11th Most Read Post – The Atonement: Wright Attacks Both Sides of the Debate

No. 11 on the list of most-read posts on this blog appeared on April 23, 2007, and examined what is possibly the most controversial article Bishop Tom Wright has ever written. In it, I questioned his ability to criticize some who dismiss Penal Substitutionary Atonement while approving of Steve Chalke, stating his own support for a form of PSA, and decrying angrily the value of the book, Pierced For Our Transgressions. I posed a number of questions to Wright in private e-mails, and sadly, he declined my offer to allow him to clarify his position further on my blog.

There is clearly a theological storm brewing. Bishop Wright has entered the fray, and appears reluctant to stand firmly on one side or the other of the debate. He doesn’t mention the disagreement between UCCF and Spring Harvest, but he doesn’t have to since the issues are clearly the same. I am sure he did not read my post from last Friday on this subject, and the comments that have been flying around here about it — but his statements definitely are as apt to the discussion as if he had!

Wright begins an important article by explaining that he is disappointed with Jeffrey John, who he feels denies the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God. Wright is clear that:

“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.”

So far so good, but Wright seems to want to put the blame for the Dean of St. Alban’s rejection of penal substitution firmly at the door of evangelicals who, he feels, have been teaching a caricature of the true biblical teaching. Speaking of what has occurred he says:

“This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent.“ You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’. I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire. So we must readily acknowledge that, of course, there are caricatures of the biblical doctrine all around, within easy reach — just as there are of other doctrines, of course, such as that of God’s grace.”

So if both Jeffrey John and evangelicals have got it wrong, in his opinion, what does Wright feel is the correct understanding?

“. . . this, I think, is as clear as it gets in Paul — in Romans 8:3, where Paul says explicitly that God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ? Paul does not say that God condemned Jesus; rather, that he condemned sin; but the place where sin was condemned was precisely in the flesh of Jesus, and of Jesus precisely as the Son sent from the Father. And this, we remind ourselves, is the heart of the reason why there is now ‘no condemnation’ for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) . . .”

[Wright then introduces Romans 3 and states] “To put it somewhat crudely, the logic of the whole passage makes it look as though something has happened in the death of Jesus through which the wrath of God has been turned away. It is on this passage that Charles E. B. Cranfield, one of the greatest English commentators of the last generation, wrote a memorable sentence which shows already that the caricature Dr. John has offered was exactly that:

“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 volumes, Edinburgh: T & T Clark; vol. 1, 1975, p. 217.)”

“. . . It isn’t that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He 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. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed what was going on.”

Wright seems to want to expound a somewhat subtle and nuanced view, the likes of which some people believe Packer and Stott themselves hold — where we are allowed to say that God punished sin in Jesus, but not that Jesus Himself was punished for sin. To me, at least, that kind of statement seems to be trying to have your cake and eat it. This is certainly what Wright seems to do when he then turns to discuss Pierced for Our Transgressions.

He begins in such a way that we are warned that his overall opinion is not positive: “I was all the more frustrated when I came upon a new book . . .” He then acknowledges:

“I can fully understand the frustration, within that tradition, at the way in which some recent writers from within the evangelical world have cast doubt, or worse, on penal substitution as a whole. There do seem to me to be some evangelicals who have done what Jeffrey John has done — rejected the doctrine because of the caricatures.”

Read more . . . N. T. Wright Attacks Both Sides of the Debate

About Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock is a medical doctor, a writer, and a member of Jubilee Church, London since 1995, where he serves as part of the leadership team alongside Tope Koleoso. Together they have written Hope Reborn - How to Become a Christian and Live for Jesus, published by Christian Focus. Adrian is also the author of Raised With Christ - How The Resurrection Changes Everything, published by Crossway. Read more about Adrian Warnock or connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

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