Substitution revisited

About this time last year I posted some thoughts on substitutionary atonement. At the time I expressed my concern about some of the problems with it. In light of another blog discussion I ended up diving into, I reread what I’d written and realised my thoughts needed refined.

In hindsight, there have been a number of issues that have prompted me to revisit the subject and, in particular, it was a discussion about the theology of The Shack over at the Parchment and Pen Blog. But there have been other influences, not least some of the questions arising out of my dissertation and, strangely enough, about a workshop at the recent Candidates’ Conference on different expressions of spirituality.

The particular issue is the distinction between penal substitution and substitutionary atonement – two of the explanations for Jesus’ death on the cross. In my previous blog post I don’t think I fully appreciated and expressed the difference between them. It was really only the conversation at P&P forcing me back to my 2nd year Systematic Theology notes that helped me appreciate the distinction. This is all an issue of soteriology (how we speak of/understand salvation) and scripture presents many different ways, or models, to show just how much was achieved by the cross. There isn’t a big selection so that we can choose our favourite, but so that we can get a glimpse of the complexity and enormity of what God has done through the cross.

Substitutionary atonement is probably one of the most used doctrines and is actually a ‘wrapper’ for a range of ‘models’. The main models, for the record, are:

  • Adoption
  • Atonement
  • Expiation/propitiation
  • Justification
  • Ransom
  • Reconciliation
  • Redemption
  • Representation
  • Revelation
  • Sacrifice
  • Salvation (Latin salus = health, welfare)
  • Second Adam
  • Victory over sin

Substitution is the idea that only Jesus was able to be, for example, the perfect sacrifice, the only one able to pay the ransom, and so on. The issue then is the addition of the word ‘penal’. There are a number of verses which are often used to justify the inclusion of a punitive element of atonement, perhaps the most common one being Isaiah 53:6 “and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The problem here is that I don’t see a punitive element, only a substitutionary one. Romans 3:25-26 is more problematic. It reads:

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

But even here it is not entirely clear that Jesus was being punished on the cross. It is implied that, as Jesus was ‘made sin’ on the cross, that sinfulness was what was punished to ‘make up’ for the lack of punishment beforehand. But that’s not what this passage says. Atonement is the Old Testament idea of making a sacrifice to God to turn aside His righteous wrath for some wrongdoing. But the sacrifice is not punished. The sacrifice is just that, a sacrifice. If anyone is being ‘punished’ it is the one who brings the sacrifice. But then the point of the sacrifice is to turn aside God’s wrath, not to avoid feeling hard done by because you’ve had to give up your best lamb. That said, to dismiss the sacrifice as ‘just a sacrifice’ is perhaps a little disingenuous. After all, we’re talking about someone being nailed to a cross, not an animal being quickly slaughtered. The pain was no less real just because it wasn’t ‘punishment’. But then we’re back at substitution rather than firmly in the realms of penal substitution.
The other thing to bear in mind of course, is that the idea of penal substitution is primarily a development of Anselm’s atonement ideas. And these were heavily influenced by medieval feudalism. That’s not to dismiss it, but to be aware of its origins.

But there are also many other issues with penal substitution. There are ethical issues about gaining salvation through punishment of an innocent. There are the issues of the cross being “child abuse on a cosmic scale” if penal substitution was a preferred idea. Interestingly, it also opens up the door to universalism – after all, if Jesus has done it all, then all should be saved. But that’s an accusation that can be made about other atonement theories as well.

It’s obvious I have problems with penal substitution. They’re not irreconcilable, but they are difficult and I don’t see them as needing overcome. Penal substitution is not a critical doctrine. I’m not a heretic if I don’t sign up to it.

Congratulations if you’ve read this far. This is one of those blog posts that is really about me getting things straight in my head – even beyond the ideas written about here. If I were to write about all the things it impacts then I’d be writing another dissertation. Maybe I’ll save this for my masters course.

7 responses to “Substitution revisited”

  1. ‘Universalism’…. salvation is offered to all and in that sense is universal. That is not to say that all will be saved because, for various reasons, people choose to remove themselves from the sphere of God’s grace.
    Not sure that I fully understand all the ins and outs of the minutiae of penal v substitutionary atonement (except that one is a medieval construct of Anselm as you point out).
    All I see is Christ dying for my sin and allowing me to have a relationship with God the Father. 

  2. Indeed. I should have been clearer. The context of the other conversations was somewhat more ‘Calvinist’ where predestination comes into play so universalism is very much frowned upon because it implies that a person still has a choice (perhaps even beyond death – the idea of Jesus freeing the captives from hell, and Calvinists seem to very much like the idea of eternal punishment). Some universalist views suggest that God will continue to work on people, even beyond death, so that, ultimately, all (literally) will be saved. More liberal views open the door for pluralism – many paths to God
    So, yes, I’d agree that universalism is a given – God offers salvation freely to all but not all accept. The reasons for non-acceptance are somewhat more complex, but I don’t think I’m a Calvinist. For the record, nor am I a pluralist.

  3. Glad to hear a non-pluralist approach !!
    It’s a very complex subject indeed. Not sure of the choice after death, though. I had understood that as an offering to those pre-Christ/New Covenant. May need more thought there.
    You know the Clavinist definition of hell ?? That someone somewher is actually enjoying themselves ! (Calvin himself might have laughed at that. What folk did with his theology twisted his thinking quite a bit)
    As for all literally being saved (I know this isn’t your position)… if that were the case, then why the need for Christ and the Cross ? If all are saved anyway, why bother ?

  4. I can see a very cool conversation in the Rainy Hall soon, John 🙂
    It’s fun trying to tease all this out, but of course, we’re finite beings with limited language; so all our theories of atonement will be ultimately flawed in some way or other depending on what we’re emphasising.  This isn’t me saying *not* to tease out theology, by any means.  I do wonder, however, that folks have spent a lot of time considering Jesus’ dying… and forgotten his living and his resurrection.  Are we guilty of keeping Christ permanently nailed to a cross at times, in our ‘obsession’ with his death?  He came to teach us what it is to be in relationship with God… and how to live life fully and abundantly.  That in itself is worth a whole lot more contemplating on than it’s been given.

    And because I’m on a worship tangent over in my blog: I wonder how our differing theories of atonement/ life and resurrection play out liturgically?  I’m minded of my step-dad who once said to me re. his not going to church: ‘why do I need to go to church to be told just how crap I am?’  My problem with penal substitution is played out for me in that comment…!!

  5. @ David
    I don’t think it could be said that the cross was unnecessary, regardless of universal salvation or not. What I think might be argued is that the event of the cross was ‘timeless’ (metaphysically speaking), hence its effect for those already dead in the past. Because, if you rely on a ‘special dispensation’ for pre-Christ believers (if that’s not too contradictory), then that, I think, is a bigger wedge between salvation and the cross, simply because it can surely be extended forwards (and sideways to those who are, for whatever reason, unable to hear the gospel). I think God keeps asking. Either we give in or shut Him out entirely.

    @ Nikki,
    I think that our flawed language (“language at its breaking point,” as J. McD. used to say, and is a phrase which I love) is indeed the problem, and that’s why atonement is presented in so many ways in scripture. David may well have the truth of it when he said, “All I see is Christ dying for my sin and allowing me to have a relationship with God the Father.”
    My own bias is to ‘Christus Victor’, hence my ‘addiction’ to resurrection and all its inaugurated-eschatological implications. As for worship in that framework, that’s my Masters research proposal – how do we ‘do’ church within such a framework? What does it mean for mission, for prayer, for praise? (Can you see the soapbox?)
    With a sympathetic nod to your step-dad, I’ve only recently been able to step past that church guilt-trip. It’s taken me a while to realise God loves me and that Christ died for me, not because He wants to shame me into church or because He wants me to owe Him big-time, but simply that; He loves me. And that love is shown, not simply on the cross, but in the hope of resurrection and of the gift of the Spirit as a seal of that promise now.
    Who needs ‘punishment’ as a reason when you have such extravagent love?

  6. Hi,

    I’m finishing up a debate on Penal Substitution where I show it to be thoroughly unBiblical:

    I’m actually very glad you posted what you did, because I share a lot of your thoughts on this issue. People think we deny Jesus made atonement if we deny P-Sub, but that is not true.

    Here are my thoughts on what you said:

    You mentioned terms like “redemption” and “ransom” (almost synonymous), which the Scriptures explicitly use, and you are correct that there is nothing Penal Substitution about a “ransom.” A ransom is an alternative to any sort of punishment. Another term you mentioned was “propitiation,” which many Psub Protestants think means “become the object of wrath,” but that is wrong. Propitiation means to “turn away” (appease) wrath so that nobody receives it, and there are explicit examples of this in Scripture. Again, a concept flatly against Psub. So while Jesus did make propitiation and a ransom, two very Biblical terms, this did not require (nor end up involving) P-Sub.

    You mentioned Is 53:6, but reading that chapter carefully it actually points away from Psub. For example, 53:5 says “chastisement” fell upon him, and that is the Hebrew word and distinct from “punish” (though the NIV improperly uses punish), but “chastise” is not at all the same as punish in the P-Sub sense, because  Christians undergo chastisement as well (cf Heb 12:4). Is 53:4 is quoted in Mat 8:16-17, it mentions “carried our iniquities,” but Matthew sees nothing Psub about it!

    You then mentioned Rom 3:24-26, and you were very correct to say that while that is popular, it falls well short of a Psub proof-text. You quote the NIV, but it plays with the terms a bit. In fact, this section uses the term “propitiation” and “redemption” (ransom), two terms which go against Psub! (as shown above). The NIV uses the term “unpunished,” to imply ‘now punished’, but that is a biased translation. The term “unpunished” is not there, rather it says sins were “passed over” (which doesn’t automatically mean ‘unpunished’).

    You are also absolutely right to say the OT sacrifices were not punished or the object of God’s wrath, that is a huge blow to psub.
    As for St Anselm, he is often said to have invented Psub, but that is false, in fact he rejected such a view. He held to a view called “satisfaction” in which one atones for sins by good works (cf Prov 16:6), this is the Catholic view and not at all like Psub.
    I think you’ll greatly enjoy my Opening Essay in my Penal Substitution debate.
    p.s. you should enable the option of “email me of follow up comments” so when people post they can be notified of responses.

  7. Hi Nick,
    Thank you for reading and commenting on what was only intended to be a way of getting things a little clearer in my own head. I appreciate your feedback.
    I’ll look into your suggestion of email follow-ups to comments as well.

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