The Atonement – N. T. Wright Attacks Both Sides of the Debate

The Atonement – N. T. Wright Attacks Both Sides of the Debate April 23, 2007

UPDATE November 2008Steve Chalke has expressed his views more fully in a chapter in The Atonement Debate, and I have posted a response to this.

In January 2008, the following post was identified as the 11th all-time most popular post with readers of this blog. The 12th most widely read post was “The Toronto Blessing”—When the Church Seemed To Be Going Mad.

This post examines possibly the most controversial article Wright has written. In it, I question 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 Bishop Wright in private e-mails, and sadly, he declined my offers for him to clarify his position further on my blog.


The servers hosting N. T. Wright’s article, as well as Steve Chalke’s, seem to have been having trouble with the demand to download them, so I have added mirrors to Wright and Chalke to help more people read them. The authors of Pierced For Our Transgressions have now responded to Wright’s comments in a similar vein to my article.

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 Go
d 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.”

We are left to wonder if he is speaking about Steve Chalke. If you are like me, and remember that Wright strongly endorsed Steve’s book, you will by now have begun to wonder how he can square that particular circle given some of his earlier comments. To begin with, he claims that the following statement of Chalke indicates that he does, after all, believe the cross of Jesus had something to do with wrath.

“Just as a lightning-conductor soaks up powerful and destructive bolts of electricity, so Jesus, as he hung on that cross, soaked up all the forces of hate, rejection, pain, and alienation all around him.” (The Lost Message of Jesus, p. 179).

This is disingenuous to the extreme; firstly it seeems clear — at least to me — that to Chalke the wrath involved is not God’s wrath. In any case, the article Chalke wrote explaining himself after the book makes it plain that it is not some kind of caricature of penal substitution he has rejected as cosmic child abuse, but the very concept itself. If Chalke has changed his mind, he should issue a statement to that effect.

Wright then speaks of the notorious passage in which Chalke talks about “cosmic child abuse” and says:

“I cannot tell, from this paragraph alone, which of two things Steve means. You could take the paragraph to mean (a) on the cross, as an expression of God’s love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one. Or you could take the paragraph to mean (b) because the cross is an expression of God’s love, there can be no idea of penal substitution at all, because if there were it would necessarily mean the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story, and that cannot be right.

Clearly, Steve’s critics have taken him to mean (b), as I think it is clear Jeffrey John and several others intend. I cannot now remember what I thought when I read the book four years ago and wrote my commendation, but I think, since I had been following the argument through in the light of the arguments I myself have advanced, frequently and at length, about Jesus’ death and his own understanding of it, that I must have assumed he meant (a). I have now had a good conversation with Steve about the whole subject and clarified that my initial understanding was correct: he does indeed mean (a). The book, after all, wasn’t about atonement as such, so he didn’t spell out his view of the cross in detail; and it is his experience that the word ‘penal’ has put off so many people, with its image of a violent, angry, and malevolent God, that he has decided not to use it. But the reality that I and others refer to when we use the phrase ‘penal substitution’ is not in doubt, for Steve any more than for me. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation’ in Romans 8:1 is explained by the fact, as in Romans 8:3, that God condemned sin in the flesh of his Son: he bore sin’s condemnation in his body, so we don’t bear it. That, I take it, is the heart of what the best sort of ‘penal substitution’ theory is trying to say, and Steve is fully happy with it. And this leads to the key point: there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others.”

I say it again. If Chalke has changed his mind — or indeed if, as Wright claims, he never meant it the way we have all assumed — he should say so publicly, and apologise for all the upset this has caused the Church. I have asked Oasis to contact Chalke to appear on this blog for an interview, and this has not yet been forthcoming. I am afraid, as much as I respect a man like Wright, he should not be speaking for and on behalf of Steve Chalke, who should clearly do that himself.

In fact, Steve Chalke has spoken very clearly about his views since all the controversy — in an article which remains online and is VERY different from what Wright claims Chalke has told him are his views:

“The extraordinary thing is that supporters of penal substitution, following Hodge’s lead, tend to hold it as a ‘God-given truth’ — the only biblical explanation of the atonement. Indeed for them to question this model is to question the atonement itself. So, for instance, one recent letter I received claims that I ‘demolish the fundamentals of the Christian faith’ and another that I am ‘liberal’. However, this supposed orthodoxy is no orthodoxy at all . . .

In The Lost Message of Jesus I claim that penal substitution is tantamount to ‘child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’ Though the sheer bluntness of this imagery (not original to me, of course) might shock some, in truth, it is only a stark ‘unmasking’ of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such a theology. And the simple truth is that if God does not relate to his only Son as a perfect Father, neither can we relate to Him as such.

If we follow Hodge’s understanding of the atonement it is Jesus’ death, no more no less, that becomes our ‘good news’. This reductionist approach shrinks or ‘down grades’ the whole gospel to a single sentence: ‘God is no longer angry with us because Jesus died in our place.’

Indeed, that is exactly why evangelistic presentations based on penal substitution often don’t even bother to mention the resurrection, because for them it serves no direct purpose in the story of our salvation.”

Having then carefully positioned himself as against Jeffrey John, but for Steve Chalke, perhaps inevitably given the current climate, Wright turns to discuss Pierced for Our Transgressions more fully. What he says is shockingly surprising. He begins by claiming that the writers are totally unaware of the possible nuances to PSA and to Wright’s idea that people like Chalke can speak about cosmic child abuse, but still somehow uphold some watered down form of the othodox teaching of the church about the cross.

“And my sorrow, reading Pierced for Our Transgressions, is not only that the book seems to be unaware of this possibility, but that, despite the ringing endorsements of famous men, it is deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical . . . it abstracts certain elements from what the Bible actually says, elements which are undoubtedly there and which undoubtedly matter, but then places them wi
thin a different framework, which admittedly has a lot in common with the biblical one, but which, when treated as though it were the biblical one, becomes systematically misleading.”

This post has become too long already, but sadly Wright is by no means finished . . . I will just give you some of the headlines. You may want to go and read the whole post yourself.

  • “. . . hopelessly sub-biblical.”
  • “My heart sinks when I read what the great contemporary heroes of conservative Christianity have said inside the front cover.”
  • “. . . it seems to me that it is the authors of this book who are not paying proper attention to Scripture itself.”
  • “I have this unhappy sense that a large swathe of contemporary evangelicalism has (accidentally and unintentionally, of course) stopped its ears to the Bible, and hence to the God of the Bible, and is determinedly pursuing a course dictated by evangelical tradition rather than by Scripture itself.”
  • “There is no evidence that [Jeffrey, Ovey, and Sach] have actually listened to what other people are saying.”

It is striking and sad that Wright is so scathing about a book that has ten pages of endorsements by some of the greatest teachers of the Church. Sadly it seems this debate is not going away, but is significantly heating up. I hope that we can continue to provide a forum here on this blog in the comments section where we can discuss this with clarity and charity.

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