Monday, 19 July 2010

Penal Substitution - An Essay

*This is quite long and 'wordy' as I wrote it for college, but I thought it would be good to put on my blog. The final sentence was not in the original essay.*

In 2003 Steve Chalke and Alan Mann released a book entitled The Lost Message of Jesus whereby they explored how the teachings of Jesus were dominated by a concern for the poor, marginalised and the ‘sinners’. They argue that the kingdom of God is at work when the church take seriously its calling to go and care for such people. Not only that, but it is a book that encourages the Western church to take seriously who Jesus is and his message of love and to share this with a society that has largely rejected institutional Christianity. The book came fully into the spotlight of evangelicalism, not because of its core message, but because of a short paragraph written about the atonement, whereby it says ‘The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.’[1] Although the book does not explicitly mention penal substitutionary atonement, it was commonly held that this comment was a direct attack on the doctrine and what transpired as a result was serious debate within evangelical Christianity, particularly in Britain,[2] over the nature of the atonement and what it means to be an evangelical. The debates centred upon the nature of the atonement, whether penal substitution was morally and biblically deficient, and if you could reject penal substitution and remain an evangelical. One of the problems raised when discussing the doctrine is defining what is meant by penal substitution. Notwithstanding the caricatures, penal substitution could be defined as Jesus bearing the punishment of sin for us; our sins deserved to be punished with death yet Jesus dies and takes the punishment in our place and sets us free from our sins.
It is debated as to when a doctrine of penal substitution was first formulated with some arguing that the early church fathers held to such a belief,[3] yet it really finds it roots in the Reformation, interpreted through the lens of Anselm.[4] Anselm (1033-1109) developed a theology of ‘satisfaction’ whereby Christ, through his perfect obedience, has given to God the honour he is due and that we should have given him. Because of our sin we brought dishonour to God and therefore deserve punishment, in other words, God must punish sin or there must be satisfaction from some other source. Consequently, through Christ’s obedience God’s honour is satisfied and the punishment we were due is averted. However, as Colin Gunton points out, Anselm, although undoubtedly influenced by it,[5]is not simply understanding satisfaction in light of the mediaeval feudal order but that ‘if injustice goes unpunished the universe is shown to be an unjust and so irrational place, and the God responsible for its order no longer worthy of the name God’[6]; it is not that God is offended but that the order and justice of the universe, an order that God himself ordained, is at stake.[7] Therefore, Christ’s death can be understood to release us from punishment through satisfaction; God does not punish us because he has been satisfied through Christ. However, the Reformation brought about a change in understanding whereby satisfaction could only be achieved by punishment; ‘For had not Christ satisfied for our sins, he could not be said to have appeased God by taking upon himself the penalty which we had incurred.’[8] Here then, we have a doctrine of the atonement that is penal substitution. There is a distinct difference between Christ achieving on our behalf that which humanity had never done, which is Anselm’s theological understanding of the atonement, and Christ taking the punishment due to humanity because of humanity’s sinful rebellion. As a result evangelicals have long held that the proper and best way of understanding the atonement is to think of it in terms of penal substitution. Although not the only understanding of the cross, ‘penal substitutionary explanations of the atonement were common’[9] in the Evangelical Revival of the Eighteenth Century and has continued to be the predominant understanding of the cross within evangelicalism.[10] Derek Tidball, speaking in 2006 on behalf of the Evangelical Alliance, believes penal substitution to be ‘one of the defining characteristics of evangelicalism’,[11] and one that must never be sacrificed.[12] Yet increasingly there have been those who would understand themselves as evangelical but who would seek to not only sideline penal substitutionary understandings of the atonement, but to theologically remove it altogether, and it is here that we turn.
In 1995, John Goldingay, writing in Atonement Today argues that language of punishment is absent from the Levitical code of sacrifice and that penal substitution is a misunderstanding of biblical sacrifice. He argues that whilst there are texts within the Old and New Testament that can be read in light of penal substitution, it is not necessary to read them in this way, and indeed, a reading of cleansing and chastisement might be a better way than that of retributive penalty.[13] John Colwell argues that the New Testament understands righteousness in light of Israel’s worship through sacrifice revealed within the Old Testament, and this is not in terms of a penalty being paid, but as a gift of enacted prayer that restores the relationship between humanity and God; ‘Justice…is restorative rather than retributive.’[14] It is argued, therefore, that penalty is absent from the Old Testament covenantal history of Israel and justice is not about exacting a punishment upon the guilty, but about God seeking to restore relationships that have been contaminated by sin; ‘Justice…is a matter of cleansing and restoration rather than retribution and, through the Cross of Christ, contamination has been dealt with, cleansing has been accomplished, restoration has been effected, once and for all.’[15] Further to these concerns about a misunderstanding of punishment and justice, within the biblical narrative, a mixing of Torah and Lex,[16] are the notions that a doctrine of penal substitution invariably leads to limited atonement. John Owen, in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ argues for limited atonement in light of penal substitution inasmuch that Christ bears the full punishment of sin for some people, the ‘elect’. His logic is that if Christ bears the full punishment of sin for all people then all will be saved since God could not be just if he punished twice for the same sins. Consequently, only some will be saved, for Christ bore the full punishment for some, leaving room for punishment upon those who are not elect.[17] Questions have to be asked of limited atonement however in light of the ‘universalistic witness of the New Testament’[18] whereby Christ ‘died for all’[19] and in his humanity represents the totality of humanity and has made within himself one new humanity[20]; for ‘that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.’[21] Furthermore, this universal hope that is effected through the death and resurrection of Christ, is one that all creation shares in, with creation journeying towards ‘an eschatological perfection’[22], becoming something better, something it has never been.[23] Again, opponents of penal substitution believe it has little to say about the eschatological hope for all of creation, focusing more on the punishment that was due to humanity because of the penalty of sin.[24] Moreover, some within evangelicalism have questioned penal substitution for the way it seems ‘rather external to us, a transaction taking place in a different space and time from ours.’[25] Paul Fiddes argues in Past and Present Salvation that at the heart of the atonement is ‘the restoring of relationships’ whereby humanity is reconciled to God, yet if the atonement is about an event that took place between God the Father and God the Son in which we are not involved, an event that has already fully determined that our debt to justice has been paid, ‘it is hard to see the relevance of human reaction to the atoning act’.[26] Not only that, but if sin is a penalty to be paid or satisfied through punishment, a transaction to restore to God the honour he is due,[27] then there is a danger that sin becomes some kind of ‘impersonal debt’[28] rather than the most destructive force in the totality of human history. Sin has utterly contaminated and warped humanity and all of creation rendering it to death and decay. Notions of a penalty being paid could be in danger of not adequately accounting for how Christ’s atoning work ushers in healing and re-creation[29] to all of creation from its death and decay. Yet there are others within evangelicalism who want to hold that penal substitution is not only the best way to understand the atonement, but that it is ‘the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself.’[30]
Pierced For Our Transgressions was published in 2007 as a response to objections of penal substitution, largely prompted by the controversy surrounding the comments made in The Lost Message of Jesus.[31] Written by the Principle and a couple of students from Oak Hill Theological Seminary, this book seeks to establish a biblical foundation for the doctrine of penal substitution and argue that it is ‘this understanding of the cross of Christ’ that ‘stands at the very heart of the gospel.’[32] They go on to argue that it is a doctrine that ‘has a central place in Christian theology’ and that neglecting it ‘will have serious pastoral consequences’.[33] In the foreword to the book, John Piper defends penal substitution as ‘life-saving, biblical truth’ and that ‘if God did not punish his Son in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God.’[34] Therefore, we understand that to some within evangelical Christianity the doctrine of penal substitution is not only core to what it means to be an evangelical, it is foundational to an understanding of the Christian Gospel. Some have even gone on to argue that those who deny penal substitution are preaching ‘another gospel’.[35] John Stott argues that ‘[I]t is clear from Old Testament usage that to ‘bear sin’ means…specifically to endure its penal consequences, to undergo its penalty.’[36] Stott goes on to say that it is beyond doubt that Isaiah 53[37] can be applied directly and specifically to Jesus and his death and that Jesus would have even applied it to himself.[38] Not only that, but Stott believes that Jesus would have understood his death as a ‘sin-bearing’[39] death and therefore as penal substitutionary and is in total agreement with J.S Whale when he says that ‘penal substitution is the plain meaning’[40] of texts such as Isaiah 53, a biblical text often used to support the doctrine. Yet there are those within evangelicalism who, whilst affirming and believing penal substitution to be a biblical doctrine, are unsure as to its place in modern society, some, like Stephen Holmes, who, whilst wanting to affirm that penal substitution is a ‘story of salvation’ that is still worth telling, concedes that it may well be a story that will be relegated to the history books because it will make less sense in the new cultures that emerge.[41] Yet for many within evangelical Christianity, it is a doctrine that cannot and must not be removed and, as we have seen, understand it to be foundational to the Christian Gospel.
Without doubt the recent debate on the atonement brought with it very real tensions and disagreements within the evangelical community. Indeed, the question of what it means to be evangelical was asked, with many making the dividing line a doctrine of penal substitution. Yet it appears that evangelical disunity over the nature of the atonement has existed far longer than that of recent debates with Steve Chalke. At the turn of the 21st Century Joel Green and Mark Baker in Rediscovering the Scandal of the Cross, whilst not rejecting, challenged evangelical Christianity to think in broader ways than penal substitution arguing that it has ‘little to offer the global church and mission by way of understanding or embodying the message of Jesus Christ.’[42] John Goldingay before them in 1995 went further, arguing for a total rejection of penal substitution. Then there was the later split between Spring Harvest and Word Alive[43], further highlighting the divisions and it is a topic that no doubt will continue to rumble on within evangelicalism. It appears therefore, that those opposed to and those in favour of penal substitution believe that this doctrine cuts at the heart of what it means to be an evangelical, for it affects how we understand salvation (conversionism), our response to the gospel (activism), the importance of the Bible (biblicism), and the centrality of the Cross (crucicentrism).[44] Therefore, one suspects disunity will continue because both sides want to affirm themselves as evangelical, yet hold a different understanding of atonement. And it appears to this writer that a doctrine of the atonement within evangelicalism lies at the heart of a wider understanding of what it means to be evangelical.
In light of all of this, I would want to reject a doctrine of penal substitution whilst still affirming that I am evangelical. I do not believe penal substitution adequately deals with the biblical text and leaves us with massive theological (what kind of God?) and ethical (so what?) problems.

[1] Chalke, S., Mann, A., The Lost Message of Jesus p 182
[2] The debate did spread across to America with American writers such as Wayne Grudem and John Piper condemning what had been written about the atonement in The Lost Message of Jesus. For examples of this see accessed 24th May 2010 and accessed 24th May 2010
[3] In Pierced For Our Transgressions, the writers argue that penal substitutionary atonement is not a doctrine that finds its roots in the Reformation but is clearly taught in the first 1000 years of church history. However, my own interpretation of the texts they site are of ransom or sacrifice models of the atonement and not penal substitution. For more on this see Jeffery, S., Ovey, M., Sach, A., Pierced For Our Transgressions pp. 161-184
[4] For a well balanced look at where penal substitution was first formulated as a doctrine see Holmes, S., The Wondrous Cross pp. 51-63
[5]Therefore to sin is nothing else than not to render to God his due… He who does not render this honor which is due to God, robs God of his own and dishonors him; and this is sin.’ Anselm, Cur Deus Homo 1.11
[6] Gunton, C.E., The Actuality of Atonement p 89
[7] ‘…as the individual creature preserves, naturally or by reason, the condition belonging, and, as it were, allotted to him, he is said to obey and honour God…he honours God… because he brings himself freely under God's will and disposal, and maintains his own condition in the universe, and the beauty of the universe itself, as far as in him lies. But when he does not choose what he ought, he dishonors God, as far as the being himself is concerned, because he does not submit himself freely to God's disposal. And he disturbs the order and beauty of the universe…when wickedness tries to disturb the right appointment, there would be, in the very universe which God ought to control, an unseemliness springing from the violation of the beauty of arrangement, and God would appear to be deficient in his management.’ For more on this see Gunton, C.E., The Actuality of Atonement pp 87-93
[8] Calvin, John, Institutes II xvii 4 ‘Our acquittal is in this that the guilt which made us liable to punishment was transferred to the head of the Son of God.’ Institutes xvi 5 ‘…sinners, until freed from guilt, being always liable to the wrath and curse of God, who, as he is a just judge, cannot permit his law to be violated with impunity, but is armed for vengeance.’ Institutes xvi 1
[9] Holmes, S.R., The Wondrous Cross p 64
[10] ‘The standard view of Evangelicals was that Christ died as a substitute for sinful mankind. Human beings, they held, were so rebellious against God that a just penalty would have been death…Belief that Christ died in our stead was not uniform in the Evangelical tradition, but it was normal.’ Bebbington, D., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain pp. 15-16
[11] accessed 17th May 2010
[12] For more on this see accessed 17th May 2010
[13] See Goldingay, John, ‘Old Testament Sacrifice and the Death of Christ’ in Goldingay, John (ed.), Atonement Today pp. 3-20
[14] Colwell, J.E., The Rhythm of Doctrine p 86
[15] Colwell, J.E., The Rhythm of Doctrine pp. 85-91 p 90
[16] For more on this see Colwell, J.E., Promise and Presence p 191
[17] Owen, J., The Death of Death in the Death of Christ in The Works of John Owen vol. 10 p 173
[18] Colwell, J.E., The Rhythm of Doctrine p 87
[19] 2 Corinthians 5:14 NIV
[20] Ephesians 2:15a-17
[21] Gregory Nazianzus, Epistle to Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius accessed via on 17th May 2010
[22] Gunton, C.E., The Triune Creator p 55
[23] ‘The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.’ Romans 8:19-22 NIV
[24] For examples of a neglect of creation in a theology of the cross see accessed 17th May 2010 and accessed 17th May 2010
[25] Gunton, C.E., The Actuality of Atonement p 94
[26] Fiddes, Paul, Past and Present Salvation pp. 89-90 p 99
[27] John Stott wants to go further than simply saying that God’s honour needed to be satisfied, but that God himself needed to be satisfied. See Stott, John, The Cross of Christ p 120
[28] Fiddes, Paul, Past and Present Salvation p 131
[29] Irenaeus saw creation and redemption as combined, with creation having an eschatological direction to become something better, to become something it has never been, a ‘recapitulation’, rather than a returning to a perceived state of perfection. See Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III xviii 7. ‘For in times long past, it was said that man was created after the image of God, but it was not [actually] shown; for the Word was as yet invisible, after whose image man was created, Wherefore also he did easily lose the similitude. When, however, the Word of God became flesh, He confirmed both these: for He both showed forth the image truly, since He became Himself what was His image; and He re-established the similitude after a sure manner, by assimilating man to the invisible Father through means of the visible Word.’ Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V xvi
[30] Stott, John, The Cross of Christ p 184
[31] Steve Jeffery is one of the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions and in a recent interview he comments to the interviewer about some of the reasons why the book was written. The interviewer says, ‘…the Evangelical Alliance hosted a public debate in response to the furore caused by The Lost Message. During the debate, a friend leaned over to Steve and simply asked, “Where is the book that responds to this?” To Steve this came as a challenge that wouldn’t leave his mind. Whilst there were plenty of books that taught penal substitution—John Stott’s classic, The Cross of Christ, for example—they did not deal with recent objections.’ accessed 24th May 2010
[32] Jeffery, S., Ovey, M., Sach, A., Pierced For Our Transgressions p 21
[33] Jeffery, S., Ovey, M., Sach, A., Pierced For Our Transgressions p 31
[34] Jeffery, S., Ovey, M., Sach, A., Pierced For Our Transgressions p 14
[35] ‘…will you seek to compromise, maybe downplay the importance of precisely how Jesus saves us, and adopt a gospel message that, whilst sounding more acceptable to the modern ear, is in the opinion of many of us nothing less than “another gospel.”’ A quote by Adrian Warnock from accessed 24th May 2010
[36] Stott, John, The Cross of Christ p 134 Stephen Holmes, when commenting on Isaiah 53, believes ‘there is no question that the story is of sin and its punishment being inflicted on another, Jesus, so that we can be set free from the consequences of our wrongdoing.’ Holmes, S.R., The Wondrous Cross p 76
[37]But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ Isaiah 53:5-6 NIV
[38] For a fuller discussion on whether Jesus saw himself as the Isaianic Servant see Evans, C.A., Mark p 120-123, Stein, R.H., Mark p 487-488, France, R.T., The Gospel of Mark p 420-421. Some, such as Barrett and Hooker argued against an Isaianic servant background to Jesus’ self-understanding. See Barrett, C.K., “The Background of Mark 10:45” pp 1-18 and Hooker, M.D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark pp 248-249
[39] Stott, John, The Cross of Christ pp 136-137 p 136
[40] Whale, J.S., Victor and Victim pp 69-70
[41] Holmes, S.R., The Wondrous Cross p 121
[42] Green, J., Baker, M., Rediscovering the Scandal of the Cross p 220
[43] For more on this see accessed 24th May 2010
[44] David Bebbington highlights these four as characteristics of evangelicalism. See Bebbington, D., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain p 3 pp. 3-19


Peter M.G. said...

I am heart broken by all this.The readiness of both sides to raise shibboleths is heart breaking.I believe in Penal substitution but I also believe that the cross and the Christ upon the cross is far bigger than a single formulation.Dear friends let us love one another for love is of God. [1 John 4:7]

Joe Haward said...

The ferocity of the arguments has indeed been very worrying. But like I said in the essay, some see it so core to the gospel that they are willing to be ferocious!

I just cannot agree with it as a doctrine, not even as a facet of the spectrum of the atonement. I realise I am in a minority in this regard!

Like you say though, however we understand the Cross, our calling is to love on another.

joven said...

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Anonymous said...

I have always wondered why all the theories. It is a simple matter really. Man had to die because of sin. God needed justification, then, for the resurrection. He had it in Jesus Christ. He was justified in raising sinless Jesus, and it would have been wrong not to restore to him those who received him as their king. We see a type of this in Job when all was restored to him

In other words, Jesus was more of a righteousness substitute than a penal substitute. He was the righteousness that we were not so that God could resurrect us.

Unfortunately, I have been shunned from all the Baptist churches I can find here in the U.S. over this understanding.

Joe Haward said...

Sorry to hear that you have been shunned Anon. Must be difficult when you would like to find a church you can call family...
I think all the theories are a result that the Cross is too big and too mysterious to sum up in one way.
I hope you are able to find a church who are open and willing to listen and learn.

Kathryn Hills said...

Joe, not really thought about this before, your view is not something that crops up in sermons is it! In simple terms, is your point that Jesus' death wasn't a punishment for our sins, but an event that was just necessary for God to have a restored relationship with sinners? A question of "balance" rather than punishment.

Joe Haward said...

You are right Kathryn, it doesn't come up in sermons much! I think it is about reorientation, about the cross not being about a set of rules being broken and Jesus being the ultimate law keeper, but that the cross is reorietates us back to God, towards Him and knowing him in relationship.

Hope you are ok.