The Center of Atonement

One day Kris, my wife, informed me that she had purchased from a neighbor a cloth that absorbed everything. Sales don’t appeal to Kris, not even when pressed by a neighbor, so I knew this cloth was special. She said, “It will pick up grease from the stove top, dust from our tables, and even the film from lenses on our glasses.” Now she had my interest. “Do you have to clean the rag?” “Not that often,” she said, and she showed me our new Carolina blue Norwex AntiBac Enviro rag. I took off my glasses—and I like them clean and clear—and wiped them but once and, magic, presto, bingo! I asked Kris, “How do these things work?” She said our neighbor is a scientist and explained it a bit, but she couldn’t remember the details. I don’t know how this Norwex cloth (“rag” is ineloquent for what it can do) works, but I know it works.

Atonement is the same way. We know that it works but we aren’t always clear how it works. The problem is that there are some who fashion themselves as scientists and think they know exactly how atonement always works and if you don’t use their medicine (theology) you are either uninformed or willfully rebellious. This piece wants to take dead aim at those who believe the central idea, image, and metaphor of atonement is penal substitution. My contention, which I have explained in A Community Called Atonement and more technically in Jesus and His Death,1 is that faithfulness to the New Testament denies us the security of a central metaphor, but instead affirms that Jesus’ death (and resurrection and exaltation) atones and that the same New Testament provides a variety of images for “how” atonement happens.

In A Community Called Atonement, I exploit a golf image. That is, the various metaphors of atonement (reconciliation, justification, ransom, substitution, Christus Victor, scapegoat theory, etc.) are the clubs a golfer uses in a typical round (of life) but knows that each club is required for different shots. Similarly, the atonement metaphors are determined linguistically and rhetorically and theologically by the theological problem, challenge, and exercise at hand. Sometimes the language of reconciliation appears so we use that club; at other times, liberation contexts in particular, we need the ransom club. No one club dominates. A friend of mine, David Neff, told me that there is one club we use for every hole, the putter, and that penal substitution is the putter. I informed him that sometimes we knock the ball into the hole before we use our putter—but now we are pressing metaphors too hard. In A Community Called Atonement I also argued there is a way of synthesizing all the metaphors without favoring one. I used the clunky and unhappy phrase “identification for incorporation,” by which I meant to say that in Christ God identifies with us in order to make us what God wants us to be. I’m echoing Irenaeus and Athanasius without prescribing one metaphor.

A Question of Method2

But some want to press one metaphor (namely, penal substitution) as the central metaphor that gives meaning to all the others. Lots of people say this, but one of the only attempts to establish penal substitution as the central image of atonement has been offered by Tom Schreiner at Southern Seminary in his essay in The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views.3 Tom describes how significant penal substitution is with such phrases as “the anchor and the foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement” and “the most important metaphor” and the “heart and soul of God’s work in Christ.” I agree with Tom that penal substitution is the most important metaphor for atonement in specific branches of evangelicalism—both populist (the Bridge Diagram is the gospel of penal substitution) and robust (much of conservative Calvinism orients soteriology around penal substitution)—but evangelicalism’s pervasive ideas and practices are no necessary indicator of biblical truth. (Take, for instance, the sort of music we sing in our churches on Sundays. I’ll stop there.)

I read Tom’s piece carefully and am prepared to defend the view that if you already think what Tom thinks, then you will agree with him; but if you don’t, you will be scratching your head. As far as I can see, Tom never tries to prove these claims. He asserts over and over the centrality motif, then plays the game of circular logic by concluding he’s proven it when he’s done nothing of the sort. I appeal to Greg Boyd, whose task it was to respond to Schreiner. Greg says this: “[W]hile Schreiner repeatedly asserts that the penal substitution motif of the atonement is the ‘foundation,’ ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ of everything else Scripture says about the significance of Jesus’ life and death, he offers us little reason to accept this claim.”4 I will let Boyd’s words move us forward because there’s more to be said without getting bogged down in Tom’s assertions.

To begin with, to say that the penal substitution theory is not the central metaphor isn’t to say that there’s no place for that golf club in our bag. Yes, there is evidence for Christ absorbing the punishment of sin—death—in our place. So for the moment let’s avoid the cantankerous debate about the propriety and morality of the penal substitution theory.5 Nor do I want to enter into the realm of historical theology, which Tom avoided, where it can be established that penal substitution, which is not the same as Anselm’s satisfaction theory, is not the ruling theory until Luther and Calvin. Instead, I’d like to poke around a bit in the method question, that is, in what it means to call a metaphor the central one. This game of “which word is the most important” reminds me of Matthew studies in the ’70s and ’80s, when Jack Kingsbury debated with others over which title for Jesus was most important. (He thought it was “Son of God.”)6 Some people do like to watch the Astros, debate titles in Matthew, and fight over which metaphor is central when it comes to atonement. But do we ever stop to ask if there is such a thing as a “ruling metaphor”? I often heard this “central” metaphor claim, and it’s led me to ponder how we determine which metaphor is central. So I want to make the following suggestions about method:

First, we can do this by counting atonement passages and showing that at least the majority or, preferably, the vast majority involves or centers on the Godhead punishing the Son or the Son absorbing our punishment. Well, we can (count passages) and we can’t (prove this true because penal substitution has to be inserted too often in order to be seen). Surely Philippians 2:5–11 is an atonement passage, but there’s not a shred of evidence that this probably early Christian hymn saw Christ’s death as punishment. Here the act seems to be the loving act of the Son entering into our condition to lift us to divine heights! There are a number of passages like this in the New Testament.

Second, we might isolate the single most important text and conclude that if the ruling metaphor reveals itself prominently there, it is the most important metaphor of all. A number of passages might raise their hand asking to be the number one choice. The passage many consider to be the most pregnant atonement passage in the entire New Testament, Romans 3:21–26, doesn’t clearly favor penal substitution. Why? The word hilastērion most likely means “mercy seat,” and any idea of wrath would have to be imported from 1:18–32 and other passages. I’m not saying it is impossible to see punishment here, only that it is far from prominent. What this text says is that we found ourselves as unrighteous and God “justified”7 us through Christ’s atoning death, and in this God was both right and the One who declared/made us right. Penal substitution is not compellingly present. For those who “know” it is present and who know how atonement works (like our Norwex cloth), then it is present. But it has to be imported.

Third, we can contend that penal substitution is central by showing that when Paul begins exploring a different metaphor, say Christus Victor in Colossians 2:13–15, he reverts to penal substitution to make sense of it more completely. In this case, then, we would see that in Paul’s mind one can’t talk about the atonement properly until one explores penal substitution. But the evidence is simply not there to suggest that other metaphors don’t make sense unless they are first tied to penal substitution. In Colossians 2 we are guilty and God stepped in and forgave us. How? The imagery says that God removed the certificate of indebtedness—and God stripped the enemies of their powers and gloated over them in the triumphal act of the crucifixion.

Fourth, we could find a New Testament author, or at least a first-century or second-century theologian, explicitly affirming such an idea, but no one does.

Fifth, we could do what so many, and Tom Schreiner is but one example, do with their atonement theories: they land on one and love it like Gollum’s ring and so explain everything in light of their theory and then conclude that the explanation proves their point. I’m not questioning the importance of persuasive and compelling logic, but when it comes to making the claim that penal substitution is the central metaphor, it will take more to convince us than simply asserting it and then explaining texts through the idea.

I give but one example. Tom claims that the famous “ransom for many” expression in Mark 10:45 is both sub-stitutionary and penal. Here are his words:

The preposition anti (“for”) often denotes “in place of” (Mt 17:27; Lk 11:11; Rom 12:17; 1 Cor 11:15), and it most naturally has that meaning here. Christ in his death suffered in the place of others. Furthermore, the text teaches penal substitution since Christ’s death is described as a ransom (lytron). The term ransom indicates that Christ by his death paid the price necessary to liberate sinners from the dominion of sin. . . . He paid the price we owed, so that we might go free. [Then he appeals to Jesus’ taking the cup in Mark 14:36, then to Peter Bolt . . . and then, since Tom lives in Kentucky, he’s off to the races.]

Yes, of course, he makes sense of Mark 10:45 as a penal substitution text, but I contend he does so because he colonizes it into his own theory. The Greek word anti might mean “substitutionary” but logically Jesus doesn’t become a “ransom” instead of us because, after all, we aren’t ransoms in this text. We are prisoners, not ransoms. So he doesn’t logically became a “ransom” instead of us, he becomes a “ransom” so we don’t have to be prisoners. There’s a difference. So on purely logical grounds, the word anti more likely means “for us” or “for our benefit.” He became a ransom in order to liberate us from imprisonment. Furthermore, Tom claims we are slaves because of our sin. That is surely true, but it has nothing to do with this text. The term “ransom” evokes the language of slavery and captivity and therefore the language game is about our victimhood at the hands of the enemy. All of this has been discussed in the literature. My point is not that I’m right here; my point is to illustrate the kind of colonizing logic at work at times when people want to argue that a given metaphor is “central” or the “heart and soul.” In fact, Greg Boyd and Joel Green, in their responses, both contend that Mark 10:45 is not about penal substitution but about ransom theory.

We could skip from one atonement text to another and raise the appropriateness of appealing to penal substitution for each, but the only way we can make penal substitution central is by assuming it is and then explaining everything else in light of that theory. In short, we can do this only by colonizing the kaleidoscope of metaphors. Some people do play golf with one club. The New Testament doesn’t.

Journey Home-painting-by Froyle-Neideck-1700x1231A Question of Why

I want to propose the reason why many of us who call ourselves evangelicals make penal substitution central. Tom belongs in what I call the Neo-Puritan side of the evangelical movement. That side of the evangelical movement focuses the gospel on double imputation and justification by faith and satisfaction of God’s wrath in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ; for this group, then, penal substitution provides the metanarrative that gives the Bible clarity. I don’t think any of this is an exaggeration, but I do want to make now a more speculative suggestion: The Neo-Puritans believe that the most genuine, authentic experience of the gospel and personal salvation is to comprehend in a profoundly humiliating encounter with the utter holiness of God that a person is a wretched and vile sinner, and therefore also knows both that he or she deserves nothing but wrath and hell but has experienced, by the sheer grace of God, an elective salvation so that he or she has been welcomed into the arms of the Father through the Son’s propitiatory and reconciling work. (Their worship follows this pattern.) My contention is that penal substitution is required by the gospel of the Neo-Puritan. To question this is to question everything.

As a college student I became enamored, through a variety of contacts, with the Puritans. I read John Brown’s commentary on Hebrews, Thomas Manton on James, and then I discovered John Owen—and I bought some volumes and began to read him. I had friends who were Reformed Baptists and I became intoxicated with my theology and with my election and with sheer grace. I had prayer experiences of profound doubt and the sensation of being utterly sinful, and several times became convinced that I was not one of the elect but that it would glorify God if I were to be sent to hell, because glorifying God was the essence of what a vile sinner was called to do. I was approved by others for such thoughts and experiences. (My own pilgrimage in that direction stops here.)

Evangelicalism mimics the Neo-Puritan gospel and experience. That is, the fundamental identity marker for “evangelical” is the born-again experience, or conversion, or getting saved. This gospel has been shaped (and its history deserves a good telling from Luther and Calvin through the First and Second Awakenings and into the twentieth-century revivalism of both Billy Graham and Campus Crusade) to generate that born-again experience. The single most influential theory at work in generating the typical evangelical conversion experience is the logic of penal substitution. Of this there can be no doubt.

What I’m getting at then is that while there is exegesis and theologizing at work and each shapes what we believe, we need to be postmodern enough to admit that we favor the atonement metaphor that props up our theology the best. My contention is that evangelicalism as a whole, and not just the Neo-Puritans, favors penal substitution because it generates the experience that we believe opens the doors to God’s grace. That, however, doesn’t make it how the authors of the New Testament thought. They thought more widely.

1. S. McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Living Theology; Nashville: Abingdon, 2007); idem, Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005).
2. Some of what follows was originally given at Truett Theological Seminary in the Parchman Lectures.
3. J. K. Beilby and P. R. Eddy, eds., The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 67–98, with responses by Gregory Boyd (99–105), Bruce Reichenbach (106–9), and Joel Green (110–16).
4. Ibid., 99.
5. The evidence for the death of Jesus absorbing or dealing with the Father’s wrath is not as prominent as some contend. One good cut into this theory has been offered by C. F. D. Moule, Christ Alive and at Large: Unpublished Writings of C.F.D. Moule (ed. R. Morgan and G. Stanton; Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2010), 113–14.
6. J. D. Kingsbury, Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989).
7. Debate swirls around the meaning of justification, evoking the New Perspective on Paul. For this, see J. K. Beilby and P. R. Eddy, eds., Justification: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2012, “No Cross, No Christianity: The Biblical Shape of Atonement Theology.”