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:
- 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.