Monthly Archives: December 2018

Does N. T. Wright Deny Penal Substitutionary Atonement??

Aside from the question, “Who is N.T. Wright?”, the rest of the title of the post might scare you, with the phrase: “penal substitutionary atonement?” What is that all about? A brief illustration might help.

Nicholas Thomas Wright. British New Testament scholar, retired Anglican bishop, … and agitator among more than a few conservative, evangelical Protestants.

A rather popular Christian worship song, “In Christ Alone,” is sung in many churches today. One of the verses goes like this, and chimes in well with the Advent season:

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
‘Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live.

A few years ago, a worship committee in a mainline denomination decided to try to change the lyrics of that highlighted line, from “the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “the love of God was magnified.” There is nothing theologically wrong with the phrase, “the love of God was magnified,” with respect to Christ’s death on the cross. The idea of Jesus dying for others, out of God’s great love for humankind, is a well established idea in biblical thought.

The problem comes with removing the language of “the wrath of the God was satisfied.” Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, the writers of the song, refused to give the denomination permission to change the lyrics. As a result, “In Christ Alone” was dropped from that church body’s hymnal.

So, what was wrong with removing the wording, “the wrath of the God was satisfied?” Well, the concept of the wrath of God being satisfied by Christ’s death on the cross is tied to the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. I can try to define this in one sentence, put backwardly: Jesus died to deal with the problem of human sin (the “atonement” part), by standing in our place (the “substitutionary” part), to take the penalty of human sin (the “penal” part), upon himself, so that His death would bear the just penalty of our sin, allowing us to be healed and to become reconciled with God. Reconciliation with God is the goal of the Gospel. Therefore, to deny penal substitutionary atonement is essentially to deny the Gospel.

For many evangelicals, them be fightin’ words: You do not mess with the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement! The problem is that my long sentence in the previous paragraph requires a whole lot of unpacking, and unfortunately, sometimes the unpacking of that sentence gives a misleading caricature of what the death of Christ is all about. Critics of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement say that this gives us a rather paganized view of God: an angry, barbaric, capricious, and blood-thirsty God. But does this criticism apply merely to the caricature of penal substitutionary atonement, or to the very doctrine itself? Are “Bible-believing” Christians Scripturally aware enough to be able to tell the difference?

Along comes N.T. Wright, a British evangelical theologian, influential among many young pastors today, well known for his work to defend the essential historicity of the Gospels, against the infamous “Jesus Seminar,” and his work to defend the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, against detractors. Wright argues that a misuse of the doctrine of the atonement, leads to a sad caricature of what Christ really accomplished by his death on the cross. This caricature paints a picture that Wright describes in the following sermon, of:

….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 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’, and I commend that alteration to those of you who sing that song…

N.T. Wright, therefore, would have us substitute the “wrath” of God with the “love” of God, in Townsend and Getty’s now-classic worship song, as a way of moving us along in the debate over penal substitutionary atonement.

But is N.T. Wright himself rejecting merely the caricature of penal substitutionary atonement, or the full content of the doctrine itself? Some evangelicals, such as The Gospel Coalition blogger, Trevin Wax, believe that N.T. Wright is only rejecting the caricature, and not the very doctrine itself, thus affirming Wright’s orthodoxy.

Some other critics however, within evangelicalism, are convinced of the latter. For example, Southern California pastor, John MacArthur openly says that while he is not sure as to what N.T. Wright exactly affirms, he is completely sure as to what Wright denies; namely, that Wright denies penal substitutionary atonement, and therefore, Wright denies the Gospel (link to YouTube video). Whew!!

I do find it rather startling that a pastor of MacArthur’s prominence, would be so bold to denounce another bible teacher, while at the same time admitting that he does not understand what that other bible teacher is actually teaching! Nevertheless, it does raise the question: Trevin Wax wrote his defense of N.T. Wright, linked above, in 2007. Has N.T. Wright shifted his position since then? In criticizing the caricature of penal substitution, is N.T. Wright now chipping away too much at the very doctrine itself?

Perhaps the best way to resolve this dispute is to allow N.T. Wright to answer the question directly, as he did in a recent interview with Justin Brierley, the host of the Unbelievable podcast. Ultimately, it matters not what N.T. Wright thinks, nor what Trevin Wax thinks about N.T. Wright, nor what John MacArthur thinks about N.T. Wright. What matters most is what the Holy Scriptures teach. N.T. Wright gives his view in 10 minutes below, to the question: “Do you believe in penal substitution?” How would you respond to that question?

For more on why N. T. Wright both fascinates and frustrates other evangelical Christians, read this Veracity post from several years ago. As I argued in that blog post, the problem with Wright is not so much in what he affirms, but in what he denies. Perhaps in arguing for what he affirms, which we should make a concerted effort to properly understand, before jumping in too quickly to criticize, Wright makes too much out of what he denies (or he is not as clear as he could be). To get a more critical engagement with Wright, particularly on one of his most recent books, The Day the Revolution Began, consider the following two reviews: by Dane Ortlund and by Michael Horton. For the record, I have no problem singing “the wrath of God is satisfied,” as I view there to be a clear distinction between the classic doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement and its caricature, as John R.W. Stott carefully explains in his masterpiece, The Cross of Christ


Why Keep the King James Version? (… Or Why the “Thee’s” and “Thou’s” Are More Important Than You Think)

I am a big advocate for modern English Bible translations. However, even though I am not a “King James Only” Bible person, I do think there is a good argument for hanging onto a copy of the King James Version for Bible study.

I read Mark Ward’s marvelous Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible recently, and he makes a very gentle and persuasive case for using multiple Bible translations when studying the Bible. It is perfectly fine to have one Bible version as your “Go-To” translation of choice. But, if possible, we should make use of several versions when doing in-depth Scriptural study, to give us insight that our favorite translation might be missing.

For example, some might be tempted to ditch the old King James Version, as one among your versions, due to its archaic language. But there is a good case for why you should hold off on doing that.

As noted in my book review of Mark Ward’s book, the use of the “thee’s” and “thou’s” in the King James Version, might lead us to think that such language shows a special reverence for God, but this would be wrong. The problem has been accentuated in recent years, by the decision of those who produced the New American Standard Bible (NASB), back in the 1970s. The NASB kept the “thee’s” and “thou’s” with respect to referring to God, and ditched that language when addressing non-divine characters. Apparently, readers of the NASB liked the traditional language for God, so the NASB committee decided not to buck that tradition.

Unfortunately, traditions can easily confuse people. The NASB folks finally fixed that problem by getting rid of all “thee’s” and “thou’s,” by the time of their 1995 revision, but the stigma associated with “thee’s” and “thou’s,” as being formal and more reverent, was pretty well common knowledge by then, and difficult to uproot. Interestingly however, the original purpose for including the “thee’s” and “thou’s” in the King James Version,  in the first place, has been often missed.  Continue reading


A Fake-News Jesus? Why “Jesus Myth-ers” Should Take a Trip to Rome … (for Christmas)

After Thanksgiving, I was greeted by the following Tweet message being passed around from Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker:

Pinker is a brilliant cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author, but apparently he needs some help with his history. This new book by R. G. Price is hoping to popularize the notion of “Jesus Mythicism,” namely that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. Perhaps such “Jesus Myth-ers” should consider taking a trip to Rome, and dig a little through history.

This idea that Jesus never existed has really taken off over the past few years, picking up a lot of intrigued interest among atheists, that apparently now includes Steven Pinker, even as early as two years ago!  If professor Pinker has no opportunity to go to Rome anytime soon, say in time for Christmas, he might want to consider reading material from Tim O’Neill, a fellow atheist, who gets his history right, as discussed months ago here at Veracity. The details are too much to go into here, but O’Neill’s series on “Jesus Mythicism” is simply fantastic, where he basically argues that “Jesus Mythicism” is roughly the atheist equivalent of the belief in a “Flat Earth,” being promoted by some conservative Christians.

I guess we all have our embarrassing, crazy family members to deal with at holiday family gatherings.

But why is Rome important when it comes to talking about “Jesus Mythicism?” (… and why Christmas?)

Price’s self-published book is a revisionist reading of the Gospels, but “Jesus Myth-ers” more commonly make a different, yet just as historically convoluted, argument. Long time Veracity readers would know that those who promote “Jesus Mythicism” often say that Christianity stole much of its belief system from the Roman cult of worshipping Mithras, popular among Roman soldiers during the first centuries of the Christian era. For example, “Jesus Myth-ers” typically contend that the Christian claim, of Jesus being “born of a virgin,” at Christmas, was actually taken from the Mithraic religion, which supposedly claimed that Mithras was also “born of a virgin,” on December 25th.

Tim O’Neill has a great (yet long) post about the cult of Mithras, that should effectively dismantle such spurious claims (O’Neill has another great post that critiques R. G. Price’s own, even more peculiar version of “Jesus Mythicism,” that does not address the Mithras religion). The evidence to support the claim, that Mithras was “born of a virgin” on December 25th, is either non-existent or terribly “stupid” at best (“stupid” is how Price’s “fellow” atheist, Tim O’Neill, describes it!).

So, when my wife and I had the opportunity to go visit Rome earlier this year, I was determined to find out more about Mithras myself…. just to make sure.

The Mithras cult was a big deal in ancient Rome, and there are several places in Rome where archaeologists have found Mithraic temples buried well below buildings from the later Christian era. The closest modern equivalent to Mithraism might be the Masonic movement. Imagine a fraternity of like-minded, Roman soldiers coming together to perform sacred rituals, with all of their secret handshakes, and whatnot.

It helps to have an idea of what Mithras looked like. I was able to get this snapshot below of Mithras stabbing the cosmic bull, at the Vatican Museums. It was hard to get a good, front-on shot, due to the crowds, but this is what I saw: That is a dagger in his right hand, being thrust into the right shoulder side of the bull:

Mithras slaying the cosmic bull, at the Vatican Museums (from Clarke Morledge’s Android phone)

Tours to see the archaeological remains of these Mithraic temples were hard to get, as the spaces to get into these underground areas were pretty tight. Thankfully, we were able to go to the Basilica of San Clemente, a church in the Lateran part of Rome, which has a unique, multi-layered architecture. At the main entrance (see photo below), of the church, you enter the main sanctuary, built in the 11th century.

Entrance to the Basilica of San Clemente, in Rome, Italy (my wife has her back to me, as she is reading the entrance sign to the far right of the door).

From the sanctuary, I was able to walk to the church’s courtyard to get a better outside look, facing the entrance to the sanctuary:

Basilica of San Clemente courtyard, on a beautiful day in Rome (October, 2018)

Below that level is a 4th century church, which itself was built out of a home temporarily used for Christian worship, dating back to the 1st century. In the basement of this home, was a Mithraic temple, that was in use briefly in the 2nd century A.D.

Apparently, the Christians were here in this house first, before the Mithras worshippers got to the basement. The docent we had was pursuing graduate studies in Italian history, and she was a wealth of information about all things Mithras. Not one word about the supposed parallels between Christianity and Mithraism came up. We were not allowed to take photographs inside the church or underground, but this photo comes from the guidebook you can buy from the church’s bookstore:

Basement Mithraic temple, underneath the Basilica of San Clemente (from the church guidebook). Note the relief image of Mithras stabbing the cosmic bull, on the altar.

Once you do a little “digging” (pun intended!), you get the idea that far from being a copycat faith that stole from Mithraism, Christianity is actually quite different. Neither Mithraism nor Christianity lines up anything like what the “Jesus Myth-ers” imagine them to be.

Sure, the fact that Mithraism and Christianity are very different, does not necessarily mean that Christianity is true. A strong consensus of scholars is convinced that Jesus indeed did exist, even if many of these scholars reject the idea of God becoming Incarnate at Christmas. There are atheists, like Stephen Pinker, R. G. Price, and the more historically astute, Tim O’Neill, who do not “buy into” the Christian claim of Jesus being risen from the dead. I pray that God might touch their hearts and minds in a manner that they might see the Risen Jesus clearly.

But at the very least, the trip to Rome that my wife and I took helps to confirm that when someone says “Merry Christmas,” it is not just a clever way of saying “Merry Mithras” instead.

 

Listen to Nick Peters’ Deeper Water’s apologetics podcast, where Nick interviews Tim O’Neill discussing Jesus’ Mythicism. Tim O’Neill wrote a short review of Steven Pinker’s 2011 best-selling book, Better Angels of Our Nature, that should cause any Pinker enthusiast to pause. Steven Pinker and Nick Spencer debate one another, on the Unbelievable podcast, hosted by Justin Brierley, earlier in 2018, on the topic, “Have Science, Reason and Humanism Replaced Faith? (Youtube)” New Testament scholar N.T. Wright responds to Steven Pinker’s claim, that human rights were not derived from Christianity (Youtube).

 


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