The renowned scholar, Anglican bishop, and best-selling author widely considered to be the heir to C. S. Lewis contemplates the central event at the heart of the Christian faith - Jesus' crucifixion - arguing that the Protestant Reformation did not go far enough in transforming our understanding of its meaning. In The Day the Revolution Began, N. T. Wright once again challenges commonly held Christian beliefs, as he did in his acclaimed Surprised by Hope. Demonstrating the rigorous intellect and breathtaking knowledge that have long defined his work, Wright argues that Jesus' death on the cross was not only to absolve us of our sins, it was actually the beginning of a revolution commissioning the Christian faithful to a new vocation - a royal priesthood responsible for restoring and reconciling all of God's creation. Wright argues that Jesus' crucifixion must be understood within the much larger story of God's purposes to bring heaven and earth together. The Day the Revolution Began offers a grand picture of Jesus' sacrifice and its full significance for the Christian faith, inspiring believers with a renewed sense of mission, purpose, and hope and reminding them of the crucial role the Christian faith must play in protecting and shaping the future of the world.
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Standard Wright, both the strengths and weaknesses
Summary: NT Wright, using his traditional tools of biblical narrative theology and 1st century Jewish/Christian cultural understanding assesses some of the areas where our understanding of the atonement differs from early Christian understanding of the atonement.
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion is most connected to Wright’s earlier Surprised by Hope. It is not quite a sequel to Surprised by Hope, but it is in the same thread of Wright’s work. Surprised by Hope pointed out the way that the theology of the after life (eschatology), especially dispensational theology, distorts not just our understanding of our Christianity, but how we practice our Christianity.
The Day the Revolution began is attempting to do the same type of analysis with our theology of the atonement. I assume that many of NT Wright’s traditional critics will also disapprove of this book. Wright’s minimization of Penal Substitution (which has been clear in much of Wright’s writing) is explicit here. Wright is not saying that Penal Substitution is wrong. He is saying that the focus on Penal Substitution as the primary or only way to look at the atonement distorts our understanding of what Jesus did on the Cross.
My traditional approach to Wright is to listen to the book on audiobook once, than re-read it again later in print. This allows me to get an overview of the argument and then to focus more clearly on the parts of the argument on the re-read. This is certainly a book that I am going to need to re-read to fully understand, maybe twice.
One of the reasons that many get irritated with Wright is that is keeps presenting his ideas as either new, or the first return to ‘correct’ understanding in hundreds of years. If you are irritated about that, you will be irritated here. Wright’s strength is connecting the broad narrative sweep of scripture and the 1st century era culture. I think if he started working with a historical theologian that helped him connect his ideas explicitly to the historical theological work of theologians after the first century, it would help tone down that irritating tic and help readers connect his thought to its historical roots.
Wright wants to help people think clearly about how their theology connects to their daily life. I think that is one of his strengths. But part of what the church today needs is a connection of its theology to the historical church. But his description of his work as either new, or a rediscovery of what is lost, minimizes the connection to the historical teaching of the church. This is particularly true for low church fans of his that do not already have a strong connection to the traditional church. Maybe this is a blind spot that Wright has because of his British Anglican setting. Wright himself has a strong sense of both history, and the world wide range of the church, but many of his readers (and biggest fans) do not. (My reading of Thomas Oden in particular has convinced me of the importance viewing the theology of the church as a continuum with historical teaching and not new.)
Like virtually all of Wright’s books, The Day the Revolution Began is impossible to easily summarize. The best I can do is to say that Wright is making the argument that the cross was not primarily about dealing with sin (although it did do that) but about fulfilling the covenantal promise to Israel. The cross shows that the kingdom of God, which Jesus was claiming at the cross, is fundamentally a different conception of power than earthly power structures. And that the cross isn’t about Jesus dying for our sins as individuals but more about Jesus dying in order deal with the corporate idolatry of Israel as illustrated by the prophets and draw the rest of the world into covenant with God.
The biggest indictment against modern theology that Wright is making in the Day the Revolution Began is that we have reduced the cross to the fulfillment of a ‘works contract’. Jesus paid the price of God’s anger toward our individual sin and died so that God would forget his anger. Again, Wright is not saying that there is not some truth to this view. But it is a partial truth. Jesus’ death was part of the plan from the beginning not a result of our sin.
This quote (about Galatians’ message) is a good example of Wright’s goal here. (He is trying to get us to look at the cross from a different angle to help us understand it better.)
"The letter is about unity: the fact that in the Messiah, particularly through his death, the one God has done what he promised Abraham all along. He has given him a single family in which believing Jews and believing Gentiles form one body. What Paul says about the cross in Galatians is all aimed toward this end: because of the cross, all believers are on the same footing. And if that is the “goal” of the cross in Galatians, we will gain a much better idea of the “means.” As elsewhere in this book, our task is to rescue the “goal” from Platonizing “going to heaven” interpretations and the “means” from paganizing “angry God punishing Jesus” interpretations—and so to transform the normal perception of what “atonement theology” might be from a dark and possibly unpleasant mystery to an energizing and highly relevant unveiling of truth."
In the end, Wright is not minimizing Jesus’ work by moving the focus away from individual sin redemption. Wright is working to expand our view of Jesus’ work to make it a much bigger things than just individual sin redemption.
One last quote:
"And that means what it means not because of a “works contract,” a celestial mechanism for transferring sins onto Jesus so that he can be punished and we can escape, but because of the “covenant of vocation”—Israel’s vocation, the human vocation, Jesus’s own vocation—in which the overflowing love, the love that made the sun and the stars, overflowed in love yet more in the coming to be of the truly human one, the Word made flesh, and then overflowed finally “to the uttermost” as he was lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself."
Wright masterfully navigates the biblical texts to show that the atonement was not about some pagan understanding of getting right with an angry God through a works covenant, but instead the announcement of God has broken through into the world through his Messiah, is King, and to restore us to our position as a royal priesthood.