I was poking around on facebook the other day and saw Wayne Bowerman anticipating a new book by Tony Jones on a subject near to my heart and heavy on my brain: atonement. Having grown up, and now serving in, a reformed church I’ve spent many moments wrestling with others and myself regarding the “king” of western atonement theories: penal substitution. I wrote about it on this blog here.
For this guest post I’m hoping to throw out a couple ideas for feedback and hopefully from people who still appreciate the penal substitution theory. I’d like to write a book someday and join the movement of those who want to dethrone the king. Here’s why.
No one I know hesitates to point out that the penal substitution theory is a version of an earlier form of atonement called the Satisfaction Theory. It’s attributed to Anselm. He was writing a book trying to convince people why it’s not unreasonable, weak, or foolish for God take on human form. He likened it to a lord of the land who, in exchange for obedience, offered provision and protection to his people. All was well and good until one of the servants disobeyed. This infraction resulted in a debt which must be paid or else a penalty would be incurred. Anything less would be dishonorable, weak, and foolish.
In the same way, Anselm suggested, our sins have resulted in an eternal, cosmic debt owed to the Lord of heaven and earth. It is a debt which must be paid. However, because all have sinned and fallen short, there was no one who could pay such a massive debt which was now deserving of death. That’s where Jesus comes in. He is fully man because humans incurred the debt. He is fully God because only someone divine could pay the price. Jesus’ death restores God’s honor and the relationship of the Lord to his people. I have a problem with that.
First, if Jesus paid the debt on our behalf, then the debt was paid. There really wasn’t any forgiveness. Even if you suggest that God sent his Son to die because he had already chosen to forgive us it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus died to pay the debt. In any case, the debt was paid and not forgiven. So, what are we to do with all of the mercy of God in the Bible? That leads me to point number two.
So what if some people decide to deem God’s actions “weak” and “foolish?” I think the Bible has something to say about that. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” – 1 Corinthians 1:25
All of that is to say, one of the reasons I would like to dethrone penal substitution is because it seems to be built on a faulty foundation. If Anselm is guilty of (mis)shaping God into the image of an earthly, feudal lord, then penal substitution only further perverts the picture. Just in case that picture is unclear, here is the basic outline:
Again, all have sinned and fallen short. This time, instead of offending God’s honor, we have broken the law. If an offense against man’s law is deserving of just punishment, how much more is an offense against God’s law deserving of just punishment? That is just what is at stake. It is death for us unless the demands of justice can be met. That is where Jesus comes in. Jesus received the just punishment in our place, as a substitute. I have a problem with that.
The reason is because we still have to die. Just as Jesus had to die to himself and give up his life to service of God, so do we. Just as Jesus has to die a physical death at the end of his life, so do we. If that’s the case, wherein lies the substitution? A substitute fills in so that someone else doesn’t have to be present, like a substitute teacher. At no time is the original teacher in the room. Nor does the original teacher have to go back and teach the same lessons all over again. The substitute has taken care of it completely (ideally anyway). If we still have to die spiritually and physically then Jesus was not really a substitute.
Of course, you can suggest that in his death Jesus bore God’s wrath in our place, as a substitute, but then we have to address all of the wrath that is poured out at the end of the Bible. Why two parts wrath and one part mercy? Because of the atonement is only sufficient for the elect? If that’s the case, then we encounter the same question as we do in the satisfaction theory: what happened to forgiveness? In other words, if God poured out his wrath somewhere then we cannot say of God with Hosea, “my compassion grows warm and tender, I will not execute my fierce anger” nor can we say with James that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” I want to say those things. I have the sense that a lot of other people do to. In order to do that I think we need to dethrone the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.
What will we put in its place? If it’s reformed it will have to be Biblical, it will have to start with grace and emphasize faith, and, I think, be centered in the idea of covenant (a truly new one, but one that points back to the old ones).
Hopefully this makes sense. Maybe you found a hole. Perhaps you have a question. I’m looking forward to it.