N. T. Wright Reconsiders the Meaning of Jesus’s Death: An Appreciative but Critical Review

It comes as no surprise to me when Scott McKnight adds a punch when he gives an unqualified recommendation of NT Wright latest book, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. McKnight writes,

One glaring weakness Wright observes with fierce clarity — that most atonement theories both build on one another in a kind of inner-dogmatic history discussion and at the same time ignore what Jesus said and did about atonement. Here are his important words:
Right away we meet something very peculiar. You might suppose that if Christian theologians were going to trace the meaning of Jesus’s death, they would begin with Jesus himself. Mostly, they do not. I possess many books on the “atonement.” Few give much attention to the gospels. None, as far as I recall, starts with Jesus himself. [Ahem, sir.] They may sooner or later highlight one famous saying, Mark 10:45 (“The son of man . . . came to be the servant, to give his life ‘as a ransom for many’”), but they do not normally go much beyond that. They seldom if ever link the meaning of Jesus’s death with Jesus’s announcement of God’s kingdom coming “on earth as in heaven.” They seldom highlight the fact that Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem and (so it seems) force some kind of a showdown with the authorities not on the Day of Atonement, not at the Festival of Tabernacles, the Festival of Dedication, or any other special day on the sacred calendar, laden with meaning as they were, but at Passover (170).

Once again seminary students are led to believe that the “Mc-‘Knight’ in W(b)right armor” has come to the rescue in ridding tradition of its theological distortions, in this case, the reductionist and crude theory of penal atonement.

However, students who are better informed about the depth and richness of the Reformation covenant tradition would take issues with the caricatures of the “Knight in W(b)right armor.” For other students who are unable to read the original sources of Reformational theology because of the burden of exams and term papers, I would recommend that they read Michael Horton’s appreciative but critical review, “N. T. Wright Reconsiders the Meaning of Jesus’s Death.”  Horton observes,

When Jesus bears our curse, it’s not simply that he’s bearing punishment—in the sense of certain blows determined arbitrarily for certain crimes—but that he’s assuming upon himself the consequences of Israel’s and the world’s idolatry, which include condemnation and death.
I highlight “simply” since this is a hallmark of Wright’s treatments, including his work on justification. Sometimes I wonder if he trades one reductionism for another. In some places we read that sin (and therefore salvation) isn’t simply this or that, but in other places the impression is given that it’s not this or that at all. It’s salutary if he’s suggesting we shouldn’t reduce the cross to propitiation and propitiation to punishment for sins (335–39)—although I suspect someone who finds revolting any notion of God having any wrath, with its attendant ideas of condemnation and judgment, will still have trouble with Wright’s construction.

The contrast between Wright’s provocative rhetoric (which makes for exhilarating reading) and Horton’s sober and nuanced analysis (which admittedly makes for less exciting reading) becomes immediately apparent. The more important question however is, which of the writers rightly separates the fine balance of truth from well-meaning caricatures: McKnight or Horton, or Wright oscillating in between? [I admit that usually I have issues with McKnight than with Wright].

Students who are wary of theological summaries (or caricatures), and want to make their own, independent judgment should read the original sources of Reformation theology to appreciate fully its unequaled insights. Why settle for processed fruits when one can pluck fresh fruits from the living tree of the Reformation?

———-
Given below is an excerpt from Michael Horton’s appreciative but critical review of N.T. Wright: “N. T. Wright Reconsiders the Meaning of Jesus’s Death” found in The Gospel Coalition website.

On the Gospel, the Reformers, and Idolatry
It’s difficult to understand the Reformation at all if not as a war against idolatry. In his treatise on The Necessity of Reforming the Church, John Calvin noted that idolatry was “the sin on account of which God so often punished the chosen people . . . the temple was laid in ruins . . . and his covenant people, from whom Christ was to spring, were . . . driven into exile.”
Wright acknowledges that Calvin recognized the covenant of vocation as the calling of priests to serve his purposes in Christ the high priest… Further, it’s difficult to square the wholesale criticism of the tradition as diverting attention from our vocation as a kingdom of priests with the historical fact that the Reformation recovered the doctrine of vocation and turned believers outward to love and serve their neighbors through their callings in the world…

On Israel, Justification, and Imputation
Aside from repetitive and sometimes annoying contrasts with a crassly reductionistic “works-contract,” Wright makes a solid case for the covenant of vocation.
The tragedy of the fall consists not in the violation of an arbitrary rule, but in the deeper mutiny it represents. For me, the most illuminating point of the book is Wright’s treatment of this treason as handing over God-given authority to false gods and powers. This point is made here and there in classic Reformed treatments, but (at least in my reading) not with the emphasis and centrality that Wright shows. Of course, it’s a major theme in the theology of the Christian East, but here it’s given a more biblical-theological set of coordinates.

This sets up the argument for Israel (beginning with the covenant with Abraham) as the means of God undoing idolatry and restoring the priestly vocation of his image-bearers. Although the nation also failed, like Adam, Jesus is the true Israel who fulfills the vocation, bears the curse, and by bringing forgiveness releases us from the thrall of the demonic powers. It’s not as if the curse is an arbitrary punishment added to the consequences of sin; the curse is the consequence of rejecting God for idols. When Jesus bears our curse, it’s not simply that he’s bearing punishment—in the sense of certain blows determined arbitrarily for certain crimes—but that he’s assuming upon himself the consequences of Israel’s and the world’s idolatry, which include condemnation and death.

I highlight “simply” since this is a hallmark of Wright’s treatments, including his work on justification. Sometimes I wonder if he trades one reductionism for another. In some places we read that sin (and therefore salvation) isn’t simply this or that, but in other places the impression is given that it’s not this or that at all. It’s salutary if he’s suggesting we shouldn’t reduce the cross to propitiation and propitiation to punishment for sins (335–39)—although I suspect someone who finds revolting any notion of God having any wrath, with its attendant ideas of condemnation and judgment, will still have trouble with Wright’s construction.

However, it wasn’t clear to me what he was actually affirming with regard to propitiation itself. While helpfully expanding our conception of the curse as more than penalties for violations, the argument left me wondering whether God was really in Christ reconciling the world to himself. I had trouble finding anything about God’s objective judgment not only on sin but also on sinners, which would require propitiation. I assume Wright would want to affirm that the curse isn’t an impersonal force or mere effect of idolatry, but a divine sanction imposed for covenantal treason. If so, however, I remain eager to hear what he thinks that might be.

That said, my impression is Wright has somewhat moderated his own view of justification. Deuteronomy makes clear, he observes, that in covenant justice God punishes his people, hence the exile (304). In Romans 3:21, dikaiosyne theou means “God’s covenant justice,” and sinners are “freely declared to be in the right [dikaioumenoi], to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus” (305). So God’s righteousness condemns as well as saves; it’s not only God’s covenant faithfulness or our covenant membership, but also a verdict God declares now over all who are in Christ through faith. Wright even emphasizes that this justification is the verdict of the final judgment rendered in the present, which seems different from arguments elsewhere distinguishing a present justification by faith and a future justification according to works.

Wright repeats his frequent wariness of “imputation,” but it’s difficult to understand how he can affirm an idolater can be freed from the curse by the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s blood and declared righteous without concluding this is something like a crediting or imputation. Somehow Christ’s death is the basis for the ungodly idolaters having their sins forgiven and being declared in the right. And it’s all in God’s faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham, in spite of Israel having turned its back on the oath it swore at Sinai, which Wright seems to regard (like most covenant theologians) as in some sense a republication of the original covenant of vocation. Jesus, the last Adam and true Israel, has freed us from bondage to the powers, to which we surrendered our authority in idolatry, since he died for our sins and declared us to be in the right. This is God’s promise to Abraham and through Israel of a worldwide family. Jesus has fulfilled the worldwide vocation of Israel.
If this is an accurate summary, then it’s not only consistent with but central to traditional covenant (federal) theology. “The traditions of reading against which I am arguing,” he explains, “have done their best to exclude the idea of the covenant with Israel from Paul’s thought at this key point [Rom. 3:24–26]” (307). Despite the bogeyman of a “works-contract,” however, classic federal theology turns on that connection between Adam, Israel, and Christ.

On this point as on others, it’s difficult to know exactly how sweeping Wright’s claim is. The stated thesis is that the “works-contract” narrative has a moralistic anthropology, paganized soteriology, and platonized eschatology. That depiction hardly leaves much room for negotiating. Nevertheless, the sharp “not at all” contrast turns out in various places to be “not simply.” He says,

The usual “Romans road” reading of the letter assumes that the only point Paul is making between 1:18 and 3:20 is that “all humans are sinful.” This then leads us to the “works contract”: we are moral failures; we need to get “right with God” if we’re going to get to heaven; Jesus dies in our place; the job is done. And at one level this is better than nothing. The glass may be one-third full. But something vital has been left out, like a cocktail without the all-important shot of bourbon. You can still drink it. Some important flavors are really there. But the intended meaning, the real “kick” to Paul’s argument, is missing. . . . “Sin,” then, is not simply the breaking of God’s rules. It is the outflowing of idolatry. (307–08)

A consistent use of this more nuanced way of framing the contrast throughout would have been helpful.

At the risk of being annoying, I have to say this interpretation of the “covenant of vocation,” at least as summarized here, is identical in the main elements to classic covenant (federal) theology. In fact, it fills in the outline of Wright’s narrative with rich detail. The covenant God swore to Abraham is decisive in this story, as is the covenant Israel swore when it was constituted a nation at Mount Sinai. Everything else Wright proposes as the fulfillment of God’s covenant faithfulness in Christ, ending the exile and sending out his redeemed people in the power of the Spirit for the greater conquest, is part and parcel of traditional covenant theology in the Reformed tradition. [emphasis added by NKW]

1 thought on “N. T. Wright Reconsiders the Meaning of Jesus’s Death: An Appreciative but Critical Review”

  1. Thank you for this post. It helps me to appreciate even more Isaiah 40-66, the OT Gospel that anticipates (and explains) the four NT Gospels.

    Isaiah 40-66 indeed presents the Gospel (Good News) as, “Here is your God! … [and] Your God reigns!” (40:9; 52:7), that is the coming of God’s kingdom. However, literally right in the middle of Isaiah 40-66 (at least in terms of chapter division) we find Isaiah 53, the fulfillment of which is assumed in Isaiah 40-66 (see Isaiah 46:12-13; 56:1)

    Isaiah 53 teaches penal substitutionary atonement so clearly that NT theologian Otfried Hofius (2004: 70), even though he personally objects to it, confesses that “the idea of substitution or place taking [is] evident in Isaiah 53”.

    Jesus Himself explicitly said He fulfilled what was written about Him in Isaiah 40-66 (Luke 4:16-21; Isaiah 61:1-2; cf. 11:2; 42:1). So when we do begin with what Jesus explicitly said about His mission we do get to Isaiah 53. Hence what Jesus said about His mission in Mark 10:45 is not incidental.

    The dependence of the NT Gospels on Isaiah 40-66 has been systematically demonstrated by books and articles on the Isaianic New Exodus theme in the NT Gospels and Acts.

    Hofius, Otfried, 2004, “The Fourth Servant Song in the New Testament Letters”, pp. 163-188 in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, Edited by Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, Translated by Daniel P. Bailey, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

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