Galatians 3:13 and Romans 8:3 Without Penal Substitution?

Galatians 3:13 and Romans 8:3 Without Penal Substitution? June 10, 2011

Mike Bird posted on his blog Euangelion about a couple of my recent posts. Having addressed the first theme, inerrancy, in yesterday’s post, this one turns to the question of penal substitution. Since Mike asked specifically about Galatians 3:13 and Romans 8:3, I will make them the central focus of this post.

Galatians 3:13 is a fascinating text, and commentators have put a lot of effort into trying to make sense of it. Rather than reproduce such discussion in full here, let me skip right to the conclusions, and we can return to the steps that led there later if there is interest.

It seems to be an error to read this text individualistically. If one reads the Torah as though it were pronouncing a curse on every individual who fails to keep every single commandment, without offering the possibility for forgiveness or atonement within the context of that same Law, then one ends up either with a great deal of confusion and/or a view that doesn’t quite fit the texts themselves. And so I am inclined to see in the background (following other scholars, such as in particular N. T. Wright) the fact that the curse which the Torah warned of was a curse on the nation, not each individual, and the fullest culmination of that curse was exile. Many Jews understood themselves to be in an ongoing state of exile in the first century. And what could reflect and express that curse more poignantly than the Messiah, expected to rescue the people from bondage and exile, being crucified by the foreign rulers who were themselves viewed as an expression of that ongoing exilic state? It seems that early Christians viewed Jesus’ death as the Messiah embracing the exile as God’s righteous judgment on his people, and by embracing it and experiencing it, bringing that stage in salvation history to an end.

There definitely is an element of exchange or interchange in the process as Paul and presumably other early Christians understood it. But I don’t think they understood this in terms of penal substitution, where this represented a legal transaction in which the innocent suffers and the guilty goes free. For one thing, the reality was much more complicated, and neither the end of Roman rule nor the final ingathering of the scattered Israelites immediately occured. But more importantly, those who wished to experience the end of exile presumably had to join with Jesus in submitting to it as God’s righteous judgment on his people, and did not simply believe Jesus had ended it and then immediately experience an end to foreign rule or the full dawning of the kingdom of God. The death of Jesus was understood to bring one into eschatological tension, rather than resolving it, in ways that we’ll explore in the next passage.

Regarding Romans 8:3, it is important to get the full sentence at least by reading Romans 8:3-4. Paul uses a shared inherited language of sacrifice as a way of referring to Jesus’ death, but inserting that metaphor simply puzzles those of us who have never slaughtered an animal, much less offered its blood to purify a sanctuary. That metaphor seems to have clarified things for Paul and his readers, but for us it is just another thing that requires explanation.

If we look at the clues Paul gives us of how he spelled out the workings of Jesus’ death as a salvific event, the key element seems to be not substitution, much less penal substitution, but participation. My favorite verse illustrating this is 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. If Paul had thought in terms of substitution, we might have expected him to say “One died for all, because all should have died, but the one who died saved those who live from death.” Instead, Paul says that “one died for all, and therefore all died.” Presumably this is to be interpreted in connection with his language of being crucified with Christ – even going so far as to coin terms, akin to “co-crucified with Christ.” Paul seems to have thought of Jesus’ death and resurrection in terms of his dying and leaving the present age, and by being raised as the firstfruit of the final resurrection, Jesus was believed to have entered and inaugurated the age to come. And so those who are united with him in his death were likewise thought to have been set free from the powers of the present age, and to have begun to participate in anticipatory fashion in the power of the age to come.

Romans 8:3 seems to me to make sense against that background. Paul uses traditional language of sacrifice (the meaning or connotations of which depend on what one thinks sacrifice was for, and if necessary I’ll offer a further post on Leviticus!). But the focus for Paul seems to be the interchange that he spells out in more detail elsewhere. The death of the Son brings those united with him into the realm of the Spirit, so that we can begin already to share, albeit not yet fully, in the life of the age to come that Jesus has begun to live. Flesh and Spirit here seem to be focused less on either an anthropological division of humans into different components, or a vertical contrast between earth and heaven, and more on an eschatological contrast between the life of the present age and that of the age to come.

Obviously much of what I’ve written above could be clarified and spelled out in more detail. And many points connect with the “corrective” view that Mike himself mentions in his post. But I actually think these texts make more sense if one removes penal substitution from the picture altogether. Salvation for Paul is not a transaction, whether the metaphor be legal or commercial. It involves the transfer of believers from one kingdom provisionally into another, in a way that doesn’t simply “wipe the slate clean” or let the guilty go free, but Paul believed offered life-transforming power. And it is the fact that the latter is at best an afterthought in penal substitutionary models of the atonement that places it at odds with not only Paul but the New Testament as a whole.


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