N.T. Wright: Steve Chalke Does Not Deny Penal Substitution

N.T. Wright weighs in on Steve Chalke and the controversy over his view of Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

I have just re-read Steve's short chapter on the meaning of the cross within the mission of Jesus. He says many things I agree with, and, though he doesn't actually make the main point that I made in Jesus and the Victory of God ch. 12, drawing on Isaiah 53 in particular, he does say,

Just as a lightning-conductor soaks up powerful and destructive bolts of electricity, so Jesus, as he hung on that cross, soaked up all the forces of hate, rejection, pain and alienation all around him. (The Lost Message of Jesus p. 179).

Earlier on in the chapter he had expressed puzzlement at how 'basic statements of the gospel' in ordinary churches would focus mainly on sin and judgment rather than with the love of God, and at the way in which the cross, seen as the answer to the punishment due for our sin, was becoming the sum and substance of the gospel to the exclusion even of the resurrection (except in the sense of a 'happy ending'). Steve is not alone in this puzzlement, and with good reason. As we shall see, the Bible and the gospel are more many-sided than that. It is in that context that Steve makes his now notorious statement:

The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse - a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement that "God is Love". If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus' own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil. (p. 182f.)

Now, to be frank, I cannot tell, from this paragraph alone, which of two things Steve means. You could take the paragraph to mean (a) on the cross, as an expression of God's love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one. Or you could take the paragraph to mean (b) because the cross is an expression of God's love, there can be no idea of penal substitution at all, because if there were it would necessarily mean the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story, and that cannot be right.

Clearly, Steve's critics have taken him to mean (b), as I think it is clear Jeffrey John and several others intend. I cannot now remember what I thought when I read the book four years ago and wrote my commendation, but I think, since I had been following the argument through in the light of the arguments I myself have advanced, frequently and at length, about Jesus' death and his own understanding of it, that I must have assumed he meant (a). I have now had a good conversation with Steve about the whole subject and clarified that my initial understanding was correct: he does indeed mean (a). The book, after all, wasn't about atonement as such, so he didn't spell out his view of the cross in detail; and it is his experience that the word 'penal' has put off so many people, with its image of a violent, angry and malevolent God, that he has decided not to use it. But the reality that I and others refer to when we use the phrase 'penal substitution' is not in doubt, for Steve any more than for me. 'There is therefore now no condemnation' in Romans 8.1 is explained by the fact, as in Romans 8.3, that God condemned sin in the flesh of his Son: he bore sin's condemnation in his body, so we don't bear it. That, I take it, is the heart of what the best sort of 'penal substitution' theory is trying to say, and Steve is fully happy with it. And this leads to the key point: there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others. What has happened since the initial flurry of debate about The Lost Message of Jesus has looked, frankly, like a witch-hunt, with people playing the guilt-by-association game: hands up anyone who likes Steve Chalke; right, now we know who the bad guys are.


PamBG said...

Isn't the core of the problem, though, a definition of Penal Substitutionary Atonement?

I've always understood the definition of PSA to be similar to the one articulated by John Piper and, as I understand it, NT Wright[1] and Steve Chalke would differ from Piper on the definition?

[1] I'm not clear who the author of this post is and apologise if I am referring to you, Bishop Wright, in the third person. If you are indeed the author of this blog, I'd be interested in your comments. It seems to me that many who have been criticising Steve Chalke would hold Piper's definition of PSA and therefore see him and you as 'not believing in PSA'.

I'm quite convinced by the 'Wright/Chalke' approach to PSA and unhappy with Piper's definition. I have heretofore seen myself as 'not accepting PSA'. However, I do accept that Jesus saw his mission as that of the Suffering Servant.

Ron Henzel said...

I've posted my thoughts on the atonement in an article titled, "The Lamb That Was Slain," located at http://midwestoutreach.org/blogs/the-lamb-that-was-slain.

Anonymous said...

If this is indeed what N.T. Wright said, I wonder how he couldn't see the third alternative, that is that Christ absorbed all the evil in the world not to keep us from having to go through it, but precisely because we perpetuate it. God did not kill Christ, people killed Christ. And we still do it every day, when we fail to see Christ in others, and judge them to somehow be less than ourselves.

Anonymous said...

People are the ones who demand retribution in their hearts for retribution's sake. Other wise, why would Christ say things like "You have heard it said . . . but I tell you" Do we really hold the law (spirit) of God in our hearts? Even the God of punishment of the Old Testament does not demand retribution gleefully, but after a long provocation and only to help Israel learn. At least that's how I read it.

Bob Robinson said...

Anonymous, Thanks for weighing in. I'd like it if you'd identify yourself, it helps in the dialogue. Good thoughts, though!

Paul said...

Steve's view suggests a very limited, and unbiblical view of the seriousness of sin to a HOLY God! This has sadly moved on to his view that sodomy is acceptable - as long as limited to one partner! God help the Church of His beloved Son. Paul

Anonymous said...

I think God is love and Satan is evil. As satan is the source of Evil he killed Christ.

Anonymous said...

Does Tom know he's one of the 'bad guys'?