Reforming a Reformed View of Atonement

The Crucifixion - Duccio di Buoninsegna
The Crucifixion – Duccio di Buoninsegna

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.


9 thoughts on “Reforming a Reformed View of Atonement

  1. Great post Peter and some fantastic questions! I think a lot is said in a sentence in your introductory paragraph, penal substitution is “the ‘king’ of western atonement theories.” There seems to be an Eastern (and early) Church phobia in the West and especially in protestant circles. I concur that if we are going to dethrone the king it has to be with something biblical, that starts with God’s covenant grace and emphasizes faith. But I think it helps to read the Bible with the whole company of saints including everyone from Irenaeus to Vladimir Lossky. It was through their eyes that I rediscovered Paul (and Calvin). For me things like union with Christ and sanctification used to be optional additions to the Christian life and the cosmic scope of redemption in Ephesians and Colossians were just problematic passages to work out in my us/them elect/reprobate paradigm. Now I find it impossible to talk about salvation or atonement apart from these larger themes: God’s telos for creation and the election of a people for a purpose and for ever deepening union.

  2. I am not sure how to respond to this . . . yet . . . save that, perhaps, Anselm doesn’t go far enough (and I really need to say more that I’m not ready to say for that to work) . . . but it has me thinking . . .

  3. My initial thoughts revolve around the prominence of blood sacrifice in the OT. Blood must be shed in order for sin to be forgiven, e.g. Isaiah “Come let s reason together…” Sin symbolized as red is covered by red blood. Red over red = white so God sees us as white as snow. Ancient people would have understood this but blood sacrifice is no longer relevant today. So how do we make sense of the crucifixion? Jesus teaching us to surrender.

    1. I think it’s a generally accepted truth that “blood must be shed” for sins to be forgiven, but I don’t know that that is true in the way that we’ve come to understand it. On the one hand, writing that seems awfully arrogant because there is a long and wide tradition supporting it. On the other hand, there has always been a voice of critique.

      There is no doubt that blood sacrifice was an important ritual throughout the Old Testament. However, I think we have to search for it’s meaning by weighing all of the prophetic texts and NT against them. For example, both the prophets and Jesus say of God, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” How can that be?

      In the same passages in Hebrews where it says that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” it also says “the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” How can that be?

      The whole thrust of the Hebrews argument is that the old covenant was ineffective in producing the true humility and sacrifice that God wanted. God’s people used the sacrifices as a cover, but God saw right through it. To me, the blood is properly understood as an outward sign of an inward reality (sound famiiar?).

      I think we make sense of the crucifixion by saying that Jesus showed us the true sacrifice that God desires and, just as importantly, through it establishes a new covenant with “better promises.”

  4. I wonder how deeply wedded PS atonement theory is to eternal conscious punishment in hell theory. After all, if sin is a cosmic debt that needs to be paid, and humans are incapable of payment, then it only makes sense that punishment would need to be active and eternal.

    As for me, I tend to see atonement in light of the reign of God in Christ (incorporating life, death, resurrection and ascension). The death and resurrection pave the way to the reign of God, but it seems in passages like Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 that they are precursors to the ascension and reign of Christ. I don’t want to diminish the death and resurrection, but only place them in a larger narrative. Does that make sense?

  5. You’re right. Placing the death of Jesus in the larger narrative is crucial. In fact, one of the major critiques of penal substitution is the idea that it really makes all of the rest of Jesus ministry, his resurrection, and his ascension unnecessary.

    The difficulty for me is that the death of Jesus has played such a prominent role in forming our worldview that we still have to address it and reframe it. I think that focusing on the larger narrative has left people with a sort of cognitive dissonance. In other words, most Christians believe that the just response to crime is punishment on the one hand. The cross has been used as divine sanction for that. Still, on the other hand, Christians know that Jesus calls them to forgive and love their enemies. How do those two things jive?

    I think that we make the cross consistent with the larger narrative by saying that Jesus offered the true kind of sacrifice that God desires (by giving his life even in the face of death) and in doing so established a new covenant. All those who trust that the kind of life that was in Jesus is the only true and eternal life (sealed in baptism; washed in his blood, that is, his life) and come to the table to receive that life (sealed in communion; drink his blood, that is, his life) are members of God’s (new) covenant people.

    For me, then, Jesus’ death was about restoring and not punishing. Taken seriously, this would have ethical implications for how we address crime and define justice.

    1. Peter, I agree with you when you refer to restoration and not punishment. I’m also finding myself more and more drawn to what Andy says (above), because I get so annoyed when people boil Christianity down to “Accept Jesus’ death on the cross, and you’ll go to heaven.” It’s so much more than that! However, I DO think there’s an element of penal substitution in the crucifixion. We DO need to be punished for our sin. And I’ve also said this before: perhaps Jesus died on the cross because God needed us to see (and for some, experience), the gravity of sin. It seems to me that Jesus’ death wasn’t even technically necessary. God is God. If God wanted to, he could get rid of sin by simply declaring it gone. So for me, yes, there is an element of penal substitution. But more than that, Jesus was crucified so that I would understand the cost of sin…and as someone who’s gone through some really hard stuff in life, it’s enormously comforting for me to know that Jesus knew what it was like to suffer.

      Not sure if you can make sense of all that, but I’m holding all of those things at the same time.

      1. Thanks for the comment.

        Part of this atonement journey for me has been to accept the fact that Jesus’ death was necessary. It’s the words in Hebrews that make it most clear to me: that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Those words say to me that without the death (and resurrection) of Jesus we would love our lives too much and shrink from death (see Revelation 12:11).

        At the same time, I’m not sure that we do need to be punished. In my reading of Scripture, if anything was being discarded or rejected on the cross it was the old covenant and/or the law. Which is to say, the law had us condemned. It also had Jesus condemned. Through the law there was little apparent reason to accept that Jesus was God’s Son. The resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus and a new covenant apart from the law which had been abolished (Ephesians) and its condemnation cancelled (Colossians). The old covenant was, therefore, made “obsolete” (Hebrews).

        It seems to me that God preferred to get rid of the law rather than us. Which is not to say that there won’t be wrath and judgment. I just don’t think that those things were happening to Jesus on the cross.

        None of this, however, discounts your last point. Jesus knew suffering and shared our suffering which is the result of sin and not the will of God. If we share in a death like his we will certainly share in a resurrection like his.

      2. Excellent conversation Jill and Peter. re: the need for punishment; I think of Jesus’ many parables that did include (sometimes terrifying) metaphors for judgement. Yet the only thing that ever seems to be required in them to avoid judgement and live the kingdom life is a positive response to the father/master/husband/lord in the parable. Not just a verbal response (Matthew 21) but a life marked by the acceptance of such a gracious invitation. A son who at first says no, reconsiders and goes to work for his father. The prodigal son returns home. Wise Virgins keep watch and wait. The vagabonds from the intersections of the highways respond to the invitation to the wedding banquet; and the only one cast out with those who refused the invitation is the man whose dress did not signify that he was grateful for the invitation. Jesus’ “sheep” in Matthew 25, don’t even recognize the Lord whom they have served, they simply did what was right by doing for “the least” of Christ’s brothers and sisters. I don’t see any place that Jesus talks about forgiveness or pardon while pointing to himself (or anyone or anything else) as a substitution. Rather, it would seem to me that the terms of coming to the Kingdom life are laid out in Jesus’ primary proclamation: Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.

        The closest “proof text” I can think of for Jesus talking about himself as a substitution is in John, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Yet with this I think we should remember two things: Jesus words are all being shaped by the gospel writers for theological reasons (and all written after Paul’s 7 letters and some of the Deutero-Pauline ones). So especially in John, I think it is proper to interpret this as pointing to Christ’s holistic work, his great Kenosis. The Word that was with God, and was God from the very beginning, the Word through whom all things were made has laid down his divine prerogative to dwell among us, and yes even lay down his physical life to become the food and drink that sustain his visible flock (a little John 6).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s