From Plato to Glory

Michael S. Horton
N.T. Wright
Thursday, March 1st 2018
Mar/Apr 2018

Ask any Sunday school scholar why Jesus died on the cross, and you’re likely to get the same answer: “For our sins!” There’s no question that penal substitution and propitiation get a lot of air time in confessional Protestant circles. If there’s one thing the reformational church is known for, it’s a keen awareness of the depth of humanity’s depravity (and, if we’re honest, a strong distaste for anything that sounds like unwarranted self-love). While it’s certainly true that Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary did pay the price for our sins and satisfy the justice of the Father, it’s also true that we have a tendency to leave out the other half of the story—the bit about how Christ not only defeated sin and death but also ushered in the glorious new age where all who look to him for their salvation will share in his unending reign in the new heavens and new earth.

To give us greater insight into all the multifaceted wonder of the cross, Michael Horton chatted with the learned former bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, on his most recent work, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (HarperOne, 2016). Tom Wright is one of the world’s leading Bible scholars, chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and the author of many books, including his series Christian Origins and the Question of God and the popular work, Surprised by Hope.

MSH: Tom, you say that “we have Platonized our eschatology, substituting souls going to heaven for the promised new creation, and have therefore moralized our anthropology, substituting a qualifying exam of moral performance for the biblical notion of human vocation, with a result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of salvation, substituting the idea of God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath for the genuinely biblical notions we’re about to explore.” That’s quite a charge. Can you unpack that a little bit?

NTW: Yes, I can. I’m sorry about all the “ologies.” Two “ologies” is two too many in a sentence, and having three is quite a mouthful! This was a shorthand way of saying something I do think is really important. The Western tradition—through the high Middle Ages and on into Protestantism—has, just as much as Catholicism, seen the idea of a Platonic-type soul as an immortal part of a human being that continues to exist one way or another. The only question is, what is its destiny? Because it’s a soul, á la Plato, it’s not really interested in a body; it just wants to get to heaven and go into a timeless and spaceless sphere. The Eastern Orthodox, though they sometimes use language like that, have always been much more concerned with the biblical vision of the new heavens and new earth, of a renewal of the whole creation. In other words, they incorporate the idea that God made this wonderful, powerful, extraordinary world of space, time, and matter, and he didn’t intend it to be just a temporary aberration. The present world is full of sorrow and pain and darkness, as well as glory and power and life, but God is going to deal with the sorrow and pain and darkness, and he is going to make a whole new world and will raise us from the dead to share in it. That is the biblical answer to the Platonic view of eschatology, of just dying and going to heaven, or—in some circles—Jesus coming back and scooping us up and taking us to heaven.

That, I think, drives so many other things. It has taken me quite a while to realize that when you understand that biblical vision of new heavens and new earth and the bodily resurrection within it, it isn’t just that you’ve adjusted some nuts and bolts at the end of the story; you’ve clarified your understanding of the whole story—you see that what’s gone wrong is not just that we humans have failed to obey the rules, and so deserve to be punished severely, but that we have failed to be faithful to God’s vocation to us as humans, which is to be his image bearers in working in the present world for the sake of the new world he wants to make.

So though sin matters, it matters particularly because it’s the outflowing of our idolatry, which is what we’re doing when we say, “I don’t want to reflect God into the world or in worship; I want to do my own thing. I want to worship other gods; I want to worship part of the created order.” I want to be quite clear about this, because this is where some will say, “Tom Wright’s going soft on sin.” Not a bit of it. It’s contextualizing sin in a biblical way and saying, “Sin certainly matters, and God’s wrath against sin matters; but the problem is not just that I’m going to be punished, but that God intended me to be part of his human project for his transformation and healing of the world and by sin I’ve gone away from that.”

MSH: You talk about handing the keys over to Satan. It makes the fall all the more mysteriously evil.

NTW: It seems to me that the diabolical bit is that when humans worship forces in the world other than the one true God, we say to those forces (whether it’s money or sex or power or whatever), “I’m going to abdicate my responsibility in this sphere, and I’m going to let you run this bit of the world.” It doesn’t take much observation of the modern Western world to see that we’ve done this in spades with money and sex and power. We’ve said, yes, these things rule us. If somebody offers you a job similar to what you’re doing but at twice the salary, people say, “It’s a no-brainer.” Of course you go for it, because it’s more money. There might be a hundred other factors to consider, such as where it is or what it will do to your family. But this is because we have allowed money to rule us. Likewise, with sex people say, “Oh, well, this is what I most deeply want, so obviously I have to do it; otherwise I’m being dehumanized,” instead of saying, “No, I am more than this desire and have to be responsible and wise, like any grown-up human being.” Likewise with power and war and dropping bombs on people and so on. We just assume this is the way to behave.

Only when idolatry is renounced can human vocation be recovered. When Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to turn from idols to serve a living God, this is a way of saying, “You guys are rediscovering what it means to be human.” By Platonizing our eschatology (turning the biblical concept of “heaven” into a timeless, spaceless sphere occupied by our disembodied souls), and by turning human vocation into a moral exam that we’ve all flunked, we diminish both the goal to which our lives tend and our lives themselves, which in turn horribly skews the way we look at the cross. The only thing that has to happen is that somebody has to take the rap, and unfortunately that turns out to be God’s own innocent Son. You and I know that is a horrible caricature and that no wise and true evangelical would ever preach like that. We also know that is what generations before us heard when the gospel was preached. Whenever I’ve had this discussion in public, there are plenty of people who come up and say, “That’s what I was taught in Sunday school,” and, “That’s what all my first-year undergraduates come thinking the gospel is.” People react against it. In going back to the Gospels and Paul, I’ve tried to take a different run of it.

MSH: How do you see Easter Sunday, especially as the beginning of the new creation?

NTW: This is one of my favorite themes. With his repeated refrain of “On the first day of the week,” John shows that this is the beginning of the new creation. This is a motif that runs through his Gospel; he patterns it after the days of creation we see recorded in Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word.” He has the sequence of signs, revealing the “glory,” that point forward. They start with the water into wine, continue with the healing of the centurion’s servant, and go on through the healing of the lame man, the feeding in the wilderness, the healing of the man born blind, to the raising of Lazarus (John 2–6, 9, 11). John constantly hints that the coming crucifixion will be the ultimate sign, the seventh, the full revelation of glory and love. But it also works in terms of the days of creation. On Friday, the sixth day of the week, Pilate says of Jesus, “Behold the man,” echoing the sixth day in Genesis when humans are created. On the seventh day Jesus rests in the tomb, having said, “It is finished; it’s accomplished,” just like God says at the end of creation in the beginning of Genesis 2. Now John says, “On the first day of the week” (20:1, 19). Though many translations don’t bring this out, those are the first words in the Greek: “the first day of the week,” when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and when the disciples met in the Upper Room.

Right from the beginning, you have the light of the new day and the breath of the Spirit on the disciples who are commissioned to serve as missionaries of the new creation. You can almost feel the freshness of the garden; this is the beginning of God’s new world. When I reread John’s Gospel in that context, I can see all the more clearly that this is only possible because the prince of the power of the world has been defeated (John 12). John wants us to think back to the cross as a victory over Satan, and that the inauguration of the new creation has its origins in this event.

MSH: The focus is not redemption from creation but the redemption of all creation, humanity included.

NTW: Absolutely. You can see the early Christians struggling to figure out what that means. Some ask Paul in 1 Thessalonians why, if this were the case, some of their number have died, or in 1 Peter, where the church asks him why they were still suffering. There are still moral commands that are applied. Just because you’re living in the new creation doesn’t mean you can put your feet up and say, “Well, now that I’m sinlessly perfect, it’s all right, isn’t it?” No. You’re a new-creation people, yes, but that means you’ve now got to be an overlap-of-the-ages people. The old age is still rumbling on, and while the new age has broken in—it’s definitely happening!—it’s still painful and demanding.

MSH: To be placed in that precarious intersection between those two ages is about the toughest thing imaginable.

NTW: It’s interesting that Paul writes that he rejoices in his sufferings, because it’s a sign that you are actually standing where the tectonic plates of God’s purposes grind together.

MSH: I’m sure you are familiar with Gustaf Aulén’s Christus Victor. Back in 1931, he argued that the East understood Christ’s death as the defeat of the powers of evil in a way that the West didn’t, but he even singled out Luther as the greatest exponent of that view. As I’m reading the book, I wonder how unique you think this theme is in the Eastern tradition. It can hardly be denied that it’s a major aspect of the atonement that we often leave out. Are you setting Christus Victor, Christ’s victory over the powers, over against Christ’s death in the place of sinners—that is, substitutionary atonement?

NTW: I can see why people might say that. It’s partly because Gustaf Aulén would want them to say that. When I started working on this book, my wife and I took a quiet sort of holiday for a week, and one of the first books I read during that time was Aulén. I hadn’t read Aulén for thirty-five years, and I was shocked because he sets up this rather rigid either/or and then does this amazing tour de force of saying that, actually, the Christus Victor thing that is so strong in the fathers was the main leitmotif for Luther and Calvin as well. Now obviously, Aulén as a Lutheran bishop needed to say that, because if he hadn’t, they would have told him to quit being a Lutheran bishop, grow a beard, and be Orthodox instead.

He was calling a Lutheran tradition back to the fathers, which was a risky thing to do. I suspect that at the time there were quite a lot of easy, low-grade versions of penal substitution going around that he was reacting against; for example, “God hates us and that’s why he killed Jesus instead.” People assume that if one says “Christus Victor,” then one is saying, “Not penal substitution.” I’ve tried to be careful to say, as I think the fathers were saying, “No, penal substitution is there, but it nests within the Christus Victor model, not as an either/or.” It nests particularly for me within the Jewish scriptural tradition. One of the straplines of my book is Paul’s statement that the Messiah died for us “in accordance with the Scriptures,” which does not mean that there are three or four proof-texts like Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22, but that the entire scriptural narrative is now fulfilled. It’s not a narrative about a hateful God determined to have somebody’s blood, which ends up being that of his own Son, but of a loving Father willingly giving up his own Son as a ransom for the children he loves.

MSH: I’ll never forget the lecture of my systematics professor, Robert Strimple, pleading with tears that we never preach the cross in a way that people get the impression of an angry father beating up his loving son. I imagine that you’ve probably heard some of those sermons he warned us against.

NTW: Most preachers, if they feel themselves sounding like that, will very quickly say, “Of course, this is because God loves us.” But the really nasty, dark side to this is that there is an emerging context in which we’re becoming more and more aware of how child abuse has happened in families and in churches, where often the abuser will say to the child “I love you” even while beating them up or molesting them. Young people in particular—if they have heard of it or experienced it—will be repulsed in a visceral, defensive sense when they hear a story about God being so angry that he was going to kill us all, but was stopped by somebody fortunately stepping in and taking our place, and God permitting that because he loved us. There’s a sickening recognition of the twisted logic used to justify that abuse—even though, as we know, it wasn’t abuse. I have known people in tears saying, “Yes, that is how I heard the gospel and that’s why I rejected it; because of what my father did, my uncle did, my priest did,” and so on. Somehow, we have to acknowledge that through talking about it in this way we have unwittingly caricatured it, so that that’s what people have heard—divine child abuse, not loving sacrifice.

MSH: I totally sympathize with your concern and with the experience of a lot of people when they hear those sorts of things. You refer to the line in the song “In Christ Alone” that says, “The wrath of God was satisfied.” You suggest that when we come to that line, we should instead sing, “The love of God was satisfied.” But as I read that, I wonder if that is a false choice. In other words, wasn’t it the love of God that moved God to satisfy his just wrath by bearing it himself? That’s one of the pieces I think I didn’t see in the book where you clearly affirmed that God’s wrath was satisfied at the cross.

NTW: In all sorts of ways, it’s a brilliant song, well put together. What I used to say when I was bishop of Durham was not that you should never sing that, but that every other time, you should sing, “The love of God was satisfied.” In other words, this week we’ll sing “the love of God” and next week we’ll sing “The wrath of God,” because they are twin halves of the same thing.

I think it was Charles Cranfield in his commentary on Romans who, during his exposition of substitutionary atonement, said very carefully that God, being perfectly loving and perfectly holy, determined to direct against his own self in the person of his Son the wrath that our sins so richly deserved. The trouble is that there are an awful lot of preachers and theologians who, despite their best intentions, often just haven’t quite said it carefully enough.

In preparation for the lectures that I did before the book, I reread Martin Hengel on the crucifixion and on the atonement. Hengel goes through all these ancient pagan authors who said that some god was angry with the Greeks or the Romans or somebody, so an innocent victim was slain so the god was appeased, and the wind blew in the right direction, or the project went ahead or whatever it was. Martin Hengel then says that this was God’s way of preparing the pagan mind for the gospel. Hang on: No, it wasn’t. This is a pagan distortion of the truth, a bit of which the ancient pagans had grasped. But it’s a distortion, because these are capricious, malevolent, wrathful gods. The Jewish scriptures had Isaiah 53, which is the climax of the whole poem we call Isaiah 40–55, which is about the powerful love and sovereignty and kingdom of God. That’s where my wrestling with this really came from.

Romans 8:1–4 makes it absolutely crystal clear that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ, because on the cross God has condemned sin in the flesh. The condemnation that happened at Calvary means there is no condemnation for me if I am in him—that is penal substitution. It doesn’t work within the normal Platonic moralistic pagan narrative; it only works within the biblical narrative with which Paul is tracking. I hope I’ve made that clear. I am aware that some people have said, “Oh, there we are. N. T. Wright has given up penal substitution.” Absolutely not. I’ve tried to set the biblical doctrine of penal substitution within its proper biblical context.

MSH: Not only are the pagan gods capricious, but I’m not aware of any story where the “god” substitutes himself, taking the rap himself. So here you have Jesus not as a helpless victim but as a willing substitute, suffering almost to the point of making him sound like a passive child taking a beating from an angry father, when in fact he is God himself, taking and absorbing God’s wrath.

NTW: Because the Trinity is a mystery, even if we managed to get our heads around it, we wouldn’t understand it. It is difficult to say all that in a way people can fully grasp; because while it is true he’s not an abused child, we have passages such as Isaiah 53 where he’s led like a lamb to the slaughter, where he really does seem to be just a passive, lonely, sad victim. But Isaiah 53 begins by saying, “Who would have believed that this was the arm of the Lord?” In other words, it’s already a mystery in Isaiah. When it says in chapter 52, “The Lord has laid bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations,” the prophet then turns and asks, “What does it look like when God himself rolls up his sleeves to do this job?” It looks like an innocent victim, a lamb led to the slaughter, which is also, of course, a passive motif. Part of the difficulty is that there are so many strands of biblical thought that come rushing together at this point, people have often said, “Well, there are four or five different metaphors, and it just depends which one you want to pick.” But I say, they’re not just metaphors. They may look like it to us, but they’re really glittering fragments of the biblical narrative; and when we tell the biblical story in all its full dimensions, we realize that each one of those metaphors also has metonym about it. It’s not just an illustration of something; it’s part of the richness of the whole truth.

MSH: Isn’t that a problem with talking about theories or models of the atonement?

NTW: I totally agree. You can build a model of a ship—fine. You may do a good job, it may look nice on the shelf, but don’t get in it and try to sail across the sea. You need the real thing. Models of the atonement can be useful if they help us to understand the whole thing, but it’s necessarily a temporary tool. What we need is the full biblical story.

One thing we haven’t mentioned yet, Mike, which impinges on me more and more the older I get, is that so much of the narrative in the New Testament is drawing on temple imagery, and not just imagery, but the idea of the temple as the micro-cosmos—the small working model of new creation—while describing Jesus himself as the true temple and then, astonishingly, the Holy Spirit enabling the church to be the new temple: the beginning of new creation, which can only happen because heaven and earth have been brought together through Christ’s reconciling work on the cross. What we Western Protestants still think of as “cultic imagery” is more than that: it’s about how heaven and earth are united. Much more is said about this in the letter to the Hebrews.

MSH: You anticipated my next question. When you talk about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ according to the Scriptures—Paul’s way of putting it—what is that, according to the Scriptures? What is the grand story within which the cross and the resurrection have their purpose?

NTW: It’s primarily creation and new creation. Genesis 1 is about God making a temple called heaven and earth for himself and his human creatures to dwell in, so that his human creatures can be the image in this temple so that the rest of creation can see who God is, and so that the love and power and sovereign stewardship of God can flow out into his world. Human idolatry, rebellion, and sin say, “No, I don’t want to be an image bearer,” so the heaven-earth relationship is fractured. The resulting tabernacle in the wilderness and later Solomon’s Temple are small working models of a heaven-and-earth reality with priests and kings as the image bearers in that heaven-and-earth reality, with Israel called to be a nation of priests. In other words, Israel is called to be the people who dangerously stand at the intersection of heaven and earth, and to make that point, the Passover and Exodus stories are the grand stories of their liberation from slavery so that they are free to be the image-bearing royal priesthood.

They know that this is temporary—that the tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple are advance models—and they wait through the long years of exile, but then the temple was rebuilt and Yahweh had not returned. What were they waiting for? The New Testament writers say that Christ is who they were waiting for—now at last, Yahweh has returned in the person of God’s Son, Jesus. The new temple has happened in him. The slavery has been dealt with; God’s wrath has “passed over” humanity in Christ’s death on the cross, and heaven and earth have been brought together at last. God’s purpose was always to sum up all things in heaven and on earth in the Messiah, and that has happened. Now we are both the beneficiaries and the agents, against the day when finally heaven and earth become one. And at every stage of that new creation, the cross has to be central to its being, because this is how God has brought about that new creation, despite all the dark forces arrayed against him. That’s the really important thing—the union of heaven and earth as a result of God on the cross defeating the powers that had tried to force them apart, and defeating it particularly in that human sin through which the powers had usurped sovereignty. So penal substitution is the means by which Christus Victor is achieved, so that heaven and earth can be one at last.

MSH: So what you’re saying is that victory over the powers needs to be more emphasized, because God nailed the list of our sins to the cross, as Colossians 2 says?

NTW: Exactly. The victory over the powers is won by God dealing with sin, because sin is the reason that the powers of mankind as vice-regents of creation were ceded to the prince of the power of the air. If our sins have been dealt with, then the prince—Satan—has been robbed of his power, as well as of his prey.

MSH: And the ability to condemn those sins, you’re saying.

NTW: Exactly. When Paul says in Romans 1 that God condemned sin in the flesh, the word sin is there almost doing duty for Satan. It’s interesting the way he writes Romans 7 and 8: by the time we get to Romans 7 and 8, sin is itself a dark power; it’s more than the mere accumulation of human wrongdoing. The condemnation of sin means, then, that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord.

MSH: As part of that victory, you write movingly about Christ’s lordship in what looks like the triumph of Satan and his purposes over Jesus in relation to Caesar. Can you talk about that a little and discuss the relevance of that for us?

NTW: This is such an interesting thing for modern Westerners to grapple with, because we tend to tend to swing between extremes. We’ll say that human power is just wicked and we all ought to be liberal Democrats and nobody has any real power because we all just vote and stuff happens. Then we run to the other end of the spectrum, and the twentieth century has been swinging between extreme forms of totalitarianism. We’re not very good at reading the New Testament’s much more nuanced theology of power.

I go back to John’s Gospel again. In chapter 12, Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world, now the ruler of this world is cast out.” Then in the farewell discourse he says, “The ruler of this world is coming. He’s got no power over me, but I’m doing what the Father commanded.” What does it mean that the ruler of the world is coming for him? It clearly means that Satan is, in a sense, coming for him, but it’s actually soldiers that bring him before Pilate, where he stands as the representative of the kingdom of God confronting the representative of the kingdom of Caesar. And then Jesus says to Pilate, “You could have no authority over me unless it was given you from above. So, the one who handed me over to you has the greatest sin.” Now most modern Western thinkers about Christian views of politics haven’t begun to grapple with this: Jesus saying that Pilate has a God-given authority over him, because God wants his world to be wisely governed by humans, even if they don’t acknowledge him, like Cyrus in Isaiah.

But the humans who abuse that will be judged for it. They will be held accountable for it. We need a fresh discussion of the question of how, given the death and resurrection of Jesus, human powers and authorities are summoned to worship, to obedience. There’s a highly paradoxical aspect to this—we see it in Colossians 1 and 2; the powers are defeated and then reconciled to one another. In the middle of all of that, the cross is what Caesar’s kingdom does to show that Caesar is lord. But then as we read the story in John—also in Mark, and certainly in Paul—we discover that the cross is what God does to say that Jesus Christ is Lord. I think Paul relishes that paradox. I think when he writes that amazing poem in Philippians 2, he’s gleefully pointing out that the symbol which says to the world, “Rome runs this place, and if we don’t like you we will rub you out and here’s how,” he actually says, “There is a God who made the world and loves the world passionately and has given himself in his own life and death to be the means of salvation.”

MSH: So he has all authority in heaven and on earth. Of course, Caesar would have granted him or any of the other gods a say not only over heaven, but over heaven and earth, and yet he allows Caesar to have a leash. It’s just astounding.

NTW: It is astounding because, of course, as with things like slavery, we want to say to Paul as he writes the letter to Philemon, “Come on, Paul, just tell him that slavery is wicked and it ought to be abolished.” But Paul doesn’t, and we wrestle with that. In the same way, we want Jesus to send in the tanks and say, “Okay, Caesar, quite enough of that, we’re setting up God’s kingdom and it’s going to look like this.” Sorry, no. Right from the start of the Sermon on the Mount, we know that this is not what Jesus-shaped power looks like. Jesus-shaped power looks like the meek, the brokenhearted, the mourners, the hungry-for-justice people, the peacemakers, and those weeping and mourning the state of the world—but at the same time, building hospitals and schools and looking after the poor. By the time Caesar notices that something’s going on, this community has gotten going and people love it. It’s taking over the world, but not with force and power of the normal sort.

I think this revolution in power, which you see in Mark 10, the famous passage in which one of the first verses about the atonement I ever learned—the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45, echoing Isaiah 53 and Daniel 7)—comes as the climax of a whole paragraph about the redefinition of power. The rulers of the Gentiles do it by bullying people; we’re going to do it by becoming the servants of all.

MSH: Tom, it is always a pleasure to talk with you and to read your work. This is a terrific book to plow through, even if the reader doesn’t agree with everything, just to be challenged to think about the aspects of Christ’s death and its effects that we don’t always consider as carefully as we ought.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, March 1st 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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