This entry is part 10 of 15 in the series: ‘Pierced For Our Transgressions’ (Ovey et al)
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 1 – Exodus 12
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 2 – Leviticus 16
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 3 – Isaiah 53
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 4 – Mark
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 5 – John’s Gospel
- Biblical foundations of penal substitution 6 – Romans
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 7 – Galatians
- Biblical Foundations of Penal Substitution 8 – 1 Peter
- Objections to Penal Substitution 1 – Bible
- Objections to Penal Substitution 2 – Culture
- Objections to penal substitution 3 – violence
- Objections to penal substitution 4 – justice
- Objections to penal substitution 5 – God
- Objections to penal substitution 6 – the Christian life
- Substutionary atonement: a note to preachers
According to Jeffery, Ovey & Sach, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is sometimes objected to on cultural grounds. Here’s a summary:-
1. ‘Penal substitution is a culturally-determined construct, not a biblical one’
Critics suggest, for example, that it is heavily conditioned by a Roman view of criminal law, and by the pre-occupation in the Western world with guilt-and-punishment ideas about justice.
Response: the fact that penal substitution has been believed and taught over the past two thousand years in many different social and political contexts cast considerable doubt on this objection. There is no doubt that our reading of Scripture can be influenced by our own cultural norms. But the key question is whether this doctrine is indeed taught in Scripture, and this can only be answered by thoughtful and sensitive exegesis.
2. ‘Penal substitution is unable to address the real needs of human culture’
This is related to the first objection: if the idea of penal substitution is culturally determined, then it will be no surprise to learn that it cannot relevant to – or even intelligible to people today.
Response: it may well be true that penal substitution will be less easily grasped in some cultures than in others. But if we really believed that some doctrines became unintelligible in some cultures then we would avoid talking of monotheism with a Hindu or of the Holy Spirit with a scientific materialist. This would be ridiculous: the lack of common ground with our hearers does not require that we abandon distinctive ideas but that we work work harder to explain them.
In fact, Scripture has other ideas about why some people find distinctively Christian teachings difficult to gasp. There is a ‘suppression’ of the truth, a ‘futility’ of thinking, a ‘love of darkness rather than light’, a ‘blinding’ of eyes, Rom 1:18,25 Eph 4:17-18, Jn 3:19, 2 Cor 4:4, 1 Cor 2:14. The call for ‘a message that people can buy into’ (Chalke & Mann) is a call for a god made in their own image, on their own terms – something that the Bible calls idolatry. Paul knew that his message was a ‘stumblig block’ to the Jews and ‘foolishness’ to the Greeks, but this did not deter him from proclaiming the gospel that God had entrusted to him. The point is not whether our message is attractive or easy to understand, but whether it is true to Scripture.
3. ‘Penal substitution relies on biblical words, metaphors and concepts that are outdated and misunderstood in our culture.’
For example, it is suggested that ‘sacrifice’ means something quite different today.
Some go even further, and assert that ‘what we now take to be the traditional view of the atonement employs language and depends on a model of divine-human interaction that is alien to the lives of huge numbers of those to whom the church’s mission is directed’ (Green & Baker). In this case, it is not only the language used to communicate the doctrine, but the doctrine itself that needs to be revised.
Response: obviously language changes over time, and translation work and exegesis must find language that faithfully communicates the meaning of the original texts. But it is quite another matter to alter the underlying concepts, and we have no warrant for doing so.
See Pierced for our Transgressions, 218-225.