N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Part 15 (Covenantal Substitutionary Atonement, Part 1)


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 accomplishes our salvation.

Christus Victor

At long last, we get to Wright’s understanding of the crucifixion.

At the heart of it all is the achievement of Jesus as the true human being who, as the “image,” is the ultimate embodiment (or “incarnation”) of the creator God. His death, the climax of his work of inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, was the victory over the destructive powers let loose into the world not simply through human wrongdoing, the breaking of moral codes, but through the human failure to be image-bearers, to worship the Creator and reflect his wise stewardship into the world (and, to be sure, breaking any moral codes that might be around, but this is not the focus). And the reason his death had this effect was that, as the representative and substitute in the senses we shall explore in due course, he achieved the “forgiveness of sins” in the sense long promised by Israel’s prophets.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 2467-2473). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

This sounds a lot like the Christus Victor theory of atonement that we’ve considered in prior posts. That is, rather than suffering the penalty that humans deserve for their sins, the idea is that, by letting the enemies of God — powers and principalities — do their worst to him, even killing him, Jesus defeated all God’s enemies through the resurrection. If Jesus could not be defeated by all the weapons held by God’s enemies — violence, death, the military, religious oppressors of the people, corrupt courts … you name it — then the victory is assured.

Wright mentions this theory in his summary of the history of atonement theology (Location 602), but never mentions it again by name. And there are differences between Wright’s teaching here and the Christus Victor doctrine, as we’ll see. Nonetheless, I think Wright is more understandable if we keep the Christus Victor idea in mind as one of his two theories of atonement.

One of the problems with Christus Victor is that it only works in light of the resurrection. It’s the resurrection that defeats Satan and his minions, but the scriptures often speak of the atonement being achieved by the crucifixion. Is the crucifixion just shorthand (synecdoche) for death, burial, and resurrection? Or is there an approach in which the atonement is won by the crucifixion itself?

(Rom. 5:10 ESV)  10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

(Col. 1:19-20 ESV)  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. 

Indeed, you can’t help but feel that’s something’s missing

Covenantal substitutionary atonement

Wright recognizes that there are several passages that speak in terms of Jesus, the Messiah, or the Servant of Isaiah’s Servant Song dying or suffering on behalf of others. However, these passages don’t have to be read in terms of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). Rather than escaping God’s wrath on the individual sinner for sins committed, Wright suggests that Jesus died to fulfill Israel’s covenant obligations to God and to fulfill the requirements for Gentiles to enter the Kingdom. (I’ll borrow from Richard Beck and call this “covenantal substitutionary atonement” or “CSA.”)

This theory makes the crucifixion, rather than the resurrection, the center of atonement, which is how many of the key passages read. Thus, the crucifixion brings about “forgiveness of sins” to open the gates of the Kingdom. In this case, “sin” is not the individual moral failings of each convert but idolatry and the power of idolatry to destroy those who participate in it. “Forgiveness of sins,” as we covered earlier, is the entirety of the coming Kingdom promises — the Messiah, the Spirit, the return of God to the Temple, etc.

That is, on the cross, Jesus both fulfills the covenant mandate to be a light to the nations and to pay the price (ransom, redemption price) for covenant violations. Jesus dies for the nation of Israel to both do what Israel would not do — that is, draw the world to God by its example, which includes even suffering and dying for the nations, as Isaiah wrote in Isa 53 — and to condemn in the Jews the idolatry that led them to crucify their Savior.

At the center of the whole picture we do not find a wrathful God bent on killing someone, demanding blood. Instead, we find the image — I use the word advisedly — of the covenant-keeping God who takes the full force of sin onto himself.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 3031-3039). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Thus, the various “ransom” and redemption passages fit the story. When Jesus says that he will die to provide a ransom for many (Matt 20:28), he is not rescuing people from a God intent on their destruction, but paying the price to free them from the consequences of their idolatry in violation of the covenant with God. This is God, acting through Jesus, to rescue people that he promised to rescue out of a unilateral love.

I think Ray Vander Laan teaches the same thing from a perspective that is far easier to explain and to teach. We’ll cover that in the next post.

Richard Beck’s summary

To be sure I wasn’t missing the point, I  went to Google for help and came across this from Richard Beck from 2012:

But those passages don’t have to be read through PSA [penal substitutionary atonement]. I think the work of scholars like N.T. Wright have helped us see that. That is, we can accept the [substitutionary] logic of the NT without adopting PSA. …

But as scholars like Wright have taught us, the better frame isn’t penal but covenantal. YHWH and Israel form a covenant with God’s plan being to bless the world through Israel. But Israel cannot keep her end of the deal, bringing upon herself all the punishments that befall those who break covenants in the ancient Semitic mind. Israel broke her promise with the result, per the covenantal agreement, being exile. And at that point God’s plan to bless the world through Israel gets stuck.

So God enters history in Jesus to be Israel’s representative, Israel’s Messiah [and in fulfillment of such passages as Isa 53 in which Israel, God’s servant, is re-imagined as a single person who suffers and dies in Israel’s place]. And as a faithful or the faithful Israelite Jesus takes up the covenantal burden–both in fulfilling the Torah and in bearing Israel’s punishment in breaking the covenant. In Jesus God does what Israel could not do, stepping in to help Israel fulfill her side of the covenant, which, per ancient Semitic covenantal logic, does include punishments for breaking promises. In all this Jesus substitutes himself for Israel. Jesus protects Israel from herself, carries a burden she cannot carry, takes on her exile so that she can be set free.

Ahh … I had in fact seen the same thing in Wright’s earlier works but had not quite put it together as a new theory of atonement. On the other hand, I have taught much the same thing in my earlier series on Atonement some years ago but from a very different angle — based on God’s blood oath with Abraham, which we’ll cover in the next post.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Part 15 (Covenantal Substitutionary Atonement, Part 1)

  1. My only quarrel with Beck’s language is the need he feels to say that all of this happened to fit a certain ancient worldview. While I understand things being done in a way that made sense to the ancient Jews, there was a reality behind what Jesus did. That is his death was a substitute not only “per ancient Semitic covenantal logic” but in a very real sense.

    I’m not arguing for “angry God theology,” I merely don’t want to lose sight of the fact that Jewish’ worldview is not what led Jesus to the cross.

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