The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion

N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifxion. San Francisco: Harper One, 2016. pp. vii + 440. $28.99, hardcover.

In his latest book N. T. Wright continues to call the church to reconsider its position on one of its most precious doctrines. This time he challenges classic formulations of the nature of the atonement. The work is clearly intended for a general audience and avoids interaction with scholarly literature; yet, given the popularity of the Anglican bishop and the likelihood of broad readership, the Day the Revolution Began should be thoroughly evaluated by New Testament scholars as well as systematic and historical theologians.

The work essentially purports two major theses. First, Wright argues that the cross of Jesus is about more than “saving me from my sins so I can go to heaven.” He insists that the Bible seldom mentions such ideas and instead offers something far more comprehensive—new creation. According to Wright, the cross was a message about the kingdom of heaven coming to earth, but this message has been truncated by an individualistic, platonic concept of salvation that is foreign to the Scriptures. He draws a link between the individualistic concepts of salvation found in modern churches with the teaching on penal substitution and justification that resurfaced during the Reformation. Consequently, he chides the Reformers and their heirs (Calvin excepted) for failing to understand and to teach this cosmic idea of redemption.

There is merit in Wright’s critique of modern evangelicals who have a diminished view of redemption. Nevertheless, Wright reveals a limited knowledge of Reformed historical theology. A perfunctory glance of the expositional and confessional literature clearly evidences a broader concept of salvation than the out-of-body platonic model which Wright chides. Consequently, much of his argument arises from misrepresentations. This likely flows from his regard of the patristic age as a golden era of Christian theology. Having embraced the argument that the Reformers broke from early church teaching, Wright attempts to restore atonement theology to its “purer” days.

This historical mischaracterization is a minor offense compared to Wright’s second thesis, where he proceeds to deny (or at least diminish) the concept of propitiation or penal substitution in the crucifixion. The idea of a righteous man satisfying the wrath of God on behalf of the unrighteous, he suggests, is a pagan concept likely learned from Homer and Virgil, with no grounding in the Scriptures. The New Testament, he writes, regularly attributes the atonement to a love of God that precludes any notions of wrath or anger. Proponents of penal atonement, he claims, have allowed a “works contract” ideology to override their biblical exegesis. He seeks to demonstrate this by a broad survey of the biblical metanarrative in contrast with the proof-texting of his counterparts. We can reduce our objections to his unconvincing arguments to the following.

First, in his exegesis of relevant texts, Wright generally avoids the wrath passages to which proponents of penal substitution appeal. He does little with the pervasive claims that God’s wrath looms over sinners. While we must avoid notions of a vindictive or blood-thirsty compulsion in God, we still must affirm that there is a holy and just anger in God. But Wright dismisses this as a misrepresentation. One example is his treatment of 2 Cor 5:18 where Wright translates, “It all comes from God. He reconciled us to himself through the Messiah, and he gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” He comments that “this is not the quasi-pagan narrative of an angry or capricious divinity and an accidental victim. It is the story of love, covenant love, faithful love, reconciling love. Messianic love” (253). Truly this is no “capricious divinity” but nevertheless, why is reconciliation necessary? Without reconciliation is there not some form of discord or hostility that must be removed before congenial relationship is possible? Wright fails to address these very natural and necessary questions.

Wright strives to prove his position canonically, and he suggests that his teaching is consistent with the entire corpus of Scripture. However, he omits the clearest descriptions of atonement in the Old Testament—Leviticus. Likewise, he omits arguably the clearest New Testament interpretation of the sacrificial system as it relates to Christ—Hebrews. Instead, by his own admission, Wright limits his exegesis to the Gospels, and Paul (350).

If he wrestled with Leviticus and Hebrews, he may have noted the following. After rescuing Israel from bondage in Israel, God desired to reside with his people in a special covenantal way that recalled the Garden of Eden. However, God’s holiness posed a barrier between his sinful people, and so he established a sacrificial system that secured his covenantal presence with his people and satisfied his justice by accepting the substitutionary death of blameless animals. We might summarize these offerings this way: the burnt offering to atone for sin nature; the peace offering to reconcile offended parties; sin offerings for inadvertent or unintentional sins; the guilt offerings for intentional sin; and the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement (burnt and scapegoat) on behalf of the people collectively. These depictions require some nuance, but the point is simply this: sin is complex and creates a plethora of problems that must be removed before one could be expected to be received favorably before a holy God. Only when these offerings were presented in the manner prescribed by God, in the place of the offenders, could Israel be sure that they would be a “pleasing aroma to God;” God’s holiness required appeasement.

In the few places that Wright discusses the sacrificial system, he challenges this interpretation of Leviticus and denies the centrality of propitiation to atonement. He maintains, “The only time in Leviticus when an animal has sins confessed over its head the animal in question—the “scapegoat”—is precisely not sacrificed” (329). Yet in every blood sacrifice, the worshipper who realizes his offense and brings his sacrifice according to the law, lays his hand on the animal in an act of identification or, dare we say, imputation of his sin to the animal who will die in his place (literally “for him” וְסָמַ֣ךְ יָדֹ֔ו עַ֖ל רֹ֣אשׁ הָעֹלָ֑ה וְנִרְצָ֥ה לֹ֖ו לְכַפֵּ֥ר עָלָֽיו׃; see Lev.1:4; 3:2, 8, 13). The very act itself is an admission of guilt and expresses trust that it will be atoned for by the animal in his place. Wright’s failure to understand the Levitical atonement sacrifices disables him from understanding NT descriptions of Christ’s atoning work of which the sacrifices pointed. This may explain why he does not address the epistle to the Hebrews.

Throughout the book of Hebrews, the author makes clear that everything that the OT sacrificial system contained types and shadows of what was to be fulfilled in Christ (Heb.8:5). He reaches a climax to this argument by asserting that Christ was the once and for all sacrifice for God’s people (Heb.10:11-14). In this one sacrifice, Christ performed that to which all the OT sacrifices pointed. An atonement secured the pleasure of God by removing the barriers to fellowship with God that sin had created. Consequently, the people of God may enter the “holy of holies” without fear of the Holy God consuming them for through the “blood of Jesus” they can be certain of receiving mercy (Heb.10:19-31).

Finally, Wright’s work confirms the danger of doing biblical theology without systematic theology. Often Wright pits varying attributes of God against others. For example, God’s love and mercy are often viewed as conflicting with his justice and anger. For Wright, the sacrifice of Christ exhibits God’s love to the denial of his justice. Biblically, the two should be recognized as two sides of the same proverbial coin. The love of justice is defined by a hatred of injustice. The love of holiness implies a hatred of un-holiness. The cross confirms both the love of God (sending the Son) and his just hatred of sin (punishment at the cross). For Wright, love becomes the all-encompassing attribute of God, yet he has no concept of the simplicity (or undivided nature) of God. As God is perfect in all of his attributes, none of his attributes can be heightened or diminished without striking at the vitals of his essence. Wright fails to account for the systematic biblical descriptions of the identity and nature of God and so falls into grave mistakes concerning his being and works.

This is evident in his definitions. Wright is adamant that the Hebrew term צְדָקָה or Greek dikaioj does not refer to some moral quality or status in God but instead to his “covenant faithfulness” (305). Yet God’s works (i.e. his covenant faithfulness) cannot be separated from his person (his moral character). If the phrase, dikaiosune qeou is to be understood as “covenant faithfulness” (a debatable point), it does not get Wright off the hook, for God’s covenant faithfulness is an extension of his faithful character or person. God acts reliably because He is reliable, trustworthy—dare I say—righteous. Wright appears unaware of such essential theological considerations.

Similarly, Wright betrays little sense of the holiness of God which explains his minimization of the penal aspects of the cross. Yet holiness is central to the Scriptures. Because God is holy, he demands his people to be holy (Lev.19:2), for without holiness no man will see the Lord (Heb.12:14). This demand for personal holiness can only be satisfied by the one who was “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners” once and for all to offer up himself (Heb.7:26-28) “to bear the sins of many” (Heb.9:28). The holiness of God requires propitiation on behalf of unholy people.

By removing the propitiatory (or penal) element from the cross, Wright is forced to offer a different explanation for the cross. He ascribes it to God’s love, which is true; and he maintains that it breaks the power of sin and slavery, which likewise is true. In this he establishes the motivation for sending the Son and a consequence of his atoning work but not the meaning of the atonement. By removing the holiness and justice of God and the need for satisfaction of his wrath, Wright cannot account for the necessity of the cross. If the cross is just an illustration of God’s love, could he have demonstrated it some other way? Why was the death of the Son of God required? Throughout the gospels, Jesus repeatedly says that he must suffer, and he must be crucified (Matt.16:21; 26:54; Mk.8:31; Lk.9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 24:7; Jn.3:14). By removing the holiness, justice, and wrath of God from the equation, Wright robs the cross of its meaning.

Allen Stanton
Pinehaven Presbyterian Church, Clinton, Mississippi