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N.T. Wright in 1980

Yesterday, I began a thematic series through N.T. Wright’s new (and old) book Small Faith, Great God, analyzing the development of Wright’s theology since the original release of this book in 1978. In the preface, Wright affirms that he is in substantial agreement today with what he wrote back in the 1970’s. That said, the careful reader can detect a number of different emphases in Wright’s early work. Nowhere is this more evident than in Wright’s treatment of the atonement of Christ.

Transaction Language

One of the interesting observations regarding Wright’s early explanation of the cross of Christ is the ease with which he utilizes the language of “purchase” when speaking of Christ’s work. Here are a few examples:

Christ purchased humans for God. That is, he came into the slave market where his people were standing in chains, and he paid the cost of setting them free. (20)

There is no nation or people – no tribe or language – from which Christ did not buy himself people for his own possession. (21)

Christ purchased humans first and foremost for God, to be kings and priests to serve him. Realize the full impact of this. When Christ bought us at the cost of his own blood, it wasn’t first and foremost for our happiness – though to be saved by him will mean happiness itself. He bought us for God. (21)

I don’t recall Wright ever disavowing this kind of terminology, but this language is not characteristic of his later writings. Wright has a strong aversion to a view of salvation that could be misconstrued as a mere “transaction,” which may be why he refrains from “purchase” language today. Instead, when Wright speaks of “redemption”, he almost always links Christ’s purchase of the church to the Exodus event. Notice this reference to “redemption” in his commentary on Romans 3:

Israel could scarcely hear the word [redemption] without thinking of Egypt, of Passover, of the Red Sea, the wilderness wanderings, and the promised land. Paul has already hinted that the whole human race languishes in the Egypt of sin. What such people need is a new exodus, the cosmic equivalent of what God did for Israel long ago… This redemption happens in the Messiah, Jesus. (471)

Charting Wright’s treatment of “purchase” and “redemption” language underscores a more prominent development of Wright’s theology: a desire to ground his theological reflection in historical realities. Today, when Wright speaks of redemption, he ties this language to concrete, historical events in the history of Israel. He has also moved away from explaining what Jesus’ death means for me to the broader discussion of what the cross means for history.

The Wrath of God and Penal Substitution

This tendency toward historicized theology and cosmic redemption is also true of Wright’s description of God’s wrath. In Small Faith, Great God, he writes:

On the cross [Jesus] took on himself that separation from God which all others know. He did not deserve it: he had done nothing to warrant being cut off from God, but as he identified himself totally with sinful humanity, the punishment that sinful humanity deserved was laid squarely on his shoulders… That is why he shrank, in Gethsemane, from drinking the “cup” offered to him: he knew it to be the cup of God’s wrath. On the cross Jesus drank that cup to the dregs, so that his sinful people might not drink it.

He drank it to the dregs. He finished it, finished the bitter cup both physically and spiritually. And that turned his last cry into a shout of triumph: It is finished!… It is the word that would be written on a bill when it had been paid, like a rubber stamp for a receipt. Here is the bill, and on it the word “Finished” – “Paid in full.” The debt is paid. The punishment has been taken. Salvation is accomplished. (70)

Wright has always said he believes in penal substitution, and if this passage is any indication, one can be quite certain that he does. (I should also mention chapter 12 of Jesus and the Victory of God, where Wright argues that Isaiah 53 is at the heart of Jesus’ self-understanding as he went to the cross.)

Critics of Wright are wrong to charge him with denying penal substitution. There is however a place where a thoughtful critique may be warranted, and that is in terms of the emphasis Wright places upon penal substitution today. In this early (and brief book), one finds multiple references to the substitutionary atonement. Wright’s later devotional works (such as Christians at the Cross, a collection of Lenten and Easter homilies) include nary a reference to this view of the atonement.

Tracking the theological progression, I observe that as Wright’s view of penal substitution has become more historicized, it has also become less central to understanding the meaning of the cross. I don’t want to blow the distinctions out of proportion. Early Wright also sets his atonement theology in historical context. Never does Wright describe the atonement in ahistorical, abstract terms. Even in Small Faith, Great God, we find historical connection points like this:

By applying [Isaiah 6] to himself Jesus shows how he understands his own death. He sees himself as the last remnant of Israel, bearing in himself the purging and purifying of the nation. Israel is cut down to one man, and that one man is put to death; and from that point on God begins to restore his people. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s new start for his true people. (57)

But it’s clear to me that as Wright’s theology has developed, his emphasis on the historical nature of penal substitution increases while his emphasis on the centrality of substitution diminishes. In 1992, he writes:

So many popular presentations are far too abstract. They take the whole event out of its context in history, in the story of God and his people, and imagine it simply as a nonhistorical transaction between God and Jesus into which we can somehow be slotted. But the New Testament always insists on seeing the cross as what it was – a horrible and bitter event within history; and it insists that we understand its significance within, not outside, that context.

Wright insists that we not interpret the meaning of the substitutionary atonement in a way that sounds like a nonhistorical transaction between the individual and God. For Wright, the doctrine of the atonement involves the very events that transpired to put Jesus on the cross. Furthermore, if one does not understand Jesus as the climax and fulfillment of Old Testament history and prophecy, one has not correctly understood the atonement. The judgment that Jesus pronounces upon Israel is precisely the judgment that he himself will endure at the cross. Wright elaborates in his commentary on Luke:

Now the judgment that had hung over Israel and Jerusalem, the judgment Jesus had spoken of so often, was to be meted out; and Jesus would deliver his people by taking its force upon himself. His own death would enable his people to escape… In the strange justice of God, which overrules the unjust “justice” of Rome and every human system, God’s mercy reaches out where human mercy could not, not only sharing, but in this case substituting for, the sinner’s fate. (280)

The problem I see with the development of Wright’s view of the substutionary atonement is not that Wright now denies what he wrote in 1978. It’s that he no longer emphasizes this view as central to our understanding of the cross. Though he still affirms penal substitution, he compares it to one note in a chord. Play only that note and you distort the music. That’s a good reminder to those of us who may be tempted to affirm penal substitution to the exclusion of the other atonement metaphors.

Still, I believe the biblical writers view penal substitution as the melody, with the other atonement views harmonizing in a way that enhances substitution as the central metaphor of Christ’s accomplishment on the cross. In Wright’s later work, I hear the harmony well, but I often can’t hear the melody. As Wright has emphasized the historical understanding of penal substitution (which most of us would do well to remember), he has simultaneously de-emphasized the pervasive nature of penal substitution in his understanding of the cross.

It’s one thing to continue to affirm a doctrine; it’s another thing altogether to celebrate it the way the Scriptures seem to. Wright still affirms penal substitution, but in contrast to his early books, his later works do not emphasize this doctrine.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at Wright’s early view of heaven in contrast to his later preference for “new heavens and new earth” terminology.


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6 thoughts on “Small Faith, Great God: Wright's Early View of the Atonement”

  1. Nick says:

    Wow. Wright still sports the turtle necks. That pic looks like it’s from the 1800’s.

  2. Derek says:

    I believe Wright’s current view of the atonement (hinted at in the post, but not explicitly stated) is the Christus Victor view. In Evil and the Justice of God he writes:

    “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 then the others toward the heart of it all. I refer to the Christus Victor theme…” [p.95]

    Wright does not see Christus Victor as “trumping” the Penal view (as Greg Boyd does), but given his emphasis on the big picture and the tie-ins with the Exodus and Exile motifs, it is not surprising that Wright sees the Christus Victor motif as carrying him “further… toward the heart of it all”. He’s always reaching for the heart, that guy. :-)

  3. dan says:

    He looks like he’d be quite at home on a dollar bill. As for the evolution of his theology, thanks for pointing these things out. Very helpful.

  4. Susan says:

    Your observations coincide with the shift in theology I’ve witnessed at my long-time church. This is not surprising given that the pastor has said that Wright has been the #1 influencer of his theology for the past 12+ years (before that it was Jonathan Edwards). The concept of justification is now absent from his preaching, and the atonement is barely a footnote in a rare sermon. There’s little concern over sin and the holiness of God. The emphasis is on the cosmic nature of redemption in a corporate sense. The concept of individual conversion is absent. His sermons have become increasingly moralistic. The resurrection is emphasized as the big deal with Christ’s death…because it shows that we too will be resurrected. The thing to be fixed is death, physical death, and the resurrection is the cure. What about sin and separation from God? This apparently isn’t the problem anymore.

    It would be oh-so-easy for a nonbeliever to sit week after week under this teaching and never come to an understanding of their desperate condition, their great sinfulness that offends a holy God. It would be surprising if someone would find themselves feeling conviction….leading to repentance, after hearing one of his current sermons. The emphasis is on “becoming fully human” and bringing “human flourishing” to others. This is apparently accomplished without people coming to a point of true, individual conversion and having God’s Spirit enter at that point in time. The gospel has become invisible, and heaven and hell are not spoken of. The “judgmentless gospel” and the “activist gospel” have taken over. This is the trajectory of Wright’s current direction as it plays out in a church, so it seems.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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