‘The Cross and the Cariacatures’

This post was published on Monday 7 May 2007.

I have just finished reading Tom Wright’s lengthy article on Penal Substitution, during a long safety exchange in the snooker world championship final (!). Penal substitution is something of a hot topic at the moment. I have read much about it in the church press, and had many discussions about it and the current arguments with fellow students at college.

I have to confess, I haven’t read the book Pierced for our Transgressions, the discussion of which takes up the larger part of Tom Wright’s article. I also have to confess, I am a big fan of Tom Wright’s, ever since his Hulsean Lectures in Cambridge University, in 2004.

To start with, Wright makes some excellent comments on Jeffrey John’s recent talk, and on Robert Jenson (another of my favourite theologians). Substitutionary atonement definitely has a place in orthodox Christian theology, including the penal variety. The tricky bit comes when we try to give content to that (penal) substitutionary atonement.

Wright’s major problem with Pierced for our Transgressions is that the book is, in his words, ‘deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical.’ He argues that it fails to do justice to the whole biblical story, ignoring the calling and purpose of Abraham and the people of Israel, and paying scant regard to the gospels.

As one of my college colleagues wrote, Wright’s main issue is a methodological one, which leads to an unbalanced (and, in his view, unbiblical) theology. How do we do ‘biblical’ theology? Doing a word-search using a concordance is perhaps one way, trying to understand all the different verses that mention a particular thing.

However, there is more to the Bible than words - there is a story. Wright argues that to understand something ‘biblically’, we have to understand it in the context - and as part - of the whole biblical story. If this is done, we avoid the dissatisfaction of what seems to be little more than theological proof-texting.

This ‘narrative’ theology is not ‘systematic’ theology according to the writers of Pierced for our Transgressions:

... there is a difference between the kind of narrative theology project in which Wright has been engaged for so many years, and the approach of classical systematic theology, which looks to provide an integrated picture of the Bible’s teaching on particular themes. (here)

The writers of Pierced for our Transgressions are claiming they are doing ‘systematic’ theology. However, I am not really convinced you can do real ‘systematic’ theology without a full appreciation of ‘narrative’ theology - the Bible is, after all, a narrative, not a set of theological propositions.

To cut a long story short, the his narrative method allows Wright to define penal substitution in the following way:

The gospels, as whole narratives, are deliberately telling the story of Jesus and his kingdom-inauguration in such a way as to say, on the one hand, that this is how the long story of Israel (which is, remember, the story of how the creator God is redeeming the whole world) is reaching its God-ordained climax, and in such a way as to say, on the other hand, that it is this story to which the crucifixion of Jesus is itself the climax. The understanding of the cross offered by the four canonical gospels, in other words, is not to be reduced to a handful of prooftexts taken here and there. These are merely the tips of the iceberg. The evangelists’ understanding of the cross is that it means what it means as the climax of this story - the story of Israel compressed into the story of its representative, the Messiah, whose task was precisely to draw the threads of that narrative together. Read in this way, the multiple strands of idolatry, sin, evil, wickedness, oppression, violence, judgment and all the rest throughout the Old Testament come rushing together and do their worst to Jesus. He takes their full force, and does so because that was God’s purpose all along. That is why, though I have argued here and in many other places for something that can be called ‘penal substitution’, I regard the ‘Christus Victor’ theme as the overarching one within which substitution makes its proper point, though that would take a lot longer to demonstrate. And it ought to be quite clear, if we read the gospels in this way, that what many have seen (and dismissed!) as the mere ‘political’ or ‘historical’ reasons for Jesus’ death - Pilate’s duplicitous vacillation, the Chief Priest’s cynical scheming, and so on - are themselves part of the ‘theological’ interpretation of the cross offered by the evangelists.

As you can probably tell, I whole-heartedly agree with Wright’s theology. However, the tone of his essay has upset many people. Tom Wright is a combative guy - that is one of his best qualities! - and often reads quite harshly. While he has good points to make about theology, perhaps the force with which he describes the book as ‘unbliblical’ could have been avoided. Sometimes I get the feeling he should write things, and then sleep on them for a couple of days, before publishing them!

Whatever, I hope the excellent points Wright makes about theology are read in the constructive manner they are intended. I intend to do more work on narrative theology for my dissertation next year - it is a fascinating subject!