Wright, Chalke and Penal Substitution

There has been some recent debate over a controversial book by Steve Chalke which you have endorsed. Chalke has warned that some versions of penal substitution can reduce God to a “cosmic child abuser.” Would you agree with his analysis and do you see that as a danger?

ANSWER: There are some ways of preaching and expounding penal substitution which do indeed reduce it to the crude terms of God demanding that someone suffer and not caring much who it is. This is an attempt to put the vast ocean of God’s saving love into the small bottle of one particular category. When you track penal substitution from its NT statements (Mark 10.45, Romans 8.3, etc etc) back to its roots in Isaiah 53, you discover that in its proper form it is part of a much larger theme, which is God’s vindication of his justice and saving love and his demolition of pagan power and authority. Sometimes evangelicals haven’t wanted to embrace or even notice the larger themes and so have falsely accentuated the sharp edge of penal substitution in isolation from them. I think Steve is reacting to that kind of skewed presentation. Think of it like this. In a musical chord, the ‘third’ (in a chord of C major, this would be the note E) is the critical one that tells you many things, e.g. whether the music is major or minor, happy or sad. That E is vital if the music is to make the sense it does. But if the player plays the E and nothing else, the E no longer means what it’s meant to mean. Likewise, substitutionary atonement is a vital element in the gospel. Miss it out, and the music of the gospel is no longer what it should be. But if you only play that note you are in danger of setting up a different harmony altogether…

Read the rest of N.T. Wright’s recent answers to the Wrightsaid list here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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4 Responses to Wright, Chalke and Penal Substitution

  1. joel w says:

    I like the new digs!

  2. pduggie says:

    He likes those musical analogies, don’t he.

  3. Al says:

    Yes, he does. I generally find them very helpful. It seems to me that there is something about an appreciation of music and how it works that equips people to think appropriately about certain Scriptural concepts. Jordan has commented on this in the past.

    Unfortunately I am no musician.

  4. ^ Used to play the piano ^
    ^ Currently plays guitar ^
    v Currently learning the piano v

    You should work harder on the instrument you do know. You don’t seem to have learnt much on teh guitar for ages. You just seems to be playing the same old stuff… But maybe that’s just my impression.

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