Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Response to Wright from the Authors of "Pierced for Our Transgressions"

The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions have responded to N.T. Wright's criticism. I'll reprint it below (in a more legible font size!).

N. T. Wright does not like Pierced for our Transgressions, as he explains HERE. Some have already responded to him HERE and HERE. While we are grateful for constructive criticism, Wright is mistaken at several important points. We offer a brief response.

First, N. T. Wright takes exception to our criticism of Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s The Lost Message of Jesus, a book which he continues to endorse. He tries to argue that the now-notorious reference to ‘cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed’ (Lost Message, p. 182) was never intended as a description of penal substitution itself (which Wright assures us that Chalke believes), but was rather an attack on a caricature of the doctrine.

We would be pleased if that were the case, but this reading of Chalke is simply impossible. Wright seems to be unaware that Chalke clarified his position in an article in Christianity magazine entitled Cross Purposes (September 2004, pp. 44–48, available as ‘Redeeming the Cross’ from the Oasis Trust website HERE; reprinted with slight revisions in Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, ed. S. Barrow and J. Bartley [Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005]), written in response to the controversy triggered by The Lost Message. Here Chalke makes it plain that it is the classic doctrine of penal substitution itself, not merely its caricatures, that he finds objectionable.

‘In reality, penal substitution (in contrast to other substitutionary theories) doesn’t cohere well with either biblical or Early Church thought. Although penal substitution isn’t as old as many people assume (it’s not even as old as the pews in many of our church buildings), it is actually built on pre-Christian thought.’

Or again:

‘In The Lost Message of Jesus I claim that penal substitution is tantamount to “child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.” Though the sheer bluntness of this imagery (not original to me of course) might shock some, in truth, it is only a stark “unmasking” of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such a theology.’

If Chalke has given private assurances to Wright that he wishes to retract his previous denials of penal substitution, we hope that he will realise the importance of making this public.

Secondly, Wright’s central objection to our work seems not to be directed at any of the specific biblical or theological arguments we have advanced in support of penal substitution. Rather, his quibble is a methodological one: he complains that we have not set our whole discussion within the framework of a narrative-theological exposition of Israel’s history as it reaches its fulfilment in Christ. He even goes so far as to assert that we ‘ignore the history of Israel’ (italics original), which seems at best overstated. For example, we set the Passover in the context of the Abrahamic covenant (pp. 35, 41–42), the Levitical sacrifices in the context of the preceding Exodus narrative (pp. 42–43), God’s curse on sin in the context of Israel’s exile (pp. 93–95, 122), the life of Jesus in the context of Israel’s role in God’s purposes (pp. 134–135).

However, 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. Surely both are helpful and appropriate. A book professing to summarise the message of John’s Gospel must begin with the whole structure of his narrative, the place of the signs, and so on. Conversely, the section on John in a systematic work on the Trinity will necessarily – and rightly – focus on those specific passages which have most to say about the Father-Son relationship, the sending of the Spirit, etc.

Wright accuses us of ‘sifting’ the Gospels for material relevant to our subject, and indeed that is exactly what we were trying to do! That does not mean that we are free to abstract ‘proof-texts’ from their contexts, but we took pains to avoid that. But Wright censures us for failing to hit a target we were not aiming at. We did not profess to answer the question, ‘What do the gospels teach about Jesus?’ nor even, ‘What picture of the atonement emerges from the gospels as a whole?’ Our aim, as we explain in the introduction to our exegetical section (pp. 33–34) was more modest. We are trying to establish simply that penal substitution has a place in this bigger picture.

Thirdly, Wright criticises our exegesis of Romans and Galatians. Interpretation of these epistles must reckon with the ongoing debates over the so-called New Perspective on Paul, in which Wright himself is a central figure. Not wanting to privilege exclusively either side, our approach in Galatians was to demonstrate that penal substitution follows from both the traditional and the New Perspective approaches; we even devoted a section to a (sympathetic) discussion of Wright’s narrative reading of the curse as exile in Galatians 3 (pp. 93–94).

In Romans we took care to avoid conclusions that depend exclusively on either framework (p. 80). Wright objects that we should have said more about the meaning of ‘the righteousness of God’ and its relationship to the Abrahamic covenant. But he himself concedes that these things are controversial, and since they are not necessary to establish the more general points (on which all can agree) that God is angered by sin (Rom. 1–3) and that Christ’s death turned aside his anger (Rom. 3:21–26), it seemed wise to omit them.

Wright is clearly dissatisfied, and wants us to make his way of reading the Bible our controlling hermeneutic; anything short of this he deems ‘sub-biblical’. But to base our case solely on a position that continues to be hotly debated in New Testament Studies would have been counterproductive. As it is, our aim was that our exegesis should stand ‘regardless of which path is taken with respect to the issues of recent controversy’ (p. 89).

As a postscript, we should say something in reply to Wright’s surprise that we ‘omit all mention or discussion of Anselm.’ The reason is simply that, contrary to (popular?) belief, Anselm did not teach penal substitution. Yes, he brought to prominence the important vocabulary of ‘satisfaction’, which became important in later formulations. But in Anselm’s feudal thought-world, it was God’s honour that needed to be satisfied by substitutionary obedience, not his justice by substitutionary penalty. Thus his omission from our list of those who have endorsed penal substitution was not accidental.