I’ve just finished Tom Wright’s latest book, this one on the topic of the atonement, ‘The Day the Revolution Began’.
I have a recurring experience with Wright’s books. I start them, excited, ready to have my paradigm shifted. About half way through, I think, ‘This is a helpful corrective, but I can’t help but feel he’s overstating things a bit.’ Then, I finish with a feeling of bemusement, grateful to be reminded that there’s more to [insert theological issue here] than some simplistic, popular examples would indicate, but also thinking that Wright seems to regard his proposals as a fair bit more revolutionary (ahem) than they really are.
Still, this was a worthwhile read. There’s so much I could say about it, but I’ll focus on just two things.
A Common-sense Corrective
Wright’s critique is concise: we’ve scaled down the meaning of the cross. We’ve minimised it so that it’s all about our failing to meet a moral standard, Jesus having to die in our place to appease God, the outcome being that we get to go to heaven. Wright admits that this may not be how the story is told by more nuanced expositors, but it is rife at a popular level. That’s probably true.
Wright’s vision is larger than that anemic story. Yes, he allows, for the most part, sin and heaven and all of that is included in the story he’s interested in telling. But it’s not the focus. So what is? Vocation.
We were given a purpose, a vocation, and we stuffed it up by worship idols. So at the cross, Jesus breaks the power of those idols, defeating them (I’m sure Wright would add the flourish of a ‘finally!’ or ‘at last’.)
Christ’s resurrection then, empowers us to fulfill our vocation once more; to witness and worship and mediate God’s presence to all of creation starting right now.
Because of Jesus, yes, our sins are dealt with. But that’s far from the end of it. We’re also equipped to live as the Image-bearing children of God we were always meant to be.
This, I think, is a helpful, common-sense corrective to how the gospel is sometimes preached. I’m not convinced it’s quite as revolutionary as Wright seems to think it is – even the likes of Calvin had a far broader view of salvation than the caricature on display here which, interestingly, Wright admits – but it’s true that we can sometimes act like conversion is all that matters, and then we can check out til heaven.
Wright paints a much more compelling, exciting picture.
A Confusing Conclusion
My biggest issue with this book is Wright’s treatment of God’s punishment of sin. In short, he seems to do somersaults to avoid any kind of retributive judgment on the part of God.
Now hear me… I understand the impulse. Some preachers give me the impression that they get a strange, fetishistic thrill from talking about God’s judgment or wrath. I think we have to be so clear when teaching about this stuff that God’s love and wrath are two sides of the same coin; that his anger towards sin is his steady, unyielding opposition to that which robs us of life, rather than a vindictive, unpredictable rage.
But, Wright appears to want to dodge the idea of God’s retributive judgement entirely. He’s at pains to argue that on the cross, God was punishing sin, not Jesus. He stresses that our problem is not so much that we are under God’s judgment, but that we, in worshiping idols, have given them a power over us. Hence, we’re now enslaved to ‘forces’ within creation.
Like it often is with Wright, this is more a matter of emphasis and omission, than it is of black-and-white statements. The effect though, it seems to me, is a slightly sanitised gloss to the gospel story.
…Overall, reading Tom Wright is helpful, because he challenges me to tell the whole story in its broader context rather than the cliff notes. If I have to put up with a bit of hyperbole and a couple of misses here and there, that’s a worthwhile trade.