Thursday, April 26, 2007

Wright’s essay: The Cross and the Caricatures

Alastair has already linked to the article and shared his own thoughts, but I also wanted to heartily recommend to my readers Tom Wright's recent essay, "The Cross and the Caricatures", which takes a look at some of the current debates flying around the matter of penal substitution.

Wright believes that penal substitution is biblical, even if not all 'penal substitution' models are. I entirely agree. Alas, sadly many have thrown that baby out with some undeniably stinky bathwater, and now carelessly castigate 'penal substitution' as an outdated and even barbaric doctrine. Some formulations are, but others, whether we like it or not, are biblical. At least in my view.

The essay is a scintillating read with some especially spot-on and timely rebuking of the sad and ill-informed witch-hunting going on in some evangelical circles. I for one have just about had enough of the next Mr Big Conservative Name making yet another terribly serious (yet -uninformed-because-totally-unsympathetic) statement about how those not entirely matching their doctrinal programme are 'infecting the church', 'betraying the faith' or 'negating scripture'. While real discernment of course has an important place, the lack of perspective, shallow use of scripture, cry-wolf tactics and misrepresentation elements tend to make me think much evangelical fuss is just a load of bull. I have come to think that discernment should first and foremost be concerned with what teachings do or do not facilitate healthy gospel living. I know more could be said, but I'll leave it at this: discernment is primarily about what is healthy! Otherwise matters can degenerate into one camp throwing their proof texts at the other camp who are doing the same, while both manage to stay trapped in the paper world of prooftexting swordfights and miss the bigger picture of God's concern for the world.

I'm an evangelical and I love the various evangelical traditions, but some of the matters Wright touches on in critique of certain strands of evangelicalism make me terribly sad as I know that he is hitting the target. Volltreffer.


At 4/26/2007 3:04 PM, Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

What is "undeniably biblical" are some sacrificial images in describing the significance of the cross and the concept of "Christ in our place." But there is no substitutionary theory (much less penal substitutionary theory) in the NT--or any other developed doctrine of atonement. Instead we have a number of images, metaphors, word-pictures, drawn from different contexts: temple cult, law courts, marketplace, victory in battle or in athletic competition, etc. All atonement theories or doctrines are codifications of this kaleidoscope of images.

At 4/26/2007 3:06 PM, Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

This is the best quote in the article:

"In any case, I am one of those who think it good that the church has never formally defined 'the atonement', partly because I firmly believe that when Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn't give them a theory, he gave them a meal. Of course, the earliest exponent of that meal (Paul, in 1 Corinthians) insists that it matters quite a lot that you understand what you are about as you come to share in it; but still it is the meal, not the understanding, that is the primary vehicle of meaning."

At 4/27/2007 1:29 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Michael,
"But there is no substitutionary theory (much less penal substitutionary theory) in the NT--or any other developed doctrine of atonement."

Thanks for your comment. I don't want to claim a developed penal substitutionary theory in the NT any more than a developed trinitarianism. But to admit this is not to deny the presence of themes and texts that I would read as evidence of penal substitution, as part of the 'kaleidoscope of images' that constitute the NT's langauge concerning atonement.

At 4/30/2007 1:44 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...

Encomium was standard in rhetoric in the ancient world - we know it was common practice for them to exaggerate praise and wax lyrical and non-literally about the achievements of people. It defies belief that the early Christians never used this hyperbolic and poetic language about Jesus their hero.

Hence, when the NT hits us with a kaleidoscope of word-images about the amazing achievements of Jesus, we need to be very careful to take them as they are intended. We can be fairly certain that many of them were not intended literally.

When we look at the NT we see the early Christians used a huge variety of different language, metaphors, word-pictures from a large number of different contexts to express fully their joyous feelings about what their leader, Christ, had achieved.

There is an important conceptual difference between speaking about the images used in the NT atonement language, and speaking about the reality of the atonement itself. Think of a poem, where it would be insane to interpret every phrase as literally corresponding to reality. In precisely the same way, the rhetorical language the that NT uses about the atonement should not be naively read literally.

Penal and substitutionary imagery may be present to some degree in the New Testament. However the atonement theory of Penal Substitution is not simply the view that PS language and imagery is present, but rather purports to be an accurate description of how the atonement actually worked in reality. It sets out to provide a description of the actual truth, and state the true reality which lies behind the language. But as Wright and you seem to agree, PS as a fully-fledged stand-alone statement of reality is "sub-biblical".

I myself concur with Michael and believe that PS is not at all a correct description of the reality of the atonement.

At 4/30/2007 1:57 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...

Incidentally Chris, I'm curious as to which parts of the NT you'd consider the strongest evidence in support of Penal Substitutionary atonement and why.

At 5/01/2007 1:41 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks for your comments, Andrew. And I totally agree with you about the nature of metaphor as it relates to atonement language.

I am open to being persuaded otherwise, but I see a few passages in Romans and Isaiah as indicative of penal substitutionary theory. I take it you knowwhich ones I mean, and I'll try to remeber to list them , if you don't, when I have a bit more time.

At 5/01/2007 6:00 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...

Imagine a person who dives in front of a friend to save them from being hit by a bullet, or a someone who drowns while rescuing their friend who was drowning, or a soldier who is killed in battle while defending his city, or a civil rights campaigner who is shot after continuing to demand equality for his countrymen in the face of death threats. In none of these situations is the person's death a penal substitution. Yet all of these are examples of a self-sacrificing death done out of love for the sake of others.

I'm curious to know why you think the scriptural references you have in mind (whatever they are) should be interpreted as meaning that Jesus' death was a penal substitutionary atonement rather than the type of loving sacrifice for others which we are familiar with from my examples above.

At 5/01/2007 10:26 PM, Anonymous Stephen said...

I certainly agree that Romans has something to say on the subject. But if I were trying to defend penal substitution I might begin instead at 1Pe. 2:24 —

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

In my view, this language ("bore our sins") goes beyond "a self-sacrificing death done out of love for the sake of others" to point us in the direction of penal substitution.

But I wholeheartedly endorse the gist of Wright's essay: the language shouldn't be pressed into a scientific explanation of the "how" of the atonement and treated as a test of orthodoxy.

At 5/02/2007 12:53 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...

> to point us in the direction of
> penal substitution.

Wouldn't penal substitutionary language say "bore our punishment" rather than "bore our sins"? Taken literally in isolation the verse seems to point us in the direction of some kind of theology that thinks of Christ as carrying away our sins to the grave with him and thereby enabling us to live righteous lives.

At 5/03/2007 12:00 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Andrew and Steven, thanks for your comments. You've both given me something to think about. However, I've recorded the podcast today so I'm running out of blogging time to respond at the moment.

I am reading your comments, though!


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