Trevin Wax: You have been a firm defender of the doctrine of penal substitution as one of the important atonement motifs found in Scripture, especially in your comments regarding Isaiah 53. Yet, it is puzzling to many conservative evangelicals that you recommend a book by Steve Chalke that seems to deny penal substitution, while calling a book that upholds the doctrine, the book Pierced for our Transgressions “disturbingly unbiblical.”
N.T. Wright: Sub-biblical.
[[Editor’s Note: Though Wright sought to qualify my quotation of him in this interview, despite his protest, in “The Cross and the Caricatures,” Wright labels Pierced for our Transgressions both “hopelessly sub-biblical” and “disturbingly unbiblical.”]]
Trevin Wax: Sub-biblical… I suppose the question I’m slowly getting around to is: how do you define the doctrine of penal substitution and what is its significance for the church today?
N.T. Wright: Let me comment on those two books because I was surprised by the reaction against Steve Chalke. See, there’s a little bit of history here. When Steve was working on that book, he had seized upon my book Jesus and the Victory of God and absolutely ate it up and came and talked to me about it. That was the first time I met him. And it was very exciting to meet, to have somebody with all that energy for youth work and young people’s evangelism, etc. taking seriously a book which is basically about the kingdom of God and the Gospels and all of that.
Then, when I saw his book, and he asked me if I would write a blurb for it, I read it through quite quickly. And page after page after page, he’s just got it. He’s going in the right direction.
And the one-liner which he drops in was not, in its origin, a way of saying, “I don’t believe in penal substitution.” It was a way of ruling out of court to one side a distortion of penal substitution which he has heard, which I have heard – the idea of God simply wanting to punish somebody and not caring too much who it was. Oh, well, here’s an innocent man. Let’s punish him and that will be alright, won’t it? Sadly, there are many Christians who preach the doctrine like that.
Steve knows, from his experience on the street, that that just doesn’t do it. People just don’t get it. And if a rather careful conservative evangelical comes back and says, “Well that’s because the gospel is always offensive…” Is it the gospel that’s being offensive? Or is it your distortion of it that’s being offensive? And that’s the question.
I know… I then phoned Steve Chalke and asked last February or March sometime and I said, “Steve, we haven’t talked about this since all the furor, but I’ve just reread your book and I came to that one line, and it seems to me that you were saying, I’m not going with that distortion, but that you weren’t ruling out the kind of thing that I say in chapter 12 of Jesus and the Victory of God, which is a massive demonstration that Jesus had the whole agenda of Isaiah 53 present to his conscious vocational mind.” And Steve said, “Of course, I’m agreeing with that. I was just ruling out the distortion.”
The trouble is, Steve is not a theologian. So, when he gets interviewed, he is an engaging, extrovert, outgoing guy. So he sends sentences winging off into the unknown this way and that, and people then collect them and say, “There you are! He’s denied it again, etc.” So I’ve had people come back to me and say, “This really won’t do.”
Actually, this is displacement activity. The people going after Steve Chalke… the real problem, I really want to stress this, is that we’re looking at an evangelicalism that has forgotten what the Gospels are there for.
And that’s why I want to say Pierced for our Transgressions is sub-biblical. I preached at Oak Hill as Mike Ovey’s guest just a few weeks ago. He’s a good guy. I get along well with him. He’s heard that criticism and I think he’s wanting to do business with it.
Fancy writing a book, a big fat book, on what the atonement is really about and giving no space at all to Jesus’ own understanding of his own death. But that’s because the whole evangelical tradition has been Paul-based rather than Gospels-based, and it’s been a shrunken Paul-base which has insisted on reading some bits of Paul, privileging them, and simply missing out what the Gospels are really all about.
Part of that, I’m afraid, is a political thing… that if we take the Gospels seriously, we will be forced to take the kingdom agenda seriously. And people say, “Oh, that’s all that old social gospel stuff.” No, you can’t get off the hook that easily! This is about answering the Lord’s Prayer, God’s Kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, and until we take the Gospels seriously, we haven’t really got any right to be having this discussion. So that’s what I think is at stake with the Steve Chalke book.
So I come back to it and I say, as I understand Jesus and his mindset as he goes to the cross, I believe that he was aware as a deep vocational calling from the One he called Abba Father, that he had to be the one through whom the whole agenda of Isaiah 40-55 (which is a kingdom agenda) would come to pass.
Isaiah 53 (“pierced for our transgressions” and so on) is the means by which Isaiah 52:7-12 is accomplished. Isaiah 52:7-12 is about the defeat of evil, the return of YHWH to Zion and the exiles being set free. And the result of Isaiah 53 is the renewal of covenant in Isaiah 54 and the renewal of creation in Isaiah 55 and the invitation to the whole world to join in.
If you expound Isaiah 53 so that it isn’t about the kingdom, it isn’t about covenant renewal, it isn’t about the renewal of creation, then you have simply taken a little bit of Scripture to suit a scheme of your own, rather than the great Scriptural scheme. Jesus didn’t do that. You can see he’s got the whole agenda present to his mind.
So we have to understand the doctrine of penal substitution within the Scriptural framework, within which it makes sense, rather than within this very low grade thing that I’ve been a naughty boy, God wants to punish me, and for some reason, he punishes someone else, so phew! I’m alright. OK. For a five-year-old, that’s fine. That’ll maybe do it. But, actually let’s grow up! We’re not talking about five-year-olds here; we’re talking about grown men and women who ought to know better, to be honest.
Part of the difficulty then is political. Part of it is a failure to read the Gospels as what they are. Part of it is actually a failure to see that in Paul as well, Paul mentions the cross a thousand times, and each time he mentions it, he’s coming through from a different angle because he’s making a subtly different point. They all do tie up, but if you screen out all that stuff about Christus Victor and about representation, and so on, then you not only lose those elements, you lose key elements of penal substitution itself. I could go on about this all day.
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