This week, my wife and I got a touching note from a former student. Amongst other things, it said this:
“I feel beyond thankful for your loyal friendship… I think my faith took a ‘piggyback ride’ on yours for awhile there, and it made all the difference.”
As a dad, I am something of an expert on piggyback rides.
But that line has me thinking of the concept in the realm of friendship.
Can tired faith climb aboard the shoulders of another person?
I hope so.
In opposition to this notion, some think of faith as a completely individual possession.
It’s like underwear and toothbrushes. You don’t share.
After all, you can’t believe for someone else. Thus, preachers often (and rightly) emphasize the importance of each person deciding what they will do with Christ. And I don’t disagree with that. Yet the Scriptures also say things that call into question our culture’s rampant individualism, even when it comes to faith.
I could cite lots of examples, but I’ll stick with one.
Consider this passage about a paralyzed man who is “piggybacked” (er… carried) to a house where Jesus is. After his friends dig a massive whole in the building’s roof, the lame man is then lowered down to be with Jesus.
Mark’s version, says it this way:
“When Jesus saw their faith [that is, the faith of the men who had just ripped open the roof and lowered down the mat], he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mk. 2.5).
Reread that. When Jesus saw the faith of the man’s friends—the ones who had carried him to Jesus—he forgave (and healed) the paralytic. The commentators are unanimous.
Now, I don’t doubt that the lame man also believed in Christ. Especially when he started walking.
But the passage doesn’t emphasize that. The passage emphasizes the faith of the man’s friends.
So what’s the takeaway?
I don’t know the exact distance or extent that faith can be “piggybacked.”
I’ll leave that to God.
But I do know this:
I’m grateful to have some friends who would–beyond a shadow of a doubt–rip off the roof, risk felony charges, and rain down drywall on the Son of God if they thought that it would help me.
“Greater love has no one than this,that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15.13).
And to be honest, it seems almost profane to dissect the organs of atonement on this day. “We murder to dissect.” And Good Friday is about a different murder.
As Steve Holmes puts it:
“Christians have always been more concerned to stand under the cross than to understand it. And rightly so.”
Yet perhaps it is possible to think critically about atonement doctrine in a way that is worshipful, and even honoring to those of different views.
That’s my goal.
In the last post, I asked whether the parable of the prodigal son discredits penal substitution given that the father does not require retributive justice in order to forgive. In support of this notion were scholars like Paul Fiddes, as well as others.
What I Appreciate about this Claim
I’ll begin with what I appreciate about this argument. I love the idea that the Gospels—and (gasp!) even the words of Jesus himself—might inform the way we understand atonement. That may sound rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how little the Gospels sometimes play into our interpretations of the cross.
Sometimes, it seems to be assumed that Paul, or maybe the Torah, gives us our understanding of atonement, while Jesus is the engine that makes it all work. Yet to presume this is demeaning to both the Gospel writers as theologians, and (worse yet!) to the person of Christ.
To lay my cards on the table, I do affirm a nuanced version of penal substitution (even if the label itself is somewhat clunky). Yet I do so, in part, because of statements from the Gospels. One is the accidental prophecy of Caiaphas, that “it would be better for one man to die on behalf of the people than for the whole nation to perish” (Jn. 11.50). A second is Jesus’ own understanding of the “cup” that he must drink (Lk. 22), which in the Scriptures is the cup of divine wrath or judgment.
When combined, these passages as well as others begin (in my view) to form a picture of penal substitution. But it would be easy to skip over them in a rush toward Paul or the sacrificial system.
I want to commend Fiddes and the rest for considering that Jesus himself might have some crucial insights on the nature of atonement.
Why I Disagree
The problem, in my view, resides in an attempt to make this particular parable address something that it was never intended to—namely, how (specifically) atonement does or does not work.
In my judgment, it’s just not about that.
In Luke’s account, the story comes as the third in a series of parables (the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son), which all illustrate that God delights in restoring lost people. This, after all, is why Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk. 15.2). In this way, his love is a perfect reflection of the heavenly Father, who “so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son” (Jn. 3.16).
No account of penal substitution would deny such basic truths. Thus, to make a charge against the necessity of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice on the grounds that the parable doesn’t specifically mention it is both an argument from silence and a rather obvious example of decontexualization.
The tendency to over-read the parables has always been there, as evidenced by the early Christian slant toward hyper-allegory. Still, just as the purpose of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16) is not to provide a map of hell—complete with a broad chasm and the ability to send out unfilled drink orders (vs. 24)—so too, the purpose of the Prodigal Son is likely not to give a detailed map of atonement doctrine.
The story is about a more basic reality: God delights in welcoming repentant sinners, and he calls the “elder brothers” of the world to join the celebration.
A Possible Objection
Yet perhaps we must say more. As one might object, in the parable, forgiveness comes apart from any obvious penalty imposed. Thus, if one were to press the story to account for this—a move that I have already acknowledged as highly suspect—the question still remains: How does a penal substitutionary model account for this?
Option #1: There is a Penalty of Sorts Within the Story
One option might be to acknowledge that there is a penalty (of sorts) within the story. As I have been reminded, the father himself absorbs a massive loss of property and honor, and especially in his choice to welcome the son with no public shaming or retribution. In an honor and shame culture, this is literally unfathomable. It costs the father greatly.
Indeed, such forgiveness is always costly. Just ask the parents who (somehow) choose to forgive their child’s murderer, and then to advocate against the death penalty. There is a sense in which such acts always take the evil within themselves and absorb a kind of penalty.
So too in Christ’s story. Here, it is the God character who chooses to absorb the blow. And penal substitution says something similar.
Option #2: The Cross Looks Backwards
A second possible answer to the objection would be to acknowledge that the cross is retroactive in its scope. In this way, its redemptive shadow spreads backwards over human history, as well as forwards. If this is true, then any reconciliation with the heavenly Father is made possible by the atoning work of Jesus. This is why the elder brother need not be (ridiculously) punished in order to forgive the other.
We see something like this in the way Paul deals with the forgiven sins of past times. How, for instance, was David pardoned for his horrific crimes? In the Old Testament, there is no mention of God needing to take a pound of flesh in order to forgive the murderous king. So how does this forgiveness (e.g., Ps. 51) come?
The best answer is the blood of Jesus.
As Paul hints in Romans, “in his forbearance [God] had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” Yet now, his “righteousness,” which includes the promised covenantal curse, has been demonstrated in the sacrificial shedding of Christ’s blood (Rom. 3.25). If this is true, then one reason that the Father freely and justly welcomes repentant sinners in any age is that the covenantal curse for sin has already been borne in Jesus. Indeed, in one sense, it happened from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13.8).
The cross looks backwards as well as forward. And if this is true, then the (fictitious) younger brother is forgiven freely, as we all are—by the blood of Christ.
A Cause for Worship
Even here, however, it is not that God must vent sadistic wrath in order to forgive.
This is not what penal substitution means. The actual model centers on a covenant.
In this covenant, God binds himself to humans. There are blessings in this union and curses for disunion. Yet at the moment when our fate seemed hopeless–while we were in a “far off country,” smelling of pigs, and squandering our wealth on empty trinkets–God took the penalty upon himself, absorbing far more than a loss of property and honor.
This is an act of truly “prodigal” grace.
And so we stand under the cross today, knowing we will never understand it.
For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a book on the atonement. And since that’s where my research has been, I thought that Holy Week would be a good time to start an ongoing series on the subject. Toward that end, this first installment (part 1 of 2) involves a parable and penal substitution.
Without question, the parable of the prodigal son, or the two sons (Luke 15), is one of the most compelling stories in the Bible.
It is the gospel itself. And even leaving aside questions of meaning and application, the arrangement of the narrative is simply brilliant.
This is true right down to the open-ended final scene. Here, the screen fades to black just as the father invites the elder brother to join the party, and the hearers are left wondering which path he’ll choose: the way of nature, or the way of grace (Cue that beautiful scene from the movie “Tree of Life”). The question is made all the more pointed when we realize that Jesus is telling the story to a room that is literally divided between the elder and younger brothers (Pharisees and tax collectors). For this reason, it was likely a rather tense transition to whatever came next that day.
So here’s what may seem like a strange question: Does this parable really discredit the idea that our forgiveness hinges upon Christ bearing the divine penalty for human sin?
Since the query may seem unrelated to Jesus’ story, I begin with some context.
The above understanding of the cross—in which Jesus freely takes the punishment that we deserved—is often referred to as penal substitution.
Amongst modern evangelicals, it is arguably the most common model of atonement, and it is also highly controversial. As stated above, it centers on the idea that Jesus suffered a divinely sanctioned penalty (whether damnation, divine wrath, god-forsakenness, etc.) “in our place,” and “instead of us.” For this reason, God’s justice is seen to be maintained in that he punishes sin, even while divine mercy is displayed in that God forgives repentant sinners.
As one might expect, there is a mountain of scholarly literature surrounding penal substitution. Whole rives of ink have been spilled and entire forests slain.
Thankfully, almost none of that concerns us here.
For now, the only question I am interested in is the one above: Does the story of prodigal son discredit penal substitution?
Interestingly, several scholars think so.
Take, for instance, the Oxford theologian, Paul Fiddes.
As Fiddes argues, penal substitution wrongfully places a law of necessary punishment above the character of God. In so doing, it wrongfully claims that God could not forgive apart from Christ bearing our punishment. Fiddes, rejects this notion, and he finds support for this rejection in the story of prodigal son.
In the parable, the father freely forgives his repentant son without the need to punish anyone. This, after all, is what forgiveness is. And if this is how it works with the father in the story, then why not with our heavenly Father? Why must Christ be punished in order for God to forgive his wayward children? Clearly the parable does not depict forgiveness like this.
In recent years, evangelical scholars like Mark Baker and Joel Green have made similar statements about the implications of the parable.
To add some color to such claims, Robin Collins even offers a creative reworking of the story to show how it might have gone if the presuppositions of penal substitution were in place.
Think of this as a an alternative history, Reformation re-mix:
Here, the father “cannot simply forgive” the returning son, for “it would be against the moral order of the entire universe.” As he states:
“Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath—my avenging justice—must be placated.”
In a twist, the elder brother then speaks up, as the Christ figure, with an offer to endure the father’s wrath on behalf of his guilty sibling (as you can see, this brother is quite different from the one in Jesus’ story). As he states:
Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him. Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath.” … And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father’s wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.
The retelling is ingenious, but does it really show that the actual parable invalidates belief in penal substitution?
While this post (part 1) has merely sought to introduce the charge, the next one (part 2) will provide my own thoughts on this question.
In the meantime, I’m interested in your thoughts. What say you?
 Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 101–103 esp.
 Mark Baker and Joel Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 174.
After finally completing my PhD, I recently made the strange decision to do something that I thought I’d never do again–go back to “school.”
In January, I began auditing a college course in British Literature (Brit Lit. 2), with Dr. Sarah Petrovic. And I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
When I told this to a fellow professor, he looked at me the way my dog does when I ask her if she’s seen my car keys.
“Huh?” [head cocked to the side]
And, to be honest, I get that. It’s unusual to take classes for no credit, and it’s even more unusual for a prof. to take an undergraduate course.
Still, the experience does allow me to make a couple points that are, I think, important.
Against Educational Prostitution
If education is viewed merely as something we must endure—perhaps with gritted teeth—in order to (one day) receive a paycheck, that’s closer to prostitution than a quest for wisdom.
It’s cheapened, no matter what the sticker price.
As Dennis Hayes argues, true learning need not be “for” anything:
If all the problems of economic and social life were solved and people did not even have to work, we would still seek knowledge. This is encapsulated in Socrates’ vision of eternal life as an endless series of conversations and debates with the greatest thinkers.
I would tweak this only slightly.
For Christians, seeking after the Beautiful, the True, and the Good is worship, whether through the mysteries of quantum mechanics, or the well worn sonnet psalms of Gerard Manley Hopkins (thanks Brit. Lit. 2!):
Glory be to God for dappled things –
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
As the Apostle Paul states: “all things are yours” (1 Cor. 3.21).
Which brings me to the next point:
For Lifelong Learning
There are lots of practical ways to be a lifelong learner. And these need not involve quitting your job to become a Portland barista with three masters’ degrees and a student loan debt greater than the GDP of Denmark.
Here are a few:
Audit a Class
While my schedule permits this more easily than yours might, anyone can do it. Auditing a class—that is, attending the course, but not taking it for credit—costs next to nothing. You don’t have to worry about getting a good grade, and you get to learn from an expert in a particular field. My advice would be to ask around about great teachers at a university near you, peruse the course catalogue, and then contact the registrar for info. It’s easy and inexpensive.
Podcast like a Pro
I have a ten-minute drive to work each morning. That’s short. Yet even in brief spans like that (going home for lunch, back and forth from the gym), I can listen to a lot of podcasts. The key is to find the ones that stretch you. Some of my favorites are Radiolab and The Moth from NPR, Ask Science Mike for my deficient grasp of science, and preachers like Tim Keller and Matt Chandler. The podcast app on the iPhone (or Android) makes it easy. (Caveat: in a future post I’d like to talk about why I think it’s helpful to listen to and podcast people with whom you disagree. But not here.)
Develop a Strategic Reading Plan
I could have simply bought the books for Brit. Lit. 2 and read them. But I wouldn’t have. I needed the accountability. A book club provides something similar. Still, if that’s not an option, then an strategic reading plan, incorporating different genres, is a great (though obvious) alternative. (Incidentally, if you’re a preacher, I highly recommend Cornelius Plantinga’s Reading for Preachingfor some great insights on how to do this. While not all great readers are great preachers, all—and I mean all—great preachers are great readers.)
Use Youtube (Selectively)
I have a friend with serious dyslexia, and this makes reading difficult. Still, he’s a lifelong learner, and he has found some ways around the difficulty. For him, Youtube resources like School of Life, TED talks, and the hilarious Crash Course series with John Green, offer alternatives to heavy reading. No, it’s not the same. And yes, there is a lot of nonsense in the Internet wasteland, but that’s true of bookstores and universities as well.
In the end, my own decision to “go back to school”—without the hefty price tag—has been time well spent.
It has given me no opportunity for a pay raise, no credits toward a further degree, and no fast track toward career advancement.
And that’s okay. Because while such things aren’t bad, I think John Dewey was right to say that:
Education … is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.
NB: If you do not think that educating for wisdom is a dire need within our culture, please read my prior post on the rise of Donald Trump.
The problem with democracy, according to the old adage, is that “you get the leaders you deserve” (Joseph de Maistre).
Which raises the question: What are we doing to deserve someone like Donald Trump?
Photo by Gage Skidmore.
For many of us, the fact that someone like him has made it this far is enough to trigger acid reflux.
It is an indictment of our culture, and it raises questions.
Questions like: Is this really happening?
Are Americans really nominating a reality TV star with a penchant for misogyny that is matched only by his love of spray tans, xenophobia, narcissism, and a braggadocios meanness?
In fairness, my suspicion is that there is enough blame to go around for the rise of Trump, and it extends to both sides of the aisle. Both parties have failed working class Americans, and there is justifiable frustration with certain currents of political correctness. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And so the pendulum swings, until it puts an eye out.
Still, such moments are useful for some soul searching. And as a theology professor, that’s the part I’m interested in.
Consider the following:
Not long ago, when the optimism of the Arab Spring turned to the eternal winter of sectarian violence, I recall hearing something like the following applied to places like Egypt, as well as elsewhere:
Some cultures (read: Muslims) can’t handle democracy, because if given the chance, their angry and ignored constituencies will choose violent and abusive leaders—immoral opportunists—who will stoke the pent up passions of the mob and smash dissenting voices in a wave of sanctioned violence.
Such arguments carry more than hint of cultural superiority, if not outright racism.
Yet as I watched a U.S. presidential frontrunner openly, and on more than one occasion, incite supporters to violence in exchange for legal fees(!), I wondered if there was perhaps a grain of truth to the above contention. Not in Egypt, mind you—with the Muslim Brotherhood—but here.
At the risk of repetition, I’m not saying that the angrier-than-thou supporters of “the great orange-haired unintended consequence” don’t have reasons for their outrage. As Marilynn Robinson phrased it:
“The public is exasperated by the political system to the point that it is enjoying a kind of catharsis, the indiscriminate smashing of things as performance art.”
That sounds accurate.
And when you’re angry, it feels good to smash things.
Yet when the demolition is directed against the very house you live in, the catharsis comes at quite a cost. If the political fire you set is in your living room, then you stand to lose some things in this bonfire of inanities.
So what’s the takeaway?
Despite everything, my assumption is that democracy–that worst of all forms of human governance, except for all the others–is a gift of inestimable value. And like all gifts, not least of all God’s grace, we can’t deserve it.
Yet as any parent might say to a child engaged in such gleefully destructive Christmas present smashing:
“This is why we can’t have nice things.”
And if it continues, we won’t.
NB: This post should not be taken as a tacit endorsement of any other political candidate or party. And if you are a Donald Trump supporter, I still love you, so please don’t sucker punch me.