‘Must we imagine the atonement in penal substitutionary terms?’
This is the question addressed by Joel Green in his contribution to The Atonement Debate. I summarise some of the main points before adding a few comments of my own at the end.
Green begins by quoting the Apostles’ Creed, noting that in it the early church testifies to both the historicity and the centrality of the crucifixion of Jesus, but does not address the question of how Christ’s death is salvific. This suggests that one can embrace Christian orthodoxy without committing to any particular explanation of the atonement.
For most Christians in North America and the UK, the atonement is thought of primarily in terms of penal substitution.
‘Penal substitution divorces the life of Jesus from his death’
One of the effects of this is to divorce Jesus’ life from his death. The former becomes merely a prelude to the latter.
But, even though the NT does indeed give great prominence to the cross of Christ, his death makes no sense apart from his life.
Stephen J. Patterson outlines why Jesus’ life and death must be viewed together:-
First, because Jesus died as a victim, and particularly as a victim of imperial brutality, the cross points to Jesus’ life as a life of resistance to earthly empire.
Second, because Jesus died the death of a martyr, the cross points to Jesus’ life as one of courageous commitment to the kingdom of God – a commitment that attracted hostility in life as in death.
Third, Jesus died a sacrificial death, pointing both to the character of Jesus’ life as acceptable before God (“without defect or blemish”, 1 Peter 1:19) and faithful toward God, rather than in fidelity to the Roman Empire and imperial worship. (Emphasis and paragraphing added)
Jesus saw his entire public ministry as leading towards the cross. Every significant aspect of that ministry – ‘his interpretation of Israel’s Scriptures, his practices of prayer and worship, his astounding choice of table companions, his crossing of the boundaries of clean and unclean, his engagement with children, his miracles of healing and exorcism’ – witnesses to this.
Likewise, ‘calling twelve disciples as representative of restored Israel, weaving the hopes of new exodus and the eschatological era into his ministries of word and deed, speaking of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, his prophetic action at the temple in anticipation of a temple not made by human hands – in all of these ways and more, Jesus countered the present world order and maintained that God was at work in his person and mission.’
The doctrine of penal substitution would have us limit God’s saving work to the death of Jesus. It would have us think of that death as a forensic exchange, in which the punishment that we sinners deserved was transferred to Jesus.
But Jesus himself taught that his mission was much broader than this. He came, among other things:-
- to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17)
- to call sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13)
- to bring a sword (Matt. 10:34)
- to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)
- to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in the other cities (Luke 4:43)
- to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10),
Even the celebrated ‘ransom’ statement is explicated in terms of a parallel statement of Jesus’ mission: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve”.
Let us not, then separate the life of Jesus from his death, for ‘God’s saving act is the incarnation, which encompasses the whole of his life, including – but not limited to – his death on a Roman cross.’
It might be supposed, with Bultmann, that Jesus’ life had little importance for the apostle Paul. But this would be to ignore both the actual evidence within Paul’s writings and the theological importance, for the apostle, of Jesus’ life.
‘Penal substitution promotes a misshapen view of God’
The doctrine of penal substitution, if not actually encapsulating, certainly inclines towards, a misshapen view of God as the angry Father who punishes his innocent Son.
A key issue here is the doctrine of the wrath of God. Although we must, with Scripture, both affirm divine wrath and resist attempts to reduce it merely to the impersonal consequences of sin, several questions arise:-
- By what logic does it follow that Jesus’ death satisfies wrath that was directed toward us sinners?
- If we are to hold that Christ’s death was a sacrifice that averted God’s wrath, then why are the OT sacrifices (e.g. in Leviticus) not explicated in this way?
- Moreover, in Romans 1 ‘our sinful acts do not invite God’s wrath but prove that God’s wrath is already active. What is needed, then, is not a transformation of God’s disposition toward the unrighteous and the ungodly but rather a transformation on the human side of the equation.’
‘Penal substitution a fruit of modernism’
How then are we to explain the rise in popularity of the penal model of atonement? It is the fruit of an individualistic and mechanistic view of human nature. Following Charles Taylor, asks:-
In the garden of cultural individualism, what theology is cultivated? Let me mention only a few corollaries:
(1) sin is understood naturally in autobiographical terms and little space is allowed for the recognition of systemic evil;
(2) justice is understood similarly, in autobiographical terms, and little space is allowed for the recognition of corporate justice;
(3) humans not only possess free will but also are self-autonomous. Who is to blame? Who cast the first stone? Such questions seem natural to us: results for me come from my decisions; they are nothing more than what I deserve, my reward or punishment as appropriate. In such a world, a penal justice system only makes sense, and it is no surprise that we have now before us a widespread assumption that the death of Jesus is best understood in penal categories and soteriology in forensic terms focused on the status of the individual before God.
But a soteriology that resists such notions would emphasise, with De Vito:-
(1) the construction of the self as deeply embedded in social relationships, so that notions of self-responsibility, autonomy and personal freedom are eclipsed by that of a moral community,
(2) the assumption that a person is one’s behavior, and
(3) an emphasis on external authority, specifically on the moral competence of Yahweh alone.
Within this accounting of human identity, an atonement theology focused so narrowly on the individual as moral agent would appear to be an alien intrusion.
Penal substitution, with its exaggerated focus on individualistic, mechanistic, objective, transactional approach, undermines any understanding of atonement as transformative, leading not only to holiness of life but also to social and cosmic change:-
If the purpose of God will be actualized in the restoration of all things, then how is this purpose served by a theory of penal substitutionary atonement?
I think that the emphasis on our Lord’s life (as well as his death) is helpful, and worthy of further reflection. I would want to reconsider if and why the apostle Paul pays relatively little attention to the earthly life of Jesus. I would also want to ask if it is fair to accuse proponents of penal substitution of neglecting such incarnational aspects of atonement.
I also want to look into the Old Testament sacrificial system, in order to determine whether Green, Goldingay and others are justified in saying that the Levitical sacrifices have little to do with placating the wrath of God.
There are some things here that I find it impossible to either agree or disagree with. It carries no weight to say that ‘Richard Averbeck has demonstrated that…’ or ‘Charles Taylor demonstrated that…’, since we are not made privy to these gentlemen’s evidence or argumentation.
The Atonement Debate. Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.