by Jerry Bowyer, Forbes Magazine, 6/19/17.
N.T. Wright has many titles: Bishop, Lord, Doctor, Professor. He tells me that the one that he prefers is ‘Tom’. But what many call him is the most influential New Testament scholar alive today. I concur.
Which brings us to Wright’s latest book, The Day the Revolution Began. It appears to this reviewer that this is Wright’s most serious incursion from the world of ‘Biblical Theology’ (theology structured according to the contours of the Biblical text) into the world of ‘systematic theology’ (theology structured according to formal principles of classification). In this particular case, Wright takes on atonement theology (at least the version of atonement theology which has sifted down to the pews) and finds it wanting.
Wright calls into question what he calls ‘the works contract’ view. According to this view: Our relationship with God is largely a matter of moral requirements. Because we all fall short of those moral requirements, we all deserve God’s punishment. His just nature prevents Him from letting us go to Heaven to be with Him, but instead requires Him to send us to Hell. But He loves us, so in this view, God’s justice is in conflict (or at least in tension) with His love. God solves the problem by punishing His son instead of us. His son absorbs His father’s anger so we don’t have to.
This is accomplished by means of a mechanism which theologians have called ‘imputation’. The son’s moral purity is ‘imputed’, that is transferred, to us. Sometimes the metaphor is financial: transfers of debts, etc. Sometimes the language is metaphysical in which abstract categories like righteousness or innocence or guilt are treated as attributes which can be caused to adhere to various underlying substances and persons.
Our sin is imputed to the son. He is punished instead of us and by so doing, God’s wrath is satisfied.
Like many contemporary theologians, Wright has serious doubts about this story which is sometimes called ‘penal substitution’ (though the scholarly version of penal substitution is more nuanced). It’s understandable that people would want to avoid an account such as this one: Our psychologically-attuned age is particularly on guard against a story which could be seen as portraying God as an abusive father, who just has to punish someone in order to purge His anger. Victims of parental abuse have found that theological view repulsive. For pastoral reasons, various theological writers have brought moral arguments against it.
Wright, on the other hand, has gone deeper. He has drawn the connection between the ‘works contract’ theory and pagan stories about angry pagan gods who are propitiated by innocent substitute victims. Wright goes through extremely intricate exegetical detail to show that the specific passages which are often pointed to as slam-dunk arguments for the pop Penal Substitution story don’t actually fit that view very well at all.
Wright goes on to re-build, from the textual foundation up, a different story, a story grounded in the Hebrew scriptures and in 1st Century Jewish cultural context. Jesus’ initial hearers were not waiting for an emissary of God who would be punished in their stead so that they could go to Heaven. They were looking for someone who would end the exile from full, free nationhood for Israel. Large numbers of Jewish commentators saw the Roman occupation as a punishment for sin dating back to the Babylonian Captivity. They thought of the exile into Babylonian as having never really ended, which means sin had never been forgiven. Israel had been swallowed by a big fish (Babylon) and then that fish was swallowed by a bigger fish (Persia), etc. until Israel ended up in the belly of Rome. In that context, Jesus’ references to the forgiveness of sin would not be seen mainly as referring to an individual’s place in heaven. Instead, it would be seen as mainly about release from exile. And beyond that, they would interpret it as a fulfillment of the promise of a restored Israel fulfilling its destiny of becoming a kingdom of priests to the nations of a world which is in right relationship with the God of Israel. This would be the natural response most of the original readers of the Gospel would have to the language of sin and forgiveness, especially coming from the lips of a prospective messiah…