurs in the doctrine of the atonement (446-7).

Thus penal substitution of Christ is the vital center of the atonement, the linchpin without which everything else loses its foundation and flies off the handle so to speak (451).
In other words, the fact the Jesus died “in our place” (that is, as our substitute) means that His victory is our victory. Without the principle of substitution, which then arrives at our personal doorsteps in the form of spiritual, by-faith union, Jesus’ victory remains abstracted from us. He suffered under the curse (both for individuals as well as for creation itself) in order to set free those for whom he suffered. He conquered in the place of those who could not conquer alone.

1 comment:

colin mattoon said...

I just listened to a good talk by Mark Driscoll called "the gospel for leaders" in which he lays out the multifaceted view of atonement (which I think he got from Gerry). You'd probably like it, its on the resurgence site if you want to download it.