The Blog

Tom Wright On Old Testament Sacrifices And Penal Substitutionary Atonement

It seems there ought to be a much broader approach to the understanding of Jesus’ atonement work than to simply be correlating all O.T. sacrifice into the penal substitutionally metaphor. If you’re used to thinking in such lines consider the “3 question reward” which Wright says is in store for those who gain a more nuanced approach to understanding the meaning of Jesus atoning sacrificial death.. If that is at all interesting to you then go ahead and listen to or read below N.T. Wright discussing this topic.

Watch Old Testament Sacrifices w/NT Wright in full size window

Interview in text:

Interviewer: What.. What don’t you know? What makes you angry that you don’t know or that your wrestling with.

Tom: Oh there is a thousand things. I have often said to students and indeed in pastoral work, “the reward for getting one answer is you get three more questions.” You know, thats why life goes on being exciting. You say, “Hey I just found that but then this leads me into a different room, I didn’t know this room existed! Now where do we go?”

One of the things that I think our generation finds it very difficult to understand is the notion of sacrifice. That the O.T. is full of sacrifices. And Jesus and the Apostles used the language of sacrifice in relation to Jesus’ own death. Now, obviously we do not as a matter of habit, ritual, custom, umm slit the throat of goats or bulls or calves or doves or anything else in the way that people used to very cheerfully right across the ancient world.

Interviewer: I still do that.

Tom: You still do that? Oh well, Ok, then you can tell me afterwards what it means.

You see my fear is that a lot of Christians when they think sacrifice, they collapse the notion of sacrifice into some version of penal substitutionary atonement. Now as my books make it quite clear I believe in penal substitutionary atonement, just in case there’s any doubt on that score. Yes, watch my lips: Galatians 3:13, Romans 8:3 and 4 etc. Paul says that umm God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ. That is penal -because it is condemnations. It is substitutionary -because what happened there in the flesh of Jesus Christ means that therefore there is now no condemnation for those.. So I mean Romans 8: 1 to 4 really says it all and there are lots of other passages too of course.

But, I don’t think that’s what sacrifice is about. Sacrifice means a wide variety of different things in the O.T. There are sin offering and guilt offerings and thank offerings and so on. And the idea that all sacrifices have to be collapsed into the idea that God wants to punish me but I transfer the punishment to the sacrifice and the sacrifice gets killed instead of me. You do get that a little bit on the day of atonement, but i noticed that when the sins are confessed over the head of one particular goat, that is the goat that isn’t killed. Thats the goat thats driven off in to the wilderness because the sin has made it unclean.

So, there is a real problem about this and I get frustrated with the thought that a lot of Christians when they think sacrifice they either ignore it all together or they think oh yes that’s that atonement stuff which we learned about in Sunday school. I don’t think that either of those really works. And I suspect we need to do more studies of the kind of whole social and anthropological context of what people thought they were doing when they were offering sacrifice.

And i’ve tried, I’ve asked Jewish friends, Jewish scholars why did the ancient Israelites do this? And the the only answer I usually get, is because it said so in the Torah so they had to do it. And i’m not satisfied with that.

I think people had a deep instinct. It is something to do with humans, and animals and god and land and so on. Its a kind of a ritual way of expressing the place of humans that we do not take flocks and herds for granted. We are not simple building up our own wealth which was of course animal wealth in the ancient world. Animals and land were wealth basically. Umm, So you give the first and the best to God as a sign that it’s all from him in the first place and you are not just being greedy but that’s only a little pointer towards something which is right in the middle there somewhere and uh I’d love to see some more serious work done on that.

One Comment

Got something to say? Feel free, I want to hear from you! Leave a Comment

  1. Bruce the Aussie says:

    “and uh I’d love to see some more serious work done on that”.
    I think that Darrin W Snyder Belousek has contributed to the serious work that Tom would love to see in his new book “Atonement, Justise and Peace”

Comments are now closed for this article.