The Cross and Caricatures


I few days ago I came across an anglican web site stuffed full of great (and free) resources and articles (including N T Wright, Tom Smail, Elaine Storkey etc), called Fulcrum.

I downloaded from there and printed, then read early this morning an article by N T Wright, titled 'The Cross and the Carictures'. In terms of the various arguments about penal substitution, the major players, texts and issues over the past few years, it is the best piece I have ever read.

In it, N T Wright draws on popular books (Steve Chalke & Alan Mann), and heavy weight academic books (in particular the much endorsed new book from Oak Hill College Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution) and UK newspapers coverage of the discussion, to provide a response, his thoughts and assessments of the hullabaloo that has taken place. If you have an interest in this ongoing discussion, it is well worth a read.

Some things I gleaned from the article, in no particular order:

1. Meal vs Theory: Jesus explained his death with a meal, not a theory. There is a lot to understand about that meal, but it is the meal that is most important.

2. Caricatures: Too often those who attack penal substitution do so with crude caricatures of the doctrine, or those who defend it embrace a caricature. Penal Substitution wasn't invented by Anselm, and just used by Calvin. It is also not just about an angry god killing his son out of pique and revenge.

3. Deeper: Penal substitution is part of the bible, church fathers, medieval church leaders and reformers, in a much deeper and broader context than many give it. In particular Christus Victor puts penal substitution in such a deep/thick context. There has been much that has been missing from understanding the substitutionary nature of the cross.

4. Labeling: There is a failure to read the bible, to read what people really say, and write, where instead too often, we deal with what we want to find in the caricatures, wanting to associate people as good and bad, without ever really trying to understand them.

And a couple of thoughts from that:

1. Identity Issues/Self & Agency: The caricatures do produce a picture of God that postmodern people find hard to get beyond and we must deal with that. Yet post-modernity with the liberated actualized self has no notion of identity with others, of the shared failure of our lives to be ordered around God's kingdom and reality, and the need for that to be dealt with. The selfish post-modern/modern self is unable to see itself on the cross.

The cross is not about an angry God taking things out on his son, but a God of love having to deal with the anything that destroys the image of his creation, and of providing that way himself. That includes the need for me to go to the cross, that I am part of the problem. And the Jesus on the cross, is God on the cross, a trinitarian understanding of Christ's life and death, which reveals the indvidualist way we so often view the cross. There is no condemnation for the post-modern self, yet the cross reminds us that there is.

2. Biblical Formation: Will we let the bible and the story of God form us, and our understandings, or will we let out cultural narratives and exegesis shape our beliefs and ways we do church. The knee jerk and shallow condemnations of people who question penal substitution theories, reveal the power plays of the church culture that shapes our understanding of the gospel. The equally shallow rejection of penal substitution show the formation of the Gospel around a cultural and sociological agenda, rather than a biblical one.

3. Resources: I made a longer blog post with a list of resources on atonement here, if you want to read some more.