Over on the Fulcrum ‘Open Evangelical’ website the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Tom Wright, has had published a critique of three current approaches to the cross: those of Robert Jenson, Jeffrey John and the authors of Pierced for our Transgressions, a new work from some leading English Conservative Evangelicals.
Wright’s comments on Jenson are very brief, reflecting the provisional nature of Jenson’s own contribution to current debate. By contrast, he presents a very substantial critique (indeed, demolition) of Jeffery John’s position articulated in a recent broadcast on Radio 4.
However, his remarks about Pierced for our Transgressions (PFOT) give, I believe, considerable cause for concern.
Let me make three caveats about my own response. First, I have had very little time to read Wright’s material. Secondly, I have lost my copy of Steve Chalke’s The Lost Message of Jesus (TLMOJ) and am therefore at this stage not able to verify precisely what Chalke said. Thirdly, I have not at all read PFOT. The following comments must therefore be seen as provisional on my part, not definitive. However, I think a two urgent questions need to be asked of Wright’s latest contribution.
First, has he really understood Steve Chalke? Wright brings Chalke into the discussion because Chalke’s position is heavily criticized by PFOT, and yet he himself had endorsed The Lost Message of Jesus when it came out.
Wright therefore revisits Chalke’s work and also refers to a lengthy conversation he has had with Chalke more recently (this is where I would like to have gone back to my copy of TLMOJ). Wright asks the question, was Chalke opposed to the doctrine of penal substitution per se, or was it simply that, when he denied that the cross was ‘a form of cosmic child abuse, he was (as Wright puts it) opposing one of many “models of penal substitution” where “the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one”?
Wright concludes that Chalke means the latter, and that therefore, for Chalke as for himself, “the reality that I and others refer to when we use the phrase ‘penal substitution’ is not in doubt” (emphasis original).
Compare this, then, with what Chalke writes elsewhere:
"... the supposed orthodoxy of penal substitution is greatly misleading. In reality, penal substitution (in contrast to other substitutionary theories) doesn’t cohere well with either biblical or Early Church thought. Although penal substitution isn’t as old as many people assume (it’s not even as old as the pews in many of our church buildings), it is actually built on pre- Christian thought." (Cross Purposes, emphasis added)
Even more tellingly, Chalke writes in the same article,
“In The Lost Message of Jesus I claim that penal substitution is tantamount to ‘child abuse – a vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’ Though the sheer bluntness of this imagery (not original to me of course) might shock some, in truth, it is only a stark ‘unmasking’ of the violent, pre-Christian thinking behind such a theology. And the simple truth is that if God does not relate to his only Son as a perfect father, neither can we relate to him as such.” (Emphasis added)
It seems clear (both as I recall from reading TLMOJ and from Chalke’s comments here) that it is the entire penal notion of the cross that Chalke opposes — which is to say, the notion that God’s punishment for our sins is borne there by Christ. Yet Wright himself affirms that the biblical picture of the death of Christ, as understood in the light of Isaiah 53, for example, is of “not only a substitutionary death but a penal substitutionary death.”
It is interesting also that Chalke’s understanding of the historical background to the doctrine of penal substitution represents precisely one which Wright rejects. Commenting on The Mystery of Salvation, a report from the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission to which Wright himself contributed and to which Jeffrey John appeals, Wright says it is guilty of “giving the bizarre impression that the idea was merely invented by Anselm and developed by Calvin.” Yet in the article referred to, Chalke writes in almost exactly these terms:
“Initially based upon the writings of Anselm of Canterbury (1033- 1109), penal substitution was substantially formed by John Calvin’s legal mind in the reformation.”
(Note added 14 April 2008: This also makes it clear that Chalke is not setting out to oppose ‘a’ doctrine of penal substitution, as Wright suggests, but ‘the’ - classic - doctrine, originating in the medieval era and refined at the Reformation. Wright’s reading of Chalke at this point could not be further from the reality.) At the point where it matters, therefore, Chalke’s personal position seems to be much further from Wright’s own than Wright seems to realize and his lengthy defence of Chalke against the critique presented in PFOT seems at first glance, therefore, to be bizarrely misplaced.
Wright’s enthusiasm to defend an author he seems not to have fully understood, however, brings me to the second urgent question, which is why Wright makes the attack he does on the ‘stable’ from which PFOT comes. For it seems to me that Wright’s wrath is directed not objectively at the weaknesses he perceives in the scholarship of PFOT (some of which, it appears to me, is simply a failure to share Wright’s own very particular understanding of salvation history), but rather subjectively against the Conservative Evangelical ‘camp’. Why, for example, does Wright extend considerable generosity and theological latitude to Chalke and not to the authors of PFOT?
I am particularly disturbed by his reference to “new right-wing (so-called ‘conservative’) evangelicals”. This rather suggest that, in Wright’s view, this particular branch of evangelicalism has ceased to merit a purely theological definition and has taken on almost a ‘bogey-man’ persona.
Yet in this respect, one wonders if Wright fully understands the political significance of what he is doing, or, if he does understand it, where he believes he is going with it.
The reality is, as we all know, that the Church of England is deeply divided nationally as well as internationally, and in this arena Wright is a ‘player’ not just an observer. It is notable, therefore, that Wright reacted rapidly, and angrily, to the presentation of the Covenant for the Church of England just before Christmas. He would also have been present at the more recent meeting of Evangelical bishops where the Covenant was discussed and where, by all accounts, there was ‘blood on the carpet’.
Wright must understand, therefore, that you cannot launch a swingeing attack on Conservative Evangelicals (calling their work, amongst other things, “sub-biblical”, and taking a swipe also at international figures like Peter Adam and Don Carson) without sending a powerful political message about Conservative Evangelicalism itself.
I have no doubt that Wright’s critique will be welcomed with great enthusiasm by some, not because it leads us any closer to a true understanding of the cross (which it does, in part, endeavour to), but because it will be seen to be giving a ‘bloody nose’ to those aligned with Reform, Oak Hill theological college, Richard Coekin, and all things worthy of making wax models into which pins can be stuck (check here for opinions).
In short, I believe Tom Wright to be positioning himself politically as much as theologically, and that perhaps his political enthusiasm is beginning to cloud his theological judgement.
May it not be so.
Revd John P Richardson
23 April 2007