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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.


  1. I read N T Wright's article earlier. Some of it I found rather unconvincing - his claim that Steve Chalke actually does believe PSA, just not the caricatured version of it, seems at odds with what Chalke says in "Redeeming the Cross". There's also a fair I don't feel well-informed enough to comment on. I haven't actually read "Pierced for our transgressions" yet, and don't know much about the whole "new perspectives" business and how that relates to what he says.

    But it does seem to me unfair to say that he doesn't "affirm the doctrine under consideration". He spends a lot of time in that article defending and affirming what he understands to be a non-"caricatured" version of PSA. The end of the second section in particular does so quite emphatically, for example:
    "But again and again I sense in Dr John’s writing the problem which Anselm already identified: you have not yet considered how serious sin is. It isn’t that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed what was going on. That is what the classic Anglican formularies and liturgy say."

    Whether what he says is right or wrong is another question, but he does seem to be affirming doctrines here. Most of your post seems to me fair and has helped me see where Wright is coming from. But I think you weaken what you say in the last paragraph with the "new liberals" bit by seemingly falling into "political labelling and dismissal of people on the basis of either flimsy evidence or ‘guilt by association’" that Wright complains about in favour of genuine Biblical engagement, which is surely one thing we can definitely agree with him on.

  2. Thanks Caleb...

    NT Wright isn't so much guilty by association as by outright endorsement...

    I agree I may have pushed it a bit far in terms of a conclusion from that article alone - but I'd also say that anything positive he says about PSA is in contrast to Jeffery John, rather than in affirmation of the Oak Hill book. He seems to want to define himself fairly squarely against both Jeffery John and the views in Pierced for our transgressions...

  3. Further, the thing that really irritates me about this article is that what Steve Chalke says in that chapter is virtually indistinguishable from what JJ said in his talk (even down to, as you point out Bish, the use of Scripture passages)
    But it reads very much like "JJ is a liberal, so we don't like what he says, but Chalkey is my friend and liked my books so I couldn't disagree with him."
    Having your cake and eating it. Which, it seems to me, is exactly what Spring Harvest are trying to do.

  4. 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.

    Please be precise. Chalke quotes the beginning and end of one verse, 53:5. All of us have to be selective in our quotations, not least for space reasons. Think what it would be like if no one ever quoted part verses but only full chapters. There is no reason to think that Chalke doesn't like anything in this verse or this chapter, since the chapter does not teach that God punished Jesus (only that this was our misunderstanding, verse 4).

    But then Chalke might well question the misleading translation "punishment" in this verse, for the Hebrew word musar here is not penal but pedagogical (compare Hebrews 5:8), in fact meaning more like "discipline".

  5. There are political considerations which seem to be influencing the unbalanced rhetorical force of Bishop Wright's article (where he deals most harshly and passionately with those who are theologically closest to him and defending a doctrine he claims to hold but have done so in language and with a methodology Wright doesn't like).

    Though we do need to remember that Wright has been misunderstood, misquoted, not listened to and sent 'hate mail'. No doubt this has shaped his response too (notice the way he wants to write off J, O and S as nasty right-wingers etc.). The irony is that the authors of the book generally give Wright a fairer reading (not just if PFOT but in general) of Wright than he has of them.

  6. Dave,

    they look like more like new liberals - rejecting caricatures and calling for more careful study without ever positively affirming the doctrine under consideration.

    I'm far closer to the Oak Hill book than Wright, and certainly Chalke on this but I do appreciate what Wright is trying to do. You may call Wright a new liberal, but the observation that he 'rejects caricatures' is a positive one to me esp in this debate. Similarly I don't see the harm in 'calling for more careful study' and again I think this is particularly appropriate in a debate like this where people are more concerned with party politics than biblical interpretation.

    Finally, you say that Wright never affirms the doctrine under consideration. I'm not sure that's true. He doesn't affirm it in quite the way I would, or you might, but he does affirm it and it is not lacking in colour and detail.

    You say that: he feels agrieved at what the authors don't cover more than what they do cover.

    I don't think that's what he is saying. He is saying that what they do cover is unbalanced in the use of the biblical material, and secondly that what is affirmed is not weighted enough towards the biblical story and the place of the cross within it. From my skim read of PFOT I think he's right. However, I think his account is similarly very unbalanced (in different ways) and although the biblical story is more present in his work it is selective. Mainly this is due to his fear of talking about the penalty rather than the power of sin (a serious problem and something which runs throughout all his writings including this article).

    Anyhow, maybe I'm a new-new-liberal because of where I've placed myself in this debate - but we're all individuals in the end, and name calling often has more to do with the worldly wisdom than spiritual wisdom (1 Cor 1-3).

    Fair post on the whole though Dave, and I suppose I ought to be thankful that for once the wagons are being circled around what is central instead of the important but peripheral doctrines that are usually the hot topics for discussion.


    I think you are spot on. There is a lot more going on, on both sides than theology here. Although I think the authors of PFOT have done better than most at being fair and thoughtful.

  7. My current reading of the situation is that

    a. Wright does seem to affirm the doctrine of penal substitution in his article (and no wonder, as lots of his work elsewhere which maybe doesn't explicitly come out and say it does demand it or lead logically to it).

    b. In this light he is criticising PFOT for it's polemical, rhetorical and methodological nature rather than the doctrine of PSA itself

    c. This makes the tone and force of his article seem really unbalanced. He most severely deals with those whose doctrine he essentially agrees with (even if he gets there by a different route).

    d. it also makes his article even more unambigously political. He's a CofE Bishop, he believes in the CofE and in reforming it from within the structures and by playing by the structure's rules. He's also got the job of trying to keep outward unity with Jeffrey John types and a whole load of others (some more, some less extreme than he).

    e. Similarly he has been dealt a nasty blow or too by many evangelicals in the past (and relative present) on lots of things, been misread, misunderstood at times.

    f. therefore, add d. and e. together and you suddenly get an explanation for his anti PFOT rhetoric and his strong but considerably more restrained stuff contra Jeffrey John. He's more angry I guess at the church politics he is associating the book with (rightly or wrongly) all the while also seeking to defend himself over the chalke thing, defend his theology and keep lines of commication and debate/discussion open with those who oppose PSA at varying degrees.

    g. to conclude, it's more about political alignment (for Wright in this article) than theology (I think so anyway).

    h. Therefore, this is a sad state of affairs.

    i. The PFOT guys (I'm guessing here) produced their book off the back of current doubt and derision among those within evangelicalism over PSA, intending to defend the doctrine and create as wide a base as possible for people to understand and see the logic, biblicality and utter necessity of PSA. In that sense the book is political (isn't all polemical theology political?), but that is not to say they are doing anything nasty - they're merely trying to show how biblical and important PSA is and how widely evangeliccal it is (i.e. if u deny it then you really are stepping away from the historical reformational evangelical and even present-day mainstream!). This is a good thing to do and a godly thing to do and it is a service to Christ's church.

    My prayer is that those who do not like the politics they associate (rightly or wrongly) with Reform, Oak Hill, UCCF, or whatever other organisation they connect PFOT with, will not take the ungodly step of using that as an excuse not to listen to the arguments of the book.

    (I would of course say a similar thing about NTWright - personally think his church politics really suck big time, and it makes me want to tear my hair out, especially when I suspect it shapes his writing in a bad way, but I would encourage people to read various things he written and learn many many things from them, things which by writing them NT Wright has done a service to the church).

    That's long enough :)

  8. I should say, none of what I say above comes from the horses mouth. Don't assume that just cos I'm at Oak Hill that what I say is in any way what I've been told by the PFOT guys - I've honestly barely had a conversation with any of them about it. It really is my 'reading' of the situation.

  9. I don't think it's coincidenatl either that some of Bishop Tom's friends at Spring Harvest are looking for a theoloigcal justification to diss Jeffery John but stay friends with Steve Chalke, even thought they say basically the same thing about the cross.


  10. Lads, lads, lads, come on and take a deep breath.

    Over in the Kingdom it seems you met Wright's article with altogether mixed reception. Across the sea in the Free State we read it as a breath of fresh air.

    I have never met Steve Chalke where as I am sure many of you have. But it seems to me that the man's testimony is that he does not reject PSA as so many people continue to assert. Having read the relevant passages I find the idea that he has been misread on a badly written paragraph fully convincing.

    Nonetheless, there is a disturbing vitriol that we store up for our brothers and sisters in Christ at times as we engage in internecine conflict. There are other models of what the Cross does besides PSA and I am deeply uncomfortable with the very recent development to reduce Gospel-belief down to subscription to PSA in the mode advanced in any given generation.

    This is a particularly bizarre conversation seeing Jesus and the Victory of God, the great crowning achievement of PSA-scholarship in recent years, was written by the very man some here call "a liberal".

    Maybe we should be taking a deep breath and making sure we aren't getting het up unnecessarily?

  11. Zooming,

    I wonder did you read the paragraph linked to by Dave where Steve Chalke explicitly SAYS he rejects penal substitution?

    It is + Tom's, rather than Steve's own testimony that he doesn't reject it.

  12. Little Mo, Zooming and others, perhaps your problem is that you don't agree on a definition of PSA. It is clear that what Chalke is rejecting is not Wright's definition. And Wright's definition also seems to be Packer's and Stott's - but not that of the PFOT authors. See this post of mine and this one by Alastair.


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