This is a response to Steve Rives's comment on an earlier post of mine.
N. T. Wright is unclear at best on this whole cluster of issues at the heart of the gospel (the nature of sin, the wrath of God, substitutionary atonement). It is true that you can find statements that sound traditional and use some traditional words, but the thrust of his overall vision and cast of thought is in a different direction.
Wright uses traditional terms with non-traditional meanings.
For example, he will often speak of "substitution" and "substitutionary atonement." But he does not (normally) use the term "penal substitution" when describing his view. He will say that Jesus was substituted in place of Israel, or that he was identified with sinful Israel. But he does not say that God inflicted the penal wrath on Jesus that we deserved for our sins.
Or take the statement that Steve Rives quotes: "God the creator would bring people back into bodily life, to face the consequences of their evil deeds." Notice that he does not say, "God the creator would bring people back into bodily life, to punish them for their evil deeds." Instead he uses the ambiguous phrase, "to face the consequences of their evil deeds." Such language could be intended in an orthodox sense, but it could also be taken in a watered-down sense in which sin brings certain negative "consequences" in its wake by the impersonal laws of moral cause and effect.
Here are some pieces of evidence which suggest that there is something wrong with Wright's view of the atonement.
First, in his commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter's Bible (2002), Wright has this to say about Romans 8:3 ("he condemned sin in the flesh"):
God, says Paul, condemned sin. Paul does not, unlike some, say that God condemned Jesus. True, God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus; but this is some way from saying, as many have, that God desired to punish someone and decided to punish Jesus on everyone's behalf. Paul's statement is more subtle than that. It is not merely about a judicial exchange, the justice of which might then be questioned (and indeed has been questioned). It is about sentence of death being passed on "sin" itself, sin as a force or power capable of deceiving human beings, taking up residence within them, and so causing their death (7:7-25) ... For Paul, what was at stake was not simply God's judicial honor, in some Anselmic sense, but the mysterious power called sin, at large and destructive within God's world, needing to be brough to book, to have sentence passed and executed upon it, so that, with its power broken, God could then give the life sin would otherwise prevent (p. 578).
Note that sin is here viewed as an impersonal force or power that blocks humans from enjoying life. On the cross, God condemned this impersonal force so that he could then give us life.
Second, Wright endorsed The Lost Message of Jesus (2003) by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann in which they said that the traditional presentation of the atonement is a barrier to faith for many people because it seems to portray the cross as "cosmic child abuse -- a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed." (See quote in context here). Wright continues to stand by his endorsement, even after this passage became controversial.
Third, Wright's book Simply Christian (2006) is supposed to be his presentation of the essence of the Christian faith. Here, if anywhere, you would expect a clear, simple statement of the gospel. But it is not there. The book has many good things to say, but it doesn't explain the basic gospel -- "Christ died for our sins." Forget about imputed righteousness. We'll set that debate aside. He didn't even explain the basic concept that (a) God is holy and hates sin, (b) we are sinners deserving his just wrath, and (c) the only way we can be right with God is through the death of Christ which satisfied God's justice and gives us forgiveness and acceptance before God. Instead, we find statements like this:
God's plan to rescue the world from evil would be put into effect by evil doing its worst to the Servant--that is, to Jesus himself--and thereby exhausting its power (p. 108) ... It was time for the evil which had dogged Jesus's footsteps throughout his career--the shrieking maniacs, the conspiring Herodians, the carping Pharisees, the plotting chief priests, the betrayer among his own disciples, the whispering voices within his own soul--to gather into one great tidal wave of evil that would crash with full force over his head. So he spoke of the Passover bread as his own body that would be given on behalf of his friends, as he went out to take on himself the weight of evil so that they wouldn't have to bear it themselves (p. 110).
This is all very consistent with his earlier formulations in chapter 12 of Jesus and the Victory of God (1996). You can see how, on Wright's theory, he can say with a clear conscience that Jesus' death was substitutionary, since Jesus let evil do its worst on himself so that it would not have to do so on us. But it is much harder to see how it is penal, i.e., relating to divine punishment. "Evil doing its worst on Jesus" is not the same thing as "Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood ... so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom 3:24-26 ESV).
Fourth, Wright wrote a piece in 2007 titled The Cross and the Caricatures defending his endorsement of the Chalke book and attacking the solid defense of substitutionary atonement titled Pierced for our Transgressions (2007) by Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, and Andrew Sach as "deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical." For his part, Wright affirms "a version" of the penal substitutionary theory, as long as it is subordinated to the Christus Victor theory. The "version" that he holds is that Christ bore the brunt of human evil, not that he bore the wrath of God that we deserved. In other words, his "version" of substitutionary atonement is not what you and I are thinking of when we use those words. It is true that in the first half of "The Cross and the Caricatures," Wright makes some comforting sounding statements, but in the second half you start to see the cracks in the subtle way he uses terms. As far as I know, this essay is the one of the rare places in his writings where he does use "penal substitution" to describe his own view, but he makes clear the sense in which he means the term. Commenting on the infamous Chalke "cosmic child abuse" quote, he writes:
You could take the paragraph to mean (a) on the cross, as an expression of God’s love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one.
There you have it. Wright thinks his theory of Jesus exhausting the full force of evil is "a form of penal substitution." Meanwhile, the other form (the orthodox view) is caricatured as "a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son."
Fifth, see this 2007 interview with Trevin Wax where he goes over the Chalke controversy once more and then adds his own sloppy caricature alongside Chalke's:
So we have to understand the doctrine of penal substitution within the Scriptural framework, within which it makes sense, rather than within this very low grade thing that I’ve been a naughty boy, God wants to punish me, and for some reason, he punishes someone else, so phew! I’m alright. OK. For a five-year-old, that’s fine. That’ll maybe do it. But, actually let’s grow up! We’re not talking about five-year-olds here; we’re talking about grown men and women who ought to know better, to be honest.
Finally, John Piper has a section in The Future of Justification (2007) where he points out Wright's mixed signals on substitutionary atonement and respectfully asks him to clarify his position ("A Regrettable Endorsement: Steve Chalke's The Lost Message of Jesus," pp. 47-52). Unfortunately, Wright did not respond to Piper's specific query in Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (2009).
So where does N. T. Wright stand on the atonement? I have a hard time being as charitable as Piper, who tries to believe the best and merely asks for clarification. To me, it looks more like a case of using orthodox labels to refer to a position that is not orthodox. At the end of the day, for Bishop Wright, sin is an impersonal evil force, not personal rebellion against God; sin has bad consequences, but does not elicit God's punitive wrath against the sinner; and the cross is to be understood as some version of the Christus Victor theory in which Christ defeats evil by letting it do its worst to him, not as a penal satisfaction of divine justice.