Wright, N. T. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. New York: HarperOne, 2016.
The last Wright book I read, The Resurrection of the Son of God, may be his best. Though there are some methodological and theological issues, its main goal and thesis is correct. It is a defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
This book, The Day the Revolution Began, may be one of Wright’s worst. It is not that it fails to say many true things. But the main goal and thesis are incorrect. Wright’s thesis, stated several times throughout the book, is: “We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting ‘souls going to heaven’ for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of ‘salvation’ (substituting the idea of ‘God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath’ for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore)” (147).
With regard to the first point, Wright repeatedly acts as if his argument in favor of bodily resurrection and the new creation and against salvation being merely “souls going to heaven” undermines penal, substitutionary atonement. But no orthodox Christian from the earliest days of the church to the present has denied the bodily resurrection, and many defenders of penal substitutionary atonement have held to a “new creation” vision of eternity: Calvin [Institutes, 3.25.11], Turretin, [Institutes, 3:590-96], John Wesley [Oden, John Wesley’s Teachings, 2:302-3], A. A. Hodge [Outlines of Theology, 578], Bavinck [Reformed Dogmatics, 4:715-20].
With regard to the second point, Wright’s main objection seems to be to the idea of a covenant of works. He doesn’t outright reject the idea of a covenant of works, indicating that there are forms of the idea that might be acceptable. But he doesn’t clarify what are the acceptable and unacceptable versions of the covenant of works. Instead, he seems to substitute that idea of the human vocation (what others have called the creation mandate). But Genesis holds the creation mandate (better, creation blessing) together with the test of obedience that Adam, as the representative man, failed.
With regard to the third point, Wright may be objecting to the idea that the Son on the cross pacified an angry God who was without love toward the fallen creation. But if so, defenders of penal substitutionary atonement also reject that idea. The Father so loved the world that he gave his Son. The Son and Father are working together to provide a satisfaction of God’s wrath because they together love and desire the salvation of sinners. Wright doesn’t outright reject the idea of the wrath of God. But it remains unclear how it fits in with the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion, Wright seems more inclined to speak of the crucifixion overcoming (in some vague way) the dark powers unleased by sin.
One of the frustrations of the book is its lack of clarity. Wright is not clear who his opponents are. At points he seems to simply be opposing wrong-headed, popular ideas. But at other times he seems to link the ideas that he is opposing with the Reformation. If the latter, Wright is trading in caricature. If the former, then he is setting up a sort of straw man by knocking down weak ideas held by no serious theologian to set up his own view. (It won’t work for him to claim that the alleged straw men are popularly held because he would still failing to seriously interact with the mainstream legitimate alternatives to his own view). If one wants a clear understanding of the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion, there are better books available.
Jeffery, Steve, Micahel Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Crossway, 2007.
This is one of those “better books.” It is a model doctrinal study. The authors begin by working through the relevant Scripture passages. They then show how the Scripture passages studied fit into a biblical and systematic theological framework. Next, they show the doctrine’s pastoral relevance. Finally, they take soundings from historical theology to demonstrate that penal substitutionary atonement is not a novel doctrine.
In the second part of the book they respond to the objections lodged against the doctrine.
The book is written clearly. For someone interested in studying penal substitution, this is the place to start.
I recall some years back N.T. Wright charging that this book fell short because it did not fit penal substitution into the biblical storyline. I therefore expected the theology section to be largely systematic theology, but I found that the authors did fit penal substitution within the biblical-theological storyline. They aren’t operating within Wright’s own narrative of the biblical storyline, but it is far from fair to claim their study has abstracted the doctrine of substitutinary atonement from the biblical storyline.