N. T. Wright Dismisses Penal Substitution

I suspect that Bishop N. T. Wright would not appreciate my saying that he has dismissed penal substitution, especially since he himself maintains that he holds to “something that can be called ‘penal substitution.'” But this affirmation is precisely the problem. His definition of penal substitution is clearly at odds with what penal substitution is (at least historically defined).

In an essay titled “The Cross and the Caricatures,” Wright contends that any idea of an angry Father punishing his loving Son is a “caricature” of the penal substitution theory of the atonement. Wright affirms Steve Chalke’s definition of Christ’s atonement, which he describes as follows:

“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.”

There are many problems with Wright’s definition, not the least of which is the fact that he caricatures the penal substitutionary view that he says is a caricature! If he is going to dismiss the traditional model of penal substitution, he should refrain from describing it in terms that proponents would reject. Proponents of penal substitution hold that God the Father is both loving towards His creatures and wrathful against their sin. It is no contradiction to affirm that God is both wrathful and loving. Those of us who affirm the penal substitution view believe that God’s wrath against sin demonstrated in the death of Jesus is at once the perfect manifestation of His wrath and His love (Romans 5:8). Wright’s caricatured depiction is not helpful.

But Wright appears to regard this traditional “version” of penal substitution as “deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical.” Acknowledging that there are many evangelicals who still hold to penal substitution, he says “I have this unhappy sense that large swath of contemporary evangelicalism has . . . 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.”

At least we know where Wright stands on this question, though I hardly think it’s helpful that he chooses to call his view “penal substitution,” for it clearly is not. I could say that I believe in an Augustinian view of grace, just so long as you allow me to define “Augustinian” in a way that amounts to Pelagianism. But at that point I wouldn’t really be affirming Augustinianism. I would just be playing with words so that I could fit in with an evangelical constituency who by and large still prefers the orthodox Augustine to the heretical Pelagius.

I fear this is precisely the kind of word-game that Wright is playing. Yes, he says he holds to “penal substitution,” but he doesn’t mean to affirm that God the Father poured out His wrath on His Son Jesus on the cross. He means something else. Clearly, that “something else” is not really penal substitution.

UPDATE 4/28/07

Wright has affirmed elsewhere a penal substitution view of the atonement (HT: Jim Hamilton):

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]

From Wright’s Romans commentary:

“No clearer statement is found in Paul, or indeed anywhere else in all early Christian literature, of the early Christian belief that what happened on the cross was the judicial punishment of sin. Taken in conjunction with 8:1 and the whole argument of the passage, not to mention the partial parallels in 2 Cor 5:21 and Gal 3:13, it is clear that Paul intends to say that in Jesus’ death the damnation that sin deserved was meted out fully and finally, so that sinners over whose heads that condemnation had hung might be liberated from this threat once and for all.”

From ch. 12 of Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God:

“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.”

I am at a loss as to how one can reconcile these earlier affirmations with what Wright says in “The Cross and the Caricatures.” Wright calls the penal substitution view in PIERCED FOR OUR TRANGRESSIONS “unbiblical.” Wright says his “heart sinks” to read Carson, Packer, and others’ endorsement of the book. Wright says that “large swath of contemporary evangelicalism” that affirms penal substitution have stopped their ears to the Bible. When you couple those statements with his rejection of the “vengeful father” motif, it becomes very difficult to see (at least for me) how such statements amount to an affirmation of penal substitution. They appear to me to be a rejection of it. So I’m not sure how “The Cross and the Caricatures” fits in with Wright’s earlier expressions.

6 Responses to N. T. Wright Dismisses Penal Substitution

  1. G.L.W. Johnson April 24, 2007 at 9:50 am #

    You have no doubt seen D.A. Carson’s review that is linked by Justin Taylor. As expected, the Wright fan club is already rallying to his support, i.e. Mark Horne who is an out-spoken defender of what goes by the name ‘The Federal Vision’. A number of the FV men have assimulated Wright’s views on justification along with his formulations on the nature of saving faith and the non factor of imputation. Wright’s take on penal substitution will probably find shelter as well in the circles sympathetic to the FV.

  2. G.L.W. Johnson April 25, 2007 at 8:33 am #

    Would my expression ‘rallying to his support’ accurately describe your assessment?Laying aside for the time being what NTW said in the pass is driving at-do you think that Denny’s( and Carson) take has any merit?

  3. G.L.W. Johnson April 25, 2007 at 8:41 am #

    Excuse me for the way the above reads- it should be-‘what NTW said in the past compared to what he is now driving at’


  1. N.T. Wright and the New Perspective « John Ploughman - April 24, 2007

    […] Denny Burk has a sharp criticism of Wright’s affirmation of the term “penal substitution” without its historical use. I suspect that Bishop N. T. Wright would not appreciate my saying that he has dismissed penal substitution, especially since he himself maintains that he holds to “something that can be called ‘penal substitution.’” But this affirmation is precisely the problem. His definition of penal substitution is clearly at odds with what penal substitution is (at least historically defined). […]

  2. Mark Horne » The objectivity of teaching - April 24, 2007

    […] We are seeing some analysis of Wright that is every bit as amazing as Wright’s defense of Chalke.  Just to point out the obvious, the fact that Wright has a long track record of teaching a vicarious penal substitutionary atonement is not a question that is dependent on anything he said in the last week.  He may have apostatized (I don’t believe it, but it is logically possible) and he may not privately believe what he teaches publicly (don’t believe that either), but the question of his public teaching is to be settled by his public teaching.  And for years thousands of readers (many of whom, like me, probably only recently heard the name “Chalke” and have read nothing by him) have learned that Christ died under the judicial wrath of God that we deserved so that for us who entrust ourselve to him there is now no  condemnation. […]

  3. Alarming Resources at Redeemer | Light of the World - July 11, 2011

    […] N. T. Wright dismisses penal substitution […]

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