How (not) to affirm penal substitution

How (not) to affirm penal substitution

“What is modern life if not an endless argument over acronyms? CRT, MAGA, BLM, LGBTQIA—and in some theological circles—PSA (penal substitutionary atonement).”

~The London Lyceum

The good folks over at The London Lyceum asked me to write a response to the 2017 Southern Baptist resolution on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).

My piece comes as the first installment (here) in what promises to be a fantastic series that the Lyceum is doing on Christ’s saving work. Future posts by other scholars will come out every couple days for the next week or two.

For newcomers, it’s safe to say that fights over PSA have often generated more heat than light in recent decades–with one camp crowing loudly that PSA simply is the gospel (full stop), and another likening the doctrine to pagan notions of “divine child abuse.”

I wrote on the topic at length in The Mosaic of Atonement.

In a nutshell, I do think Scripture teaches that Christ willingly endured a judgment for sin on our behalf–both “in our place” and “instead of us.” So I’m a “Yes!” on a properly nuanced form of penal substitution.

Unfortunately, not all expressions of the doctrine are nuanced, biblical, or charitable.

That brings us to the 2017 SBC resolution.

The goal in posting my response is not to throw stones at the SBC (there are many fine folks within that tribe), but to make some headway in how Christians ought to affirm the biblical claim that Christ bore the judgment for human sin on our behalf, so that we might be redeemed.

You can read my piece over at The London Lyceum (here).


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Forsaken?

Forsaken?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1; Matt 27:46)

What is the meaning of those haunting words of Christ upon the cross?

That’s the question my student asked this week as we stood outside my office. It’s Holy Week, and he was preparing to speak in his Spanish-speaking congregation on the so-called Cry of Dereliction. But he wanted to be sure he didn’t mess it up.

After all, he knows Christians believe in one God who exists eternally in three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. And he knows that triune persons enjoy an eternal relationship of holy love. But if that trinitarian reality is true, what can it mean when Jesus screams out “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?”

CRINGING ON GOOD FRIDAY

Those who teach theology sometimes cringe when we sit through Good Friday sermons. (Though, to be fair, I sometimes cringe when listening back to my own sermons). It’s not just that the cross is horrific, but that Jesus’ words there are sometimes interpreted in ways that violate a pretty fundamental Christian teaching—the doctrine of the Trinity.

In extreme examples, we even hear that the Father made the Son the object of his perfect hatred on the cross. “God damn you!” is the vivid description offered by the late R. C. Sproul, of what the Father said to the Son upon the cross.

Is that right?

When someone asks about The Cry of Dereliction, I always answer the same way: “You should read this little book by my friend, Tom McCall.” It’s called Forsaken, and it’s written for a popular audience—not just for scholars (see here).

But there is problem with that sales pitch: Good Friday is this week (tomorrow, actually, as I type these words). And even with Amazon Prime, you probably don’t have time to read Tom’s book before then.

So what are some choices for interpreting The Cry of Dereliction?

OPTIONS FOR INTERPRETTING THE CRY OF DERELICTION

The following options are not exactly Tom’s points but more like my own quick and oversimplified articulations.

  1. Utterly Forsaken
  2. Utterly “Quotation”
  3. Feeling, Not Fact
  4. Forsaken Unto Death

Let’s work through them.

  1. UTTERLY FORSAKEN

The first option claims that there is a radical separation, enmity, abandonment, breach, or even hatred within the life of God upon the cross. A version of this is argued by more progressive theologians like Jürgen Moltmann. But in evangelical churches, it usually shows up in rhetoric about Jesus’ judgment-bearing death.

The Father turned his face away.

The Father rejected the Son.

God cursed Jesus with damnation.

God punished Jesus.

To be clear, I’ve written a whole book (The Mosaic of Atonement) that affirms the idea that Jesus saves (in part) by willing bearing the penalty for human sin. So I am not challenging that broader claim. But to affirm Christ’s penalty-bearing is quite different from saying that Father hated the Son or the Trinity was broken.

The problems with the “utterly forsaken” view are many: (a) Scripture never says it; (b) virtually no one in church history ever said it prior to the modern era; (c) it violates the doctrine of the Trinity.

So don’t go that way.

John Calvin quite correctly writes the following:

“We do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to him or angry with him. How could he be angry with his beloved Son, which whom his soul was well pleased? Or how could he have appeased his Father by his intercession for others if He were hostile to himself?” (Institutes, 2.16.11)

  1. UTTERLY “QUOTATION”

Another option is to say Jesus is merely quoting Psalm 22. After all, his words come directly from David’s passage, and the rest of the psalm describes events that sound an awful lot like crucifixion.

At the end of the psalm, however, the result is not forsakenness but divine presence, vindication, and God’s message going out to all nations. Since that’s true, maybe Jesus was simply quoting a text to show himself as fulfilling it by way of death and resurrection.

Unfortunately, it seems like a stretch to say that he was only quoting something (in the same way I would be if I were reading from the Old Testament passage in front of a congregation). This seems to downplay the human experience of Jesus, the plain sense reading of his words, and the feeling of cursedness that would have assailed any Jew being hung upon a pole (Deut 21:23).

If the first choice breaks the Trinity, the second one diminishes the Son’s humanity.

  1. FEELING, NOT FACT

A third option might be to say that The Cry of Dereliction honestly describes what Jesus felt: He felt as if he had been utterly forsaken by God—but he hadn’t been. In this way, Christ would be like many a suffering Psalmist who claimed that God had abandoned them forever—when in fact God remains close by the afflicted.

I have no doubt that Jesus did feel forsaken; but to claim that he was wrong would surely cause some problems for one’s Christology.

One way to get around this worry might be to say that the Son was simply identifying fully with the feeling of forsakenness experienced by humanity at large. Perhaps that works. But I still think there is a better option.

  1. FORSAKEN UNTO DEATH

This last option is the one McCall chooses. The claim here is that Jesus remains (as Calvin said) the beloved Son, even in his death. But his forsakenness is real in at least one crucial sense: the Son was allowed to suffer and die. The Father could have saved him from this death, but he did not. Thus, Jesus was forsaken unto death.

In this act, Jesus identifies with humanity in all our pain and shame and the effects of fallenness. McCall writes:

“It is we who have—as rebellious sinners—abandoned God. But rather than leave us in our state of abandonment, the Son has become human and has identified himself with us: ‘These are my people. I am here for them. I have come to redeem them from this abandonment and to bring them home'” (44).

CONCLUSION

No, the Trinity wasn’t broken.

And the Father didn’t hate the Son upon the cross. Nor did he torture him with the sadistic smile of a pagan storm-god. That’s not the gospel. That’s a Netflix series about Norse mythology.

Nonetheless, Jesus was really forsaken unto death on our behalf. More than that, he passed through death to resurrection life, so that the final verses of Psalm 22 are as true as the first:

27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.

30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

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Does God “forgive” if Jesus pays our penalty (Part 2 of 2)

In part one of this post, we highlighted a claim by Greg Boyd about divine forgiveness.

As Boyd argued, the idea that God forgives our sins, and the idea that Jesus paid the penalty for them cannot both be true.  They are incompatible, at least as he sees it.

His argument involved the following analogy:

“If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone or other pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? Yes, you got off the hook. But forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”

For starters, there are several things that I appreciate about Boyd’s work. We both have disagreements with aspects of Reformed theology (though I am not an Open Theist), and his book The Myth of a Christian Nation has great points about how (according to the subtitle) “the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.” In addition, Boyd does a fantastic job of communicating theology in ways that are understandable to the average person, and his emphasis on the Christus Victor model of atonement is often very helpful. I like him.

Yet on the present subject, I think there is good reason why this is not a particularly common argument (are there others who make it?).

The main problem, in my view, centers on a false assumption about what forgiveness entails.

The crucial question is thus: Does the forgiveness necessitate that no punishment may be handed down for the offense? Boyd assumes so, but this seems obviously wrong.

Consider, for example, the parents who (incredibly) choose to forgive the murderer of their child. While this is an amazing act of grace, it by no means implies (as Boyd seems to assume) that all penalties must be waived for the crime. Indeed, no thoughtful person would respond to the parents’ action by proclaiming: “Well, it’s very nice that you did that, but it is not forgiveness, because the criminal is still in jail.”

In this regard, Boyd is simply wrong about what forgiveness means. It need not be antithetical to all legal consequences.

Moving back to the many biblical examples, it is telling that Israel’s absolution often comes after (or alongside) the enactment of certain covenantal penalties—things like exile, or a defeat at the hands of enemies. Here too forgiveness need not imply a total lack of punishment. Often, as with Christ, it comes through the shedding of blood (Eph. 1.7). And in the case of penal substitution, the assumption is that divine faithfulness to the covenant means that our forgiveness comes because God himself decides to bear the curse of the Law.

In the end, Boyd’s claim seems to misunderstand both the meaning of forgiveness in our contemporary culture (e.g., the example of the forgiving parents), and its meaning within the biblical and covenantal narrative. Of course, this does not prove that penal substitution is correct—it could well be wrong for many other reasons—but it does show that this particular claim has some false assumptions.

On a related note, one thing I have appreciated in the recent growth of analytic theology—as exemplified by folks like Tom McCall and Oliver Crisp—is a concern to be a bit more careful about such issues of terminological precision and argumentative rigor.

While this concern is not unique to analytic theology, it is sometimes stunning (as in the above example from Boyd) how quickly theologians make sweeping conclusions without ever clarifying or mounting an argument for what a given concept actually means. In fairness, most all of us have been guilty of this.

Thankfully, though, there is one thing that Boyd’s argument get’s right: with God there is forgiveness.

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On a related note, if you are interested in an introduction to analytic theology, Tom McCall’s new book (An Introduction to Analytic Christian Theology) is a great read.

Does God “forgive” if Jesus pays our penalty? (Part 1 of 2)

Does God “forgive” if Jesus pays our penalty? (Part 1 of 2)

For those who are interested in theology, here is another atonement post with a question to consider:

In the Bible, God is a forgiver.

As Psalm 130 states:

If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,

Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness (vss. 3-4a).

Dozens of passages could be added to this, but as Alexander Pope wrote: “To err is human; to forgive is divine.”

So here is what may seem like a strange question:

  • Can we really say that God “forgave” sins if Jesus paid the price for them?

For many Christians, one meaning of the cross is that Christ willingly bore the penalty that we deserved. Therefore, there is “no condemnation” for us (Rom. 8.1), because Jesus was condemned in our place. This is referred to as “penal substitution,” and it sometimes focuses on the idea that sin’s price was paid in full.

Yet for the contemporary theologian Greg Boyd, this runs counter to the Bible’s claim that God “forgives.”

As Boyd argues, forgiveness is “the release of a debt.” Yet:

“If God must always get what is coming to him in order to forgive (namely, “a kill”), does God ever really forgive?”[1]

Boyd thinks not. And for him, this is yet another reason to abandon penal substitution for more coherent understandings of atonement (see more here ). As he explains:

“If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone or other pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? Yes, you got off the hook. But forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.”[2]

So what do you think? Does Boyd’s point resonate with you? Why or why not?

While I would not claim that penal substitution is somehow the “most important” model of atonement, I am currently looking at some objections to it for a chapter in a larger book. Hence the repetition of the penal substitution questions.

This question builds on two previous posts (here and here), which examined a related objection  involving the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you are new, see those prior posts for further context.

 

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[1] Gregory Boyd, “Christus Victor Response,” in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, eds. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 104.

[2] Gregory Boyd, “The Danger of the Penal Substitution View of Atonement.” Re|knew. November 20, 2014. Accessed April 2, 2016. http://reknew.org/2014/11/the-danger-of-the-penal-substitution-view-of-atonement/.

Does the Prodigal Son Discredit Penal Substitution (Part 2 of 2)

Today is Good Friday.

And to be honest, it seems almost profane to dissect the organs of atonement on this day. “We murder to dissect.”[1] 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.”[2]

Amen.

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.

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The Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni

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.

But grateful to be home.

 

 

 

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[1] William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.”

[2] Stephen R. Holmes, The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History (London: Paternoster, 2007), 1.