New Testament scholars N.T. Wright and Simon Gathercole addressed the meaning of the atonement at the 14th annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum, Nov. 10-11, at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS).
Photo by Chandler McCall
N.T. Wright, left, and Simon Gathercole discuss the meaning of the atonement during the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Nov. 10.
The question considered was whether substitution – the view that Christ died in the place of sinners – is enough to communicate the full meaning of atonement.
In a departure from previous Greer-Heard forums, this year’s event featured conservative Christian speakers who agree on the doctrines that all Christians, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox affirm.
Wright, former Bishop of Durham for the Church of England and a leading New Testament theologian, cautioned against reducing the atonement to a single summary statement such as Christ’s death means believers “can go to heaven.”
Wright called for seeing the atonement as “shorthand” for the full biblical story of redemption history and new creation. Wright noted the gospels are primary witnesses to the meaning of Jesus’ death; any model of atonement that stands alone becomes “wooden and disjointed;” Jesus’ death during Passover is key and showed that the Last Supper replaced the temple sacrificial system and was Jesus’ final interpretation of his death; and that understanding these points should change how atonement is depicted.
Affirming that Jesus’ death broke sin’s power, defeated the powers of darkness and reconciled the world to God, Wright cautioned that reducing the atonement to “God needed to kill someone and it happened to be his own son” is a pagan idea imported into today’s thinking.
“When we look back at the long history of atonement theology, especially in the west, we find three things: we have Platonized our eschatology; moralized our anthropology; and therefore we have paganized our soteriology,” Wright said.
Paul’s argument is instead about how God rescues and renews His creation, Wright said, adding that “the ‘getting to heaven’ narrative, which is still massively popular and influential, is the teaching of middle Platonism, not the Bible; you’ll find it in Plutarch, not in Paul.”
Wright warned that today’s culture thinks Christianity teaches that an angry God had to be assuaged, a teaching Wright called “a lurch toward … pagan narratives in which an angry God demands an innocent victim.”
Instead, a “robust Trinitarian theology” is needed to show that Jesus’ death radically changed the world and restored the vocation assigned to humans in Genesis 1, 2 and 3, Wright explained.
Disavowing any theology that teaches only “what people would like to hear,” Wright concluded, “The scandal of the cross remains a scandal, but at least let’s get the scandal right.”
Wright is author of the recent work on the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began.
A defense of substitution
Substitution is integral to the gospel, Gathercole contended in his response.
Gathercole, Cambridge University New Testament scholar and author of Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul, drew first from Ezekiel chapters 33 and 34 as examples of scripture’s consistent witness regarding God’s saving activity – “liberation and on the other side, forgiveness of sins.”
The two themes cannot be separated, Gathercole said.
Gathercole pointed to the phrase “according to scriptures” in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, then returned to the Old Testament to show that scripture also links disobedience and death.
Drawing from 1 Kings 16:8-19, Gathercole noted that the “formula” describing King Zimri’s sin in the Greek Septuagint is similar to the formula Paul used in writing to the Corinthians. In the passage, King Zimri usurps Israel’s King Asa’s throne.
“King Zimri died for his owns sins,” Gathercole noted. “That’s the link between sin and death. The miracle of the gospel is that this link between sin and death has been broken. Christ died for our sins.
Substitution is at the heart of the gospel. Christ died so that we don’t have to.”
Paul tapped into the substitutionary language of Isaiah 53 in his Corinthians letter and provided a link between substitution and forgiveness, Gathercole said. He explained that the Suffering Servant died both “in consequence of [others’] sins and in order to deal with them,” adding “The Corinthians don’t have to die because Jesus did.”
Gathercole noted the stark contrast between examples of substitutionary death for “worthy” persons in pagan literature and Paul’s emphasis in Romans 5 of Christ dying for the “unworthy.”
Paul touches on a “life for life exchange,” Gathercole said, adding that Romans 5 points to the main tenets of the gospel: “justification through Christ’s blood, salvation and reconciliation.”
In the concluding exchange, Gathercole praised Wright for providing a comprehensive framework for the atonement, but questioned whether Wright gave a restored “vocation” for humans and a “restoration of the cosmos” too central a focus.
Wright answered by appealing to Revelation 5 to where the redeemed are made “kings and priests” and to Romans 8 to show that now that the power of sin is broken, humans are free to be as God’s image-bearers, as God intended.
“The doctrine of the atonement stands at the center of Christianity,” said Robert Stewart, Greer-Heard Forum director. “N. T. Wright’s expansive book on the doctrine says that we have made too little of this doctrine. Not everyone will agree with him but everyone must take him seriously. He affirms a substitutionary atonement but not necessarily in the traditional way, and brings to our attention other things to see in the death of Christ. In short, Wright declares that this world really is a different sort of place, a better place, because Christ died for sinners.”
Second-day forum speakers included Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary; Douglas Moo of Wheaton College; Edith Humphrey of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary; and Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Event material is available at greerheard.com.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Marilyn Stewart is assistant director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)