Friday, April 24, 2009

Atonement: Theory or Doctrine?

I'm currently reading through a short book on the atonement in the bible and church history. The author believes in penal substitution, and that it is one of many metaphors to explain the cross. The publishers' blurb on the back cover begins with this sentence:
The Penal Substitutionary theory of the atonement says that Jesus suffered the divine punishment for our sins at Calvary.
Early in the book Calvin is credited with being the first to give a "full-blown penal substitutionary account of the atonement" and "the first full statement of penal substitution," and again "the first complete statement of a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement" (emphasis mine).

In describing penal substitution the author at times designates it as a metaphor, at times as a doctrine, and at other times as a theory. Significantly, in commenting on Isaiah 53, the author says that this chapter "comes as close as anything in the Bible to teaching penal substitutionary atonement. Still, there is not a fully worked out theory here."

This line of thought culminates in the following statement at the conclusion of the chapter on the New Testament teaching on the cross:
...what of penal substitution? Is it taught in the New Testament? We need to be careful here. There is, as far as I can see, no clearly worked out doctrine of atonement in the New Testament. Instead there is only the raw material out of which we may and must attempt to construct such a doctrine. And this shouldn't surprise us: most of the central beliefs of Christianity are built on the foundations of the Scriptures, rather than read straight out of them.
There are two issues before us here:

1. The relationship between the "raw material" of Scripture and the doctrinal formulations that we construct out of that raw material.

2. The relationship between explicit statements and implicit, equally authoritative, teaching in Scripture

On the second of these points the author says that the language about the atonement in the New Testament "could be understood in penal substitutionary terms if we had good reason to do so, but equally could be understood in other terms." This caution safeguards us from attempting to read the whole doctrine out of every text. With that I am in some sympathy. If creedal statements are a concise synthesis of what the whole Bible teaches about a particular doctrine, the danger, if we begin with the creedal definition, is that we then read that back into every text.

A further danger is that we subtly expect Scripture to state the same truth for us in exactly the same way as a creed or confession does. We can surely say that the Bible teaches that "Jesus bore the penalty for our sins" without insisting that the Bible must set down that truth in exactly that form of words. If the Bible does not state the truth in precisely those words are we to allege that it clearly doesn't teach that truth? Or that it doesn't teach it clearly?

This brings us to point 1). Is our doctrine part of the "raw material"? And what does that mean? Is it present in Scripture so that it ought to be believed, confessed and taught? Or are the constituent parts present in such a way that the doctrine or theory can be assembled, but until it has been no one is obligated to receive it? Could the "raw material" be constructed into a different theory? Does the ascription of "raw material" apply to all biblical teaching on every doctrine? Is there an apostolic doctrine of the cross? Does this doctrine include penal substitution?

In light of Galatians 3:13 and Isaiah 53 I cannot avoid the conclusion that Christ's death was in the place of sinners, and that in their place he bore their punishment. In Packer's words:
The notion which the phrase ‘penal substitution’ expresses is that Jesus Christ our Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption and glory. To affirm penal substitution is to say that believers are in debt to Christ specifically for this, and that this is the mainspring of all their joy, peace and praise both now and for eternity.
It seems to me that if we hold that Scripture contains only the raw material but that it is left to us to attempt to construct a doctrine out of it, we do the teaching of Scripture a great disservice, and perhaps even in seeking to uphold this truth we inevitably destabilize its status. Consider the following from Herman Bavinck:
All these different appraisals of the death of Christ are frequently labeled "theories" that have been constructed by human thought in an attempt to explain the facts. The picture presented is that Scripture does not contain a clear, authoritative, and decisive doctrine of the suffering and death of gives us the facts but not the theory, the matter of all Christian doctrine, but no finished doctrine or doctrines of the whole of Christianity. (Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2, p. 382)
Packer's words in the conclusion to What did the cross achieve? The logic of penal substitution are also apropos:
...full weight must also be given to the fact that all who down the centuries have espoused this model of penal substitution have done so because they thought the Bible taught it, and scholars who for whatever reason take a different view repeatedly acknowledge that there are Bible passages which would most naturally be taken in a penal substitutionary sense. Such passages include Isaiah 53 (where Whale, as we saw, [n. 36] finds penal substitution mentioned twelve times), Galatians 3:13, 2 Corinthians 5:15, I Peter 3:18; and there are many analogous to these


Anonymous said...

The contemporary explanations of the benefit by Jesus' crucixion are doctrines. The question is weather they are true? None are. For these doctrines assume that Jesus' crucifixion is an end all resolvement. These doctrines can only be correct if it were true that Jesus' life had not been lost by bloodshed. The error of these doctrines is the assumption that a direct benefit from God has been obtained corporately/individually. This is not remotley possible. For the preexisting rule of God made it impossible. It does not make any difference relative to circumstance how any human male's life is lost by bloodshed. The actual result is the constant fact of having to give an account directly to God. This is the residual component remaining after Jesus' crucifixion or any other human male's life lost by bloodshed. Gen. 9:5 NIV.
However it is only by Jesus' crucifixon, as an act of murder caused by bloodshed, that has had the result of causing a corporate responsibility as a residual component relative to one man's life taken by bloodshed. All men have been made responsible to individually repent directly to God, by confessing to being sorry regarding the sin of crucifying God's only begotten son or not save one's self from the penalty of eternal death. For it is only by Jesus' crucifixion, as a bedrock fact and a residual component of only his death, that a reasonable reason was established to make a change to God's law by the addition of one word. The word, Repent, can only be obeyed by the faith of obeying Jesus by confessing directly to God that you are sorry Jesus was crucified. No man will be allowed the grace of escaping the penalty of eternal death by faith in any other way.
Theodore A. Jones

Martin Downes said...


Christ and his apostles never go to Gen. 9 to explain the nature, purpose, and accomplishments of his death. They connect the forgiveness of sins to his atoning work and not to repentance or faith as the ground of the remission of sin.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Right. But according to Jesus there are only a few that find it, the small narrow gate, that is.
The crucifixion of Jesus is the sacrifice of a man's life to atone for there not being a small narrow gate. So then it is your judgment that it is not the set purpose of God for each man too to be required to account for the life of one man, his life having been taken by bloodshed? Tell you what. You make the argument to God that you are an exception to each man too. At that point I think you might understand, and I say might, that God does not respect persons nor will he.
Theodore A. Jones

Martin Downes said...

Take your rudeness elsewhere Theodore

Anonymous said...

The command is "love your enemy."

Theodore A. Jones said...

If little lord Johnny Calvin is right then this rabbi is wrong.
"It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13