Today we continue our journey into a Wrightian (just made that word up) account of the atonement. Once again this is not necessarily Wright’s own view neverthless it takes some of his work and applies it to Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
N.T. Wright’s Christology and Biblical Narrative
One theologian that gives the Reformed tradition (although I don’t think he would consider himself Reformed) some important tools to work through this non-traditional view of penal substitution is N.T. Wright. His Christology and work on the narrative of scripture provides a good framework to begin articulating an alternative version of penal substitution. The first tool that he provides is his Christology.
Wright’s Christology is best understood in terms of narratives. Jesus lives out two narratives. He fully lives out YHWH’s own narrative as it is revealed in the Old Testament; thus Jesus is fully God. Jesus also lives out Israel’s narrative as it was meant to be lived. In other words Jesus the faithful Israelite represents Israel faithfully. As Israel’s representative Jesus is fully human. Thus Wright presents an orthodox Christology. In order to understand these two narratives we must first understand the meta-narrative of scripture.
For Wright, the narrative of Scripture prior to Jesus is best understood as several key chapters, including: Creation, Fall, the call of Abraham, the exodus, the period of kings, and the exile. We should note two especially important chapters of this story: the call of Abraham and the exile. Wright elevates the call of Abraham because he understands that God has chosen Israel to be the means through which he rescues and restores creation, thus Israel will play a central role in this story. Secondly, according to Wright, Israel still considered itself to be under exile. The Roman occupation was understood as exile because the land was not under their control. Israel was waiting for YHWH brings them back from exile, defeat their enemies, and return to Israel in order to reign.
There are two actors in this framework: YHWH, who because of His covenant faithfulness will deliver Israel from exile and Israel who because of their lack of covenant faithfulness have gone into exile. Thus Wright understands the story of Jesus as the story of Israel and Israel’s God. In Jesus the concept of either God or either human gets deconstructed, and we are faced with a greater understanding of who God is and what humanity is.
The Consequences and the Cross
For Wright, Jesus being the faithful Israelite and the Messiah, represents Israel. Through the Gospels we see that Jesus does what Israel was always meant to do. A key example of this is Jesus’ wilderness temptation and his endurance of suffering at the hands of his oppressors. However, we should not understand Jesus’ representation of Israel in modern terms. Jesus is not like a senator representing or speaking on behalf his state. Rather, Jesus embodies Israel so that whatever is true of Jesus is true of Israel. As Israel’s representative, Jesus willingly bears the consequences of Israel’s sins (its covenant unfaithfulness) and faces exile and death. As Israel’s representative, he throws himself into the hands of the oppressors: Rome, the corrupt Jewish temple establishment, and Satan. Israel rightfully deserved to go into exile, because exile was the consequence of its covenant unfaithfulness. As Israel’s representative, Jesus accepts the consequences.
Since through Jesus Israel, is sent into exile by God to face its consequences at the hands of the powers and principalities, we cannot say that God the Father is pouring out his wrath upon Jesus, destroying him. Rather we should say that God the Father released unfaithful Israel into the hands of its oppressors, as a punishment, and the oppressors destroyed Jesus. Thus upon the cross, Jesus acts as Israel’s substitute, facing the consequences for sin for Israel.