Rethinking the Atonement

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 3, 2005

For a couple years, I’ve been wrestling with the penal substitutionary view of the atonement.  For those of you who aren’t theology geeks, this is the dominant evangelical way of understanding what happened on the Cross.  Essentially, the problem in the divine/human relationship is our sin.  In order to be reconciled to God, a punishment must be exacted in payment for sin.  Instead of us receiving punishment on our sin, Jesus takes our place and receives the retributive punishing wrath of God by his death, thus assuaging God’s wrath.  Relationship restored. 

Many, if not most, who hold this view think of it as THE gospel.  Any other way of understanding the atonement is secondary, at best.  However, there are a number of problems with giving this view dominance…and I believe it affects the way in which we, the church, understand ourselves.  Perhaps I’ll share some of my thoughts about that in a few days.  For now, I want to direct your attention to one of my favorite blogs–Leaving Munster,
which is Graham Old’s labor of love.  Graham is a good thinker and he
is almost always thought provoking.  Today, I stumbled accross an article he’s written about the atonement–a topic he’s been exploring a lot lately.  It is well worth your time.  Here’s a foretaste:

On the cross, Christ disarmed the powers,
revealed their true nature and uncovered their weakness. In the resurrection,
he sealed his victory by freeing Death?s captives and asserting his own
supremacy. In the incarnation, Jesus united God and humanity in his own person.
In his life and teachings he opposed and exposed the powers; he thus bound
Satan (Matthew 12:22-29). In his
death and resurrection he revealed this by showing evil?s impotence and taking
the strong man?s spoils; he revealed that his death was not a sign that he had
passively suffered at the hands of a greater power, but that he had conquered
the powers - by turning the other cheek - and so liberated the captives. Thus,
Jesus Christ (not some fragment of his work, but Christ himself) is the atonement.

for further reading . . .

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11 Responses to “Rethinking the Atonement”

  1. Chris on June 3rd, 2005 2:53 pm

    Thanks for posting this Mark. I think it’s important to make the distinction you made, that penal substitution is not the ONLY view of the Atonement. Some detractors from the view have gone too far sometimes and said it is an INCORRECT view of the Atonement. Such an argument denies Scripture passages where it seems to speak very clearly in substitutionary language. At any rate, it’s been great to introduce other ways of viewing “Christ’s work” that expand the power of what he accomplished for us to non-seminary educated people, and see them find great joy in it.

  2. blorge on June 3rd, 2005 3:38 pm

    It is an unfortunate development in American Christianity that the crucifixion has been conflated with the penal substitution theory.

    I wonder how much the movement from the academy to the laity (that Chris just wrote about) produces a lowest common denominator effect. Seminary-educated folk want to try to explain the crucifixion to the laity, so rather than go through multiple views and nuancing them out (while not succumbing to the temptation to start climbing up the stairs of the ivory tower), the teacher or pastor boils it down to a soundbyte to put up on the church website.

  3. trike on June 3rd, 2005 11:07 pm

    Just like the new perspective of Paul, I would add that the atonement of Jesus is incredibly more than just his penal substitution, but certainly not less. All of the recent work I am aware of on this issue is a great correction, as long as it doesn’t try to “through the penal substitution out with the bathwater” IMHBYVOO (In My Humble But Yet Opinionated Opinion!).

  4. graham on June 4th, 2005 4:02 am

    Mark, thanks for the link and the kind words.

    Chris, it’s possible to understand the substitutionary language of the new testament in non-penal ways. Many of the Church Fathers and - consequently - the Eastern Orthodox do just that. Some take the language as referring to representation, instead of substitution. I tend to read it as non-penal substitution.

    However, IMO, the problem is with the traditional theory of penal substitution. In recent years (and indeed throughout Church history) there have been some great reformulations of the doctrine. That’s got to be a good thing.

  5. Chris on June 4th, 2005 9:08 am

    I agree Graham, I think we ought to start with Scripture and not with obsolete theories. For example, we must first acknowledge that when Paul says in Romans “having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him,” it sounds an awful lot like Jesus has averted the wrath of God through his sacrifice. Now whether that actually equates to a theory of penal substitution is another story altogether.

  6. graham on June 4th, 2005 9:29 am

    Ah, I hate to do this, but I don’t see penal substitution in Rom. 5:9. :-)
    However, I agree that if we can start with scripture then we’re onto a good footing. Even better if we can stop with scripture! So, if our understanding of the atonement from that verse is that we have been saved from the wrath of God because of Jesus then we’re really getting somewhere. Any theory we put on top of that can only be understood as metaphorical, and that’s fine.

    Incidentally - and I’ll state this at the end because my point was to agree with you, not disagree - I read the passage as speaking of Christ’s subsitution in the sense of someone who went into battle instead of us. Some others believe Christ saves us from God’s wrath by saving us from Sin, Sin being what brings God’s wrath upon us.

  7. pat k on June 4th, 2005 2:24 pm

    Not to judge, but…

    Oh, forget it.

  8. Chris on June 5th, 2005 4:46 pm

    I completely agree Graham, I don’t necessarily think it’s too big a deal what theory you come up with from a passage. If someone said to me that Rom. 5.9 was about penal substitution, I probably wouldn’t object. But it’s probably not what I would come up with. In the end, salvation itself is a metaphor, and we can never truly describe what Jesus did for us. We can only describe what it is like.

  9. graham on June 5th, 2005 5:48 pm

    “we can never truly describe what Jesus did for us. We can only describe what it is like.”

    Yeah, I like that.

  10. Luke on March 2nd, 2007 9:16 am

    I can’t find much more on your blog about substitutionary atonement. Is there?

    Besides this one:

  11. markvans on March 2nd, 2007 2:53 pm

    Nope…that’s it. Is this something you’d like me to delve into further?

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