N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
We’re about halfway through Romans, and while Wright has much more to say about the rest of chapter 8, we’re pretty much at the final verse that deals directly with his atonement theories. And so it’s time for a summary — even though I’m anxious to explore the rest of chapter 8. Chapter 8 has always held a fascination for me with Paul’s talk of the indwelling Spirit, the Creation groaning, and predestination.
Now, the goal isn’t to find the one, unique true theory. Most scholars are coming to the view that there are multiple true theories — that the atonement lies at the intersection of multiple themes and narratives.
That’s not how most of us Westerners are used to thinking, but it makes a lot of sense — and explains why the scriptures speak of the atonement in seemingly inconsistent ways. The atonement draws together several strands of biblical thought into a single event that makes the best sense in light of several narrative threads woven through the scriptures.
The Romans Road theory
With some considerable justification, the most commonly taught theory of atonement is the one most criticized from both within and without the church. The idea is that God is very angry regarding sin (and he is). God wishes to justly punish sinners, but he also love people and wants to forgive them. And so how can he be both just and merciful? (This is essential Anselm’s formulation of the problem from around 1,000 AD.)
The solution is for Jesus to take our punishment for us. Thus, the requirements of justice are satisfied because punishment is meted out, but mercy is satisfied because Jesus takes on our punishment for us. This theory is technically called Substitutionary Penal Atonement (PSA).
There are passages that arguably support this position, most especially —
(Isa. 53:6-8 ESV) 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned– every one– to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
And the NT writers frequently allude to this passage, and so we can’t dismiss the theory without finding a different meaning of such phrases as “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” and “stricken for the transgression of my people.”
The Blood Oath
We considered the strange account of Abraham’s blood oath with God recorded in Gen 15. In the Ancient Near East (ANE) covenants were often sealed in blood, with an animal slaughtered and the covenant makers walking through the spilled blood — meaning that if I break my promise, you may do to me as we have done to this animal.
God had Abraham split one of every animal used in animal sacrifice, and then God himself walked through the blood twice — and Abraham did not walk through at all. In effect, God bound himself to take Abraham’s punishment if Abraham violated the covenant. It’s hard to imagine a more astonishing ANE ritual — where the greater, more honored, more powerful party voluntarily takes on the penalties for the lesser, less honored, less powerful party. It was unthinkable.
And when Jesus died on the cross, it was God himself on the cross, split open and bleeding into the dirt the same as one of the sacrificial animals, taking on the punishment that should have been suffered by Abraham’s descendants for their breaches of their covenant with God.
This fits Isa 53 very well, but does so for a reason that is consistent with ANE and Jewish thought, as well as Gen 15 and the literal terms of the Abrahamic covenant.
Anselm was looking for a solution that fit a particular, Grecian-style of philosophy that would make sense in the pure abstract. But the Bible is not a book of abstractions. It’s a narrative about what happened in God’s relationships with his people. And Gen 15 only makes sense within its world and the covenant with Abraham.
And it makes perfect sense when you realize that Paul teaches in Rom 4 and Gal 3 that Christians are saved by faith because of God’s covenant with Abraham to reckon faith as righteousness. When you get that part of the narrative, then the rest fits together very nicely.
However, I can’t find where Wright teaches this theory — as cool as it is. I learned it from Ray Vander Laan, and I’ve found that a number of commentators agree. But Wright, who often writes about Gen 15, seems to have never worked through the meaning of the blood oath ritual.