I wrote this paper for my spring class at TEDS for the Systematic Theology II course which focuses on the issues of anthropology, sin, Christ and soteriology. I utilized several ideas put forth by Scot McKnight, David Fitch and Kevin Vanhoozer in formulating and arguing my thesis, namely that Evangelicals have politicized atonement theology much to our detriment.
The Penal Substitutionary theory of the atonement has been the center of controversy since the onset of the Enlightenment, coming to a climax during the Modernist-Fundamentalist debates of the early twentieth century, and Evangelicals continue to fight last century’s war. While Evangelicals have scriptural warrant for defending their conception of Penal Substitution, Evangelicals move beyond orthodoxy, as defined by the Seven Ecumenical Councils, when they insist that it is the or central nature of the atonement, and this insistence causes unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ. Also, Evangelicals deprive themselves of the mystery involved in Christ’s work when they believe that their language about the atonement is the same as the atonement in and of itself. This confusion about the function of language is part of the lingering effects of Evangelicals’ unwitting embrace of the Enlightenment paradigm, and this confusion about the function of language leads Evangelicals to use Penal Substitution as a “master-signifier” in their ideology. Lastly, Evangelical reduction of the atonement to a single theory leaves them ill-equipped for gospel mission in Postmodern America in the same way a golfer is ill-equipped for 18 holes with only a putter in her golf bag.
The Evangelical expression of Penal Substitutionary Atonement is best summarized as “Jesus tak[ing ]the penalty of God’s wrath for sinners upon himself and acquit[ing] us of the judgments we deserve.” This confessional tradition emphasizes the legal and forensic language of law, penalty and guilt to describe the atonement, and Romans 3:23-25 is a key text that funds this confessional tradition. It has also been the battleground over which many skirmishes regarding Penal Substitutionary have been fought, in particular Paul’s use of the word hilastérion.
Evangelicals tend to translate hilastérion as propitiation, implying the cross is a satisfaction of God’s wrath, and this translation fits well with the beloved Penal Substitution. Yet, scholars in the Liberal tradition tend to translate this word as expiation, arguing the focus is the act of covering sin, moving away from the notion that Christ is a substitutionary sacrifice. If the word should be translated as expiation it would seem to raise serious questions about the necessity of Penal Substitution.
N.T. Wright argues that Paul uses the word hilastérion to describe the work of Christ as a substitutionary offering for sins fits well with Paul’s worldview. Translated literally, hilastérion means “mercy-seat,” and Paul’s use of it evokes the liturgical ritual performed on the Day of Atonement, the day when the wrath of God against the sins of Israel were satisfied. Along with the liturgy of the “mercy-seat,” non-canonical, Jewish references to the Maccabaean martyrs as a hilastérion for the land of Israel and the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 provide the framework for Paul’s use of this term, so Paul’s audience would have understood this word to mean that God was satisfied by a sacrifice given for the sins of Israel. Therefore, Wright concludes that Paul is advocating that Jesus’ death on the cross is a sacrificial death, “turning away the divine wrath that otherwise hung over not only Israel but also the whole world.” According to Wright, Penal Substitution, rightly understood, is a necessary and biblical metaphor. However, while it is appropriate for Evangelicals to hold to Penal Substitution as a biblical metaphor, it is the manner in which Evangelicals confess and advocate for this tradition that is problematic.
Like Wright, Thomas F. Torrance suggests that our understanding of the atoning work of Christ ought to be rooted in the Old Testament liturgy of the Day of the Atonement. On that day the High Priest went behind the veil, sprinkled the blood on the mercy-seat, and made intercession for Israel to God. This most solemn and liturgical act, as Torrance puts it, was hidden from public view, making this act ineffable. As such, when we seek to understand the work of Jesus on the cross and express it in our native tongues we should not fool ourselves into believing that our well-formulated theories can exhaust the mysteries of Christ. Michael Horton sounds a similar note that calls for humility when he states that the nature of revelation is not univocal, providing for archetypal knowledge of God and his ways, but the words of scripture are analogical, gracing us with ectypal knowledge of God that preserves mystery and transcendence.
The Enlightenment was a Trojan horse for Western culture, allowing the barbarians of rationalism into the citadel of our imaginations, ransacking our understanding of language and its relation to the world. For Western culture, including Christendom, metaphor was merely an artful and less precise means of referring to reality. Propositional language, however, was the preferred means of communication, and the West came to believe that language was a mirror reflecting a reality that could be known with some level of certainty.
Postmodern developments in the theory of language, however, have shown that metaphor is a pervasive and necessary part of our language. Moreover, metaphors are necessary for and contemporaneous with changes in our knowledge of the world. Metaphor, rather than being a lesser, imprecise expression of reality, is the only linguistic tool that rightly acknowledges the role of imagination in scientific and artistic knowing. Given this insight, theological discourse should be unapologetically metaphorical, analogical and mysterious.
This movement into mystery resurrects the epistemic humility Western, orthodox Christendom needs, and it opens up the Christian imagination to appreciate all the metaphors that scripture uses when describing the atonement. And if the Church hears the language of scripture as metaphor then it will raise necessary questions about the conservative, Evangelical claim that Penal Substitution is the heart of atonement. And to the degree that Evangelicals persist in their claim, it exposes their use of the atonement as a “master-signifier” in the never-ending cultural wars conservative Evangelicals appear to relish.
David Fitch, utilizing the analytical tools authored by Žižek, suggests that Evangelicalism often functions as an ideology that utilizes “master-signifiers,” in part to maintain group cohesion. Fitch defines an ideology as a social system that is built upon antagonism in order to maintain group identity and the status quo. Given the history of the twentieth century and the ongoing struggle against the Modernists’ claims to reality, especially the critical denial of Penal Substitution, Evangelicalism is at particular risk for reducing the mystery of orthodoxy to propositional rhetoric designed to maintain group cohesion. In this struggle for cohesion, the “master-signifier” is a concept or ritual to which group members pledge their allegiance, serving as an identity marker for the politic. The signifier allows “us to consent to what we know is a lie, all the while bringing some release for the antagonism at the core of our life together.”
Applying this analysis to the atonement shows that Penal Substitution within Evangelicalism serves this very function. For example, the confession of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) regarding the “Work of Christ” reveals how Penal Substitution is used as a “master-signifier.” The statement of faith confesses,
We believe that Jesus Christ, as our representative and substitute, shed His blood on the cross as the perfect, all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins. His atoning death and victorious resurrection constitute the only ground for salvation.
This statement functions as a consent to a lie, as Fitch describes. The notion that Penal Substitution should be the central metaphor of the atonement is rather new to Church history, and it excludes other biblical metaphors regarding the atonement. The faculty and leadership at TEDS certainly know that the “Work of Christ” is not sufficiently summed up by the metaphor of Penal Substitution, and, moreover, a student or faculty member could deny Christ’s life of obedience as a recapitulation of Adam (Jesus as a Second Adam), or any other biblical metaphor for the atonement, and still be considered a member of the group. This confession allows the politic of Evangelicalism, expressed locally in the body of TEDS, to maintain old antagonisms at the core of its life, assuring donors that they have not capitulated to the demands of Modernity, and, therefore, Penal Substitution as presently practiced is playing its part as a “master-signifier” in an ideology. Exposing the Evangelical use of Penal Substitution as a “master-signifier” is not to deny the actuality of the juridical metaphor, but it is to purge Evangelicalism of an ideological practice of the atonement that functions to divide us from the “other” for whom the mission of God’s atonement was designed.
Yet other problems for Penal Substitution present themselves in Postmodernity. Kevin Vanhoozer points out that the opprobrium of the cross, for the Postmodern, is that the Evangelical attempt to explain the cross by means of theoria, the Western attempt to know as a kind of seeing, reduces the “otherness” of the cross. Not only is the “otherness” of the cross at risk, but other biblical metaphors are as well because the Evangelical emphasis upon Penal Substitution reduces the “other” metaphors of scripture to the “sameness” of the juridical metaphor. Moreover, Postmodernity cautions against the violent tendencies in Western and Evangelical culture to conceptually grasp or colonize reality by reducing metaphors to literalistic language which is precisely what Evangelicalism does when it universalizes its preferred language of the atonement.
Scot McKnight offers a remedy for these concerns. He explains that seeing the atonement language as metaphorical is a remedy against the dangers of theoria highlighted by Vanhoozer. The “otherness” of the cross is maintained by acknowledging that metaphor is a divine gift in that it guards against intellectual idolatry. Hearing scriptural language as a metaphor preserves the thing in-itself from our colonization, and, therefore, claims to univocal and archetypal knowledge of the cross are brought low. McKnight further argues that metaphors should not be reduced to literalistic language, but they should be indwelled, allowing the Church to submit to the biblical language rather than the reverse.
McKnight also argues for the necessity of all biblical metaphors in gospel mission in much the same way golfers make use of all types of golf clubs based upon the game situation. If our cultural context cannot immediately appreciate the plight of sins as a breach of divine law for which they owe a penalty, then the Penal Substitution metaphor will not be fitting to the missional context. This is exactly the point Alan Mann makes in Atonement for a ‘Sinless Society.’
Mann states that, “individuals no longer live with a sense of sin or guilt in the way that evangelists would wish them in order to successfully communicate the atoning work of Christ.” However, Evangelical have reduced sin to mean the presence of wrongful actions when in our post-industrial society sin would be more fittingly described as “an absence of mutual, intimate, undistorted relating that ultimately leads the postmodern self into a lack of ontological coherence.” Mann suggests that the human plight as presently understood is one of isolation from others and our ideal-selves, and given this plight the solution offered in Penal Substitutionary language makes little sense as a step towards our missional context, and he opines that the Church needs a “thicker” recapitulation of the atonement story.
Mann believes that the story of Jesus and the atonement must be recapitulated in a “thicker” story that focuses on how the gospel restores relationships with ourselves, others and creation itself. The story of the atonement must move out from the strict confines of juridical language to the perichoretic language of the Trinity and the Triune nature of the story of creation. If, as the early Church saw it, there was a mutual, authentic indwelling of the persons in the Imminent Trinity and Creation was a Trinitarian move to include the “other” in this relational indwelling, then the gospel that restores all of creation must have this “thicker” story for understanding all aspects of the atonement.
Recapitulation is a metaphor or story of the atonement that the Church emphasized in the earliest centuries, and since it is rooted in the early Church’s conception of theosis, it provides a “thicker” account of the atonement. In the history of theology, Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lyons, is most associated with this metaphor, and it is best understood as the hearing of Jesus’ story as the climactic retelling of the story of Adam, Israel and all of humanity. Recapitulation also hears all the pieces of Jesus’ story, not just the cross and resurrection, as relevant for the salvation of humanity, and what drives this understanding of the atonement is Irenaeus’ conception of anthropology, harmatology and soteriology.
Human beings, according to Irenaeus, were ikons of God placed on earth to assist God in the governing of his creation. Humans were created by God to be god-like, and Adam sinned by transgressing the boundary between being a god-like creature and God as Creator. The consequence of his transgression is the fractured ontology of humanity and our broken relation to the Divine life, so, for Irenaeus, the human plight was not simply a juridical conundrum but an ontological and relational crisis. The Cappadocians later develop Irenaeus’s notion of theosis, and they viewed the work of Christ as making a way for us to become divine again through participation in the Triune life. Irenaeus summarized this notion of the atonement when he wrote, “It was necessary for Adam to be recapitulated in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up in immortality.”
Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching did not develop this metaphor of the atonement by appeal to particular passages, although 1 Pet 1:3-4 is a key New Testament text in support of this metaphor, but he looked for key moments in the broad, biblical narrative to demonstrate this metaphor. However, contemporary exegesis of several passages confirms Irenaeus’ instincts regarding this matter.
According to N.T. Wright, Romans 5:18-19 points to Jesus as both a true Adam and true Israel through his obedience to God, demonstrating God’s faithfulness to the covenant, so that as the life of Adam condemns us, so much more does the obedient life of Christ bring about God’s saving purposes in history.
Also, the Gospel of Matthew shapes the story of Jesus to fit within and move beyond the story of Israel. Craig Keener argues that the infancy narrative regarding Jesus’ flight to Egypt evokes the narrative of Israel, and so casts the life of Jesus as true embodiment of Israel’s story and mission of atonement. Matthew’s story about Jesus’ baptism and wilderness testing both evoke the story of Israel, and these stories provoke the reader to see Jesus as the true Israel, succeeding where Israel failed. Clearly, Matthew’s arrangement of Jesus’ story points the reader toward the Recapitulation metaphor of the atonement, and this particular way of telling the Jesus and atonement story has a decided advantage given our cultural context.
Because of our post-industrialized notion of plight as the fractured sense of self-being and relation to the “other,” Recapitulation is a winsome presentation of the gospel for our culture. Recapitulation reveals Jesus to be an authentic being that faced Adam’s, and humanity’s, struggle to live up to our ideal notion of self, yet Jesus succeeded where all others failed. Jesus becomes the space wherein the human and divine have communion without fear or reduction of the “other,” and our participation in Christ grants us participation in the divine life, restoring our true being. If Evangelicals utilized this metaphor for the atonement they could more effectively engage in God’s mission at this time. As McKnight suggests, “God provides atonement in order to create a fellowship of persons who love God and love others, who find healing for the self, and who care about the world.”
Jesus provided another powerful and contextually relevant metaphor for the atonement. Jesus interpreted the significance of his death through the Passover meal and the story of the Exodus, signaling that his death would bring about liberation for humanity. Passover was a time when Israel remembered and recapitulated the Exodus narrative, and Jesus chose to explain the meaning of his death on Passover and not Yom Kippur. By making this choice Jesus rooted the significance of his death in Israel’s hope for divine protection and liberation from an oppressive kingdom.
Jesus makes this point explicitly in Mark 10:45 when he said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” McKnight argues that this ransom language connects the death of Jesus to the death of the original Passover lamb that brought about Israel’s liberation. Also, Mark evokes Isaiah 52-53 when the prophet announced the good news to Israel that their captivity and oppression would end as the servant of Israel suffers as a ransom for their liberation. Likewise, the death of Jesus is a ransom price that effects humanity’s liberation.
While our culture has lost its capacity to recognize the plight of humanity as described by Penal Substitution, our culture is increasingly aware and concerned about the issue of social and global structures that oppress and exploit human beings. For example, the video produced by Invisible Children went viral back in 2012. Invisible Children is a movement designed to bring about liberation for the people of Uganda from the tyranny of Joseph Kony, and this video vividly showed the horrors that Kony and his army have perpetrated in Uganda. Within 24 hours the “Stop Kony” campaign raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and its video received over 35 million hits within one week. The issue of injustice and the need for liberation is very much on the hearts and minds of Western culture. The gospel mission to Postmodern Americans requires a message of atonement that speaks the language of liberation and offers a realized eschatological hope for liberation. When Evangelicals occasionally address these hopes, they do so through the lens of Penal Substitution, and the effect is to view salvation as a passport to an otherworldly form of liberation, leaving little to no hope and reason to work for liberation now. This old European conception of salvation has no resonance for the culture today.
Penal Substitutionary Theory is not wrong in what it affirms, but Evangelical appropriation of it is wrong in what it denies. Translating the metaphor into propositional language, maintaining old antagonisms and reducing the atonement to one metaphor has left Evangelicalism ill-prepared for mission for Postmodern America. While Evangelicals need not deny Penal Substitution the time is ripe to move beyond it.
Carson D.A. “Atonement in Romans 3:21-26.” Pages – in The Glory of the Atonement. Edited by Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004.
Fitch, David. The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011.
Gunton, Colin E. The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
Irenaeus. On the Apostolic Preaching. Translated by John Behr. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.
Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapis: Eerdmans, 1999.
Long, Stephen D. “Justification and Atonement.” Pages – in Evangelical Theology. Edited by Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Mann, Alan. Atonement for a ‘Sinless’ Society: Engaging with an Emerging Culture. Milton Keynes, Bucks: Paternoster Press, 2005.
Milano, Dan.“Stop Kony: How Invisible Children’s Campaign Went Viral on Youtube.” No Pages. Cited 27 April 2013. Online: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/technology/2012/03/
McKnight, Scot. A Community Called Atonement. Nashville: Abingdon, 2007.
Russell, Norman. The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2009.
Torrance, Thomas F. Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ. Edited by Robert T. Walker. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “The Atonement in Postmodernity.” Pages – in Evangelical Theology. Edited by Timothy Larsen and Daniel J. Treier. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Wright, N.T. Romans. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary 10. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.