Mimetic Monday: N.T. Wright and a Genuine Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory

N.T. Wright, courtesy of the University of St. Andrews.

What is God like? What are humans like?

When it comes to the Atonement, those two questions guide all of our other questions. They are the two implicit questions behind N.T. Wright’s comments about the Atonement in the video below. For example, Wright says:

“Tragically, some Christians have said that on the cross God embraced the use of violence to solve the problems, therefore this legitimates us in embracing violence…and I want to say, ‘Excuse me. You’re just not reading the text. That the point of that narrative is to say that all the evil and wickedness and violence of the world converged onto this one point, which was Jesus. And the point of that was … that that was the ultimate defeat of violence. It did its worst to him and he in consequence was able to exhaust its force.’”

Notice that Wright separates the violence on the cross from God. Wright makes this move throughout his work. In his book with Marcus J. Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, Wright states this about Jesus’ death, “He would go ahead of the nation to take upon himself the judgment of which he had warned, the wrath of Rome against rebel subjects. That, I believe, lies at the heart of the New Testament’s insistence that Jesus died the death that awaited others, in order that they might not die it” (98).

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There are times when Wright talks about the “wrath of God,” but whatever the wrath of God means, it does not mean that God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus while he hung on the cross. It does not mean that “on the cross God embraced the use of violence to solve the problems.” The cross was not about Jesus taking upon himself the “wrath of God”; rather, the cross was about Jesus taking upon himself the “wrath of Rome.” But, it would be foolish to simply blame Rome, or the religious authorities of the time. Indeed, they were part of the historical crucifixion, but you could replace the Roman Empire with any historical empire that attempted to keep the peace through violence, be that the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, or Greek Empires, or the modern French, British, or American empires.

Mimetic theory claims that we tend to find reconciliation by channeling our own wrath against a scapegoat. Indeed, this is the way that Empires find inner reconciliation when they experience a threat: they unite against a scapegoat. The same could be said about any group of human beings, whether high school cliques, office workers, church members, or politicians.

But as Wright continues his discussion of Atonement in the video, he says, “I want all of the theories of Atonement because I think that they all ultimately do fit together, but if you just take one of them, say Penal Substitution, and take it out of its biblical context, the danger then is that you do just have a picture of God as a sort of bullying headmaster who because the rest of the class have been bad he picks on his own son and he beats him up and says, ‘Well that’ll do.’ And I dread to think that there are some Christians who really think that that’s what the story is like.”

At this point I want to click the pause button and ask, “Do you really mean you want ALL Atonement theories? Because isn’t that exactly what Penal Substitutionary Atonement claims? That Jesus took upon himself the wrath of God so that the rest of us who have been bad won’t have to take God’s wrath upon ourselves?”

Unfortunately, Wright doesn’t answer that question, but in passing he says we need a “genuine theology of Penal Substitution.” At this point, I have to disagree with Wright because a genuine Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory cannot be a theology. Rather, it must be an anthropology. In other words, Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory describes what humans do, not what God does.

I’ll clarify by breaking down the phrase. The word penal refers to punishment. The theological view of Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory claims that Jesus took upon himself the punishment from God that we deserved. Punishment is an adequate word for what Jesus experienced on the cross, but the question is, “Where did the punishment come from?” We can follow Wright’s logic here, as long as we say that the punishment Jesus experienced didn’t come from God; it came from humans. So, there is truth in the word penal, but it’s an anthropological truth – the punishment came from humans, not from God.

Substitution refers to someone taking on punishment in another person’s place. Wright refers to the substitutionary role of Jesus in the quote from The Meaning of Jesus above when he writes, “Jesus died the death that awaited others, in order that they might not die it.” Again, there is truth in the assertion that Jesus was a substitute for others, but it’s an anthropological truth. Mark Heim states in his book Saved From Sacrifice that on the cross, “God has taken the place of the scapegoat, has lived the violence from the side of the persecuted, has endured sacrifice in order to end sacrifice” (244). Jesus substituted himself in the place of all the scapegoats that humans create. He took on human wrath in order to end our ways of sacrificial violence.

Atonement refers to wiping away our sins, but it’s just as acceptable to think of it simply as “at-one-ment.” Atonement wipes away our sins so that we can be at-one with God and with our fellow human beings. From an anthropological view, the cross demonstrated the human pattern of experiencing a sense of at-one-ness by uniting in sacrificial violence against a scapegoated victim. The anthropological truth is that whenever humans unite against a common enemy we have a sense of oneness and our sins against each other are wiped away as we thrust them upon our scapegoat.

But that is not the theological truth of how God makes Atonement with us. The theological truth is that God wipes away our sins and makes us one with God and with our fellow human beings through forgiveness. We see this on the cross when Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In fact, during his life, death, and resurrection Jesus made Atonement with God and humanity, not through acts of divine vengeance, but through acts of divine forgiveness.

What is God like? God is like Jesus: nonviolent love and forgiveness in action. Yet, used as a theological doctrine, Penal Substitutionary Atonement has sacralized God’s violence and our own. A genuine theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement cannot be a theology because it doesn’t tell the truth about God’s atoning forgiveness and love. If we continue to use the phrase Penal Substitutionary Atonement, we must use it as an anthropology, not a theology, for it tells the truth that humans frequently find atonement through sacrificially punishing a substitutionary victim who becomes our scapegoat.

Jesus came to end our sacrificial ways of making atonement by replacing it with God’s way of making atonement – the way of nonviolent forgiveness and love.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen

  • http://www.geekedoutsoul.com/ John Stonecypher

    Adam, you’ve raised a very interesting distinction here: Is penal substitution properly a theological thing or an anthropological thing? My first instinct is to say that, if it is just anthropological, wouldn’t it still have something to do with God (if we believe that the dude on the cross was somehow God himself)? It was indeed the wrath of Rome getting spilled out, but I am thinking there is still theological significance to the fact that God was the one upon whom it was being spilled.

    You have inspired me to take a closer look at Wright’s thoughts on this. I have so far found this: http://derekzrishmawy.com/2012/09/11/n-t-wright-on-penal-substitution/

  • http://www.geekedoutsoul.com/ John Stonecypher

    A soundbyte from the Wright link I gave below: “God is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself.”

    So Wright does see wrath coming from God, but it is properly to be understood as wrath not against evil people, but against evil itself. So I think Wright would argue that in atonement, something ontological is going on, something that can’t be reduced to human mimetic activity.

  • sguilford12

    http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=5895#.Uy5_umnnYm8

    This article clarifies Wright’s stance on penal substitution. Im still exploring atonement theories, penal substitution being my least favorite, but there is a chance there is something I am not seeing.

  • OwenW

    But Wright is right… There is a place for a penal substitution. The 4th Servant Song, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 has a place for a ‘substitution’ sense in what the punishment deserved to the transgressors was given to the innocent. While it does not employ language that is actually sacrificial (as often times defenders of Penal Substitution theory link Jesus’ death and penal substitution with the sacrificial system) but rather legal (v. 10 should read “an obligation for sin”; the costs for transgression that have been transferred). Furthermore, the song attributes this as God’s will to crush the servant. Given the New Testament’s language about Jesus is frequently derived form this servant song, we should not rule out this part in it. Without a process of demythologization, there is little solid ground to reject the substitionary language (or more precisely, vicarious language) of the Suffering Servant as a framework for understanding Jesus’ death.

    But the reason we need multiple ‘metaphors’ for atonement is that God’s justice-bring is not an simply act tied to a singular pattern of action. Scripture testifies to God’s violence in bringing about justice (such as in Isaiah 1:21-28) and also the place for God’s forgiveness and grace. To be sure, grace is God’s prominant default respond in Scripture, such as to the murder Cain, but God has his limits when violence escalates to which he responds with extreme, deadly judgment.. But as modern thinkers who tend to abstract, we have a problem with seemingly opposite actions, as we tend to think opposites are mutually exclusive. Pure abstractions have no room for opposites. Therefore, whenever we try to understand God principally by starting from abstract ideas as a basic starting point to reason from (such as ‘love’ ‘forgiveness’ etc. being a means we accept or reject certain theological statements), we experience an intellectual problem with a God of forgiveness who also capable of violence. However, God’s character is not a systematic exposition of a singular set of ideas, but a mystery filled with tension; Scripture does not readily talk about God in the hyper-abstract, except primarily to describe specific, concrete actions God takes.

    To isolate God’s character to certain aspects is akin to image-making; an image/idol would connect God primarily to the characteristics of the image at the exclusion of others. So in created a golden calf, Israel would associate YHWH with the features of the calf, and so narrow their understanding of YHWH and distort their understanding. Likewise, to isolate the atonement to a singular theory or summarily reject others possibilities because it contradicts one singular pattern, is also problematic, as Jesus’ atonement where God Himself is the actor; thus it is complex, filled with mystery, and not constrain to our categories, metaphors, and expected patterns. By saying some version of penal substituition can not tell the truth about God is to make that mistake that we as Western, hyper-abstract thinkers are prone to make. Humans in times of extreme circumstances or extreme personalities may be motivated and guided by single ideas, but that is not how Scripture portrays God. I would suggest saying “God is nonviolent and forgiving” as a statement used to exclude “God is violent in the atonement” is itself more of an anthropological form of argument than it is divine.

    To bring this full circle, while I reject the classic Reformed teaching on penal substitution (I have always favored a Christus victor model), there is strong biblical basis for the idea (not just as THE controlled idea for Jesus’ death). So Wright is right in my opinion. We need an understanding of penal substitution with a litany of other biblical expressions/metaphors: but it needs to be reformulated from its classic expression where it was a distortion as the dominant expression just as the non-violence theories can take on a similar distortion as the dominant expression.

  • Steve

    This is what Julian of Norwich has to say about the wrath of God:

    In all the Beholding methought it was needful to see and to know that
    we are sinners, and do many evils that we ought to leave, and leave
    many good deeds undone that we ought to do: wherefore we deserve pain
    and wrath. And notwithstanding all this, I saw soothfastly that our Lord
    was never wroth, nor ever shall be. For He is God: Good, Life, Truth,
    Love, Peace; His Clarity and His Unity suffereth Him not to be wroth.
    For I saw truly that it is against the property of His Might to be
    wroth, and against the property of His Wisdom, and against the property
    of His Goodness. God is the Goodness that may not be wroth, for He is
    not but Goodness: our soul is oned to Him, unchangeable Goodness, and
    between God and our soul is neither wrath nor forgiveness in His sight.
    For our soul is so fully oned to God of His own Goodness that between
    God and our soul may be right nought.


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