Monday, 23 April 2007

Tom Wright, Conservatives and the Cross: a triumph of politics over theology?

(As of 25 April, I have blogged further on this issue here. Also, you can download Jim Packer's What did the cross achieve? here.)

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


  1. Hello John,

    I've not posted here before; I followed a link from David Field's blog - a brief hello; my homepage is

    I agree with you that Wright doesn't have much excuse for mangling this so much. I wonder if Wright's own background as a more conservative evangelical than he is now has something to do with it. He seems to have a fairly consistent pattern of harshly criticising those more conservative than himself; is this another case of the "I must distance myself from what I once was" syndrome?

  2. One thing I have noticed since writing my very hurried comments on Tom Wright's article yesterday is how he consistently refers to Steve Chalke as "Steve", whereas Steve Jeffrey, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach are reduced to "J, O and S". The subliminal impression this creates in the reader - perhaps even the subliminal situation in Wright's thinking - is that "Steve" is an OK 'mate', whereas "J, O and S" are rather distant strangers.

    The problem is that we treat 'mates' differently from strangers, and this may become a danger when we should be objective, as in an academic critique.

    Wright's lengthy discussion of the failure of PFOT to locate the cross properly within the story of Israel and Abraham is not balanced by a similar critique which could be levelled at Chalke's TLMOJ. Why not? Because, it would seem, Chalke has had a personal chat with Wright, and has been deemed 'OK', whereas (one suspects) J,D, E and P have not. (Sorry, theologians' 'joke' there. We don't have many.)

    Clearly, the next step should be for Wright to invite the aforementioned J,O and S up to Durham for a similar chat - or maybe they should invite themselves!

  3. John,

    I read NT Wright's article last night, and was pleased to see you have commented on it. I was pondering why his essay is so disturbing - I note three things I am concerned about and one positive thing:

    1. His tone in this essay, and indeed in his earlier response to the covenant, is remarkably aggressive. This is very out of keeping with his normal academic approach, and possibly belies some personal anger or hurt that clouds his judgment.

    2. His distinction between a meal and a doctrine is a false dichotomy . Jesus gave a meal that (as NT Wright has argued elsewhere) fits into the narrative of scripture and as such makes substantial doctrinal claims.

    3. NT Wright's criticisms of PFOT seem to be of the school that criticises somebody for something they have not argued for- rather than allowing for the fact that no one book can cover everything! For example he comments that the authors do not mention Luther, but they make the point that they have limited space and were not trying to exhaustively cover all of church history. Indeed they gave further references in a footnote to figures they did not cover in the main body of work. NT Wright extends far more charity to 'steve' than he does to the 'initials' who authored PFOT.

    The positive point in NT Wright's essay is that he affirms his belief in penal substitutionary atonement, as taught in Jesus' application of the suffering servant to himself.

    Oddly though one would expect somebody who believes this to welcome the recent book PFOT?

  4. I'm interested by Wright's approving quote of Chalke to the effect that Jesus drew into himself all the evil around him. That as Wright must well know is not penal substitution. It is smply the idea that Jesus suffers the third party consequence of sin. Indeed if that is of universal effect then evil would have disappeared in practise that day -not just the penalty.

    Leaves you wondering what he really understands by PSA

  5. Why should the books be assessed differently?

    Well, I think the glaring difference between TLMOJ and PFOT, is that Steve Chalke never claimed he was writing a book on the atonement, and therefore definately didn't set out to build a framework of biblical evidence for his view of atonement.

    Whereas that's exactly what PFOT sets out to do...

    As Jesus said 'he who lives by the sword...'

  6. Hi John - did you notice too that Tom Wright referred to Jeffrey John as Dr John in that part of the critique, but Dr Ovey never receives the same title? Picky perhaps (as one other blogger said) but like the Steve vs J,O & S perhaps it does reveal a little something.

  7. John
    Thanks for your comments and analysis of Bishop Tom's article. I've read his article through a couple of times and I'm struggling to see why he's so agitated by Mike, Steve and Andy [!]. He's clearly exercised by what he feels is a caricature of penal substitutionary atonement [PSA]. But apart from an apparent failure to deal with this subject from a biblical theological perspective[which he'd espouse] rather than a systematic perspective [which the boys do] I'm struggling to see what his issue is. What's the caricature that they end up with that he finds so distasteful? To use his illustration what's the donkey that they've got and what's the elephant that he'd prefer! Is it a lack of emphasis on the representative work of Jesus? Is it a formulation of PSA than emphasises the individual sinner? Or is it something else?
    You've read his books, I haven't and you've got a bigger brain than me - help me out!

  8. Hey, is there anyone listening who doesn't agree or is this tantamount to gossip?

  9. "Clearly, the next step should be for Wright to invite the aforementioned J,O and S up to Durham for a similar chat - or maybe they should invite themselves!" It seems that Chalke consulted Wright and sought to build a relationship with him and the PFOT authors didn't. I don't actually know this, it just appears this way from all the discussions. No one is totally objective and, as humans, one of the greatest vehicles of truth-discovery is relationships. Trust is key to discovering truth and when you trust someone, you are more likely to put stock in what they say. Having a relationship with someone builds trust. To write about Wrights perspective, not have an established relationship with him, and then expect to get the same benefit of the doubt as Chalke is just not logical.

    Also, I studied at a reformed seminary and like (but don't totally buy into) reformed theology. With that, I see the place of systematic theology, but Wright does have a point about systematic theologians and PSA. Inserting PSA into the overarching Biblical narrative and judging it from that context is the only place I feel comfortable as a Biblical fundamentalist doing so. Often reformed and evangelical theology seems to look over or devalue enormous sections of scripture (in practice, of course, not in verbal, or even conscious, acknowledgment). Abstracting texts does have a tendency to create an alternative narrative where only the sought after doctrines gain relevance and sections of scripture that don't seem to support it get pushed aside (like Luther's dislike of James, though he didn't claim to be systematic, his development of his monochromatic grace hermeneutic could create a similar, though cruder, effect). I'm interested in discovering what the Bible sees itself as; it seems scripture seems to harmonize much more when that is done. For me, the approach advocated by Wright here helps me reconcile scripture with itself (specifically with PSA). I think many theologians form all backgrounds do this, but not all. For me, it gives a lot of credence to Wright's critique.

    That being said, I'm sure I agree with at least 95% of what any conservative, reformed, evangelical, or systematic theologian might claim. I don't like getting myopic about difference. Also, this is a really late comment, but I just saw this today so I figured I'd comment for any future visitors in case there are others like me.

  10. J May, thanks for this comment. You may like to read this piece if you haven't already.