Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Wright Impression of Penal Substitution

NT Wright - The Cross and Caricatures
Steve Chalke - Redeeming the Cross
Don Carson reviews Wright on Evil & Suffering
The Oak Hill boys respond to NT Wright's critiques

Just before Easter 2007 Dean Jeffery John went on the public record to say that as far as he understood penal substitution (which was crudely simplified) it was insane, rejecting any notion of it. A month on from that Bishop NT Wright lays into the man from St. Albans, quite rightly. He notes that John cites Isaiah 53 in part but then says...
"if you get one part of Isaiah 53 you probably get the whole thing, and with it not only a substitutionary death but a penal substitutionary death, yet without any of the problems that the caricature would carry"
Which is interesting not least because we find Steve Chalke (in Redeeming the Cross) cite the start and end of Isaiah 53 but without the bit in the middle that he doesn't like. It's a danger we all have to be wary of - wanting to use scripture to justify our view, rather than letting it master us in it's entirity. It is all God breathed, not just some of it.

When he's done with Jeffery John the Bishop turns to Mike Ovey, Steve Jeffery and Andrew Sach. Where we might expect, given is 'evangelical credentials' for NT Wright to welcome this book, he doesn't. He's frustrated by it. He is positive in places, but ultimately not a fan - which as the authors note explains why he's not in the 10 pages of endorsements that the book begins with.

NT Wright is mostly concerned, it seems, to justify his own support of The Lost Message of Jesus. He claims Chalke's book is based on "good scholarship" presented in a punchy way. He did not perceive Chalke to have denied penal substitution, and so you can see why he's frustrated by Pierced for our Transgressions. From where he stands it's not needed.
"And my sorrow, reading Pierced for Our Transgressions, is not only that the book seems to be unaware of this possibility, but that, despite the ringing endorsements of famous men, it is deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical."
Which raises the temperature a little - which he's entitled to do. He confesses that this does need some justification...
" it abstracts certain elements from what the Bible actually says, elements which are undoubtedly there and which undoubtedly matter, but then places them within a different framework, which admittedly has a lot in common with the biblical one, but which, when treated as though it were the biblical one, becomes systematically misleading."
Chiefly he feels agrieved at what the authors don't cover more than what they do cover. This is how many of us feel when we read commentaries which cover everything except the verse we're struggling with. The problem is that Pierced for our Transgressions is very thorough. Sure there are passages they could have addressed but it's not exactly a brief book as it is. It seems that NT Wright thinks systematic theology is doomed - unable to pull together what different passages accurately say. He has a point, but the church has been doing fairly able systematics for 2000 years...

The authors of Pierced are notably and explicitly generous towards the new perspective views on Romans and Galatians - which they could have not done as they deal at length with Romans and Galatains. Still, the Bishop is not satisfied. The new perspective once more portrays itself as the victim child of evangelicalism, misunderstood and maligned but on the biblical high ground for being more careful than the careless majority who've not yet seen the light.

NT Wright is on the ball when he calls for study of scripture:
"We live in difficult times and it would be good to find evidence of people on all sides of all questions taking the attitude of the Beroeans in Acts 17, who ‘searched the scriptures daily to see if these things were so’, instead of ‘knowing’ in advance what scripture is going to say, ought to say, could not possibly say, or must really have said (if only the authors hadn’t made it so obscure!)."
This started with Chalke and Wright is standing by every word. That is disappointing because the Bible requires that leaders be holding firmly to the trustworthy message as taught. The curiosity is that Chalke & Wright are trying to carve out a new middle ground. They reject Jeffery John and they attack the Oak Hill boys and their associated endorsers. They claim to be the true evangelicals (assenting at times to something they want to call 'penal substitution') but they look like more like new liberals - rejecting caricatures and calling for more careful study without ever positively affirming the doctrine under consideration.