Andrew Perriman raises a good question for those of us who cherish the penal substitution view of the atonement as primary and central. He asks: "What is the story that frames and makes sense of this understanding of Jesus' death?"
At the outset, I want to say that I fully sympathize with N. T. Wright's concern to place the mission and work of Jesus within the narrative framework of Israel's story, a concern articulated well in Jesus and the Victory of God. However, I believe he makes the mistake of failing to place the Israel narrative within the larger Adam narrative. Modern theology since Barth has been fond of the particularism of biblical theology, but we must also see that the particularism of biblical theology is in the service of an ultimate universalism. (I'm using the word "universalism" here not in the sense of universal salvation, but a soteriology that overcomes the Jew-Gentile distinction by addressing the plight of all sinners in Adam.)
So what is the larger Adam narrative, and how does the Israel narrative fit in with it? The Adam narrative, of course, is the story of creation, Adam's rebellion and fall, and God's promise concerning the S/seed (both in the singular and in the collective sense) of the woman. The Seed (singular) will crush the serpent by means of his own suffering, a foreshadow of the death of Christ (Gen 3:15). Genesis 1-3 is foundational to the whole Bible. Everything that comes after it must be read in light of it. The book of Genesis itself subordinates the Israel narrative to the Adam narrative.
Now the Seed promise of Gen 3:15 -- so brief that it is almost an enigma -- is fleshed out and expanded in the Abrahamic promise. The Abrahamic promise reiterates the essence of the Seed promise of Gen 3:15, but it places greater emphasis on the collective dimension of the seed (Israel) together with the promised land for the seed to dwell in. The promised land is clearly to be understood as the restored paradise that was lost in Gen 3 (see Gen 13:10 which describes the land as "well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD").
The promise then unfolds in two stages: (a) a first-level fulfillment on the typological layer of Israel's inheritance in the land and (b) a second-level fulfillment in Christ as the individual Seed and those who belong to him as the corporate seed. Of course, the two stages do not unfold in a smooth evolution, for there is a rupture dividing the two: Israel was a corporate reenactment of Adam's failure in the garden, leading to the rupture of the exile. Nevertheless, because of God's irrevocable promises to Abraham, the exile is not the end of the story. After the exile is the return and rebuilding of the temple in the post-exilic period. But this was but a small foretaste of the eschatological glories of the second-level fulfillment. The post-exilic community and its rebuilt temple were so small and insignificant, we come to the end of the Old Testament crying out for a greater fulfillment.
Now the first-level fulfillment creates a world of types that become a new promise finding its fulfillment in Christ. Israel as God's holy people dwelling in God's holy land is a type of the elect dwelling in the new heavens and the new earth. When the reality to which the types pointed comes, the reality is described using typological language. Thus the elect (both Jew and Gentile) are called "the Israel of God" and heaven is called "the eternal inheritance." Jesus himself assumes the three-fold office of prophet, priest, and king -- offices first established with living examples in the old covenant economy (e.g., Moses, Aaron, David). With regard to the priestly office in particular, Christ's atoning death is described as the fulfillment of the Levitical system of sacrifice, the final purification for sin when the true High Priest entered the true holy place once for all. The Levitical system was put in place so that a holy God could dwell in the midst of a sinful and impure people.
Israel's conditional tenure in the land (conditional on faithful obedience to the Law) was a corporate re-enactment of Adam's probation in the garden. And just as Adam sinned and was expelled, so Israel was sent into exile for her violation of the Law. This then sets the stage for Jesus to be described as the true, obedient Israelite, the faithful king who kept God's Law and gave rest to his people in the land. This is merely the typological way of saying that Jesus is the second Adam. Christ is the second Adam and true Israel in whom the exile is reversed and a greater paradise is attained.
So there are actually two narrative frameworks (Adam and Israel) with the Israel narrative nesting within the broader Adam narrative (creation, fall, redemption, consummation). The mission and work of Jesus must be seen through the mutually interpreting lens of both narratives. In the order of understanding, we start with the Israel narrative since that forms the most immediate historical context for the life and ministry of Jesus the Messiah. But since the Israel narrative is itself a reproduction in type and shadow of the broader Adam narrative, the interpretive framework provided by the Israel narrative was intended by God to point beyond its own particularity to the universalism of the Adam narrative. In Israel's covenant breaking and exile, we see the covenant breaking and expulsion of Adam from the garden. And since we are all in Adam, we see ourselves in Israel's story too. Yet, just as Jesus takes Israel's story to the cross and beyond to the resurrection, so he completes Adam's story at the same time, so that through his accursed death we have passed through judgment and have emerged on the other side having won, by his merit, the right to eat of the tree of life and live forever with him in the heavenly inheritance.
To be continued ...