The Revolution 0: A personal introduction to Tom Wright's The day the revolution began

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? A personal introduction to Tom Wright's The day the revolution began.

N.T. Wright, 2016. The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion. London: SPCK. (Available also as an ebook)

I read N.T. (Tom) Wright's 2016 book The day the revolution began shortly after its publication, then realised I hadn’t quite grasped what Wright was saying, so early this year I read it again, making notes in the hope that this would bring me closer to the book’s message. I offer my notes here as a series of blog posts (eight, not including this one) in case they might help someone else. The book is probably the most thought-provoking piece of Christian theology I have ever read—certainly the most significant piece of middlebrow theology.[1]  I know that this assessment will make some with more theological training than me throw up their hands in despair: see the conclusions of Derek Rishmawy's[2]  and Dane Ortlund's reviews.[3]  Nonetheless, it remains true for me. Tom Wright has made me go back to scripture repeatedly, has challenged me like never before on the meaning of the atonement, and has made me read what others have written about the atonement, a quest that continues.[4] 

Why did I have trouble grasping the book at first reading? Two reasons, I think. First, Wright’s view of the atonement is quite complex—‘complex’ because his view overlaps with orthodox views, but also differs from them in various respects and is larger than most. Wright seeks to realign some of the central elements of Christian theology, and requires the reader to think long and deeply about what s/he believes. Central for Wright is the thought that sin is the result of idolatry—the worship of evil powers—and on the cross Jesus defeated these powers, setting us free from their thrall, forgiving our sins, and enabling us to repent, to live free from idolatry and sin, giving our worship instead to Jesus. This personal freedom is a new, Holy-Spirit-empowered way of being human, of being the royal priesthood that proclaims God’s amnesty to sinners and lives out God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, calling out and challenging the rule of the dark powers that lie, in Western societies, behind the idols of money, sex and power. This way of life is the vocation to which God called humanity and particularly Israel in the first place, a vocation in which they failed. So Jesus’ victory is the fulfilment of God’s ancient plan for Israel, narrated throughout the Old Testament. It is the ending of the incomplete Old Testament story. But it is not the final ending. The evil powers have indeed been defeated on the cross, but they continue to wield power because human beings continue to cede it to them, and the church’s task is to wrest back that power by living out forgiven lives and inviting others to join them, by continuing Jesus' ministry, which was the constant proclamation and enactment of God's kingdom. The final ending will be the ‘new heavens and new earth’, and this is where our focus is supposed to be, not on the pagan Platonic thought of a disembodied life in heaven.

A superficial reading of the paragraph above, with its references to a new way of being human and working for God’s earthly kingdom, might imply to some a ‘works’ view of salvation—that one earns salvation through this work. This is not what Wright says (or implies) at all. Repentance is a change of mind and heart, and working for God’s kingdom is a consequence of repentance.

A popular view of the atonement has Jesus bearing God’s punishment for our sin—penal substitution. Wright finds that scripture does not attest to this view. Yes, the atonement is substitutionary. The cross is a manifestation of God’s self-giving love: it is his own second self hanging on the cross, who takes upon himself as a human being the divine condemnation of sin. This is indeed ‘penal’ , but in the sense that sin and the evil powers behind it are punished—so that we are set free.

The second reason I had some difficulty grasping the book’s message has to do with Wright’s style and the way he organises his discourse. The style expresses its author’s passion, his utter commitment to the truths he expounds. This in turn leads to an organisation which one might describe as spiral. Wright often goes around a topic more than once, each time seeing it from a new perspective or bringing it into sharper focus. What is more, this happens simultaneously on different levels—at the level of the whole book, at the level of a part, at the level of a chapter. Several matters only achieve their sharpest focus in Part 5, the book’s two final chapters (see The Revolution 8), which present Wright’s vision of where the church should be if it is to fulfil God’s mandate as presented through his exegesis in Parts 1–3. Whilst I don’t find his organisation easy, I do find the passion that underlies it considerably preferable to the forensic and rather bloodless style of John Stott’s The cross of Christ,[5]  doubtless a fine book, but hardly a stirring read.

I am evidently not alone in finding Wright's outstanding book hard work. While I was reading it and writing my notes, Derek Vreeland's N.T. Wright and the revolutionary cross (Doctrina Press 2017) appeared (with Tom Wright's approval). It is subtitled A reader's guide to The day the revolution began. Vreeland writes, ‘I want to help readers probe Tom’s book for the deep meaning contained there…’ This is the second readers' guide to Tom Wright that Vreeland has written. The fact that the first engendered much positive feedback speaks for itself. I have resisted the temptation to read Vreeland's book before posting these notes, so they represent just my understanding of what Wright has written.

Wright’s method is significant. He believes that in order to understand Jesus' life, crucifixion and resurrection, we need to get inside the mindset of the earliest Christians, among whom were the writers of the New Testament books themselves. This is a task for a historian, and that is Wright's academic profession.

The first Christians were of course Jewish, and so we need to understand how Jews saw their faith at the time of Jesus' earthly life. They saw themselves within a narrative that unfolds across the Old Testament. Wright takes us back deep into the Old Testament, when God made his covenant with Abraham and declared that he would be the father of one worldwide family. Through Moses the Hebrew nation learns that it is to be a light to all nations, but receives a warning about the consequences of sin. It does fall into sin, however, the consequence of which is (the Babylonian) exile. This lasted seventy or so years, but Daniel prophesies that it will last 590 years, and, despite the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple, there is a sense that the exile is not complete, that Jerusalem is not free, that sins have not been dealt with, and that God's glory has not returned to the Temple.

The earliest Christians clearly believed that Jesus brought an end to this exile, being the representative of Israel who embodied the glory that was supposed to return to the Temple (Jesus hints that he replaces the Temple), bringing light to the nations as the new Passover lamb through whom escape from exile happens when by his death on the cross he deals with sin.

How Jesus deals with sin is significant. Wright emphasises that the core of sin is idolatry (of money, sex, power, a person, or a material idol). Human beings are called to worship God alone. When they turn from him to worship something/someone else, they fall into sin and give power to those idols and the forces of evil that lurk behind them, power which they cannot wrest back for themselves. The stranglehold is broken by the defeat of evil, when Jesus, embodying the inexhaustible love of God, takes the entire universe of evil upon himself, dying our deaths, exhausting evil and breaking its power, thereby giving human beings, if they so choose, forgiveness and freedom from idolatry and sin. And as the power of evil is broken, so the Kingdom of God comes (as Jesus proclaimed) and human beings are free again to worship their Creator, to bear his image, and to reflect his light to the nations.

I have to add that my how in the previous paragraph is not quite the same as Tom Wright’s, if I read him correctly (cf The Revolution 6). I also have a sense that if it is important for us to understand how Jews contemporary with Jesus interpreted the Old Testament for their own time, it is also important for us to think about how we understand both Testaments for our own times. This lies outside the task that Wright has set himself.

For years I have had—or rather, I had—subliminal naggings about the theology that sought to express what I believed—'subliminal' in the sense that they lurked just below the surface of conscious thought, so I didn't pay much attention to them and didn't discuss them with anyone else because I was hardly aware that they were there. What were they?

The first was a sense that somehow I wasn't getting the full meaning of the scriptures—and I am not talking about some hidden gnostic meaning, but simply the meaning that their writers intended their readers to see.

Another was the relationship between the Old and New Testaments: if the New Testament recounts the establishment of the New Covenant, then, yes, we need the Old Testament as background to understand the New, but why is so much of the Christian Bible occupied by the Old Testament?

A third nagging was the relationship of Jesus' life as it is recounted in the gospels to his death and resurrection that are the foundation of Christian faith. This came sharply to the surface a number of years ago when I watched a (Youtube, I guess) video by Scot McKnight entitled, I think, 'Did Jesus preach the gospel'. McKnight asked a number of evangelicals whether Jesus had preached the gospel during his ministry. Some said, no, he couldn't have, as the gospel concerns personal salvation, and this is based on the crucifixion, which occurred, of course, after Jesus' ministry. So how could Jesus preach the gospel of the cross when he had not yet been crucified? This interpretation leaves a deep disjunction between Jesus' life and ministry on one hand and his death and resurrection on the other, and takes us back to my first nag, that we aren't reading the text properly.[6]  However, for me this anomaly had already vanished when I read Tom Wright's How God became King.[7] 

And behind all of this was a nagging about the central doctrine of 'penal substitution', the idea that God was angry with human sin, and inflicted punishment on his innocent son Jesus instead of inflicting it on human sinners, in order to appease his own wrath. My difficulty was not with substitution — that Jesus dies in my place — but with the punishment idea. Somehow, this never sat well with a thought to which I was and am totally committed, namely that our Creator is all-loving.

I hope the summary above of Wright's interpretation of the atonement gives some pointers to how The day the revolution began has put these subliminal thoughts to rest—because it has, and for that reason was a truly worthwhile read. Not that I don't have questions: I guess I always will.

The next post on N.T. Wright's The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion is here.


In the following posts entitled The Revolution, these conventions apply:

  • Quotations from the book are in inverted commas within the text, sometimes preceded by 'Wright says,' or something of the sort, but often not. Page numbers of quotations are not given, as I read the Kindle edition, which has no page numbers.
  • Quotations from the New Testament are from the Kingdom New Testament (N.T. Wright's translation), unless otherwise indicated. Quotations from the Old Testament are from the New International Version.
  1. [^1]   By 'middlebrow' I mean 'aimed at an educated Christian audience', as opposed to 'academic'—aimed at other scholars. Some of the book's reviewers, and perhaps Wright himself, assume the book to be aimed at a popular audience, but its intricacies require considerable persistence. It is not 'popular' in the sense that Wright's For everyone series of New Testament commentaries/devotionals is.
  2. [^2]   Rishmawy worries that the less aware reader may be misled by Wright's book, and I appreciate the fact that he lists alternative works on the atonement that avoid the pitfalls Wright attacks
  3. [^3]  I’m not sure any of the critical reviews I’ve read do justice to the book. They appear to be more concerned about the manner in which Wright demolishes ('caricatures') an unbiblical popular theology of the atonement than they are about his wider exegesis and what emerges from it. Other reviews, here, here and here , are positive. For a mixed and inishgtful review, see here. For a more negative review, see here.
  4. [^4]   These writings include J.I. Packer's 1975 article 'What did the cross achieve? The logic of penal substitution' (see post here), John Stott's 2006 The cross of Christ and Joshua Ryan Butler's The pursuing God (2016) (see post here).
  5. [^5]  John Stott, 2006. The cross of Christ. London: Inter-Varsity Press.
  6. [^6]   See also Scot McKnight, 2011, The King Jesus gospel: The original good news revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  7. [^7]   A post about this book is here.