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.


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