The Day The Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus' Crucifixion

Wright, Tom
SPCK (2016)
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Ever since reading Fleming Rutledge's magnum opus1 which, at much greater length and in much greater depth than Stephen Cottrell2 emphasises the physical agony of Jesus, I have become deeply aware of the asymmetry between my individual, active sinfulness, as opposed to my passive, collective sinfulness, and the state of affairs which caused the Son of God to be incarnated and then to be judicially murdered with egregious cruelty; and so, while accepting that Jesus died for me, I have come to regard this circumstance as a necessary but not a sufficient explanation. To put this view in a nutshell: Jesus died for me in that he set the whole world free.

Accepting that there are a variety of explanations (or "models") for the death of Jesus, my unease has been with the ranking rather than the variety; and this is Wright's central point in his latest attempt to explain the crucifixion which involves, he tells us, a substantial revision of his previous views.

What Wright says is that "dying for our sins in accordance with the Bible" means that Jesus, consciously, in the tradition of Exodus, and made explicit both in his cleansing of the Temple and in the institution of the Eucharist, rescued Israel from sin and exile and, by extension, extended that freedom from the "time of trial" to his followers, thus the centrality of  "... and lead us not into the time of trial", rather than "forgive us our sins" in the Lord's Prayer.

Wright's key target is what he calls the "Works Contract" by which, he says, many people believe that: humanity broke the moral code and were heading for hell but the perfect Jesus paid the penalty for the whole human race in his death so that those that believe might go to heaven. This explanation, Wright says, is: platonic because it is understood to mean that the soul goes to heaven; is moralising because it focuses on a narrow concept of personal sin; and is pagan because it relies upon the human sacrifice of Jesus. And, he warns, ominously that those who disagree with this formula are frequently accused of not preaching the Gospel. On the first point, Wright's logic, in spite of being set out at great length, is by no means conclusive but it would be difficult to argue against the general point that the gnostic view of the primacy of "soul" over body is the most rampant heresy in Christianity today, as it has been from the beginning. On the second point, Wright is keen to stress that we were made to be God's image bearers as a royal priesthood and that to focus merely on sins is far too narrow; and, tellingly, he also goes on to say that too often sin is understood very narrowly and does not encompass social justice. But his third point is surely the strongest when he says that the language of Jesus being "sent", or being a victim, or paying ransom, is fundamentally anti-Trinitarian, that the kind of language used in the Townsend/Getty's hymn In Christ Alone fails to grasp the fundamental Christian position that any 'decision' takes place within the economy of the Trinity and that Jesus takes sin on himself as the keeper of the Covenant and that God did not punish Jesus but punished sin in the flesh of Jesus. The underlying point here is that, again, the notion of sin, as it is popularly understood, is a far too narrow explanation for the death of Jesus for he, in the mould of the "Suffering Servant" came to save Israel and, in doing so, to save the world; Israel was supposed to be the light to lighten the Gentiles and had to be rescued from its failure for the sake of the world. Jesus as the Hilasterion, or meeting point between earth and heaven, died to ensure that God's kingdom on earth could be established.

Wright's argument is based on two major planks: the first is his understanding of Romans 3.21-26 which he approaches by an extensive Russian Doll technique of seeing the Gospels in the context of the Old Testament; Paul in the context of the Old Testament and the Gospels; Romans within Paul; Romans 1-3 within Roman and, finally, Romans 3.1-16 within the context of Romans 1-4. In spite of the perhaps over-extended exegesis I find the argument plausible but not conclusive. Wright, for example, cites the NIV translation of these varies as overly directive towards the "works contract' model but, then, the NRSV is not much better. Wright's own translation, however, which he says he will not utilise, but then does, is firmly in line with Douglas A. Campbell's3 understanding, conclusive in my view, that we are not saved by our faith in Jesus but by his faithfulness.

Wright's second plank is much more significant and is in line with the analysis of Laughlin4, namely, the critical factor in understanding the death of Jesus is what Jesus understood his death to mean. Both authors comment that this particular aspect of the death of Jesus has been sorely overlooked. Wright starts with his key idea that Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins in accordance with the Bible but by this he certainly does not mean the forgiveness of individual sins but, rather, the forgiveness of the sin of Israel. Laughlin reinforces both this general line and the centrality of Exodus.

In conclusion, while it is easy to accuse Wright of over-playing his hand by creating the "Works Contract' aunt sally so that he can knock it down, our prayer books and hymnals amply illustrate the point that contemporary Christianity is obsessed with personal salvation and has little space for other models of the crucifixion. He does not go on to say, but I will, that this is totally in line with our individualistic, selfish, narcissistic culture; but I would also stress the harm that is done to Christian fabric by separating the crucifixion from its Old Testament context.

1Rutledge, Fleming: The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, 2017

2Cottrell, Bishop Stephen: The Things He Carried, SPCK 2008

3Campbell, Douglas A: The Deliverance of God: an Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul, Eerdmans 2013

4Laughlin, Peter: Jesus and the Cross: Necessity, Meaning and Atonement, Pickwick, 2016.

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