I have been revisiting the debates about the theology of atonement that surfaced in the early 2000s.
Steve Jeffrey (one of the authors of Pierced for our Transgressions), notes some of the ways in which defenders of the doctrine of penal substitution needed to raise their game:-
- ‘It was not enough to point to the atoning sacrifices in Leviticus, for some are arguing today that the very vocabulary of atonement does not mean what it has been assumed to mean.
- ‘It was not enough to argue that God must punish sin in order to uphold his justice, for some have argued that for God to punish a third party in our stead would be a worse injustice than punishing no one at all.
- ‘It was not even enough to appeal to penal substitution as the traditional view, for some have argued that it was a late addition to the pages of Christian history.’ (Formatting added)
Quite so. Yet one of the more frustrating features of the debate is that the critics of the doctrine of penal substitution seem to have paid inadequate attention to the ways in which its defenders have addressed these kinds of issues.
Joel Green and Mark Jones published the first edition of their influential book Recovering the Scandal of the Cross in 2000, and yet, when discussing the doctrine of satisfaction for sins, inexplicably chose to focus much more on Charles Hodge (in his Systematic Theology) than on John Stott (in his magisterial The Cross of Christ). They published the second edition of Recovering in 2010, and therefore had plenty of time to interact with Pierced for our Transgressions (2007), and yet failed to even mention it.
This is related to another oddity about Recovering, which persists in the second edition. The authors are aware that they have been criticised for attacking caricatures of the doctrine of penal substitution. Their response is that, whatever nuanced accounts may have be given by John Stott and others, the reality is that ‘on the ground’ (in sermons, Sunday school teaching, and home Bible study groups) penal substitution is often presented in terms suggestive of ‘cosmic child abuse’ (to borrow that over-used phrase once again).
By way of response:-
1. It is easy to garner instances of crude, unbalanced, poorly-expressed or flatly erroneous expressions of virtually any Christian doctrine under the sun. I’m not surprised that Green and Baker have been able to do so. But this amounts to no more than anecdotal evidence unless they can show (a) how prevalent these instances are in the evangelical community; (b) that the doctrine actually leads in some kind of logical way to such mistaken conclusions.
2. Green and Baker, accordingly, are facing to two different directions, and seem never to have worked out which ‘enemy’ they are fighting. If they are opposing caricatures of penal substitution, then they should show how these caricatures may be corrected. If, on they other hand, they are opposing a well-thought-our doctrine of penal substitution, then they should (as I have just suggested) interact with its best expressions (such as that of Stott).
3. As I review the debate as it has unfolded over the past 15 years or so, I find that:-
(a) in some quarters, it has resulted in a certain hardening on both sides: with critics more likely to say that penal substitution has no place in biblical teaching (or, if it does have a place, then the Bible itself must be mistaken), and proponents more likely to give the impression that penal substitution is the only account of the atonement that is worth mentioning.
(b) in other quarters, it has resulted in a revisiting of the doctrine of penal substitution, with the concerns of both its critics and its proponents being taken into account. This, please God, will take us back to Scripture and lead us towards a doctrine of the atonement that prove ‘mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds’.
At the very least, I would at this time to any of my friends who are reading about the doctrine of atonement: if you are reading Green and Baker, then also read Stott. And vice versa.