Two Millennia revolution to bring to heaven to earth
BOOKN.T. Wright's latest attempts to overturn current and traditional theological understandings of the crucifiction, writes Richard Prideaux
April 13 2017Tom Wright’s latest blockbuster is a big sprawling book (416 pages) clearly based on a lecture series and therefore could have done with some judicious editing. Nevertheless it makes a powerful impact because in this significant study Wright attempts to overturn many current and traditional theological understandings of the crucifixion of Jesus. The book will engender vigorous discussion and has already encountered substantial online opposition from Wright’s normal opponents both conservative and liberal. This noise should not deter readers from making the effort to stay the distance, because Wright’s argument is biblical, cogent, eventually compelling and in his final two chapters of application to today’s Church I believe his analysis can only be ignored at the Church’s peril, especially the first world Church.
In Part I, the first three chapters, the opening question is “Why did Jesus die”? Of course there are historical and theological answers but Wright first asks two questions: “What was Jesus thinking when he chose to go to the cross?”; and secondly, “What did the earliest Christian writers mean by saying the reason for his death had resulted in ‘the forgiveness of sins’”? This is especially surprising given that Jesus’s own preaching had been based around the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. Wright addresses directly the issue that Jesus preached the Kingdom and the early Church preached Jesus.
Wright answers his own questions with the reality that, with the resurrection, Jesus’ followers became immediately aware that arguably the most momentous revolution in human history had begun. Jesus’ followers, especially Paul, believed it involved the defeat of the powers of the cosmos and in particular the power and fear of death.
As Jesus’ followers wrestled with the cross an understanding of its universal significance began to dawn. Wright provides some difficult to read detail of the scandalous horror and torture involved in Roman crucifixion to prove that only a life-changing purpose could have made early believers make such a horrific death central to their understanding of God’s action in the world. Wright provides a ‘cook’s tour’ of two thousand years of interpretation of the meaning of the cross, concentrating on Reformation responses, and then demonstrates at length an equally varied response to the crucifixion in first century Roman and Jewish/Christian understanding.
In Part II, headed “In Accordance with the Bible”, Wright engages in a surprisingly detailed analysis of the narrative of the Old Testament focusing deliberately and directly on the five themes of the universal covenant promises to Abraham; the narratives of exodus and exile; the prophetic call to God’s people to be “the light to the nations” and the suffering servant narrative of later Isaiah. Readers familiar with Wright’s major commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume X will recognise this approach. Thus Wright prepares the way for his “Israel-centred” understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion in Part III.
Part III is the most theologically controversial section of the book in which Wright analyses first the Gospels in some detail, especially John, followed by “Paul and the Cross apart from Romans”, and finally two chapters centred on Romans. All the “big-name models” of atonement are there including penal substitution, justification, propitiation (á¼±λαστηριον), expiation, reconciliation, redemption, punishment, the wrath of God and the righteousness of God. These themes are reinterpreted in a broader understanding of God’s ongoing revolution led by God’s people resuming the task of being light and salt in the world and playing their part of being the suffering body of Christ in the world as we await its transformation with the return of Christ.
In part this Old Testament story of God’s action in the world is Wright’s reaction to such “slimmed down” evangelistic models as “the Romans Road” (see gotquestions.org) in which the meaning of the crucifixion tends to be limited to the forgiveness of personal sin so that a person can “go to heaven when they die”. Wright’s response is to underline Israel’s responsibility to be a light to the nations which, in spite of the Israelites return to Jerusalem, had stalled through their continuing “exile” under Roman rule in the first century. Wright sees Christ’s victory over the powers of the world on the cross as reigniting the establishment of the kingdom of God in a “this world time/space”, not escaping from the world into some disembodied heavenly existence. In this regard Wright gives biblical expression to philosopher Roger Scruton’s recent powerful call to a spiritual life and an afterlife “in time, [belonging] within the causal envelope, in the space-time continuum which is the world of nature” [The Soul of the World, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2014].
Part IV of the book contains two chapters of a clarion call to living the Christian life within the victory of the crucifixion. It is hard-hitting, dynamic and potentially life-changing as well as threatening. Do not proceed if you do not want your spiritual equilibrium disturbed! Consider these zingers for example:
Many churches have colluded in the privatisation and spiritualisation of “salvation”. (p.394); Forgiveness of sins is not a tolerance of “anything goes”. (p396); Challenging political agendas does not absolve us from the need for personal holiness. (p403) We cannot assume that we are now mandated to live the Christian version of a modern Western “good life”. (p404) How easily the Western church embraces self-discovery, self-fulfilment and self-realisation as if they were at the heart of the Gospel. (p410) “...for every word of Jesus against sins of the body there are a dozen against sins of the bankbook. (p410). So, finally, when the New Testament tells us the meaning of the cross, it gives us not a system, but a story; not a theory, but a meal and an act of humble service; not a celestial mechanism for punishing sin and taking people to heaven, but an earthly story of a human Messiah who embodies and incarnates Israel’s God and who unveils his glory in bringing his kingdom to earth as in heaven. (p415)
The Revolution began on that first Good Friday and continues in the faithful and suffering lives of God’s people as they work with joyful, politically challenging courage and holiness as the body of Christ to continue to create God’s kingdom of love, beauty and justice in the world, patiently awaiting its transformation at Christ’s return. May it be so in the churches to which we belong.
N T Wright: The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, (Harper One/SPCK, San Francisco/London, 2016 $35.50)
Richard Prideaux is the Senior Chaplain at Newhaven College.