A Straw Man on the Cross?

Some of my favorite commenters (like Annie) have accused me of “straw man” arguments this past week. I disagree. That would mean that I had overinflated the arguments of my theological opponents and then popped their balloons.  But, in fact, I have used actual blog posts and quotes — their very serious charges of heresy about me — in my responses. Anyone who has actually dealt, face-to-face, with persons like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Justin Taylor, and Kevin DeYoung knows that they are not straw men. I am responding to things they have actually said and written — and things, I imagine, that they actually believe.  (In all honesty, I don’t believe that they treat my arguments as fairly.)

For evidence, just peruse my comment section. Never once does one of them or their posse write that I’ve misunderstood their arguments or “created the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a
superficially similar proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it,
without ever having actually refuted the original position.” No, they usually just quote Bible verses or tell me that I leading people to hell. Or both.

Exhibit A: Kevin DeYoung’s response to my Good Friday post is to quote four Bible verses and then misrepresent my position in his final paragraph.

I imagine that if I had misrepresented the PSA proponents in my attempt to rebut them, they’d let us know.

However, I do see how some readers understood my Good Friday post to be an outright rejection of PSA. I did not intend it that way.

Of course, I was having a conversation with myself, not with my readers, as I wrote that post. In that post, I wrote,

Some people today may find it compelling that some Great Cosmic
Transaction took place on that day 1,980 years ago, that God’s wrath
burned against his son instead of against me. I find that version of
atonement theory neither intellectually compelling, spiritually
compelling, nor in keeping with the biblical narrative.

However, that does not lead me to reject it outright. Why? Because I can still see the merits of PSA. I can still understand the theological arguments behind it. I can still see how it is justified by some Pauline writings.

As I have said and written elsewhere, I consider the crucifixion-resurrection to be the pivot point in cosmic history. It is ultimately more immense and beautiful than any human words can describe or explain.

Every atonement theory proffered by theologians over the past two millennia has shone a spotlight on that event. And I, for one, think the more spotlights shining on the cross and empty tomb, the better.

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  • Tony,
    When I read you post on Good Friday I had the strong impression that you were rejecting penal substitution. Your qualifications above, that you can “see” the merits, supporting arguments, and Pauline basis of the view, are taken, but your op did read like a rejection and not a qualified endorsement of PSA.
    Because the teaching of Scripture on the atonement is deliberately diverse, precisely because the death of Christ was intended to deal with a multi-faceted problem, I can think of no valid reason to avoid the polemic and exemplary dimensions of the cross. However, there is no victory over Satan apart from penal substitution. Satan is a deceiver and accuser. The polemic emphasis in 1 John, Colossians and Revelation lies close beside the legal/penal substitutionary emphasis.
    I take it that this reflects the Godward nature of disobedience to law found in Genesis 2-3 that Satan takes advantage of, and why Christ both obeys and suffers for us. Satan is conquered because he no longer has a legal basis on which to accuse Christ’s people.
    I’m also struggling to figure out why you would want to say that you don’t find penal substitution mentally and spiritually compelling and yet still say that you affirm it. Why say that you don’t find this “version of atonement theory…in keeping with the biblical narrative” and then say that it is Pauline?
    I’m not seeking to misrepresent you here, but are you hanging on to this doctrine by your finger nails?

  • Tony, I would agree completely with Martin’s comment above. He nails it. I don’t understand how you can say that something doesn’t keep “with the biblical narrative” and then admit that it fits some of Paul’s letters. It doesn’t seem (based on your Good Friday post) like you just want to make certain that all spotlights are pointed at the cross but that the penal substitution spotlight is turned off.

  • Annie

    My comment was kind of harsh, but this frustration has been building. Let me explain myself.
    I was most recently referring to the psa post, which did, as martin downes points out, *sound* like a total rejection of psa, which you then qualified. Now, I actually have no problem with rejecting penal substitution because I really dislike it as a way of talking about the atonement and I don’t think, in some forms, that it’s particularly biblical, prooftexters notwithstanding. So I wasn’t offended. I just observed the movement from what sounded like a rejection to I wasn’t really rejecting it in the fact of criticism and I wished it had all come across differently.
    Meanwhile, this has been a frustration, the feeling that you’re dealing with not the best example of a given argument, and this post really helps clarify why I have that sense. You are engaging with real people writing real blog posts. I see that. It’s just that, as an example of calvinism or lutheranism or orthodoxy or whatever, some of those posts are often *not* particularly well-considered versions of the standard positions.
    That’s not such a problem in itself. It’s just that demolishing a poorly argued calvinist position is not much of a critique of calvinism itself. A person could just as easily argue from within calvinism, for instance, that the position in question is ill stated or flawed somehow. At which point, the critique of calvinism looks like a straw man to me because you haven’t dealt with the best possible articulation of calvinism. You’ve instead dismantled something a calvinism could just as easily have dismantled. You’re on the same side as a more rigorous calvinist, in a sense.
    My point being that’s not a bad exercise and you are dealing with real posts and such. It just isn’t as compelling as a critique of calvinism that took on the best possible articulation of the position would be. At least not for me. And it’s pretty consistent that I find myself thinking of ways in which a more fully formed version of the same position could stand up to your critique–not that you couldn’t then extend your critique. It just…it’s frustrating.
    Sure, you can find a Catholic who says she worships Mary. That doesn’t mean that’s an accurate reflection of The Catholic Position. It isn’t official teaching. Critiquing it as such–as many people are wont to do–is less interesting to me than developing a critique of official teaching or a critique that carefully distinguishes between official teaching and practices that seem to undermine that teaching.
    Here we arrive at the heart of the issue–I think there are better and worse examples of a given position…? Official teaching? What the heck am I talking about? Well, yeah. That’s probably the crux of the difference between us. I am far less committed to treating every instantiation of a given theology as genuine. I’m much more inclined to dismiss the ordinary musings of the theological blogger as a whole lot of misunderstanding.
    Those “misunderstandings” do comprise a discourse and, over enough bloggers, I think one can identify particular discursive practices and enunciations that form the substance of that discourse. This, I think, is well-worth talking about as a descriptive project–toldya I was a Foucauldian.
    I have an issue when it comes to critique. What doesn’t work for me is the failure to acknowledge that a person who does not identify with the emerging church or postmodernism or whatever could just as easily critique the same position from within tradition. The tradition itself may be robust enough to handle some of those problems. I find myself thinking that quite a lot. Okay, so maybe you’re right about the piece you’re quoting, but a better informed [member of whatever tradition] could have made just as robust a critique.
    My Mary worshiping example works here–a person could critique that by rejecting Catholicism because it dilutes the uniqueness of God by making Mary quasi-divine….but that would look like a straw man to me because a person could just as easily critique that position by arguing that the individual in question has confused devotion/veneration and worship and made an error, from the standpoint of tradition.
    lots more I could say but there are children screaming. I hope I make some kind of sense.

  • While other atonement theories are valid and useful (and most importantly, biblical), the PS theory is the most critical. For if our sins are not atoned for, a just God cannot forgive them. And if our sins are not forgiven, we hope in vain.

  • Annie

    And Darius exactly articulates my problem with penal substitution…it doesn’t do the problem Jesus came to atone any justice. Your personal sins are a drop in the bucket. Jesus came to redeem the whole of human nature. Yes, it’s about you. But no, it is not all about you. It’s not even most critically about you.

  • Annie

    and when I say exactly articulates, I mean I am in total disagreement. Just wanted to be clear. our hope is in the resurrection and the restoration of human nature to the perfect image of God, not in personal salvation.

  • Darius T.

    Yes, our hope is in the resurrection of the righteous. But there will be no resurrection of the righteous if our unrighteousness is not paid or atoned for. God is Holy and Just, and the only way for Him to have fellowship with sinners (either in this life or the next) is for Him to put away our sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 9:26).

  • Scott M

    Darius’ comment illustrates exactly what I’ve been saying. PSA binds God and limits his ability to forgive. Essentially, under PSA God can’t really forgive at all. Everything has to be paid for by someone. Doesn’t really matter if it’s Jesus being punished for the debt or me. I find the story of a God with any limits on his ability to forgive is utterly counter to the biblical narrative. Our central problem is not and has never been a need for forgiveness. God’s got overflowing forgiveness – an inexhaustible supply. Our problem is that we need life. PSA doesn’t even begin to address that problem.

  • Darius T.

    Oops, “your name” was me.

  • Something I love noticing:
    When you have bible verses that support your view, it is “aligning yourself with the biblical narrative”
    when people whom you disagree with have bible verses that support their view it is “prooftexting”
    hey i do it too.

  • Darius T.

    Hmm, sorry about the multiple comments.
    “Our central problem is not and has never been a need for forgiveness.”
    Scott, so how do you explain the OT Law and the sacrificial system? Or why Jesus came telling people that their sins were forgiven? It would seem that people do indeed need forgiveness… God’s got overflowing forgiveness, but He also has overflowing holiness and justice. Those attributes aren’t pitted against each other at the Cross, they are all gloriously shown at the Cross.

  • Scott M,
    PSA cannot be divorced from federal theology. Christ has obeyed and suffered for those united to him. This is why the one act of righteousness leads to justification and life. As Bavinck put it “Christ’s obedience returns us not to the beginning but to the end of the road Adam had to walk.”
    Whether we think that a) God can just forgive or b) God’s justice must be satisfied, I think, in the end comes down to whether we see justice as essential to God’s nature (a la Deut. 32:4) or as a function of his will (and therefore punishing sin is optional for God).

  • Larry

    PSA binds God and limits his ability to forgive
    Exactly, in fact PSA moves forgiveness from the arena of grace to that of law and of rights. Forgiveness is no longer something that is granted by a gracious God, but something that you claim as a right based on the work of Jesus on the cross. God, and Jesus, had no problem forgiving sin and sinners prior to the cross, so it is pretty evident that the cross is not necessary for God to forgive sin. God has always stood ready to forgive sin, but what was required was, and is, a humble spirit and repentance.

  • Darius T.

    “God, and Jesus, had no problem forgiving sin and sinners prior to the cross…”
    Where in the Bible do you get that?
    Romans 3:25-26 “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
    The sin that God forgave even before the Cross was BECAUSE of the coming Cross.

  • Martin, What I’m getting at is that I do NOT want to emulate my theological adversaries. Just because I do not find a particular doctrine compelling or in accord with the biblical narrative does not mean that I will reject it out-of-hand. I could be wrong. And I want to oblige the many faithful women and men who find truth and life in PSA. If someone argued that child pornography was biblically justifiable, I’d vehemently object. But someone arguing that PSA best helps them to understand the cross is a different story. I wouldn’t teach it, but I don’t begrudge them the right to teach. What I take umbrage at is their myopia regarding PSA and their willingness to condemn anyone who disagrees with them to the lake of fire.

  • Annie, of course I agree with you. I would love it if the Kuyperian Calvinists or the Barthian Calvinists would stand up and defend Reformed theology from within the system. But they’re not. Instead, they’re maddeningly silent.
    Meanwhile, the version of Calvinism that you find odious is in ascendancy. Driscoll is on Nightline and in the NYTimes. Piper is selling books hand-over-fist. Keller is speaking in the Google cafeteria. All while the Kuyperians and Barthians write more papers to be presented at the AAR.
    Somebody needs to propose an alternative. That’s all I’m trying to do.

  • Larry

    Where in the Bible do you get that?
    Start with the gospels (those are the books at the start of the New Testament, in front of Paul). Jesus freely forgave sin, _prior_ to being crucified.

  • Martin Downes

    Thank you Tony,
    I originally made my way here after reading Kevin DeYoung’s post. I’m still not sure that Kevin misrepresented you. Had you not qualified yourself in a later post I would have too (well, in fact, I did, at least in my head).
    My guess is that your language about not finding psa compelling, followed by a paragraph beginning with “Instead” made it almost impossible not to take you as saying that you were offering a better models in place of the ps one.
    I’m curious to know that since you think psa is Pauline why you personally wouldn’t teach it.

  • Darius T.

    Larry, I meant the “no problem” part of forgiving sin. Paul tells us in Romans that God indeed had a problem forgiving sin without punishment, but that He knew that the Cross (which had been planned before the beginning of time) would satisfy that which had been left unpunished among His righteous followers. So God was patient (“forbearing”) with humanity until Christ could pay the debt that man could never pay.

  • David

    Yes Larry, but he did so on the basis of the Cross…The Bible is pretty clear on this. I am always intrigued when people try and pit the Bible against itself..it is all scripture, Paul and Jesus are not at war. Nor is the OT with the New.

  • Annie

    I get it. I’m not involved in all those conversations, so it isn’t maybe immediately apparent to be all the time, but what you’re saying makes sense.

  • Annie

    to me not to be.

  • The problem continues to be that PSA is *necessary* for atonement to occur and victory over Satan. That is to say, satisfaction of God’s immutable law, or as Barth argues contra the Westminster Confession “absolute decree” is held prior to the Incarnation. The question is why this form of satisfaction must be necessary for the resurrection to be effectual.
    Following Eastern Orthodox theology, what is necessary for atonement is victory over death in new life which begins with the revelation of God in the Incarnation. Jesus is the true form of humanity as it ought to have been – in perfect union with God and in perfect life. From the very beginning, Jesus presents life and rejects death as a consequence of human living. Sin creates death, God’s judgment is life and so, the reasons for the death are almost moot once Jesus is raised from the dead in terms of what those who follow Jesus are to do after the resurrection in response to it.
    The question is if God elected to limit God’s self in terms of an immutable law, or a notion of cosmic justice, to which God chose to limit God’s action; or did God elect to limit God’s self in the humanity of Jesus? The two are not mutually exclusive. While the former could have been the reason we can intellectually infer, to suggest that it is *necessary* for new life to be possible in Christ seems absurd because it attempts to try to prove too much to be of use to anyone trying to live this new life.
    What we do know is that if we are to live this new life to its fullest, as Jesus did, we will likely be rejected and killed because of it. The question is why? That’s a far more important question to address than debating various indefinite assertions regarding God’s immutable law in my judgment.

  • Annie

    oh, and that hebrews passage does not at all contradict what I’m saying. At all. Nor do I see where it conflicts with what Scott M is saying, unless one understands “sin” in a very narrow and limited sense, which I don’t think is warranted by scripture. The wages of sin is death. Real, actual, physical death AND spiritual death. It entails the sum of decay and corruption, at all levels, not one’s own personal misdoings.
    Start from that understand of the nature of sin and the entire bible reads differently.

  • Right, Tony. The error is trying to pack something as enormous and cosmic as the crucifixion and resurrection in one little box. God just doesn’t fit into these neat little boxes we try to stuff him in and then seal the top. At least on this side, we will never fully grasp the awesomeness of it all. The various theories offer insights that are helpful but they don’t succeed in doing full justice to the Truth.

  • Tony, I’ve heard you argue that last little paragraph a few times now, and something bothers me about it. Isn’t it a big assumption to say that every atonement theory is a spotlight? I feel like there needs to be some level of theological discernment. Some theories will no doubt cast more shadow than light on God’s plan for that day.

  • A mentor of mine once told me to take that kind of baseless criticism as a compliment. You’re getting under their skin and chipping away at the foundations of the closed theological system of which they have made an idol. They wouldn’t attack you if you weren’t doing something right. Keep up the good work!

  • Tim B

    I wouldn’t mind seeing someone who objects to psa reconcile a bit of how God can have lovingkindness (hesed) and yet in his holiness of character say “I will by no means let the guilty go unpunished” or say how it is an abomination when the guilty are not ruled guilty. (e.g. Exodus 23:7; 34:6,7; Dt. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Prov. 24:24; etc.)
    Another side of things, is that all serious defenders of PSA that I am aware of would acknowledge that sin involves both guilt and corruption. It involves both legal aspects and corruption that must be cleansed.
    Even more, proponents of PSA don’t just see Christ as getting rid of the bad. They see him ushering in the good, this would go back the concept of the ‘four fold states of man’. Once sin is paid for and human nature is cleansed (the transgression of the law removed), Christ leads us triumphantly into the new creation and these benefits flow from our union with him.
    I can’t help but think there are still some caricatures about how ‘reductionistic’ psa allegedly is.

  • Scott M

    The question is really do you read the biblical narrative from the perspective that we are in dire straits from which God is acting to rescue us? Or do you read it as God resolving some internal conflict – a problem or limitation of God – with any benefit for us essentially incidental? According to the lens you wear, the whole story looks different, to the point that tossing around individual prooftexts truly is a pointless exercise. While my background is complicated, I converted as an adult. I’ve read the whole text more than once and large swatches within it many, many times trying to realign my perspective into this story. I pretty much interpret the story and each individual passage within it through the first lens and that lens is more consistent with the view of the larger church over its whole history than the latter. Much more consistent.
    Now, like Tony most recently expressed in the comments, I don’t believe that those who hold to PSA are somehow evil or that God is somehow constrained from working through and with them. I do, however, find that it consistently and naturally leads people (pastors and teachers as well as congregants without those roles) to say things about God that I feel not only do God a tremendous disservice, but which are actually repellent. I don’t blame people for choosing none of the above over the version of the Christian God they’ve been presented. I wouldn’t believe in that God either. But that’s not the God I’ve encountered. Nor is it the God I find revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Nor is it the God I see in the story of the Church. Nor is it the God I find in scripture. I want to describe that God to people because he’s a God utterly unlike any other. And the story he tells about what it means to be a human being is simply incredible!

  • Darius T.

    Jesus didn’t come saying all people’s sin is forgiven, but He forgave INDIVIDUALS’ sin many times. For all individuals have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. Not ONE is righteous…
    Yes, the wages of my sin IS death, both physically and spiritually. I’ve earned those wages many times over during my life, as have we all. And God, due to His divine ATTRIBUTES of Just and Holy (note: these aren’t laws, they’re characteristics of God) must pay those wages or else He is not Just, Holy, or Faithful to His Word. And if we humans were paid the wages of our sin, we would perish. And we don’t have the ability to pay back those wages. So God chose to glorify Himself by paying the price demanded by His character.

  • Darius T.

    “They wouldn’t attack you if you weren’t doing something right.”
    So if Tony was doing or saying something wrong, you would expect no one to “attack” him? Interesting…

  • Martin Downes

    Scott M,
    On this bit:
    “The question is really do you read the biblical narrative from the perspective that we are in dire straits from which God is acting to rescue us? Or do you read it as God resolving some internal conflict – a problem or limitation of God – with any benefit for us essentially incidental?”
    It would help if you could articulate that second question in different words. I’m not at all sure what you mean by it. Christ’s penal sufferings were all for us. I don’t recognise the statement about “any benefit for us essentially incidental” as representative of the psa doctrine. Was it intended to be?

  • Tim,
    The way that you present the implications of hesed are by placing a given assumption of God’s “holiness of character” and what must by necessity satisfy that attribute. The statement of forgiveness and the nature of the resurrection itself seem to satisfy that. the resurrection is itself the judgment. No it is not a balanced equation of justice like the flood narrative or Sodom and Gomorrah among others at least appeared to be. It is a judgment of grace that was rendered by God in response to the outcome of sin which is the death of Jesus.
    Moreover, the statement, “I will by no means let the guilty go unpunished” is still true given the eschatological statements that even Jesus proclaimed (see Mt. 22). Maybe those passages were not talking about Jesus and we just assume that to be true based on a presupposition that PSA must be true before we come to the text? This is another reason I no longer accept PSA as valid even if it seems “reasonable” from one view. So I go further than Tony with it for sure.

  • Darius,
    They are laws.
    If God has specific attributes, then certain actions must follow in order to support those attributes. If those actions are constrained and do not change as a result (for they cannot change given that said attributes are immutable) then these are laws that govern God’s actions towards humanity and the cosmos. Conformity to the attributes inherently results in laws that govern action. Unless you can define what governs God’s will if the the character of God must be a certain way. The wage language is an economic contract in which the relationship between God and humanity is constrained by specific conditions to uphold God’s holiness. That is the definition of law. The notion of “penal” itself is a legal term.
    Too many chips have been pushed into play with Paul’s metaphor of wages here. Maybe that’s the problem. The last sentence is also problematic. Did Jesus die to glorify God through immutable law, or did die out of an act of love? Is God really as narcissistic as God sounds here? Atheists certainly think so based on this interpretation of PSA.

  • nathan

    Just think, T.
    You’re helping Kevin raise his profile.
    He should thank you.

  • Colin

    I agree, the Barthian Calvinists had ought to stand up (I don’t know much about Kuyper – doesn’t Jamie Smith belong to a church in the Kuyperian tradition?). I was having trouble thinking of an example of one on the magnitude of Keller/Driscoll/Piper and immediately think of the rising Michael Spencer, aka Internet Monk. I remember reading on this blog that Barth is one of the few theologians with whom he has never found a disagreement. He no longer calls himself a Calvinist but is clearly a reformed SBCer. I’m sure you know him, but others might not. I think that when/if his book hits the shelf it will be a maddeningly good entry into the public discourse, considering the quality of his writing and rhetoric in his blog posts.
    And I doubt that iMonk is worried about the AAR 🙂
    Finally, I don’t think that there are nearly as many Barthians out there as there are newly reformed Calvinists/Zwinglians (whether in name or by creed). The ones that constantly plague your blog are what I have heard (if I recall) called “cage-Calvinists” because they know just enough about grace not to show any (sort of like the new student of Greek who knows enough to make him dangerous). I’ve been there! (and back!)

  • Scott M

    Martin, that’s not correct. Under PSA, Christ’s sufferings were to pay the debt of sin that God could not forgive. While we benefit from that under the theory, the primary problem the theory is addressing is God’s problem with forgiveness. He wants to forgive us our offense, but he’s limited by a law of justice and cannot forgive without payment. I don’t agree that God has any such problem so I don’t agree with the fundamental proposition about God that undergirds PSA. And frankly it’s that God an ever increasing number of people find repellent. That proposition flows from theories of Natural Law which aren’t so much the automatic Western perspective anymore. I’m right there with them. If I believed that theory actually described God, I wouldn’t be Christian. Period. Fortunately, it’s not only not the only theory describing what was happening on the Cross (a critical piece to our understanding of God), it’s not even a particularly dominant view or one with deep roots. So there’s no harm in saying that’s not my God.

  • Darius T.

    Drew, if you haven’t read Piper’s Desiring God book, I would recommend it. God is not a narcissist in the same way a man is. For a man to worship himself would be sin, not so much because self-worship is sin but because it doesn’t worship the One who deserves ALL worship. So for God to glory in Himself and “worship” Himself is very different than for a man to be self-centered on his own glory or interests.
    Jesus died “for the glory set before Him.” That glory was to have all creation sing His praise for eternity, and to prove God faithful to His promises. His love for humanity is closely connected to love of Himself; God is love, but He can’t love others unless He infinitely loves Himself (which is the heart of the golden rule to man). Out of His own desire for glory comes love for His creation and the reason we were created to begin with. He created us not so that He could have something to love (the love between the Triune is perfect and infinite). He created man so that He could receive glory from the angels and man and show just how glorious He is. Some of this involves significant amounts of mystery, so I don’t want to speak beyond what the Bible clearly says or implies.

  • Martin Downes

    Scott M,
    God is true to his own nature and not to an external law. Justice is natural to him. I cannot conceive of him not opposing sin with his holy being. He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. If it were otherwise then the punishment of sin would be a mere act of his will. God would not even need to act consistently. He may or may not punish sin as the case may be. That would make him arbitrary in his justice.
    He owed us punishment for our sin but not grace, but having chosen to save us there was no other way but by the cross. Is this not the best explanation for the agony of Gethsemane? Why did the cup, that aweful Old Testament symbol of God’s just anger against sinners, not pass from Christ? Why did he have to drink it if there was another way?
    PSA is so deeply embedded into the biblical narrative and the very character of God that its unravelling would destroy the good news. The moment we admit that sin carries a penalty and that Christ the sinless one was made sin for us, we will have a doctrine of psa.
    Not everyone who affirms penal substitution has also affirmed the consequent absolute necessity of the atonement, but those that have done the former and not the latter have weakened the doctrine.

  • Darius,
    “God is not a narcissist in the same way a man is.”
    Yet God is nonetheless, a narcissist! Just not in the same way via analogia as humanity.
    What troubles me is that you mention not once the love of God in the atonement. That seems to miss a significant piece in the biblical narrative which you claim to understand clearly. Or, maybe this is just Piper talking through you. I have not read Piper, but I have read Anselm, Augustine, Barth, Calvin, Kierkegaard and others and think that’s probably sufficient for now at least.
    What you did not address was the main claim that the relationship between God’s attributes and God’s action in the atonement is one of law and inherently so. The fundamental assertion of PSA is that God limits God’s own freedom with God’s own law otherwise an atonement is not necessary. I am more interested in how proponents of PSA deal with the freedom of God. If you don’t know, then that’s fine too. Then it’s something to go back and understand a bit better.

  • Martin Downes

    God limits God’s own freedom with God’s own nature is perhaps the better way to express it (lest God’s own law be misconstrued as merely external). You are right to say that the crunch issue is whether we are voluntarists on these matters or hold that justice is essential to God’s nature. Is God’s will free from his nature?

  • Darius T.

    As I understand God, He is not “free” to do things that are contrary to his nature, or He would cease to be God. He could lie, but then He wouldn’t be God, since He is only truth. He could be unjust, but then He wouldn’t be God. God is Just, Love, Holy, Truth, etc. He can’t do anything that contradicts Himself. And this has been true for eternity past and future. That is the “freedom of God.”
    So, with that in mind, PSA doesn’t limit God’s freedom anymore than His own attributes do. God wouldn’t be God the Just unless He demanded payment for the sin against God the Holy. And the only one who could pay that penalty and still live to talk about it (so to speak) is God. Everyone else, if we were to face God’s wrath, would be utterly destroyed. Heck, even seeing His Holiness ruined Isaiah in a sense. Now God could have easily destroyed all humanity (at least, until the Noahic covenant) and moved on and would have still been a Just, Loving, and Holy God. That would have been perfectly within His “rights” and staying true to His attributes. But He chose to save some so that He might be glorified all the more by angels and humans alike.

  • Martin,
    The effect of that nature, so conceived, is that it is externalized and made an object through law. Thus, law is external and the nature is internal to the being of God. Yet, as law is externalized, God elects to limits God’s own nature in order to fulfill that external law. Otherwise the nature of God would have no effect on human living if it was contained in the being of God alone.
    It’s a paradox, not an equation that balances out with God’s justice as an essential attribute on one side and law on the other. The paradox is that God assumed a human form that was rendered sinless and that God’s judgment on sin was and is life, not death.
    Which leads the heresy hunter to the next question: that means that Jesus did not have to die! Wrong. Jesus had to die because that is what happens when God enters into a fallen human condition. Jesus’ death is the fulfillment of idolatry and the ultimate rejection of God by God’s own people. Jesus dies by virtue of the Incarnation, not in order to balance a cosmic equation.
    PSA is as if the God who promised never to wipe out the planet again after the flood was an anomaly. It appears that the God who does not change according to justice, has changed more than once. That the sentence of life in the face of sin was given rather than death is in keeping with the very relationship of God to the cosmos. I think part of this is that we have a lot of baggage from the Greek notion of perfection which is inherently unchanging. the God of the Hebrews looks quite a bit different.

  • Darius T.

    “PSA is as if the God who promised never to wipe out the planet again after the flood was an anomaly.”
    You miss the irony of that statement. God had already wiped out the planet once for sin (and He didn’t grant everyone life as punishment for that sin, but death).
    “the God of the Hebrews looks quite a bit different.”
    And again, more pitting the OT God against the NT God. Faithful hermeneutics doesn’t do this.
    “God’s judgment on sin was and is life, not death.”
    Let me see if I understand you. Are you saying that if God will save all people? And is it reasonable to infer that if we want more life, we should sin more, since the judgment on that sin is life?

  • Tony,
    Just read your post on the question of straw men. By and large I thought your restatements were fair enough.
    But the one area about PSA that I think you’re misrepresenting is the idea that PSA advocates think it’s the only theory–the exclusive one, the one that crushes all the others. One could argue that it’s elevated too highly, but it’s not true that the best representatives (say, Packer, Nicole, Carson, Stott, etc.) play it off as the only game in town.
    Hope that helps.

  • Darius,
    “pitting the OT God against the NT God.”
    I am not pitting any “God” against another “God” at all. But by saying that there is an NT and an OT God, it must mean that God does indeed change and so, God’s laws can change. So God does change. Unless there are two different gods which is not what you are saying.
    “Are you saying that if God will save all people?”
    I think God wants to. But that will be sorted out in the final judgment where we will enter the fully revealed kingdom, or not. Jesus was pretty vivid about this as well.
    “And is it reasonable to infer that if we want more life, we should sin more…”
    No. Bad inference. Or as Paul said, By no means! The point is that God’s judgment on sin is the resurrection since that is the ultimate outcome of Jesus’ death. To focus on the death of Jesus as a payment for sin debt misses that Jesus overcame death and thus overcame the world with resurrection. The Gospel is life which requires a response for which the witness of Jesus’ ministry is our nourishment.
    Or, to answer with a question, if the crucifixion is the repayment for human sin debt, like a cosmic bailout if you will, what does the resurrection mean in relation to the crucifixion? Is not a full payment of sin-debt death? Resurrection does not seem to correspond well with justice does it…unless of course something else is at play that is more reasonable. PSA is irrational when we look at the big picture – and that is good hermeneutics, not bad.

  • Sara

    Tony, in all your postmodern muster, you say: “Every atonement theory proffered by theologians over the past two millennia has shone a spotlight on that event. And I, for one, think the more spotlights shining on the cross and empty tomb, the better.”
    The more, the better? Really? Aren’t some mutually exclusive? Aren’t some backed more by modern scholarship than others? Aren’t some dangerous to women?
    One of the most problematic aspects of traditional atonement theologies, from the standpoint of those concerned about the relationship between theological violence and real violence, is the notion that Jesus endured his suffering and death willingly. Many battered woman will stay in dangerous relationships because of the ideas of “redemptive suffering,” “redemptive violence,” “self-sacrificial love,” “redemptive suffering,” “silent suffering,” “turning the other cheek,” etc. These theologies are dangerous to women. In these theologies, being Christlike can be very dangerous to women.
    Penal Substitutionary (Calvin): An abusive husband is angry that one of his kids broke curfew. His wife knows that he intends to beat the kid for breaking one of the rules of the house. So when the kid gets home, the wife stands in the way of the abusive husband. This enables the wife to be the substitute and take the husband’s wrathful beating in place of the kid.
    Ransom (Origen): An abusive husband gets angry that something of his gets broken. The wife knows her kid broke it, but fears the husband will beat the kid if her husband finds out. So the wife lies and tells the husband that she broke the item in order to trick the husband into beating her instead of the kid.
    Moral influence (Abelard): A wife is obedient to her abusive husband’s will to the point of accepting his abuse as part of her obedience to him. She thinks that by accepting this abuse, she will help him realize the problem of his abusive ways.
    Governmental (Grotius): An abusive husband is angry that one of his kids broke one of the rules of the house. He approaches the kid and threatens him. His wife them pleads with the husband to leave him alone. The husband then gets angry at his wife and beats her instead. The husband considers the beating restitution for the rule that the kid broke.
    Liberation (Boff): An abusive husband starts hitting his wife. The wife decides to be like Jesus and take the abuse. Her rationale is that taking the abuse will show her husband just how awful the abuse really is. She decides the best way to stop his abuse is to take it an then show him her bloodied face when he is done. The hope is that he will feel a sense of empathy. Unfortunately there is no guarantee that anything will actually change.
    Turn the other cheek: A wife takes the next punch from her abusive husband instead of leaving the situation. She thinks she is following the teachings of Jesus. After all, he didn’t flee from abuse either.
    Silent suffering: A wife stays silent about the the beatings she receives from her abusive husband. She figures Jesus was beaten, yet he did not open his mouth. So, she she do likewise.
    Cross bearing: A wife accepts the beatings that she receives from her husband because she thinks the abuse is her cross to bear, just like Jesus bore his cross.
    Redemptive suffering: A wife justifies the beatings she gets from her husband as her way to save the marriage. She thinks she’d never make it on her own, so the beatings are a “small” price to pay for financial security.
    The list could go on and on. We need to seriously consider the ethical implications of our theologies. Not all theories of atonement are ethical. Some are dangerous.
    Don’t we have to consider the ethical implications of our theologies? Don’t some theologies merit rejection? Don’t some theologies merit elevation? Is there more to theology than the nihilistic relativism of accepting everything? Aren’t there some theologies that are better than others?

  • Darius,
    “God wouldn’t be God the Just unless He demanded payment for the sin against God the Holy.”
    And there would not be a resurrection unless God is “God the Forgiver of Sin” or “God the Gracious” (sounds like a Monty Python character – God the Just). Paul also says that it is by grace that we are saved – not by the repayment of sin debt.
    I cannot see why it is that PSA proponents cannot view the cross through the final outcome which is the resurrection. This whole balance ledger idea metaphor has been over-extended. If God’s justice is satisfied, truly satisfied for sin-debt, then the resurrection does not seem very just does it. Nor does Jesus’ behaviors with all those pesky sinners. The Pharisees had the justice part correct – totally correct for any literal interpretation of the law. But God responded with resurrection to their iniquity for which the Romans and the disciples were complicit. God’s ultimate response is not justice, it is grace and that’s what is missing and why we need to get rid of this PSA idea which has done more harm than good in my judgment.

  • Darius T.

    If God’s justice is satisfied, truly satisfied for sin-debt, then the resurrection does not seem very just does it?
    Why? Jesus died and was forsaken by God (which we will never fully appreciate). Then God overcame the grave in the Resurrection. No one’s saying it’s not complex, but denying large portions of Scripture isn’t a place I’m willing to go (even Tony admits that PSA is found in the Pauline letters).

  • Tim B

    “I cannot see why it is that PSA proponents cannot view the cross through the final outcome which is the resurrection.”
    “Christ’s resurrection was the de facto declaration of God in regard to his being just. His quickening bears in itself the testimony of his justification. God through suspending the forces of death operating on Him, declared that the ultimate, the supreme consequence of sin had reached its termination. In other words, resurrection had annulled the sentence of condemnation.” Geerhardus Vos (you might also check out Richard Gaffin’s work Resurrection and Redemption)
    You seem to continue to propound a caricature of what proponents of PSA hold with respect to the resurrection and its relationship to the cross. In fact, Paul is quite clear that if Christ has not been raised we are still in our sins. The resurrection is a testimony to the fact that Christ exhausts the curse of sin. He been raised is a statement that he is just, that sin is paid for, and that death has no power over him and those in union with him.
    Resurrection doesn’t resolve inquity it shows that the cross has resolved iniquity. Resurrection resolves death. The sting of death is sin. Once sin is defeated and atoned for, death has no more power. The resurrection of Christ is his justification, that he is righteous and has defeated death by exhausting its curse.

  • Sara

    I was excited to hear Tony de-throne PSA. But I was disappointed that he didn’t come out and reject it. Perhaps, as a man, he doesn’t realize the ethical implications of these theologies on the lives of women. So, I say it’s time for a roundtable of women’s voices on the topic of suffering, violence, and atonement.
    Rita Nakashima Brock says: “Theologically, we are told that the Father God, who can do no wrong, sent his own Son to be killed and the good, obedient Son went willingly, without complaint. If cosmic child abuse, to save humanity, is acceptable, and human parents are to obey the example set by the Father God, then the violation of children can be justified on the same grounds. Protection from such abuse– a false protection– comes from being obedient and innocent.”
    Rita Nakashima Brock says: “All [violent] death, including the crucifixion of Jesus, is tragic and should be mourned as tragic. As long as we continue to say that his death was necessary to save us, we are saying that those who hated, feared, and killed him were right and that those who loved him and wanted him to live were wrong. Hate is not right, and love wrong. Jesus did not die to save us. He died because the political, patriarchal powers of his day saw the danger of his life and his movement to their system of
    Marie Fortune says: “Jesus’ crucifixion was the tragic consequence of his faithfulness and refusal to give up his commitment in the face of Roman oppression. He voluntarily accepted the consequences, just as did civil rights workers, in order to bring about a greater good.”
    Marie Fortune says: “The resurrection and subsequent events were the surprising realization that in the midst of profound suffering, God is present and new life is possible. This retrospective realization in no way justified the suffering; it transformed it. It presented the possibility of new life coming forth from the pain of suffering.”
    Marie Fortune says: “Just as God does not will people to suffer, God does not send suffering in order that people have an occasion for transformation. It is a fact of life that people do suffer. The real question is not, Why? but, What do people do with that suffering? Transformation is the alternative to endurance and passivity. It is grounded in the conviction of hope and empowered by a passion for justice in the face of injustice. It is the faith that the way things are is not the way things have to be. It is a trust in righteous anger in the face of evil which pushes people to action. Transformation is the means by which, refusing to accept injustice and refusing to assist its victims to endure suffering any longer, people act. We celebrate small victories, we chip away at oppressive attitudes cast in concrete, we say no in unexpected places, we speak boldly of things deemed secrete and unmentionable, we stand with those who are trapped in victimization to support their journeys to safety and healing, and we break the cycle of violence we may have known in our own lives. By refusing to endure evil and by seeking to transform suffering, we are about God’s work of making justice and healing brokenness.”
    Rosemary Radford Reuther says: “Domestic violence against women – wife battering or beating – is rooted in and is the logical conclusion of basic patriarchal assumptions about women’s subordinate status.”
    Sheila Redmond says: “Many of the virtues of Christianity make it difficult, if not impossible, for the child who has suffered from the effects of sexual abuse to overcome the effects of this abuse successfully and lead a rewarding existence as an adult – particularly in the area of interpersonal relationships. Whether or not there is something systemic in the Christian “symbolic world” that facilitates this kind of sexual abuse of children is a question that needs further consideration and delineation.”

  • Jon

    Don’t people have better things to do then write out their thesis on why Tony Jones is wrong? If I didn’t know better I would’ve guessed that some of these people spent hours with their responses.

  • Drew Tatusko

    “that sin is paid for”
    I was not as much of a caricature as pushing the outcome of what had been discussed here thus far and to this point it was irrational.
    To restate my argument, the repayment scheme is not a necessary clause in order for the resurrection to have its effect of overcoming sin. Everything else in your statement I fully acknowledge.
    The alternative I support is that Jesus died because humanity had finally rejected the Kingdom of God. It simply harmonizes more in Scripture and makes more sense. I think this debit-credit ledger for the atonement is not necessary for the new life in Christ and to understand why this is needed.
    Again the fundamental problem with PSA is that God’s immutable nature creates immutable laws that constrain God’s action and we are ultimately beholden to an idea of the substantial nature of God via analogia to human attributes which then forces the issue of the relationship of law and sin. It is this structure which ultimately governs PSA that I think is not necessary and so, PSA is not necessary.

  • Drew,
    Is God’s will ever free from his nature?

  • Drew Tatusko

    The question is a strange one since it is on face value impossible to affirm. It is like asking me if my voice is ever dependent from my body (let’s assume without various recording and digital manipulations we can build today 🙂 )
    Ultimately, the question is dependent on how one asserts the nature of God to be. I take a compatibilist view where the nature and the will are co-determinative. They may be logically distinct, but form and function & nature and will are in actuality of the same construct. In other words the answer is no, but equally true is to say that God’s nature is never free from God’s will. Apart from this construct, the next part of the line of question is if God’s nature ix X, then we can and ought to will Y to operate under certain conditions. This works if you are look at it in a linear cause/effect manner. A compatibilist view cannot conform to such a structure. After all a perfect circle has no beginning and no end.
    Another analogy is to say that the being and act of God is not unlike complementarity in physics. There we can look at the same object, but the objective qualities of that object take on different structures depending on our view of them. So if you look at light one way it is a particle. If you look at it another way, it is a wave. It is not that is *appears* to be a particle or wave, it actually is either a particle or wave depending on how you measure it. In similar fashion, God’s nature and God’s will are each co-determinative depending on how you limit your field of view, in this case, those Scriptural narratives you take to be constructive of God’s nature and/or will that are logically prior.

  • Martin Downes

    Why strange? Scripture certainly affirms that God is upright and just, and that he is just in punishing sin. Will he clear the guilty? Is it really an abomination to him when judges acquit the guilty and condemn the innocent? How can he be just and justify the ungodly?
    All these questions revolve around the issues of nature and will. If we deny that God must act according to his nature as God, are we saying that his acts are thereby arbitrary?
    One encounters this matter when thinking about the doctrine of Scripture. Must God always speak the truth, or is he free not to?
    These are the type of questions that John Owen puts forward in his dissertation on divine justice. And, from the standpoint of historical theology, it is interesting that some of the arguments against psa here resonate with those held by the 17th century Socinians.

  • Kevin DeYoung

    I think most people figure that if you consider a theory neither intellectually compelling, nor spiritually compelling, nor in keeping with the biblical narrative that you reject that theory. So I’m trying to understand how you can apparently not like or believe the theory, but still you don’t want to reject it.
    I hear you affirming: 1) many Christians have believed this theory, 2) you don’t want to disparage these people, 3) you don’t want to reject the theory out of hand, and 4) the theory can be justified from some Pauline texts. But yet don’t find it compelling. You find the theory beneficial, but you wouldn’t teach it. You don’t want to disparage those who hold the theory, but yet you state that the theory “has always appealed to the most legalistic minds. It still does.”
    I’m puzzled by how all of this holds together. Is the key here that you find all theories of the atonement to be man-made? Is this what allows you to “not reject” a theory but not to embrace it either? These are not rhetorical questions. I’m trying to understand what you mean. It seems like you are saying “Hey, I don’t particularly care for penal substitution. I don’t think it’s very helpful or all that biblical. But I know a lot of people make some serious arguments for it and find it beneficial. So if it seems good to you, go for it. Just don’t chastise those of us who don’t like it as much as you do.”
    But for me, and most evangelicals I dare say, penal substitution is the heart of the gospel and not merely to be respected as a long-held position or tolerated begrudgingly as a theory that makes some good points. Rather, we believe it IS what the Bible teaches about the cross (and not a man-made theory)–not all that the Bible says about the cross, but the heart of it. It is, in our estimation, to be proclaimed, defended, and embraced with deepest gratitude, because in this biblical teaching we see the love of God most clearly displayed and best news of the good news most passionately revealed. We believe that “satisfaction through substitution” is central to the whole biblical narrative, from the Levitical worship, to the curse motif in the law, to the prophecies about the suffering servant, to the redemption language in the gospels, to the language of propitiation and reconciliation in Paul, to the vision of the slain Lamb who ransomed men for God in Revelation.
    So even as people like me try to understand where you are coming from, please understand that to not reject but not really like penal substitution, to not deny that seeds of it can be found in Paul but yet admit you wouldn’t teach it, to not “disparage” the notion but to assert that it is only a human theory, sounds to many of us like you are damning the gospel with faint praise.

  • Rev Dave

    Here is what I don’t get: In your long list of ways scripture supposedly shows psa: “from the Levitical worship, to the curse motif in the law, to the prophecies about the suffering servant, to the redemption language in the gospels, to the language of propitiation and reconciliation in Paul, to the vision of the slain Lamb who ransomed men for God in Revelation” there seems to be something missing – Jesus! And that is where you lose me. How can Jesus’ birth and life have no importance in your understanding of the gospel?
    If the only thing that matters to you is Jesus’ death, why bother with the whole baby-grows-into-a-man thing at all? Why not just incarnate as a man already on a cross (or a rack or electric chair or the end of a sword or whatever) and be done with it? It was certainly not a given that a baby would make it to adulthood, so why take the chance?
    Now I know that you and I come from different places. I’m a mainliner (American Baptist) not an evangelical, so we aren’t likely to agree about the nature of scripture or truth or gospel or eternal life or…but even given that I just cannot understand a Christianity that has no place for Jesus! I‘ve always found him to be, I don’t know, pretty darn central to the whole Christian faith thing.

  • Justin Taylor

    Rev Dave,
    Count me extremely confused by your response to Kevin. The first two things he mentions are from the OT (Levitical worship, curse motif in the law) and form the necessary background for understanding Jesus’ work. The third thing he mentions is a prophecy of Jesus. The fourth through sixth things–Jesus’ talk about redemption, Paul’s talk about Jesus propitiating God’s wrath and reconciling God and man, and the vision of Jesus as the slain lamb–are all about Jesus. And then you conclude that “there seems to be something missing–Jesus!” It’s then a non-sequitor to suggest that Jesus’ birth and life have no place in Kevin’s understanding of the gospel (!). Kevin was hardly attempting a comprehensive statement of the atonement or Christology–he was merely seeking to respond to the specific idea that propitiation is unbiblical. To say from one sentence of Kevin that his understanding of Christianity “has no place for Jesus” seems mind-boggling to me.
    Out of curiosity, are you similarly bothered by Paul’s statements in 1 Cor 2.2, Gal 6.14, etc.?

  • macht

    What are you looking for from the Kuyperians? True, they aren’t being invited to google or Nightline, but I don’t see how you make the jump from that to “silence.” The Kuyperians I know ARE defending Reformed theology every day in their churches, schools, homes, etc. The fact that there aren’t any celebrity Kuyperians may explain why you don’t know about this but the fact that you don’t see any shades of grey between “silence” and “national spotlight” is odd, if not a little bit telling.

  • Korey

    I a member of a United Church of Christ congregation that is very active in outreach to the LGBT community. I mention this to identify that it’s pretty liberal. Your recent comments capture why reconciliation amongst Christians is so difficult. I’ve heard dismissal of scripture and Christian doctrine due to all the criticisms/doubts leveled against it amongst scholars, scientists, and philosophers. I’ve also heard concern over ethical problems with scripture, theologies, and traditions.
    I don’t think these theologies you impugn necessarily cause or foster the ethical outcomes you identify. Multiple valid meanings that can be drawn from the death and resurrection of Jesus give people of different backgrounds and circumstances the ability to connect with the story.
    I see that you reject some views of the atonement, but I find it unfortunate if this prevents you from granting that a certain view might bring life, meaning, and understanding to someone else without the negative ethical implications. I guess I think it important that PSA be “dethroned” to the extent that room is made for those who find it “neither intellectually compelling, spiritually compelling, nor in keeping with the biblical narrative” or ethically palatable. Are there any ways you could recast a particular theology such that it still remained the same theology yet overcame some of your discomfort or even disgust? In the same way, ardent PSA proponents would need to develop the capacity to be open to Christians who do not emphasize or draw upon PSA.
    I’m not certain any single view should be enthroned, although various groups of Christians will naturally gravitate to specific understandings of atonement and minimize if not dismiss others. The hope is that this can be done in a charitable way that acknowledges diversity within the church universal, while striving to remain faithful to scripture and tradition. Obviously from some of the PSA advocates this probably sounds like a logical impossibility; someone who minimizes or rejects PSA essentially rejects the gospel. And it seems from your perspective to maintain tolerance of PSA would be ethically unacceptable.

  • Sara

    Hi Korey! Thanks for your note and ministry. I’m not sure what the word “liberal” means. But I think the way in which you’re using the word means an openness to change and transformation. For congregations that are open to change, it’s important to explore these topics. I have, and continue to, work with youths who are abused. These theologies come into play in their lives. It has a real affect on people. Many feminist theologians have been talking about all the stuff I’ve been talking about for a long time. It’s nothing new. “Proverbs of Ashes” is a good book to start with, if you’re interested in digging deeper. The challenge is to explore what this means for the Church on local levels. This is one of those situations where practical theology meets public theology. Blessings on the journey!

  • john davies

    it would be hard to overstate how irrelevant and inane our intramural squabbles must seem to the unbelieveing world. jesus himself said “whoever is not against us is for us” and i, for one, consider tony’s deep desire to connect with christ and to show love to the world to be enough “proof” of his faith. the refinement of the christian message represented by the writings of paul and the theses of early church leaders should not be misconstured to suggest that anyone is going to hell for having the wrong theology. we follow jesus the person, jesus the christ, not jesus the set of beliefs.

  • Rev Dave

    Justin Taylor,
    Of course you are correct that neither Kevin’s comment nor mine nor yours nor any one can be a “comprehensive statement” – that is not the nature of this beast.
    What I was trying to point out was that I find it interesting and odd that Kevin’s list included a lot: “Levitical worship…law…prophecies…gospel…Paul…Revelation” but lacked any mention of Jesus’ life. Jesus is only present in that list (at least as I read it, I could be wrong) obliquely and only then through his death. Remember this is Kevin’s list, one he declares as demonstrating “how we see the love of God most clearly displayed and best news of the good news…revealed.”
    So accuse me of misreading him if you will – and maybe I am – but I find it disturbing that any short list of “the best of the good news” can’t find room for Jesus’ birth and life, only his death. That is a gospel that does not resonate with my reading of scripture. To me, Jesus’ life is vital; a life that gives life. I’m with Moltmann here, “When Messiah comes life will again be as sound and as much worth living and loving as God created it to be.”

  • Intramural Squabbler

    John Davies –
    Our “intramural squabbles” ain’t nothing compared to how the early church fathers and reformers argued. They called themselves nasty names, excommunicated each other, and even burned folks at the stake. I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure Tony hasn’t been burned alive, nor has Tony burned anyone else alive. Perhaps we should celebrate how much more peaceful things have gotten over the years.
    But, seriously, I hear ya. We outta be more irenic like Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren than polemic like Tony Jones and me!

  • Kevin, this is a copy and paste from Tony’s previous post at http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2009/04/do-i-deny-penal-substitution.html :
    “One thing that won’t surprise anyone who knows about these things: John Piper basically equates a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement with the gospel. I am unwilling to do that. I don’t disparage that theory of the atonement (see my recent endorsement on the back of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Stott’s The Cross of Christ), but I believe the birth/death/resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the pivot point of cosmic history. Thus, I do not think that one theory interpreting that event to be sufficient. Every theory of the atonement is 1) human, and 2) bound to a context. The penal substitution — while there are seeds of it in Pauline writings — is tied to the development of the Western legal mind. Nor am I willing to condemn the billions of faithful Christians who have lived and died in the past two millennia with alternate understandings of the atonement (here see Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor).”

  • Theresa Seeber

    Kevin, I also wanted to reply to your words: “But for me, and most evangelicals I dare say, penal substitution is the heart of the gospel and not merely to be respected as a long-held position or tolerated begrudgingly as a theory that makes some good points. Rather, we believe it IS what the Bible teaches about the cross (and not a man-made theory)–not all that the Bible says about the cross, but the heart of it.”
    I agree that what took place on the cross is at the heart of the gospel, and that, as you point out after the part I quote above, the law and prophets do indeed lead up to the cross and even point to it. But what Tony is discussing here, and it took me a while to figure it out when it appeared a few months ago elsewhere on his blog, is not whether or not “Jesus died on the cross for our sins,” but rather what that means, and how immense is that (as opposed to how simple we try to make it out to be). I personally, coming from the Vineyard movement, had never even heard it said that God was about to pour out his wrath on us but Jesus instead threw himself out in front of him, between us and him, and said “take me instead!” That is ludicrous, since God and Jesus are the same person. It would be like the proverbial house divided against itself. But that is what Tony presented one day as one of many widely accepted theories of atonement – theories that have been developed to try to make sense of what happened on the cross and what that meant. Apparently, this one theory is that God was really furious, full of wrath and hatred, and Jesus stood between us and him and said ‘no, pour your wrath out on me instead.’ But if God and Jesus are one, which they are, that is ludicrous.
    Anyway, if I am not mistaken, there is a great misunderstanding taking place here and elsewhere. My good friend Tony is not standing at the edge of a cliff shouting heresies for all to follow him and jump off together…. 🙂 He is, however, engaging in a conversation about the various theories relating to the atonement. And like I said, I had never even heard of the one involving Jesus throwing himself in front of us and begging God (himself) to spare us. Had I been preached it I would have been really confused. But I have to take Tony’s word for it that some people actually believe it went down that way. And that there are seeds (as he calls them) in Paul’s writings that open up that possibility does not bother me, for many people have taken snippets from here and there and turned them into all sorts of different theories about all sorts of different things.
    I really hope this helps. So many people freak out over the things Tony says, but if you can grasp what he is saying I think a lot of fears can be put to rest. Many automatically assume he is saying there was no atonement whatsoever. He is not. I have heard him speak on the cross enough to know he is not.

  • Ben

    Rev Dave,
    I think you are right to point out the importance of Jesus’ life – obviously that’s a big part of the story, and impossible to underemphasise. However, I think the point being made here is, it’s similarly impossible to underemphasise the importance of Jesus on the cross. To try and suggest otherwise… well, I don’t even get why you’d try to do that as a Christian, apart from deliberately trying to be theologically “innovative” and/or contentious. Paul says that if Jesus was not killed and raised to life, then our faith is a joke. I don’t care what “your reading” is – the meaning is plain: Jesus death and resurrection *is paramount* for the Christian! I’d still be interested to hear you comment on the verses JT mentioned.

  • Aaron M.

    Quite frankly, Tony, you are ‘flip-flopping’ on this issue.
    In one place, you say that you don’t deny penal substitutionary atonement [PSA], you “simply deny it pride of place”:
    “… PSA is one theory of the atonement. Beneficial, but not exclusive. Not even first among equals.”
    However, your comments seem to intimate otherwise.
    In your responding post, you state that you do not “reject it [PSA] outright.” The reason you give: “Because I can still see the merits of PSA. I can still understand the theological arguments behind it. I can still see how it is justified by some Pauline writings.” Yet, despite that, you still view such an atonement theory as not “intellectually compelling.” You see the merits of it, you understand it, and at the same time it is not intellectually compelling?
    You also admit that you “can still see how it is justified by some Pauline writings.” Yet you were compelled to say that PSA is “in keeping with the biblical narrative.” It is “justified” in the New Testament, yet not in line with the biblical narrative. Surely, you don’t mean to suggest that the Pauline writings are not part of the biblical narrative.
    It is hardly possible that your readers could have misunderstood what you meant in your Good Friday post. Your contradictory statements make that clear: despite your recent claims to the contrary, you were indeed disparaging penal substitutionary atonement.

  • Intramural Squabbler

    I’m going to take this conversation one step deeper. Our theologies of atonement influence our practices of the Eucharist. If we follow violent models of atonement then we’ll practice violent practices of the Eucharist. For example, in many Eucharistic liturgies, the pastor ritualistically breaks a body and pours out its blood. After this, the congregation takes turns eating the body and drinking it’s blood. This ritualized behavior is structured carefully in the liturgy.
    Eucharistic liturgies often start with vibrant images of Jesus and his presence. The liturgy often starts by talking about Jesus an a subject. Jesus is imagined as healing, helping, loving, challenging, etc. But then a there is an ambiguous shift from Jesus as subject to Jesus as object. Jesus becomes bread and wine. He only symbolically has a human body. Since Jesus is only bread and wine, his body and blood is available for use and manipulation. His body and blood do not carry the same moral constraints given to human subjects. Thus, the pastor can break Jesus’ body and pour out his blood. In other words, the objectified Jesus can be torn, poured, handed out, and consumed.
    The Eucharist is a ritual activity that objectifies a body in order to do violence to the body. Everyone who takes the bread and wine shares in the benefits of that violence. The Eucharist can be a ritual of violence. The eating of broken bodies, and the drinking of spilled blood spiritualizes and justifies the real life broken bodies and spilled blood of women and children. In the ritual, Jesus is understood as a willing victim who doesn’t resist the violence that is to come. Jesus went to the cross willingly to have his body broken.
    In the Eucharist, Jesus is understood as willingly having his body broken and blood spilled. The bread is Jesus’ body. The wine is Jesus’ blood. So, ritualistically, the pastor breaks Jesus and then pours out his blood. It’s ritualistic, performative violence. The pastor’s activity is not innocent in this act. S/he structures the environment and produces ritual object. The ritual environment is structured so that Jesus is objectified and participants don’t experience moral resistance to the symbolic violence that occurs. The objectification helps people not to see the embedded violence. People figure it’s just an objectified body, not a real person.
    The pastor then invites people take part in the violent act during the sharing of the bread and wine. “Take and eat. This is the body of Christ.” This is the time when the rite asks people to condone and participate in the objectification and symbolic violence. Thus, worshipers are asked to allow themselves to be molded (consciously or not) by their repeated participation in this ritualized violence. Violence is enacted. Violence is practiced. Violence is celebrated.
    The problem is that this ritualized violence forms us and colludes with the violence in society. The Eucharist does ritualized violence to an objectified body. Thus it colludes with cultural practices of dominance, objectification, and violence. If violent TV programs influence out behavior, then our violent religious practices must influence us too.
    There is an example of this happening in real life. A German cannibal, Armin Meiwes, talked about what he enjoyed about cannibalism. Meiwes said, “With every piece of flesh I ate, I remembered him. It was like taking communion.” Nobody wants this to be the image they have of the Eucharist.
    Violent practices of the Eucharist don’t seem faithful to the Prince of Peace and his vision of the Peaceable Kingdom. Perhaps we need need different theologies of atonement combined with different practices of the Eucharist.

  • Ben

    Interesting thoughts, IS. However during the Last Supper, Jesus spoke of his own body in an “symbolic” sense, as you put it… “take and eat (the bread). This is my body.” I don’t think we have anything to be afraid of by embracing the symbolism there.
    Further, your contention that “if we follow violent models of the atonement then we’ll practice violent practices of the Eucharist” is a non-sequitur. Most Christians I know (whether or not they would state it in these terms) have an understanding of Holy Communion as a symbol of Jesus’ violent, sacrificial, substitutionary death. Not one of those Christians would endorse violent Eucharistic practices on the basis of a violent atonement. It simply doesn’t follow.

  • Rev Dave

    You say, and I agree, that Jesus’ life is “impossible to underemphasize” but isn’t that exactly what many psa proponents do? Emphasize Jesus’ death to the near exclusion of his life? Hence my question to Kevin about why not incarnate on the cross (or any other method of execution).
    You and I aren’t far off I don’t think; I would just amend your statement to ‘the meaning is plain [whatever that means, if such a thing is even possible]: Jesus’ *birth, life*, death and resurrection is paramount for the Christian.’ I find that all four are of a piece and not really separable or reducible. Though I too have often done just that.
    Another point for me is how an overemphasis on psa seems to have played a role – perhaps even a top billing/starring role – in creating an unhealthy individualization of Christianity; a Christianity that reduces the gospel and the life of faith to, essentially, a get-out-of-hell-free card. Which has lead to a whole bunch of Christians who don’t care a whip for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, peacemaking or the environment and have even actively fought (and continue to do so) against those of us who say solidarity with the poor and care of creation are “plain meanings” of scripture.

  • Ben

    Rev Dave:
    I’m certainly in broad agreement with your thoughts there, especially on individualiztion, and the fact that there is no such thing as Christianity sans social concern. I strive to apply a bit of Hegelian dialectic to this stuff; we need all the bits of the puzzle to make the best sense of the incarnation. Without Jesus’ life, we can not see what we are being saved *to* (Shalom, the restoration of all things); without his death, we have no hope of being saved *from* His wrath.
    I would still be interested to hear your thoughts on the verses JT listed. 🙂
    1 Cor 15:15-18:
    For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

  • Scott M

    I listened to the above lecture, Understanding the Cross, on the way to work this morning. It seemed particularly appropriate to this discussion we’ve had over the course of the past week. So I thought I would share it for anyone who might be interested.

  • Scott M

    Once again, probably nobody still reading this. However throughout this series of discussion, people have attempted to superimpose penal substitution upon the ancient church as though it was something they believed by using choice snippets and prooftexts. I haven’t responded because tossing prooftexts back and forth is a waste of time and it’s pretty hard to get a sense for the scope and nature of belief without deeply reading many of the ancient Fathers. However, I have been wondering if there were some way to at least show some of the nature and quality of their belief.
    I was rereading the second paschal oration by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, also named St. Gregory the Theologian. Now, it helps if you understand that only three saints have actually been given the appellation ‘Theologian’ by the church. They are St. John the Theologian (and Apostle), St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Symeon the New Theologian. So when one of these says something theological about God, the first assumption of the reader should be that they are expressing the theological perspective of the church who gave them that name. I encourage anyone to read the entire oration for the complete context. It’s available in several places. One of them is here:
    I want to highlight a couple of excerpts that, I think, speak directly to the question of whether or not the ancient church believed in anything like penal substitution.
    “XXII. Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High priest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence. But that brazen serpent Numbers 21:9 was hung up as a remedy for the biting serpents, not as a type of Him that suffered for us, but as a contrast; and it saved those that looked upon it, not because they believed it to live, but because it was killed, and killed with it the powers that were subject to it, being destroyed as it deserved. And what is the fitting epitaph for it from us? “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” You are overthrown by the Cross; you are slain by Him who is the Giver of life; you are without breath, dead, without motion, even though you keep the form of a serpent lifted up on high on a pole.”
    In other words, Jesus wasn’t paying a ransom to Satan and he wasn’t offering payment to the Father. The Father never required a sacrifice. So what then was happpening. There’s actually a lot about that in the oration, but the summary is good.
    “XXVIII. It is now needful for us to sum up our discourse as follows: We were created that we might be made happy. We were made happy when we were created. We were entrusted with Paradise that we might enjoy life. We received a Commandment that we might obtain a good repute by keeping it; not that God did not know what would take place, but because He had laid down the law of Free Will. We were deceived because we were the objects of envy. We were cast out because we transgressed. We fasted because we refused to fast, being overpowered by the Tree of Knowledge. For the Commandment was ancient, coeval with ourselves, and was a kind of education of our souls and curb of luxury, to which we were reasonably made subject, in order that we might recover by keeping it that which we had lost by not keeping it. We needed an Incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live. We were put to death together with Him, that we might be cleansed; we rose again with Him because we were put to death with Him; we were glorified with Him, because we rose again with Him.”
    God was rescuing us from death. He wanted us to live, but the only source of life was God. To bring it to us, the Triune God, incarnate in Jesus, joined us in death so that he could give us life. This is what the ancient church taught. However, it was not just to solve man’s problem. Our problem had affected the whole world. This line is stunningly beautiful.
    “A few drops of Blood recreate the whole world, and become to all men what rennet is to milk, drawing us together and compressing us into unity.”
    That, my friends, is a God worth loving.

  • Kevin, Martin, and Justin: you are all on the right track here.
    Rev. Dave: “I’m a mainliner (American Baptist) not an evangelical”? That’s funny, but when I worked at Northern Seminary (an ABC school) back in the late-’80s and early-’90s, the denomination considered evangelical. In any event, your contention that penal substitutionary atonement advocates emphasize Jesus’ death to the near exclusion of his life simply shows how little of their literature you read.

  • ddr

    A great, well-written article. I’ll be sending it to all my pals. Thanks

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