Short Comment on N.T. Wright’s Narrative Model

Related Post: On Being a Reformed, Pauline and Narrative Theologian

Answers to questions on my earlier post on N.T. Wright’s Non-traditional Substitutionary Atonement from a reader:

Question 1: Should we abandon or improve on N.T. Wright narrative model?

I agree in principle with NTW that theology should be anchored in biblical history and history of salvation. Notice I deliberate go beyond using just a generic “narrative’ model to emphasize “biblical history” which is both a record of God’s mighty acts in history, and revealed interpretation through his prophets and apostles? Naturally, this salvation history is not a list of abstract theological propositions (which NTW loves to criticize), but a divine narrative fleshed out in the primeval history of Genesis, the history of Israel, the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic ministry in the early church.

My problem with NTW is his tendency to rule out the theological implication/interpretation that was first given in embryonic form by the apostles, and developed more fully later in creeds and confessions, etc. as NTW charges the latter for being abstract. However, following NTW strictly would mean not only that we cannot refer to penal substitution, imputation of righteousness, the hope of going to heaven (all these three are dismissed by NTW because he asserts that the Bible makes no direct reference to them), but on the terms set by NTW we would also be barred from confessing the Trinity in the Nicene Creed, or the perfect union of the fully God and fully man in the Incarnation in the Chalcedonian Creed. The unsympathetic critic may wonder if NTW here is writing like a Biblicist! I assume that NTW would take offence at this suggestion. But I am just pointing out the logical consequences of his methodology. Thankfully, it is safe to assume that NTW would not be so methodologically consistent at to be willing to rule out belief in the Trinity.

Put in more familiar terminology of Reformed theology – In teaching the history of redemption we must uphold both (1) historia salutis whch explains the unfolding events of God’s historical work leading to Christ in bringing salvation to the world, and (2) ordo salutis which explains the order of the application of the benefits of redemption to an individual. We begin with historia salutis (hence my agreement with NTW on theological grounding in biblical narrative/history), but we must move on to the ordor salutis (to describe how redemption is applied historically and effectively in the salvation of the one who is being saved). My humble judgment is that NTW’s historical model does not give an adequate account of the ordor salutis.

Finally, I pointed out in the last paragraph of my post that NTW’s narrative does not go far back enough – which would require drawing out fully the significance of the creation and fall of Adam. But even then, to stop the narrative at Adam would be to reduce history of salvation only to positive, human history. [On this matter I find convenient allies in NT scholars who criticize NTW for not giving due recognition to the ‘apocalyptic’ dimension of Paul’s gospel]. More seriously, the narrative model of NTW fails to take into account the biblical self-testimony that the history of redemption is not an ad hoc response to an unexpected contingency of history – the Fall of man, but has its origins in the decree of God when he chose us “before the foundations of the world” (Eph.1:3). Hence, the Reformed teaching of pactum salutis (covenant of redemption) – the pretemporal, intratrinitarian covenant whereby the Father elects a people in the Son as their mediator to be brought to saving faith through the Spirit


Question2: Would you say the cross is only reconciliation between God and sinful man? Or, is there more that was brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus (beyond personal reconciliation)?

Regarding the second question: I fully agree with NTW that we should never separate the cross from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I further agree that the work of Christ goes beyond just personal reconciliation – it includes the restoration of fallen earth as a ‘temple’ for God’s presence/dwelling, the creation of new heaven and new earth. Indeed, redemption being eternal and individual-cosmic, involves the whole Trinity – with the Father in the (pactum salutis), the Son’s death on the cross and resurrection and the Holy Spirit in applying redemption (ordo salutis) on the individual and cosmos.

I focus on penal substitution atonement (PSA) in this post as a response to the critique of NTW who subsumes the representative-substitution model (RSA) under the Christus Victor model (note it is RSA and not PSA for NTW). In reality, I am willing to grant that the various models of atonement contain some truths, but only if these models are grounded in the foundational truth of PSA – more of this in my next post with supplementary reading.

This brief discussion highlights why there is no biblical theology (narrative or not) without systematic theology, and there is no systematic theology without biblical theology. Divine revelation is unfolded in historical narrative, but divine truth is not restricted or reduced to historical narrative.