Wright, N. T. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. New York: HarperOne, 2016. Pp. viii + 440. ISBN: 978-0-06-233438-1. $35.99 CAN [Hardcover]. Source for Book Cover.
In The Day the Revolution Began, N. T. Wright challenges Protestantism’s theology of cross and replaces it with something else. That something else involves Jesus taking up the vocation of Israel to act as image-bearers and as worshippers of God. It also includes the forgiveness of sins, which brings freedom from the curse of the Torah (exile) and from the power of sin.
In my estimation, The Day the Revolution Began recalibrates a partially misaligned theology of the cross with something that creates more problems rather than less. Wright correctly sees the cross as part of a grand scheme of redemption that includes the story of Israel but wrongly rejects penal substitution, which is vital to that story.
According to Wright, modern Christian theology commits three fundamental errors:
We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting ‘souls going to heaven’ for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of ‘salvation’ (substituting the idea of ‘God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath’ for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore). (147).
In place of what he considers to be errors, Wright advocates for an inaugurated eschatology, which begins in the present. Image-bearing humans are to focus on living now in the kingdom, acting out God’s will on earth just as it is in heaven.
He also asserts that moral perfection does not earn one entrance into heaven (159). God does not judge a person on the basis of our moral perfection but based upon our failure of vocation to be image-bearers who worship God. For Wright, sin is an enslaving force but not necessarily a moral fault. The real sin, as it were, is a failure to worship: “the basic ‘sin’ is actually idolatry, worshipping and serving anything in the place of the one true God” (102).
Wright correctly responds to some popular misunderstandings of eschatology and anthropology in admirable ways. His critique is leveled against popular theology that he has encountered in the pews (147). And no doubt that many parishioners of his do believe such things.
I myself have also seen similar misunderstandings where believers hope so much for a disembodied experience of heaven that they miss that Christ has already begun to fulfill his promises today, and that we must commit our lives in the here-and-now to him and his mission.
Although I disagree with Wright’s assertion that perfection is not a prerequisite for heaven, I am sympathetic to his biblical theology of idolatry. The Bible does identify the failure to worship God as a central sin. And so it makes sense to define sin as essentially idolatry.
The grand vision of the cross that Wright spells out in detail helpfully combats a shriveled understanding of God’s world-changing message of reconciliation. In these ways, I commend Wrights astute observations and his biblical theology.
On the other hand, Wright’s theology of atonement and parts of his anthropology exhibit serious problems. Wright avers that the notion that human sinfulness bars one from salvation and that Christ died in the place of sinners is “closer the pagan idea of an angry deity being pacified by a human death than they are to anything in either Israel’s scriptures or the New Testament” (147).
Anthropology. One wonders if Wright has not seriously misread the Old and New Testaments. The Bible constantly cites particular moral failures as the basis for God’s judgment. Isaiah lists the moral failures of his people before asserting: “Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people” (Isa 5:25). The wrath of God against Israel is a ubiquitous theme in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18).
Of course, Wright might respond that these sins are a failure of worship and failure of Israel to fulfill its vocation. Furthermore, he might respond that the unrighteousness that Paul speaks of in Romans 1:18 is covenant unfaithfulness (Wright defines dikaiosune as “covenant faithfulness”). A review like this cannot properly reverse an argument that Wright has spent multiple volumes and articles attempting to prove. But suffice it to say, Wright has not convinced me that the basic human problem is a failure of vocation rather than a failure of obedience.
I do not see why humans cannot both fail to meet God’s perfect moral standard and fail to fulfill their vocation. Wright seems to push an either-or scenario which could and should be a both-and scenario. If this is allowed, then Wright’s contribution to the doctrine of anthropology would be welcome and helpful. As it stands, his position is too exclusive.
Soteriology. As noted, Wright also rejects the notion of penal substitution, that God punishes Jesus in our place. He calls this view the “works contract” view because it claims that only by being perfectly righteous or by obeying God perfectly can a person earn salvation. Since no human can do that due to their sinful nature, Christ does it for them. He dies for their sins and imputes his righteousness to one who believes in him. Christ takes the wrath of God, receives the just penalty for our sins. We receive his perfect righteousness. In other words, Wright rejects the doctrine of penal substitution.
If Wright is to replace penal substitution, he would need to have shown how his view displaces the traditional Protestant mechanism for how the cross saves someone. Yet he often bypasses the question of the mechanism of salvation in order to highlight how the cross fulfills Israel’s story. No doubt this is because Wright sees discussions of mechanism as part of the problem (cf. 408).
For Wright, the question of mechanism is tied up in medieval thinking (32). He claims that medieval theories of God’s wrath and the need for punishment are rooted in pagan thought. The Reformers, therefore, proposed that the Father satisfied his wrath by punishing Jesus because they were influenced by pagan thinking.
The mechanism that Wright introduces is peculiar one. He argues that the Torah’s purpose was to increase sin and to make it exceedingly sinful (cf. Rom 5:20; 7:13). The history of Israel thus is a history of sin, which Moses himself is aware of (cf. Deut 28–30). Israel was to obey the Torah but the Torah’s function was to cause sin to bunch up or roll up into one place, into the people of Israel. Their vocation was to be light to the world but they, in fact, would sin and gather sin into themselves.
When Jesus comes, he arrives as the representative of his people in the likeness of sinful flesh. And God condemns sin in the sinful flesh of Jesus but not actually Jesus himself (cf. Rom 8:3). What God condemns is, in fact, the power of sin. In Romans Paul has already clearly articulated that sin is a personality, a personified force (cf. Rom 5–7). Hence, in Christ’s death as the representative of Israel in which all the sin that the Torah incited dwelled, God condemned that particular sin to free humankind. The effect of this freedom was to enable the vocation of Israel, the vocation of Adam and Eve.
In this way, the cross does have a substitutionary nature. But the nation Israel (with Christ as their head) bears the sin of humanity (the power of sin, not as in moral failures), which the Torah gathered up in the people and which God condemned. Israel dies in place of the world to free them from the power of sin.
I suppose Wright’s atonement mechanism makes partial sense of the purpose of Israel under the Torah and how Christ’s death abolishes sin. At the same time, his mechanism relies on a definition of sin which is uncertain. Paul certainly defines sin as a powerful force, but that does not mean that sin cannot also be a moral failure. It can be both. The Bible seems to clearly articulate that God the Father does punish the Son in our place, not merely condemning the power of sin in Jesus’ sinful flesh.
Isaiah 53:4–5 reads: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” The notion of penal substitution may not be the primary theme of atonement theology in the Bible, but it is surely the mechanism behind how a person can be made righteous before God.
I deeply appreciate Wright’s fresh insight into the Scripture, and I believe he has clearly articulated part of Paul’s understanding of Israel’s life under the Torah: Israel’s life under the Torah was meant to increase sin and show it to be extremely sinful. To some degree, this perspective clarifies why Jesus’ death uniquely atones for the sin of the world.
But Wright suffers from either-orism, which prevents him from integrating sin as a force (Rom 5–7) with sin as a vice (Rom 1). It further prevents him from seeing God both condemning the power of sin in Christ (Rom 8:3) and atoning for the presence of sin among the saints (cf. Rom 3:25)
Pastors and leaders will benefit from reading Wright’s tome because it will open their eyes to how the cross plays an integral role in the story of Israel, but they will need to be wary of Wright’s tendency to create either-ors. Further, the displacing of penal substitution for vocational substitution in Wright creates more problems than it solves. For this reason, I would point those who want to understand the meaning of the cross to J. I. Packer’s famous essay What Did the Cross Achieve? In Wright, we have a creative individual who bucks the traditional. In Packer, we have a faithful individual who uses tradition to understand the truth of the Bible. Of the two Anglicans, Packer will have my vote every time.
Note: Update on April 21, 2017. I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for a review. But I was nor am under any obligation to provide a positive review.
James Bejon says
Thanks for providing the review!
James Bejon says
You’re welcome. I was pleased, to be honest, to see someone point out some of the book’s flaws. I’ve read far too many positive reviews of the book, which worries me because I know a lot of people who’d probably be negatively effected by reading a book like this. (My own review was even more critical that yours!)
Jonathan Camiré says
I really appreciate your review. As you mentioned, Wright’s contributions are helpful to have us see Scripture beyond what has been popular in the Evangelical world of late, yet we must be wary. Many have shown concern on his views of penal substitution. I just wrote an essay on Propitiation in the Catholic Epistles and it bears great significance in soteriology. Thanks, Wyatt!
Ah, your paper sounds interesting. Paul is usually underscored when people talk about penal substitution.
Jonathan Camiré says
1 John 2:2 gives the disciple who sinned, hope that by mainting fellowship with God through confessing their offenses, they are safe from God’s righteous wrath because the wrath we deserved already fell on Christ. The disciple can look back to God’s wrath with thanksgiving rather than looking forward to the potential of God’s wrath falling on them. This is good news!
Mark Evans says
Thanks for this review. I am glad you brought up Isaiah 53 with respect to the atonement – I don’t understand how you can arrive at something other than substitution from that passage. I find Wright often helpfully provocative and I appreciate the good points you highlighted but I agree with your critique – why does he have such a problem with penal substitution – don’t we have a clear precedent all throughout Torah for substitution – how many thousands of lambs, bulls, and goats died as substitutes?
Jerry Shepherd brought up this point too, if memory serves. He said that Leviticus teaches a kind of penal substitution, and this helps us make sense of the cross.
Regarding “either orism” I would appreciate your thoughts on
All in all I appreciated your critic much more than the common “anti NT Wright” bandwagon.
I appreciated the first two minutes where he argued that you can balance christus victor with penal substitution (against Aulen). The second half of the video would fall under the critiques above.