While Christian believers prepare for Christmas, many today wonder if the whole thing was all made up. N.T. Wright responds to the skeptics’ question:
Tag Archives: N.T. Wright
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.
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.
Secular British historian Tom Holland tells the story of growing up in church, only to lose his faith in the process. In this extraordinarily provocative essay in the New Statesman, Holland describes his first encounter with doubt:
- When I was a boy, my upbringing as a Christian was forever being weathered by the gale force of my enthusiasms. First, there were dinosaurs. I vividly remember my shock when, at Sunday school one day, I opened a children’s Bible and found an illustration on its first page of Adam and Eve with a brachiosaur. Six years old I may have been, but of one thing – to my regret – I was rock-solid certain: no human being had ever seen a sauropod. That the teacher seemed not to care about this error only compounded my sense of outrage and bewilderment. A faint shadow of doubt, for the first time, had been brought to darken my Christian faith.
But years later, after researching the grand history of civilization, he comes to a very different conclusion. While still not embracing the faith, Holland takes on a profound appreciation for the Apostle Paul:
- It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.
On the Unbelievable podcast/radio program, Tom Holland sits down with New Testament scholar N.T. Wright and show host Justin Brierley, to talk about how his mind changed. Unbelievable, perhaps my top, favorite podcast, has a new series, entitled The Big Conversation, featuring some of the top world thinkers, including Jordan B. Peterson, Steven Pinker, and Daniel Dennett. Tom Holland is the author of various books, such as the In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire and The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West. N.T. Wright is one of the world’s most influential, New Testament historians, and author of the recent Paul: A Biography:
Interested in the whole discussion? Listen to the whole Unbelievable episode below, having the title “How St. Paul Changed the World.”
And now, time for an in-depth book review… so pour yourself a beverage, before you dive in…
Are Christians in danger of forgetting national, ethnic Israel’s role in God’s “End Times” program?
According to New York Times bestselling author, Joel Richardson, the answer is “yes.” Joel Richardson is a fairly young, articulate spokesperson promoting Christian Zionism, hosting an Internet biblical prophecy program, “The Underground.” Joel Richardson travels widely in the Middle East, with a genuine excitement about God’s mission to proclaim the Gospel in that part of the world. He is passionate about keeping Christians informed about the Middle East through various books and films. Nevertheless, Joel Richardson is deeply concerned. In a promotional advertisement for Richardson’s 2015 book, When a Jew Rules the World: What the Bible Really Says About Israel and the Plan of God, we read, “In the past thirty years, the trend among American evangelical’s view of Israel has shifted dramatically.”
As Richardson’s ad continues on later, “A new generation of Christians are not only turning away from traditional support for Israel, but from the very belief that there yet remains any ongoing calling and election upon the Jewish people. As this portentous shift is seen on a growing number of evangelical seminaries, and even on Facebook, are Scripturally-grounded Christians prepared to provide solid responses?”
When A Jew Rules the World, which I recently finished in an audiobook form, is designed to present arguments to reverse this trend. I wanted to read this book, since I keep hearing quite a bit about the dangers of so-called “replacement theology” these days. The terminology of “replacement theology” was something unknown to me until about five years ago, so I wanted to understand what the fuss was all about. If “replacement theology” was a theological error that needed to be addressed in the evangelical church, I figured that Joel Richardson might be able to help me out.
Prophecy teacher Joel Richardson impresses me as an articulate, well-informed defender of an Israel-centric view of the End Times, which stands at the heart of the concern over “replacement theology.” This is a hard-hitting book, and it deserves wider exposure, for those not familiar with the arguments proposed by folks like Richardson. But I would be careful before you raise the issues that concern Richardson in your small group Bible study. For example, in that same Richardson ad, there is also an extraordinary claim: “There is a sudden rise of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment among Christians today. ”
There is? Really? In the wider culture, I thought being Jewish was cool. In a post-Holocaust era, with movies like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List permeating popular consciousness, have Christians bucked the cultural trend and grown more hateful towards Jewish people in recent years? Continue reading
This fall, our church has been conducting a Bible study on the first eight chapters of the Book of Romans. We have been using a study guide written by an Anglican New Testament Scholar teaching at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, N.T. Wright, Romans (N.T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides).
I need not give you a biography of N.T. Wright, other than to say that Wright is perhaps one of the most influential evangelical scholars of our day. In the 1990s, Wright wrote about and impressively critiqued the rather infamous Jesus Seminar, that sought to determine the “truly” authentic sayings of Jesus in the Gospels simply on the basis of majority vote among the Jesus Seminar scholars. Wright also wrote perhaps the best contemporary defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, The Resurrection of the Son of God (the only other book that comes anywhere close to exceeding Wright’s work is Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach). He has been a bishop, and he regularly speaks all over the world, appealing to conservative and liberal-minded Christians alike, along with interested skeptics and seekers. N.T. Wright writes faster than most humans can read… and he is overall an excellent and engaging writer, writing for both academia and also for the popular audience, as with his C.S. Lewis-like introductory book to the Christian faith, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. For the intellectually inclined, Wright is very much like a C.S. Lewis for our times… and he even has a great English accent to listen to!
But Wright also disturbs many of his fellow Christians, particularly those from a Reformed theological background. Now, the study of Romans is incredibly rich and rewarding in and of itself, but if you are not familiar with N.T. Wright, you might find yourself perplexed by some of the things N.T. Wright argues for in his study book. Consider a note on Romans 1:17 that Wright gives us on pages 13-14 of the Romans study guide:
Here Paul introduces a word and theme that will be critical throughout the letter. The Greek word and its variants are often translated as “righteous,” “righteousness,” “just” or “justice.” The problem is that Paul (though writing in Greek) has Hebrew words and meanings in mind, which English translations often overlook…..the phrase “the righteousness of God” [refers] to God ‘s own faithfulness to his promises to Israel, to his covenant…He keeps his word and thereby shows his trustworthiness, justice and righteousness…. What does this mean for what Paul is saying in Romans? [God] does not impart or impute or transfer his righteousness, his just character [to the believer]….”
and here is this remark on page 26:
The phrase often translated “righteousness of God” … is not, as some have argued, a righteous quality that God gives or imparts to humans. It is God’s own righteousness, his being true to the covenant. This covenant faithfulness carries with it more of the overtones that Paul is trying to highlight, referring back to God’s covenant promises to Abraham to undo the problem caused by the sin of Adam. But Israel failed to both keep the law and bring the message of God to the nations.
For evangelical Christians who read this, those who have grown up hearing sermons about the “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, primarily through Christ’s “active obedience” to the Mosaic Law, thus enabling God to see us clothed in Christ’s righteousness, instead of our sin, sentences like those above from N.T. Wright are frankly startling. It can even be downright maddening! So then, what is N.T. Wright up to here? (CAUTION: you might need to put your thinking cap on!)