I'm loathe to even bring it up but....

....that old question of Penal Substitution has reared its head again and there has been some discussion on Anglican Mainstream and an analysis by Peter Ould about why Penal Substitution is so....great.....hmmm.

I'm loathe to bring it up because everytime I think about it I feel my hackles rising and I'd rather concentrate on other things. However, Dr Jeffrey John has caused some controversy again with his Lent talk on BBC Radio 4 and I am yet again at a loss as to why this is such a controversial monologue. Just as I was at a loss to understand the uproar caused by Steve Chalke's book 'The Lost Message of Jesus'.

I wish people would listen to the whole of what is being said rather than throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

the truth is (though some evangelicals will shoot me for saying it, or rather want to chuck me out of the Evangelical Book of Life) that atonement theory has been debated and argued about, like, forever. Penal Substitution is not and has never been the only model used to describe Christ's work on the Cross - and, I would argue, should not be the only model to describe Christ's work on the Cross.

if you've not come across the notion of 'atonement theory' before, then you might be confused about my reaction. If you have been brought up from your Christian birth, with the idea that there is only one model of atonement - Penal Substitution - then the negative reaction to both Jeffrey John and Steve Chalke is understandable. But I ask you, for a moment, to entertain the possibility that one model of atonement might just be too small for the amazing work of God.

let me explain....

Penal Substitution is the notion that God in his anger towards human disobedience has a problem. His problem is what to do with his anger. So, in eternity, the Father and Son decide that the Son will become incarnate and pay (to God, the Trinity?) the price for the disobedience. There is a caricature of this model, which has the angry Father taking out his wrath on the victim - the Son - but unfortunately the caricature seems to me to not be so far from the 'good' theology.

One question to be asked of this model, if it is suggested that this is the only model of the atonement worth our attention, is this - if the atonement is only about payment for sins committed, then what about the whole of Creation? Creation which is to be summed up in Christ? How does it get summed up, if it has not sinned? Additionally to this is the reality that the notion of Penal Subsitution is quite 'new' to Christian thinking, only, at best 400 years old - coming to us from Calvin and the reformers.

so what did Christians think before that point? Well, there have been different ways of describing what happened at the cross, here are the most common:

Christus Victor: Christ was victorious on the Cross, defeating sin and death - the resurrection is the validation of this victory in this model.

Exemplar: Christ was showing the whole of Creation how much he loved it, by becoming incarnate, living and dying a horrific death - this comes from a man called Abelard, who was castrated for the woman he loved; our circumstances always speaks into our understanding.

Satisfaction: subtly different from Penal substitution, this is still substitutionary atonement, however the idea is that Jesus does something on the Cross that we could not do - satisfying the honour of God - rather than paying for something that we did do. Anselm was the proponent of this theory and this comes directly out of his background in the feudal system in which the peasants brought 'satisfaction' to the honour of the Lord.

In Penal Substitution there is no need for a resurrection - if the price is paid then it is paid, without the resurrection there is still eternal life for us, where Penal Substitution is the only model. However, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that without the resurrection then we are still dead in our sins.

Now, I have reservations about Penal Substitution as our only model of atonement, I am honest about this, but I am not ready to throw it out completely, I hang onto it as 'one of many' models by the skin of my teeth. However, my thoughts are drawn to two things, a quotation of Tom Wright which says:

'Think of it like this. In a musical chord, the ‘third’ (in a chord of C major, this would be the note E) is the critical one that tells you many things, e.g. whether the music is major or minor, happy or sad. That E is vital if the music is to make the sense it does. But if the player plays the E and nothing else, the E no longer means what it’s meant to mean. Likewise, substitutionary atonement is a vital element in the gospel. Miss it out, and the music of the gospel is no longer what it should be. But if you only play that note you are in danger of setting up a different harmony altogether...'

and a quotation of Athanasius (of Athanasian creed fame) from his book De Incarnatione Verbi Dei:

'Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough'

Can God forgive without sacrifice? Does forgiveness have a double meaning? I can forgive someone, but they may still have to live with the consequences of what they have done. Maybe true forgiveness, the forgiveness embodied at the cross, is that forgiveness which means that the consequences of sin will not consume us.

Jesus is indeed our substitution, our ransom price from slavery, our mediator and our Way.

Among other things it is the mystery of all of these ideas that keeps us coming back to the Cross again and again.


Tiffer Robinson said...

I do agree with you - but the slightly worrying thing about this whole episode is that it involves evangelicals thinking for themselves - something I am very worried about.

I went to Spring Harvest this year (for my sins) and I was shocked by the way that womens ministry is being reasoned through. I am a huge supporter of the ordination of women, but i also recognise the complicated discussion that went on about scriptural texts and cultural needs etc etc. The scary thing is that now much of the evangelical world (at least Spring harvest types) is happy with women in leadership they seem to have forgotten why there was a debate in the first place! People saying things like "women should be in leadership because God created man and woman in his image - full stop, anyone who disagrees hasn't read Gen 1:27". Already we have forgotten why some people don't agree, and therefore will fail to reason with them and help them see the truth.

In this case I am worried that those evangelicals who decide they don't like the idea of PSA will decide they like the other atonement theories better with exactly the same black and white attitude which they had followed PSA, and that those who want to will use this as an excuse not to talk about sin and redemption and all that. I know several liberal anglican friends who love ripping apart PSA and say how blinded evangelicals are from the better atonement theories, but who are in actual fact universalists. The two don't go together logically, but we have to see the kind of pitfalls people fall into when we don't explain the truth honestly and comprehensively.

To explain myself - I actually agree with your post completely, I just think that in the evangelical world we need a little more explanation to the masses of the implications of which side of the fence you happen to sit on, otherwise we end up with a lot of confused people who aren't open to the ideas of others. Just my opinion.

jody said...

thanks tiffer

I know - goodness me, evangelicals thinking for themselves, whatever next ;-)

I agree that the theological reasoning behind our understanding of male and female is often shallow. It wasn't until theological college that I realised how deep the beauty of that image goes.

And the problem with me was that I sat in the shallows and thought that those were the depths.

I'm not sure how this debate is going to go, because there I'm not sure that the PS side of the fence want to engage in debate? I could be wrong.....