Penal Substitution and Atonement in General

“Atonement theories confirm two fundamental and universal instincts about life and divinity: the belief that nothing is free, that there must be give-and-take in the spiritual economy as there is in the material; and secondly, the intuition that ritual establishes order… The problem is not what all this says about Jesus but what it says about God: if God wants to save, why is such intercession necessary? Why should Jesus’ pleading for humanity only be effective after he had been murdered? It does us no good to perceive Jesus as heroic if we are forced to view God as sadistic.” (Stephen Finlan, Problems with Atonement, pp 80,97)

The idea of penal substitution is peripheral to the New Testament. Two books which should be required reading for the origins of atonement doctrine are Stephen Finlan’s The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors and its sequel Problems with Atonement. Finlan distinguishes between four understandings of Christ’s death found in the New Testament: martyrdom, sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom redemption. None of these really involves the idea of penal substitution where Christ supposedly “stands in” for others.

1. Martyrdom. Christ dies as an example to be followed (Gal 2:19; Rom 6:6-7,11; I Pet 2:21,4:1-2).

2. Sacrifice

(a). Passover Sacrifice. Christ dies in order to protect believers from God’s wrath in judgment (I Cor 5:7,11:23-26; I Pet 1:19; Mk 14:22-25/Mt 26:26-29/Lk 22:14-20).

(b). Covenant Sacrifice. Christ dies in order to make peace between people and renew commitment to God (Gal 3:14; I Cor 11:25; Mk 14:24/Mt 26:28/Lk 22:20; Heb 7:22,8:6,9:15-21).

(c). Atoning Sacrifice. Christ dies in order to reconcile humanity to God through forgiveness (Rom 3:25; Mt 26:28; Eph 1:7; I Jn 2:2,4:10; Heb 2:17,9:11-14,22,26,10:10,19).

3. Scapegoat. Christ dies taking on curses and bearing away peoples’ sins (Gal 3:13; II Cor 5:21; Rom 6:6,7:4,8:3; I Pet 2:23-24; Heb 9:28).

4. Ransom Redemption. Christ dies as the price for humanity’s freedom, liberating people from captivity under evil (Gal 3:13; Rom 3:24; I Cor 6:20,7:23; Eph 1:7; I Pet 1:18; Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28; I Tim 2:6; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:14-15,9:12,15).

Neither martyrs (1) nor scapegoats (3) were substitutes. The former were examples to be followed, and the latter were sin carriers. Scapegoats were not sacrifices, a point emphasized repeatedly by Finlan. They were opposite in every way: sacrifices pure and offered to God, scapegoats impure and driven out to a demon.

Sacrifices (2) involved substitution, though not in a penal sense. A sacrifice didn’t “stand in” for the offender, but appeased God’s wrath in a propitiary sense. It was a monetary substitution (or “food bribe”), buying off God more than anything, and closer to the satisfaction model introduced in the 11th century, based as it was on honor-shame values. Moreover, the propitiary aspect of sacrifice is only half the picture: a sacrifice was also expiatory, in the sense that blood was a cleansing agent on its own right. The expiatory dimension to sacrifice wasn’t about any kind of substitution, let alone penal.

Ransom redemption (4) involved substitution, though as a monetary transaction; it had nothing to do with penal substitution.

The only passage in the New Testament which possibly evokes penal substitution is I Pet 2:24b (cited by Michael), which owes to Isa 53:4-5, “by his wounds we are healed”. This may indicate that Christ, like Israel’s servant, died in place of others. Aside from this one text, however, there is nothing in the NT pointing to Christ’s death as a penal substitute.

The lesson here is that the NT writers used and blended many metaphors of Christ’s death so that “any one metaphor, by itself, would be misleading” (Finlan, Problems with Atonement, p 66). If there is a prime metaphor, it’s martyrdom, which provides the platform for the others. But from the second century onward, church thinkers started to use a single atonement metaphor under which other ideas were subordinated. These were ransom redemption (the “Orthodox” view), satisfaction (the “Catholic” view), and penal substitution (the “Protestant” view). Each understanding moved further away from the biblical metaphors:

1. Ransom Redemption. God tricks the devil by offering Jesus as a ransom payment to free humanity from his influence, and Satan is foiled by the resurrection. (Origen, Augustine, Gregory the Great; dominant theory in the 2nd-10th centuries)

2. Satisfaction. Christ dies in the place of humanity, in order to satisfy the demands of God’s honor. (Anselm; dominant theory in the 11th-15th centuries)

3. Penal Substitution. Christ dies in the place of humanity, in order to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. (Luther, Calvin; dominant from the 16th century onwards)

The ransom redemption theory is based on NT understanding (#4 above), though it introduces deceit into the picture. The satisfaction theory is an honor-shame understanding (reflecting the feudal structure of medieval times) and thus has affinities with the biblical view of sacrifice. The penal substitution theory is the most popular today, but least biblical, as it answers individualist concerns about guilt and innocence.

Whatever its theological merits, I see almost no biblical basis for the penal substitution model. And I’m not sure it’s superior to the other two in any case. They get at the same idea, just under the trappings of different value systems.

Is Atonement essential to Christianity?

According to Finlan, the Incarnation is the central doctrine of Christianity, but atonement is something Christianity can (and should) do without. In place of atonement — and anything relating to blood sacrifice — he suggests the principle of theosis, whereby “the Word became man so that you might learn from man how man may become God” (Problems with Atonement, p 121). Not that Finlan advocates gnosticism — far from it: “Those who teach that every person is as divine as Christ is (such as the gnostic gospel of Philip) lose sight of the Incarnation, and cannot really be called Christian” (ibid, p 4; my emphasis). He advocates what orthodox thinkers like Athanasius and Clement of Alexandria maintained, that people may be deified on account of the “the Word becoming man”. Says Finlan further:

Theosis has a biblical basis, and this should not be forgotten. There is the promise that ‘you may become participants of the divine nature’ (II Pet 1:4); there is the command to become perfect, Godlike (Mt 5:48); there are the prophecies of doing greater things than Jesus did (Jn 14:12) and of revelations yet to be seen (Jn 1:51). Theosis means each person incarnating divinity in his or her small way, inspired by the direct Incarnation of divinity that took place in Galilee and Judea.” (pp 121-122)

As a Unitarian I’m hardly qualified to say whether or not dispensing with atonement theories amounts to a betrayal of Christianity. But the principle underlying theosis is one I can certainly endorse. To forgive freely — truly freely, without any give-and-take in between — is one of the hardest things to do, and divine indeed.


6 thoughts on “Penal Substitution and Atonement in General

  1. I’d note that doing away with atonement doesn’t do justice to the richness of the many atonement metaphors you outline here which pervade the NT. I’d also note that the logic is that to fully share the human experience, and thus to enable us to share the divine life, Christ is (and I’m unabashedly Trinitarian) the God who goes where God is not so that those who are not may enter into the presence of God.OK, that echoes Paul, and goes beyond hiim, but it’s also of a piece with the Jesus who reaches out to the prostitute, tax-collector and sinner. (Incidentally, I blogged yesterday on just one aspect of that very broad theme) For me this exchange is at the heart of understanding atonement, and like Athanasius and Anselm (the divide between patristic and mediaeval theories is not that clear cut and they overlap a lot) it insists that incarnation and atonement through Christ’s death are a seamless robe.

  2. <>I’d note that doing away with atonement doesn’t do justice to the richness of the many atonement metaphors you outline here which pervade the NT. I’d also note that the logic is that to fully share the human experience…<>This doesn’t answer Finlan’s concern about atonement theories in general. Finlan is the one who emphasizes and insists on a “richness of many atonement metaphors” in the NT. The question is what atonement and/or sacrifice says about the character of God. Why is something cruel like atonement necessary to effect forgiveness? Note that I don’t have much invested in this question, since I’m not Christian. But I think Finlan is right to ask it. I’m less confident than he is, however, about atonement not being “essential” to the doctrine of Christianity itself.

  3. Your point (and relative uninterest) is noted. I think that what atonement says about God is less dependent on the metaphor selected, than on whether the action of God is identified with the actions of Jesus, or whether Jesus actions are seen as human actions doing something to/for God. One of the biggest problems with many evangelical expressions of penal substitution is that, despite formal doctrinal allegiance to the incarnation, they in practice sound as though Jesus does something to God, rather than God doing something in and through Jesus. Not that I expect you to agree with either viewpoint.Incidentally, given what you say in the post and comment about yourself, over on this side of the pond, we’ve recently had a group of Unitarians complaining that the Church of Engalnd (i.e Episcopalian) wastreating them as though they weren’t Christians. I find your clarity refreshing by contrast to their confusion.

  4. <>We’ve recently had a group of Unitarians complaining that the Church of England (i.e Episcopalian) wastreating them as though they weren’t Christians.<>That is curious, isn’t it? If they want to be treated as Christians, why don’t they become Christians? 🙂 Well, Unitarians can be as exasperating as anyone else. Trust me… <>I find your clarity refreshing by contrast to their confusion.<>Thanks.

  5. I want to thank Loren for the thoughtful and appreciative review. I would like to clarify my position on the issue of the presence of penal substitution. I wish I could agree with Loren’s view that there is only one penal substitutionary passage in the NT, since I think the notion implies a harsh and violent God. But I do think that a simple, embryonic form of penal substitution can be seen in a few Pauline passages. In my view, penal substitution is a conflationary concept, resulting from the combination of a judicial metaphor with some other metaphor for sin removal. The judicial metaphor pictures salvation as an acquittal in the divine court, where a penalty is avoided. The ingredient of substitution tends to emerge from Paul’s other salvation metaphors. It is when he combines the judicial metaphor with these other images, that penal substitution begins to emerge. Loren correctly points out that redemption involves a monetary, not a penal, substitution, and that one of the concepts of sacrifice is the efficacy of making a costly offering. Scapegoat was not substitutionary, but transportational: the literal carrying-away of sin or disease, but Paul combines scapegoat with martyrology, and martyrs are believed to have persuasive and substitutionary power: “I give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation” (2 Macc 7:37); “Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc. 6:29). I see penal substitutionary implications (though not the full-blown Lutheran or Calvinist understanding) in some conflationary images of Paul’s. Redemption is given legal and substitutionary meaning in Gal 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” It is very hard to avoid seeing substitution in that “for us,” and it is a legal curse that is avoided. There are some borderline cases, and I do not wish to rush to judgment on them, such as Rom 4:25, where he says “he was handed over to death for our trespasses.” The martyrdom of being “handed over” certainly has judicial, and possibly substitutionary, significance. “For our trespasses” could signify either substitution or causation: our sins causing him to be handed over. But it begins to be difficult to completely deny the presence of a penal substitution when these are added to nearby passages; in Rom 5:9 believers are “justified by his blood.” His death had an effect on our legal status. Similarly, in Rom 8:32-33 we read that since God “gave his Son up for us . . . who will bring any charge against God’s elect?” It is precisely the Son’s martyrdom that prevents any judicial charge being brought against believers. I do think Paul planted the seeds of penal substitutionary theology, though his ideas were taken much too crudely and literally by lesser theological minds. Of course, Augustine and Luther greatly heightened the penal substitutionary concept, and many Christians are now trained to impose this concept on almost every soteriological passage. Part of my duty as a scholar is to show that substitutionary theology is often improperly imposed upon texts, and so I point out important non-substitutionary motifs, such as the impurity-cleansing function of Hebrew sacrifice. Nevertheless, I do think that the beginnings of substitutionary atonement are found in Paul, but the point is debatable, and that in itself shows that it is very far from being a dominant image in the NT (despite what Calvin would say).

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