N.T. Wright on Atonement

I’ve been reading N.T. Wright’s book Evil and the Justice of God. In it he addresses the atonement, which in a real sense is the central issue of the book. That is, how will (did?) God deal with evil in the world? Wright takes the position of Christus Victor as the dominant theme, with others (penal substitution included) figuring significantly in the multi-layered meaning of the cross.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from chapter 3, in which he states his position on the atonement, I think, rather clearly.

The first thing to say is that theories of the atonement are all, in themselves, abstractions from the real events. These events – the flesh-and-blood, time-and-space happenings – are the reality which the theories are trying to understand but cannot replace. In fact, the stories are closer to the events than the theories, since it is through the narratives that we are brought in touch with the events, which are the real thing, the thing that matters. And it is through other events in the present time that we are brought still closer: both the Eucharist, which repeats the meal Jesus gave as his own interpretation of his death, and the actions of healing, love and forgiveness through which Jesus’ death becomes a fresh reality within the still broken world.

Having said that, I find myself compelled toward one of the well-known theories of the atonement, of how God deals with evil through the death of Jesus, not as a replacement for the events or the stories as a single theory to trump all others, but as a theme which carries me further than the others toward the heart of it all. I refer to the Christus Victor theme, the believe that on the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil. Once that is in place, the other theories come in to play their respective parts. For Paul, Jesus’ death clearly involves (for example in Romans 8:3) a judicial or penal element, being God’s proper No to sin expressed on Jesus as Messiah, as Israel’s and therefore the world’s representative. This is the point at which the recognition that the line between good and evil runs right through the middle of me, and of every one of us, is met by the gospel proclamation that the death of Jesus is “for me,” in my place and on my behalf. Because as Messiah he is Israel’s and the world’s representative, he can stand in for all: for our sake, writes Paul, God made him who knew no sin to be sin, to be an offering for sin, on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21). Throughout the New Testament, this death is therefore seen as an act of love, both the love of Jesus himself (Galatians 2:20) and the love of God who sent him and whose bodily self-expression he was (John 3:16; 13:1; Romans 5:6-11; 8:31-29; 1 John 4:9-10). Within these, not as the foundation but as the outworking, we see that Jesus’ suffering and death are an example of how we are summoned to love one another in turn.”

He goes on to explain that this must be understood within the realm of eschatology, of God working his purposes through history.

I am going to assemble a list of links on the issue for those interested in trying to understand it more clearly. In the meantime, I will say that the current book, Evil and the Justice of God is quite good and helpful.

R.C. Sproul reviewed the book for Reformation 21. You can read his review here.

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3 responses to “N.T. Wright on Atonement

  1. I’m chewing on what Wright says here. The first paragraph raises some issues. In particular what does he mean by this? I understand that he is discussing “theories” but in contrasting the “events” and “stories” with the “theories” he seems to be giving some kind of reliance on the stories/events that is not present in the Scripture itself (that is, a reliance that is apart from the interpretation of these stories/events). The events that surround Christ – in this instance the atonement – are interpreted events (Paul’s presentation of the meaning of the atonement is not a theory – I’m sure Wright would agree with this). They do not stand in isolation from the meaning given to them in the Scripture. We cannot experience these events outside of revelation – that is, a revealed interpretation (an explanation revealed in the Scripture). He says, “it is through the narratives that we are brought in touch with the events, which are the real thing, the thing that matters.” But it is not only through the narratives but through the didactic portions of Scripture that we are brought in touch with the events. It seems that there is a danger here of separating the events of Scripture from the revelation of Scripture.

    I doubt he is meaning to do this. It seems that he is concerned with our experiencing the impact of the atonement in our lives throught the Eucharist and living out our Christianity coupled with warning against an idolatry of “theories.” These are good concerns to have.

  2. I liked Wright’s discussion of the Bible’s treatment of evil was pretty good.

    I thought that some of his cultural analysis at the beginning of the book was off a bit. It seemed to be somewhat of a caricature of US politics.

  3. I’ve been interested in seeing how others view American politics and worldview. Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks was very helpful in getting some perspective. I don’t necessarily want to live anywhere else, but I’m coming to terms with the reality that America is not the Promised Land. We can do better.

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