The Atonement

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

Humans beings, born in sin, have a problem: sin offends a holy God and all humanity stands on the verge of incurring His wrath. Yet God has a problem also: He is a God of love and wishes to show mercy. But since He cannot ignore His own law and just ignore our sins, there is a tension between God’s justice and His mercy. We each deserve an eternity of punishment. The price must be paid, but we are incapable of paying for it. But to our delight, Jesus sacrificed himself to meet the demands of our just God, receiving within his time on the cross the eternal punishment due to us for our sins. Thus Jesus received the wrath of God as a propitiation for our sin. Both His justice and His mercy was satisfied.

Sound familiar?

I recently expressed my disgust about all the minutiae of things to argue about systematic theology, summing up by saying “My love affair with theology is on the rocks.” Rather than swearing off discussing theological matters, I was mostly concerned about divisive intramural debates that do nothing for the faith. I do remain, as ever, interested in pursuing the truth and also in debating theological perspectives that needlessly undermine our faith’s credibility and reputation.

One example I used of a useless debate was the differing theories of the atonement, which I knew of mostly from one of my theology classes from the distant past. But I must confess that at the time I wrote that post I couldn’t have told you any other examples than the Penal Substitution view, summarized in the opening above. This view is the most common among Protestants, due to Calvin’s specific formulation of it.

The atonement is how Christ’s death/resurrection brings us salvation. I’ve assumed that it didn’t really matter all that much how Christ’s sacrifice effected salvation, only that it somehow does. Nevertheless, with a hunch that I was too hasty in my dismissal of that debate, I’ve been reading a lot about this over the last few days. I want to chronicle a bit of it, because I have become convinced that the specifics on how we’re atoned for are not so trivial, and may in fact play a crucial role in our apologetics if nothing else.

This all started with a quick scan of Wikipedia, reading summaries of the various theories about the atonement. None of these views deny that Christ’s work brought about reconciliation (at-one-ment) in some sense, but there are several views that differ on how it was accomplished.

Satisfaction (Anselm of Canterbury)

Catholics generally hold to Anselm’s version, called the Satisfaction view. In our sinfulness, we are incapable of giving God the honor due Him, and this effects our death. Jesus, as a perfect man, was able to satisfy God by giving Him the honor He was due. Jesus’ work of supererogation was more than sufficient to satisfy God, so we are the benificiaries of the overflow. Summary: Jesus’ perfect sacrifice satisfied God’s demand for glory from imperfect humanity.

Penal Substitution (John Calvin)

Calvin, with what has become known as Penal Substitution Theory (PST), modified this to emphasize not God’s stolen glory but His need to punishment sin. Jesus became the object of God’s destructive wrath and has thereby become the substitute for the elect. Summary: Jesus’ punishment satisfied God’s demand for each individual’s punishment.

Governmental (Hugo Grotius)

Wesleyans and some others in the Arminian tradition typically hold to a reworking of the Calvinist view that in some ways hearkens back to Anselm’s version. In Grotius’ Governmental view, Jesus was punished for sin (as in PST) but did not actually undergo the selfsame punishment we were due; rather, because of his headship, his individual suffering was sufficient as propitation for the entire world. Whereas our need for propitiation in Calvin’s view was calculated on an individual basis (Christ paid for the individual sins of each justified individual), both Anslem’s and Grotius’ versions have Jesus satisfying a more general divine dissatisfaction. (Notice how this parallels the differences between the classic view of universal atonement and Calvin’s limited atonement.) Summary: Jesus’ punishment stood in for the punishment of all humanity.

Moral Influence (Peter Abelard)

Another view that’s especially become popular among liberal theologians is the Moral Influence view: Christ’s obedience unto death accomplishes in us the same glorification through resurrection when we discover his work and follow his example. This view is traced back to the medieval theologian Peter Abelard. Summary: Jesus’ sacrifice is the official example for the sacrifice we must make.

Ransom / Christus Victor (Classic / Gustaf Aulén)

What I find to be the most interesting view is actually the orthodox view, held by virtually the entire early church until the medieval period; it is still the most commonly held view among the Eastern Orthodox. It focuses not on God paying His own debt of honor or punishment, but as bringing liberation from bondage. In the ransom view, God released humanity from bondage by Jesus’ death. Although the version that has God paying the ransom price to Satan has gained much attention, Gustaf Aulén argues in his 1931 book entitled Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) that the core of the so-called “classic view” actually focused more on liberation from death and sin than the person of Satan. The “ransom” Christ paid is an imagery found in Scripture that should be taken as a metaphor for war ransom than as an actual business transaction in the sense we think of it (actually, all these views are developed from metaphors actually found in Scripture).

While I do not deny that some of the rudiments of Calvin’s PST are found in Scripture (especially in Paul), there are too many difficulties both philosophically and exegetically for me to embrace this view anymore. As an important case in point, one helpful site I found contained a passage that refocuses our attention on what “justification” meant in biblical times, as opposed to its meaning within the legalistic framework that gained such traction due to the influence of the Romans. I want to cite the passage in full. [Please note that the author, Derek Flood, uses the term “Satisfaction-Doctrine” throughout to refer not only to the Satisfaction view proper, but to PST and Governmental. All of these are referred to sometimes as “substitutionary atonement”.]

Biblically to “bring justice” does not mean to bring punishment, but to bring healing and reconciliation. Justice means to make things right. All through the Prophets justice is associated with caring for others, as something that is not in conflict with mercy, but rather an expression of it. Biblically, justice is God’s saving action at work for all that are oppressed:

“Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) “This is what the LORD says: ‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed.’ ” (Jeremiah 21:12)

The way that we “administer justice”, the Prophets tell us, is by encouraging and helping the oppressed. In contrast to what the Satisfaction-Doctrine says, God’s justice is not in conflict with his mercy, they are inseparable. True justice can only come though mercy:

“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice: show mercy and compassion to one another.’ ” (Zechariah 7:9) “Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice.” ( Isaiah 30:18)

If we want to understand the concept of justice as the writers of the Old Testament did, then we must see it as a “setting things right again”. Thus when Christ comes, the way that he brings about justice is through mercy and compassion. Notice how in this next verse Christ does not bring justice with a hammer, but with a tenderness that cares for the broken and the abused.

“I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations… A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory.” (Matthew 12:18-21)

The way that God brings about justice and “leads it to victory” is through acts of compassion – sheltering the “smoldering wick”, and the “bruised reed”. And what does Christ “proclaim to the nations” to bring about this justice?

“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

In other words, the supposed conflict between justice and mercy is based on a misunderstanding of what justice is. A large part of God’s wrathful judgement in the interest of justice is to stop those who oppress; this is itself an act of mercy on behalf of the oppressed. Jesus, as the Victor, underwent death and thereby shattered death’s hold on us. James McGrath makes the confident assertion that PST “is not found in the Bible”:

Sure, it can be read into it, but it cannot be found there unless one is already looking for it. For Paul, the key meaning of Jesus’ death is summed up well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “one died for all, and therefore all died”. That’s almost the exact opposite of the popular Evangelical message, “one died instead of all, so that they might not have to die”. Even if we conclude that Paul’s language of “dying with Christ” is just another way of talking metaphorically about denying ourselves and self-sacrifice, it nevertheless makes clear that the Christian view of “salvation” expressed here is not about Jesus doing something instead of us, but of something that involves us and happens to us and in us. Ironically, while some feel they are glorifying God by making atonement something that involves no action or effort on our part, they’ve also radically departed from a central component of early Christian belief.

Finally, I wanted to describe exactly why I think this is one of the few doctrinal disputes that needs to be addressed. Substitutionary atonement, and PST in particular, is an apologetics nightmare. Number one, it impugns God’s character, unflatteringly (and inaccurately) painting Him as a Jekyll and Hyde schizophrenic (“Burn ’em! No, forgive them! No, I’ve gotta burn ’em! No, forgive them!”). Next, it gives the false impression that despite the glory we’re supposed to give Him for it, He seems to not be able to understand or accomplish forgiveness in any definable sense: we are to forgive one another magnanimously without any demands of punishment, yet God Himself can’t bring Himself to — and only because of some arbitrary rule He placed on Himself. Thirdly, punishment of an innocent on behalf of multiple guilty parties sounds romantic, but positing the necessity of this “miracle of divine bookkeeping” is in fact the outgrowth of a very unromantic, legalistic understanding of judgement. In point of fact, it’s arguably less just (I’d like to see you try the “switch the guilty” trick in a courtroom) than God simply acting like God and forgiving outright. The idea of stand-ins for punishment is actually disavowed over and over again in the OT (cf. Deut 24.16, Pro 17.15, Jer 31.30, and Eze 18.20). All these objections stack up: there are former believers who charge the incomprehensible PST for contributing to their loss of faith; in fact, some of the best info I found critiquing PST was on the site of a former fundamentalist with a PhD in theology who does just that. I encourage you to read his many posts on the subject.

In addition to the many links above, I leave you with a list of pages I’ve found in the course of my inquiry so far with interesting things to say, in case you’re interested in this subject. Note that most are framed in terms of attacking PST first (as did this post) and only later, if at all, arguing another view; this is by virtue of the fact that PST is the predominant Protestant view and therefore seemingly requires the least burden of proof among Protestants.

The Problem of the Atonement

The Fuzzy Math of Penal Substitution

The doctrine of “penal substitution”

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