N.T. Wright et al. – What did the cross obtain?
Enlighten the Atonement
A functional check of
What Did the Cross Done ?: Discussion of the Atonement
N.T. Wright, Simon Gathercole, Robert Stewart
Paperback: WJK Books, 2021
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Reviewed by Taylor Craig
Blessed as we are with twenty centuries of deep and beautiful reflection on the meaning of the cross, modern theologians face the challenge of sifting through and organizing this rich legacy. At the Greer-Harding Counterpoint Forum 2017, three world-renowned scientists gathered to undertake this task – not to fight one perspective over another by attacking cartoons, but to carefully examine the various aspects of the work of Jesus and the relationships between them articulate. What did the cross accomplish? is a copy of these discussions. Building on what N.T. Wright and Simon Gathercole wrote on the day the revolution began and in defense of substitution. The book drives the discussion forward in a concise and fruitful way.
The discussion begins with a short talk by Robert Stewart on the role and form of theology, highlighting the priority of the narrative dimensions and the centrality of the sacrament in Jesus' own teaching on the crucifixion. Wright then makes an introductory statement arguing that we should prefer the language of history to the language of the model and tells the story of atonement as he reads it in the Gospels: exile is ended, God's kingdom is established, and the Powers are defeated. All of this focuses on and is ultimately caused by the vicarious death of Jesus. Gathercole also emphasizes the diversity of the models and shows that the themes of forgiveness and liberation fit together organically in the biblical discussion of the work of the Messiah. He then spends most of the time on some key passages to show that substitution has a life of its own and a dynamic of its own, rather than playing a strictly submissive role. It is then time for a back and forth between speakers, followed by a Q&A with the audience, and the forum closes with a round-up discussion the next day.
What did the cross accomplish? stresses that the similarities between Wright and Gathercole matter. Both emphasize the multitude of dimensions required to understand the cross, and both recognize a real role for substitution models. Wright even jokingly worries that there won't be any true points of conflict, but that fear quickly subsides. In particular, the two theologians seem to be pursuing different approaches in order to live with multiple models of reconciliation: for Wright, the models play different but mutually constructive roles within a unified story; Gathercole is content with remaining independent facets of the same reality, each with its own beauty. This means that Wright has a tendency to read together passages that Gathercole might prefer to leave alone. For example, at one point Gathercole suggests that John 3:16 reveal a fairly simple and self-contained view of the Atonement, centered on the reconciliation between God and man – which Wright John 3 and John 21 and John 21 rather breathlessly in Relationship places 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 5 as part of a great narrative about life in the renewal of God's good creation. Both perspectives have their obvious strengths: Wright takes up real biblical themes and records the unity of Scripture, while Gathercole wants to prevent clear and concise summaries from getting lost in an increasingly complex web of motifs and cross-references.
The point-counterpoint format of the discussion highlights these different approaches and ultimately clarifies where the real points of disagreement lie. For example, as the discussion of the narrative continues, the role of vocation ideas takes shape in the various constructions. Wright's narrative makes the human vocation as royal priest a central lens of interpretation, while for Gathercole, the lack of focused treatment by biblical authors makes vocation a subordinate issue among many. A number of other issues are quickly addressed and the lines of discussion cleared, even if they are not resolved: whether Levitic sacrifices remove guilt or pollution, whether God (more precisely) condemned Jesus or condemned sin, whether or not we should speak of "sin" not "sins" as more fundamental, whether evil should be understood as idolatry or as "some kind of empty corruption", and so on.
On the other hand, some underlying theological disagreements are sure to be accelerated due to the time constraints and sometimes misunderstandings during the back and forth. For example, speakers make some limited progress in clarifying the shape and color of their disagreements on the professional topic until a audience question helpfully prompts them to explain their different readings of Genesis 1-3. Perhaps seriously, it is feared that Wright never really answers Gathercole's question of how forgiveness is achieved, and instead answers in terms of the results of forgiveness. This could reflect a subtle tendency for those who prefer narrative articulations to do so at the expense of, rather than in addition to, discussions of mechanisms. In a similar context, some readers may be surprised by the relative lack of “guilt” language of both participants.
Ultimately, however, the live format provides a reasonable summary of the problems involved, and the dialog format allows for numerous clarifications. Readers new to the debate will find more than enough to whet their appetites, if by no means a comprehensive introduction; Those familiar with the basics will have a clearer understanding of where points of different focus and places of actual disagreement lie. Nothing is completely cleared up in the course of the book, but for such a narrow volume What Has the Cross Accomplished? is uniquely insightful and well worth reading for anyone interested in the intricacies of the theology of Atonement – and we can pray that, as Stewart suggests, this continued reflection will increase our amazement and gratitude at the great work of God's love in the cross of Jesus becomes Christ.
Taylor Craig received his bachelor's degree in physics from MIT in 2018 and now works in finance while pursuing theological reading and writing projects. He blogs at toloveandunderstand.wordpress.com about evangelicalism, Reformed theology, culture and justice.