Thursday, April 26, 2007

Wright on Penal Substitution

Alot is going on around the web about penal substitution esp. in relation to the views of Stephen Chalke, N.T. Wright, and a recent book edited by Mike Ovey, Steve Jeffery, and Andrew Sach (eds.) Pierced for our Transgressions (IVP). Jim Hamilton and Denny Burke add their comments. N.T. Wright responds to his critics on the Fulcrum website.

Here is a quote from NTW himself:

"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."

Wright, ‘Romans,’ 10.574-75


Denny Burk said...


I am aware that Wright seems to affirm P.S. elsewhere, not only in his Romans commentary, but also in chapter 12 of JVG:

"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."

So my question is this. If Wright affirms elsewhere that God pours out His wrath on Jesus as our substitute (as he appears to do in the quote from ch. 12 of JVG), then why does he castigate that view in the recent Fulcrum essay? Which view is Wright’s view? The one represented in ch. 12 of JVG, or the one in the Fulcrum article where he says the following [my comments in brackets]:

“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 [and it appears here that he is careful not to say that Jesus took upon Himself God’s righteous wrath], in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to [this is substitution, but thus far not penal substitution which requires that God’s vengeance be directed towards Jesus in His sacrifice on the cross]; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution [absent God’s wrath, it’s not P.S.], 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 [“Vengeful Father,” yes. “Gratuitous,” no. Proponents of P.S. would reject the adjective “gratuitous” in favor of the adjective “righteous.” Does Wright accept that God’s righteous wrath was poured out on Jesus at the cross? He never affirms such in this essay, and he castigates the models that include the “vengeful-father” motif, a motif that is essential to the P.S. model.]. 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. [Certainly there is more to P.S. than “the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story,” but certainly it is not LESS than that story. The vengeful Father and innocent Son are at the heart of the historic P.S. view. That is not a caricature. If Wright thinks it is, then he has disavowed the very thing he claims to believe—penal substitution.]”

So which view is Wright’s view? Does he stand by his comments in the Fulcrum essay? Does he stand by his endorsement of Chalke's definition, which most assuredly is a repudiation of the P.S. view? Or does he stand by JVG, which his most recent essay emphatically contradicts?

He could have spoken much more clearly in the Fulcrum essay. He could have distanced himself from Chalke's repudiation of P.S. If Wright affirms P.S., why did he fail to clarify his view? Why did he continue to endorse Chalke? That endorsement is at best an admission that he doesn't understand P.S., or at worst it's a repudiation of P.S.

Peter M. Head said...

Denny is out of line on this. See my comment on his blog.

Bryan L said...

What happened to the blog post? i can't find it anymore.

Denny Burk said...


In light of the insistence by Dr. Head and others that I have misunderstood Bishop Wright, I have removed the blog post. I am a sinner, and I am often wrong. I'm willing to concede that I may be wrong about Wright.

I still think Wright's apparent affirmations of penal substitution are at odds with what he has written in the Fulcrum essay.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 P.S. 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 this amounts to an affirmation of P.S.

So I still don't know how to reconcile Wright's Fulcrum essay with his previous writings (e.g., JVG ch.12, Romans commentary). But I've removed my post nevertheless. I'm taking Dr. Head's word that Wright still affirms that God poured out His wrath on Jesus at the cross.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the thoughtful responses from Dr. Head and Dr. Bird.


Bryan L said...

I think it's important to remember that Wright's comment about the book being unbiblical was a methodological disagreement with the authors. They rightly recognize that's what he's criticizing them about, their methodology. And so when he laments the endorsements of the book, he's lamenting how they specifically endorse its 'biblicalness' or attention to exegesis. In his opinion he doesn't think it book succeeded in either. He believes "the big themes of the Bible that have been ignored", commenting how the authors don’t really take serious the narrative in scripture, and the narrative thought world of the NT writers and how the story of Israel is in the background of their statements concerning the death of Jesus and it's purpose.
Whether he's right or not in his criticism of their methodology will have to be settled in the ongoing debate on the proper way to do theology.

Bryan L

Stephen said...

But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken. And they made His grave with the wicked— But with the rich at His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities.

How does one take that any other way???