Wrightsaid Q&A – October, 2005

Webmaster’s note: Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has agreed to answer a few questions occasionally from the Wrightsaid email list.  I am pleased to make this Q & A available on the N.T. Wright Page.  These are his responses for October, 2005.

Question:

There has been some recent debate over a controversial book by Steve Chalke which you have endorsed.  Chalke has warned that some versions of penal substitution can reduce God to a “cosmic child abuser.”  Would you agree with his analysis and do you see that as a danger?

Answer:

There are some ways of preaching and expounding penal substitution which do indeed reduce it to the crude terms of God demanding that someone suffer and not caring much who it is.  This is an attempt to put the vast ocean of God’s saving love into the small bottle of one particular category.  When you track penal substitution from its NT statements (Mark 10.45, Romans 8.3, etc etc) back to its roots in Isaiah 53, you discover that in its proper form it is part of a much larger theme, which is God’s vindication of his justice and saving love and his demolition of pagan power and authority.  Sometimes evangelicals haven’t wanted to embrace or even notice the larger themes and so have falsely accentuated the sharp edge of penal substitution in isolation from them.  I think Steve is reacting to that kind of skewed presentation.  Think of it like this.  In a musical chord, the ‘third’ (in a chord of C major, this would be the note E) is the critical one that tells you many things, e.g. whether the music is major or minor, happy or sad.  That E is vital if the music is to make the sense it does.  But if the player plays the E and nothing else, the E no longer means what it’s meant to mean.  Likewise, substitutionary atonement is a vital element in the gospel.  Miss it out, and the music of the gospel is no longer what it should be.  But if you only play that note you are in danger of setting up a different harmony altogether…

Question:

What do you think of the idea of “Exile”, thematically as a multi-threaded metaphor running through the entire Canon with an actual, real referent – i.e., multi-dimensional alienation from God, self, others, et. al. due to rebellion – beginning with Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden?

Answer:

It’s a great controlling metaphor.  I’m not sure it covers every base in biblical theology but it certainly does a great many of them.  I am increasingly fascinated by the way in which the great prophets of the Babylonian exile must have seen, and probably reshaped, the creation-and-fall story in the light of their own experience of ejection from their paradise garden.  And that reminds us that the prophecies of Israel’s redemption are to be seen as signposts towards the larger-still redemption which Paul speaks of in Romans 8.18-27.

Question:

You have said: “Israel was called to be God’s people for the world, and it was Israel’s failure to be God’s people for the world which resulted in God sending his son to be his people incarnate for the world.”  This is fairly standard Wrightian phraseology.  Does this indicate that Jesus was God’s Plan B?

Answer:

No.  God made humans to be sovereigns over his creation so that he might himself become sovereign over his creation by becoming human.  When humans sinned, God called Israel to be the people who would embody and carry forward his purposes of saving love in order that he might himself embody and carry out his purposes of saving love by becoming Israel’s anointed representative.  I here take, unambiguously and unashamedly, the position of Duns Scotus (at least as I understand it!): incarnation was in mind from the beginning, and when atonement became necessary it would happen as one central aspect of that always-intended incarnation.

Question:

In your article “The Law in Romans 2” you write: “The spirit/letter contrast belongs closely, in Paul’s mind, with the contrast between the life in Christ on the one hand and the life in the flesh, and/or life in Judaism, on the other” (pg. 4).  Is ‘flesh/sarx’ a technical term in Paul’s writings for Judaism, or does it also apply to all mankind, Gentiles included?

Answer:

Sarx in Paul has three meanings (I think I say this in the Romans commentary in NIB somewhere): human flesh which is corruptible and will decay and die; human rebellion which tends towards such death; ethnic solidarity especially that of Israel.  What Paul manages to do not least in Galatians is to point out that by clinging to ethnic solidarity (‘in the flesh’), those who insist on e.g. circumcision and hence their ethnic solidarity with the people of Abraham are in fact, despite their intentions and hopes, simply emphasizing that which they have in common with all humankind, and that which stresses their solidarity in sin.  That is in fact the problem underneath Romans 7…

Question:

You often speak of Sin as a dominating power, and not just discrete acts of human wickedness.  Some have accused you of downplaying personal sin, and its accompanying guilt.  How do you conceive of the relationship between Sin as a world-dominating power and sin as acts of human wickedness?

Answer:

It’s of course absurd to think that I downplay personal sin.  Goodness, I know enough about it in my own life and am daily grateful for the kindness and faithful forgiving love of God in Christ.  I have tried in my writings to track as faithfully as I can the way in which Paul himself uses ‘Sin’ sometimes as a power (e.g. Romans 7) and sometimes as specific actions of sin. The latter are clearly a manifestation of the former; though sometimes it seems he is using ‘Sin’ in a personified way where he could actually have said ‘Satan’.  On the one hand, it is clear that all humans (other than Jesus) do in fact perform acts which constitute a refusal of the vocation to be genuinely, God-reflectingly human, and which therefore ‘miss the mark’ of that lovely, fully-human life which is not only glorifying to God in itself but which reflects that glory powerfully and creatively into the world.  On the other hand, ‘Sin’ as a large-scale power has as its main aim the distortion, corruption and ultimately destruction of God’s good and beautiful and powerful world of creation.  The link then becomes apparent: if Sin-as-a-power is to succeed, what is required is that human beings are deflected from their task of reflecting God’s glory and love into the world; in other words, if they default on the vocation to live as gladly-obedient, God-reflecting humans and so effectively hand power over either to elements of creation itself or to Sin which will only too readily use it…

Question:

You have said that some want to judge salvation based on an intellectual assent to monergism: -we have gone to justification by faith in justification by faith alone.-

In what way is individual resurrection connected to doctrinal confession?

I don’t want to say that Intellectual assent is REQUIRED for salvation, else my infants would not be saved…but I don’t want to say that bald rejection of something like the Kingship of Jesus is permissible however.

Where do we draw a line, and can we require an assent to facts without creating a new line of synergism by doing so?  Are assent and rejection exactly equal?

Answer:

I confess I’m not so clear exactly what’s at stake here.  Yes, there is a danger in supposing that we are justified by faith by believing in justification by faith, rather than in Jesus.  That’s a point already well made by Hooker in the C16.  The key is that the reception of the gospel of Jesus in the human heart produces that change right across the personality which will, given a chance to come to flower, produce the belief in the resurrection and the Lordship of Jesus.  Infants can perfectly well have this faith in embryonic form; when a loving mother feeds her baby, she is or can be preaching the gospel through the unconditional love she offers and the baby can respond.  There’s lots more I could say about that but no time now.  The question comes when someone is older, and mentally capable, and the implicit and embryonic faith has to grow up and stand on its own feet.  At this point assent to events is important, not to turn faith into a work but because the gospel message is precisely that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.  I’m not sure what’s implied by the question of assent and rejection being ‘exactly equal’.  I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s examples of questions which even God finds unanswerable: is yellow square or round?  How many hours are there in a mile?

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