A More Critical Look at Greg Boyd’s “Inspired Imperfection”

A More Critical Look at Greg Boyd’s “Inspired Imperfection” January 11, 2020

A More Critical Look at Greg Boyd’s “Inspired Imperfection”

In my previous post I generally agreed with Greg’s account of the Bible as inspired in the whole (plenary inspiration) but not inerrant. I think that case can be made and Greg has at least pointed in one direction for doing that (viz., God’s condescension and accommodation with regard to the human authors’ depictions of him in the OT).

However, now I want to express one point of disagreement with Greg’s theology. In “Inspired Imperfection” as in “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God” Greg dismisses the penal substitution theory of the atonement and the entire sacrificial system of salvation through the shedding of blood—at least as necessary for salvation. He has a different interpretation of the atonement that is closer to the “Christus Victor” view articulated by, for example, Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen.

While I agree with the Christus Victor theory, I do not think it can stand alone—as an explanation of why Jesus Christ had to die for us to be saved. There is truth in almost all atonement theories but there is one that is crucial to explaining WHY Christ had to die for us to be saved and that is substitutionary atonement. I believe it is “written all over” in the Bible. (I will not call it “penal substitution” just because that has some unpleasant connotations about God’s wrath that seem to me to divide the Trinity. But I will insist that, for me, anyway, atonement has to be substitutionary to have its intended effect of making it possible for our holy and loving God to forgive sins.)

Here I do not have space to go through the entire Bible to explain and justify why I think substitutionary atonement is necessary. Let me point you to one article that I believe you can find online if you try hard enough and if you pay for it (as you may have to): “Why Christus Victor Is Not Enough” by Richard Mouw. It was originally published in Christianity Today several years ago.

And I will focus my attention here, today, on one verse of the Bible that I think Greg overlooks and that I find crucial to the whole point of much of the Bible. It is not “proof texting” because it expresses the whole theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews in our New Testament and explains why God instituted the sacrificial system in the OT that was fulfilled and then cancelled by Christ’s death on the cross: Hebrews 9:22 “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”

In disagreement with Greg (and others) I believe that God did have a problem that ONLY Christ’s substitutionary and sacrificial death on the cross could solve. (Believers in “simplicity” as an attribute of God will have to disagree with me here but I do not embrace that as a biblical attribute of God. I view it as drawn from Greek philosophy, the “logic of perfection.”)

What problem did God have?

*Note: Here as always I speak ONLY for myself.*

God’s essence is love. Therefore, God wanted to forgive sinners. But God’s love is holy love (as Emil Brunner and Karl Barth pointed out numerous times). It is not at all sentimental or indulgent love as we today, at least in America, often think of “love.” (Illustrated by the movie cliche “Love means you never have to say you’re sorry.”) God’s love is entirely consistent with wrath against sinful rebellion. It is not sentimental, sweet, indulgent love like the grandpa who says to his disobedient grandchild “It doesn’t matter; I love you anyway.” (I’m that sentimental, sweet, indulgent grandpa!)

God’s love is holy love and SO, he literally COULD NOT simply forgive humanity’s sinful rebellion without demonstrating how seriously he takes it. He would have been legally justified in simply destroying sinners without providing the means for forgiving us. But his love would not let him do that. So he faced a crisis within himself—between his love and his justice (an expression of his holiness).

So, and here is where I think many critics of substitutionary atonement fail to understand it, God HIMSELF in the person of Jesus Christ voluntarily suffered the penalty that God’s holiness requires as a result of humanity’s sin. “Without the shedding of blood….”

Jesus was not merely an innocent man God “picked out” from the rest of humanity to punish in our place. That seems to be the assumption of those who call substitutionary atonement “divine child abuse.” Jesus was God himself (as well as truly human) voluntarily suffering the condition for forgiveness imposed by God’s own character in the face of human sinfulness.

While I believe in the Christus Victor theory of atonement I think it answers only half the question. It explains the liberation Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection—liberation from our captivity to Satan. But by itself it leaves out the issue of our guilt.

However, I do not believe that Jesus suffered the exact punishment deserved by every sinner. What he did was demonstrate what sin deserves and how seriously God takes sin SO THAT God could forgive sinners righteously. This (the so-called “Governmental Theory” of the atonement) is NOT merely “educational.” This view says that God could not forgive sins without taking on himself a penalty LIKE that deserved by all sinners in order to demonstrate his holy justice in the face of sin. But the MOTIVE behind it was love. And it was GOD HIMSELF who suffered the penalty—because of love.

NOW, because of Jesus’s death on the cross, God can and does righteously forgive sinners who repent.

Did God kill Jesus? That’s the wrong question because it requires both a yes and a no. God voluntarily suffered death (separation from God) at the hands of sinful men.

Now, I could go on and on anticipating every critical question and answering it—something Greg does very well in his books. But this is not a book. I believe my theory of the atonement is substitutionary but not divine child abuse and does not portray God as violent toward an innocent man BECAUSE the innocent man in question, Jesus, was God himself! His act of atonement was voluntary and the main reason he became man (although he accomplished much more because of the incarnation and resurrection).

When I was a kid growing up in church, every “communion Sunday” we sang “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquity. Surely he bore our sorrow, and by his stripes we are healed.” Five times the New Testament identifies Jesus with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. So did the early church fathers and the reformers.

While I am not exactly happy to be agreeing with Mouw (we have had our differences), I agree with his argument in “Why Christus Victor Is Not Enough.”

Recently I mentored a doctoral student who began his dissertation with a strong bias against substitutionary atonement. He was conditioned to think of it as God’s wrath unjustly poured out on an innocent man rather than as God himself in the person of Jesus Christ voluntarily suffering the consequences of our sin and guilt so that he could forgive. By the end of his research and writing of his dissertation he was convinced of some truth in the real, classical, traditional substitionary theory of the atonement and recognized that the way he had heard it preached and explained in the extremely conservative church he grew up in was deeply flawed.

*IF you choose to respond, make sure your comment or question is civil and constructive. Do not misrepresent what I have written. Stick to the subject. Respond only to me with a comment or question. Do not include any hyperlinks in your response. Hostile comments or questions will not be posted. This is not a discussion board. It is more like an Opinion Page in a newspaper and I am the editor who decides which “letters to the editor” get published So there is no “right” to have your response posted here. I generally post them, but I “weed out” ones that are irrelevant to the post essay or are uncivil or off topic or misrepresent what I wrote.*

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