N.T. Wright holds the distinction of being one of the few theologians of our day who regularly contradicts and opposes the liberal wing of the academy while simultaneously alienating and perplexing many conservatives within the Reformed tradition. Liberal scholars scoff at his insistence upon Jesus’ literal and physical resurrection; conservative scholars decry his apparent denial of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. It is the latter subject that I will deal with in this post.

An Overview of Wright’s Historical Theology

During the 1970’s, Wright’s theology put him squarely in the conservative Reformed camp. One of his earliest works was assisting the compilation of the complete works of John Frith, the early English Reformer. Even today, Wright admires men like J.I. Packer, John Stott, and Michael Green.

Wright’s theological views underwent substantial change in the mid-1980’s as he wrote the Tyndale New Testament commentary for Colossians and Philemon. He claims to have been a “dualist” before this time, one who saw the Gospel as belonging to one sphere and the rest of life belonging to another. Therefore, politics and the world of creation were left untouched by the Gospel, which was primarily about individual salvation to a heavenly afterlife. From this point on, however, as Wright began to study the cosmic implications of the Gospel and articulate his own version of the rising “new perspective” on Paul, he moved away from his Calvinistic roots and launched into historical study of the Gospels.

Wright’s Appeal to Scripture

Ironically, though Wright is labeled by many as being outside the Reformation tradition, Wright himself considers himself more Reformed, due to his insistence upon the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. “I believe that Scripture must be the judge of all our traditions, no matter how venerable,” he stated in a 2004 interview. Wright admires the work of Calvin and Luther, but when he believes their theology to be deficient in light of Scriptural teaching, he does not hesitate to say so.

Wright also claims to be part of the stream of historic Reformation theology. He says that he does not deny what the Reformers sought to affirm, only to “ground in more fully biblical thinking the great underlying truths of the faith.” Regarding substitutionary atonement, Wright offers this plea:

“I am often puzzled and distressed when people question whether I really believe in the substitutionary meaning of Jesus’ death. I would simply say: read my published sermons; read chapter 12 of Jesus and the Victory of God; ask yourself, not whether I go through the hoops of all the words that your tradition has told you we should say, but whether I represent fairly what scripture, and Jesus himself, said about the meaning of his death. That is my only aim.”

Whether or not Wright is correct in his claim to be part of the historic Reformation heritage falls outside the confines of the current essay. Instead, we turn our focus to Wright’s view of the atonement with the following questions in mind:

1. Does Wright affirm that Christ died as an innocent sacrifice in the place of the guilty?

2. Does Wright affirm the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death (i.e. that He died in the place of sinners)?

3. Does Wright affirm that on the cross, Jesus took the wrath of God upon Himself, as a propitiation for human sin?

The Atonement Grounded in History

Central to N.T. Wright’s theology is the importance of historical research. Wright rejects the Enlightenment’s legacy that leaves us with a Christianity filled with moral platitudes and no historical referent. For Wright, the historian’s task is vital to a true understanding of Christianity. The Bible did not fall out of heaven, but was written within a historical context. Knowing that context is crucial to correctly interpreting Scripture. Therefore, in wrestling with Wright’s theology of the atonement, we cannot simply gloss over the historical issues and jump straight to theology. History and theology are intertwined in Wright’s thought, so much so that to separate one from the other ultimately distorts his view.

It is easy to lean to one side or the other when wrestling with history and theology. What do we automatically think of when asked the question, “Why did Jesus die?” If our first answer is “because He upset the religious authorities” or “He was a threat to Rome,” we are leaning towards historical answers. If our first answer resembles “He died to pay for our sins,” or “so that He could defeat the powers of evil,” we are giving theological answers. Wright believes that we should not separate these two sides. Both aspects are essential, and therefore in our study of Jesus, we should seek to marry the historical and theological dimensions of His life, not separate them. If we take out the history of Jesus’ death, we are left with a nonhistorical, abstract transaction between God and humans. If we neglect the theology of Jesus’ death, we are left with a martyr whose life and death bear no real significance for us today. We must seek to hold history and theology together.

N.T. Wright complains that some evangelical presentations of the gospel uproot the message of Jesus from its historical context and transform it into simply an individual’s spiritual experience with God.

“So many popular presentations are far too abstract. They take the whole event out of its context in history, in the story of God and his people, and imagine it simply as a nonhistorical transaction between God and Jesus into which we can somehow be slotted. But the New Testament always insists on seeing the cross as what it was – a horrible and bitter event within history; and it insists that we understand its significance within, not outside, that context.”

The wedding of historical research and theological reflection has broadened Wright’s view of the gospel to include, not only individual salvation in the afterlife, but the present implications that the announcement of Jesus’ lordship have in our world. He claims the Scripture teaches both the personal nature of salvation and the cosmic implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

An example of this comes from Wright’s study of the Gospel of Mark. Wright sees three dimensions of the Gospel story in Mark’s account. The largest circle is the political story, replete with characters who are scheming to get rid of Jesus because His message is dangerous and counter-cultural. The second circle is the theological story, that Jesus is dying as the ransom for many and His death represents God’s victory over sin and death. The third circle is the personal implications of the theological story. We are invited to see ourselves as the sinners for whom Christ died. Wright believes that in studying Scripture, we must start with the historical and theological dimensions, before moving to the personal implications. Otherwise, we “screen out the real theology and politics.”

This is, according to Wright, the way the early church would have read the Gospels. Wright insists that most first-century Jews were not so concerned about their security in the afterlife, but were much more focused on God’s purposes for Israel and the world. Wright affirms that first-century Jews did indeed look to find personal salvation, but that their hope “fell within the larger picture of God’s future for the whole nation.” Wright believes we should not impose our Western individualistic mindset on the biblical texts, but let them speak for themselves in their historical context.

This leads Wright to reject what he believes are wrong ways of speaking about the atonement. It is here that Wright upsets many Reformed readers because it appears he is attacking substitutionary atonement. He rejects the Anselmic view of the atonement that makes God out to be a “mediaeval prince who had been publicly shamed.” He believes that Anselm’s view of satisfaction imposes a foreign paradigm upon the biblical narratives. Likewise, he rejects the reduction of penal substitution to God demanding someone suffer “and not caring much who it is.” Wright encourages readers to broaden their view of the atonement to include other themes and not to emphasize solely penal substitution. In typical Wright fashion, he illustrates this with a musical reference: “Substitutionary atonement is a vital element in the gospel. Miss it out, and the music of the gospel is no longer what it should be. But if you only play that note you are in danger of setting up a different harmony altogether.”

Instead of penal substitution, Wright believes that the center of the atonement lies in the Christus Victor theme that explains the cross as the moment of “decisive victory over the ‘principalities and powers’.” He believes we should give priority (though a priority “among equals”) to this understanding of the atonement, while ensuring we do not lose the many other expressions of the atonement, which one would assume would include penal substitution

Just as he will not separate history and theology, neither will he separate the different themes of the atonement, such as Christus Victor and penal substitution. He insists we see these together. So, what does it look like when Wright’s theological reflection ultimately rises from his historical research?

Perhaps the best understanding of Wright’s view of the atonement is found in his contribution to the New Dictionary of Theology. History and theology come together at the cross. After several pages of historical research regarding Jesus’ life and ministry, Wright states:

“[Jesus] would carry out Israel’s task: and, having pronounced Israel’s impending judgment in the form of the wrath of Rome which would turn out to be the wrath of God, he would go ahead of her and take that judgment on himself, drinking the cup of God’s wrath so that his people might not drink it. In his crucifixion, therefore, Jesus identified fully (if paradoxically) with the aspirations of his people, dying as ‘the king of the Jews’, the representative of the people of God, accomplishing for Israel (and hence the world) what neither the world nor Israel could accomplish for themselves.”

Again placing Jesus’ death in historical context and the overarching biblical narrative, Wright adds: “As the story of the exodus is the story of how God redeemed Israel, so the story of the cross is the story of how God redeemed the world through Israel in person, in Jesus, the Messiah.”

Jesus the Innocent One

Now that we have seen a brief overview of how Wright welds together historical and theological understandings of the atonement, we can begin to systematically lay out the different pieces that make up the doctrine of penal substitution. We first turn to the notion of Christ the righteous One, dying in the sinner’s place. Wright frames the discussion of Christ’s righteousness differently than standard Reformed theologians. He does not speak of Christ’s righteousness as “moral perfection.” Instead, he believes that historically, it makes more sense to see Christ’s perfection in terms of faithfulness to His messianic vocation. This does not exclude moral perfection, however, as we will soon see.

Wright denies the traditional Reformed terminology of “imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” He does not deny the concept of imputation, however, as is evident in the way he translates the New Testament epistles. He translates pistis Christou not as “faith in Christ,” but as a subjective genitive, “the faithfulness of Christ.” Here, Wright avoids the language of imputation while maintaining its content. Jesus is faithful to the covenant in place of Israel, who was unfaithful. It is through Jesus’ faithfulness (obedience) that the sin (disobedience) of Adam is undone.

Furthermore, Wright speaks of Jesus’ holiness as a robe which clothes the believer. Again, he makes this affirmation within historical context, but the theological truth is there just the same:

“Jesus, the innocent one, the one person who has done nothing wrong, the one innocent of the crimes of which Israel as a whole was guilty, has become identified with rebel Israel who represents God’s whole rebel world; with us who are rebels, unclean, unfaithful, unloving, unholy – so that he may take that sin as it were into himself and deal with it, and give us instead his holiness as a robe, his purity as a gift and a power.”

Though Wright would disagree with the traditional Reformed categories of imputation and Luther’s “Great Exchange,” he affirms the concept again when he writes: “[Jesus]… takes human uncleanness, so that other humans can take his wholeness. He absorbs our impurity in himself so that it becomes lost without trace, and his own purity flows into us instead.” Wright clearly affirms that Jesus is the innocent One, whose faithfulness substitutes for the unfaithfulness of sinful humanity.

Jesus the Substitute

We look now to the question regarding the substitutionary nature of the atonement. Because Wright emphasizes the Christus Victor theme, many have come to believe that there is no room left for the teaching of substitution. This is simply not the case. Wright’s work is full of references to Jesus’ dying in the sinner’s stead. In his pastoral commentary on Matthew, Wright encourages us to see ourselves in Barabbas’ place. “Barabbas represents all of us. When Jesus dies, the brigand goes free, the sinners go free, we all go free.” He also affirms that Jesus’ death is substitutionary even for the disciples. Jesus dies, so His people will not. “His death is counted by God in place of theirs.”

Elsewhere, Wright affirms (within the first-century historical context) Jesus’ substitutionary atonement. Jesus is Israel’s representative, which means that “what is true of Him is true of them.” By summing up His people in Himself, Jesus “passes through the judgment of death” and into new life.

Wright also affirms the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death. “[Hebrews] offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us.” Wright’s pastoral commentary on Hebrews backs up what Wright affirms elsewhere, that Jesus’ death is the “sin-offering” required by God.

The reason Wright’s views on substitutionary atonement are called into question stem from his constant grounding of this doctrine in historical events. Wright does not express a view of substitutionary atonement that sounds like a nonhistorical transaction between the individual and God. For Wright, the doctrine of the atonement involves the very events that transpired to put Jesus on the cross. Furthermore, if one does not understand Jesus as the climax and fulfillment of Old Testament history and prophecy, one has not correctly understood the atonement. The judgment that Jesus pronounces upon Israel is precisely the judgment that He Himself will endure at the cross. Wright elaborates:

“Now the judgment that had hung over Israel and Jerusalem, the judgment Jesus had spoken of so often, was to be meted out; and Jesus would deliver his people by taking its force upon himself. His own death would enable his people to escape.”
“In the strange justice of God, which overrules the unjust “justice” of Rome and every human system, God’s mercy reaches out where human mercy could not, not only sharing, but in this case substituting for, the sinner’s fate.”

Does Wright affirm the substitutionary nature of the atonement? The answer to our second question is yes.

The Cup of God’s Wrath

We now turn to our final question, this regarding the penal nature of the substitutionary atonement. Was God’s wrath poured out on Jesus on the cross? Though this may be a controversial understanding of the atonement in some liberal circles, Wright defends it staunchly as historically and theologically true.

When speaking of “the wrath of God” on Jesus at the cross, Wright turns to the Gethsemane narrative, and specifically Jesus’ use of the “cup” terminology from the Old Testament. Since, in the prophetic writings, the “cup” refers to God’s wrath, Wright believes it is historically sound to affirm that Jesus was referring to God’s wrath when He willingly faced the cross, in order to drink of the cup. Nowhere does Wright articulate the idea of the “cup” more powerfully than in his Matthew commentary:

“The Old Testament prophets speak darkly about the ‘cup of YHWH’s wrath.’ These passages talk of what happens when the one God, grieving over the awful wickedness of the world, steps in at last to give the violent and bloodthirsty, the arrogant and oppressors, the reward for their ways and deeds. It’s as though God’s holy anger against such people is turned into wine: dark, sour wine which will make them drunk and helpless. They will be forced to “drink the cup,” to drain to the dregs the wrath of the God who loves and vindicates the weak and helpless. The shock of this passage… is that Jesus speaks of drinking this cup himself.”

Notice how Wright maintains the “cup of wrath” in historical context. This is the way he avoids the picture of God as a tyrant taking out His vengeance on His Son for others’ mistakes. Wright sees the wrath of God in historical events. “Jesus takes the wrath of Rome (which is…the historical embodiment of the wrath of God) upon himself…” In fact, God has set Jesus forth as a hilasterion (propitiation).

It is because Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God in order to shield His people that He uttered His cry of God-forsakenness on the cross. In that moment in which Jesus was most fully embodying God’s love, He found Himself cut off and separated from that love. Furthermore, Jesus’ taking upon Himself the wrath of God against sin (through the Roman crucifixion) frees us from sin and guilt.

“Jesus, the innocent one, was drawing on to himself the holy wrath of God against human sin in general, so that human sinners like you and me can find, as we look at the cross, that the load of sin and guilt we have been carrying is taken away from us. Jesus takes it on himself, and somehow absorbs it, so that when we look back there is nothing there. Our sins have been dealt with, and we need never carry their burden again.”

Again and again, Wright affirms the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Theologians may quibble with him for not putting this at the center of his atonement theology; others may chide him for not speaking of it more often. But no one who has read Wright fairly can charge him of denying this doctrine. I close this section with a paragraph from one of Wright’s early works, which he has since affirmed in other ways in later writings:

“On the cross Jesus took on himself that separation from God which all other men know. He did not deserve it; he had done nothing to warrant being cut off from God; but as he identified himself totally with sinful humanity, the punishment which that sinful humanity deserved was laid fairly and squarely on his shoulders… That is why he shrank, in Gethsemane, from drinking the ‘cup’ offered to him. He knew it to be the cup of God’s wrath. On the cross, Jesus drank that cup to the dregs, so that his sinful people might not drink it. He drank it to the dregs. He finished it, finished the bitter cup both physically and spiritually… Here is the bill, and on it the word ‘finished’ – ‘paid in full.’ The debt is paid. The punishment has been taken. Salvation is accomplished.”

One can clearly see an affirmation of the penal substitutionary atonement throughout the theology of N.T. Wright. Though Wright does not affirm this doctrine within the standard Reformed categories, the concept of Jesus the Righteous One dying in the place of the sinner and thus taking upon Himself the wrath of God is clearly espoused. Even though some of us may disagree with Wright’s “fresh” perspective on Paul or his view of Jesus’ messianic consciousness, this does not mean we should not affirm Wright where he should be affirmed. Personally, since I began writing this essay, I have a deeper appreciation for the penal substitutionary view of the atonement because of the way Wright espouses it within the historical events of the first century.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog
This post was originally an essay for Systematic Theology II class at Southern Seminary in Fall 2006. To see the full text, including footnotes, click here.