The Relationship between Honor, Shame, and Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The Relationship between Honor, Shame, and Penal Substitutionary Atonement November 13, 2019

How do honor and shame (H&S) relate to penal substitutionary atonement (PSA)? Sooner or later, someone asks this question. Whether at a conference or in personal conversation, people eventually want to know the answer.

Some writers think an inherent tension exists. They suggest that advocating the use of honor and shame in theology will lead us to minimize or even deny PSA. This assumption seems largely based on the publication of one book Rediscovering the Scandal of the Cross (by Mark Baker and Joel Green). More often than not, this is the book cited as proof that honor and shame is incompatible with PSA.

Courtesy of Jamie Wells

So, what’s the truth? What is the relationship between PSA, honor, and shame? Must we pick a side?

“Nothing” is the Answer

To state the answer upfront:

There is no inherent relationship between accepting PSA and affirming a biblical theology of honor and shame.

To put it another way, PSA and H&S are distinct topics. Whether one accepts PSA does not negate other true ideas that a person might affirm about H&S. I know people who embrace PSA and H&S; I know others who doubt the primacy of PSA while accepting the value of H&S.

The same is true for a variety of doctrines. One could support PSA but not infant baptism (or vice versa). People could affirm congregationalism yet reject PSA (and vice versa).

Someone recently asked me if I would stand up and oppose those who (supposedly) use H&S to distort PSA. On the one hand, that’s an easy question to answer. I reject as a distortion any use of honor-shame to reject other biblical doctrines. However, given what I’ve said above, the question itself poses a strawman argument.

One person left a comment on social media claiming that Baker and Green deny PSA because of honor and shame. That’s an overstatement. Contrary to those critics, I’m not sure that even Baker and Green use H&S to oppose PSA.

What do I mean? Simply this: there is nothing inherent to H&S that necessitates accepting or rejecting PSA.

Credit: Flickr/TheBusyBrain

Therefore, one can’t deny (or affirm) PSA because of H&S. In actual fact, someone may simply favor an alternative theory of atonement (besides PSA). Or, they simply might have their own reasons for rejecting PSA independent of other theories.

Two Reasons This Matters

Why does this matter? First, H&S has value as a key biblical motif regardless of one’s preferred atonement model. A person can support PSA yet completely misconstrue H&S (as many have done). The opposite is also true. Someone can have great insight into H&S while denying the truth of PSA.

Second, as Christians, we must avoid the trap of creating thought silos. I reject the idea that I should listen only to people who agree with me on everything else. Even if we think someone is wrong about a topic, they may have a lot to teach us.

Combining Penal Substitution, Honor, and Shame

Since there is no inherent link between penal substitution, honor, and shame, there are several ways that one could relate them. In Saving God’s Face, I give one such example.

On page 207, I elaborate on the relationship between God’s honor and Christ’s inaugurating the new covenant via his death on the cross.

How does this sort of relationship bring about atonement? Traditionally, Protestants affirm penal substitution, wherein God’s wrath against sin is satisfied by Christ’s death. Christ pays the debt humans owe for sin by dying in their place. [Bruce] Demarest summarizes, “According to this view sin, which is primarily a violation of God’s law, not his honor, results in the just penalty of death.” The interpretation suggested in this book rejects Demarest’s bifurcation and affirms that sin is most basically a violation against God’s honor.

Averting God’s anger is not most fundamental. Law is but one sphere within HS. A penalty points towards something more basic at stake. How is God’s wrath appeased? Why is it right for God to pour wrath against sin? This is not merely an abstract principle of justice righting a wrong through punishment. Rather, the reason why it is right to punish is that humans defame God’s name. The punishment accords with the measure of the offense. To offend an infinitely glorious God deserves the ultimate retribution.

However, sin brings more than a penal consequence against the sinner. Sin also raises the need for God’s own vindication. God’s vindication involves the manifestation of his supreme worth in all the earth. God’s character is more than simply a cause for punishment. The honoring of God is an end in itself about which penalty for sinners is but a corollary.

Then, on page 208, I explain “honor substitution.”

There is a second facet of the atonement, honor substitution. Reconciliation is possible because God’s honor is restored through retribution. [Leon] Morris explains that “propitiation” in essence is a “compensatory payment,” a “ransom,” “by the offering of a suitable gift,” resulting in the averting of God’s punishment and obtaining a reconciled relationship with God. Malina explains from the perspective of New Testament culture,

This process of restoring the situation after the deprivation of honor is usually called satisfaction or getting satisfaction. To allow one’s honor to be impugned, hence taken is to leave one’s honor in a state of desecration—vitiated, profaned, debase—and this would leave a person socially dishonored. On the other hand, to attempt to restore one’s honor, even if the attempt is unsuccessful, is to return one’s honor to the state of the sacred, to resanctify it and reconsecrate it, leaving one socially honored and honorable. [Malina, The New Testament World, p. 39]

This accords with Rom 3:25–26 where God’s honor is vindicated in Jesus’ death. God does not punish based on irrational or misplaced anger. Rather, his anger is justified because his name is defamed. Ezekiel repeats that God’s wrath is poured out in order to vindicate God’s honor (Ezek 6:3–14; 30:17–26; 38:17, 23; 39:7, 13, 21). Also, in Gen 9:5–6, capital punishment is based on the fact that “God made man in his own image.”

Then, on page 211, I expound on the value of “honor substitution.”

As the second Adam, the perfect “image of God,” Christ pays the original debt owed by every human—honor to God. Honor substitution is an essential aspect of atonement theology, balancing a one sided emphasis on penal substitution. Substitution, not merely penal substitution, is central to the atonement.

The atonement’s effect on God parallels the effect of justification on people. Taking away sin in justification corresponds to Christ’s restoring God’s honor via death. However, nothing in conventional understandings of the atonement undergirds the notion of a person’s being righteous (i.e. justification).

Unless one sees both humanity’s honor-debt and the Son’s perfectly glorifying the Father, then one has not addressed the problem that justification presumes relative to God. His demand for honor is satisfied via Christ’s obedience and his death, which pay both debts owed to God, that of honor and death. Hence, Christ’s death is not so much a “bribe” as it is “restitution” (cf. Lev 5:16; Num 5:8).

One, Both or Neither

My big idea in this post, I hope, is clear: A person can accept/reject H&S independent of whether they accept/reject PSA. A person might support one of them, both, or neither. Honor and shame are substantial biblical motifs no matter what theory of atonement you or I support.

The above selection from Saving God’s Face is merely one way to combine PSA with H&S. Obviously, others separate them. Whatever path you take, let’s make sure we honor all that the Bible says.


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