Monday, November 19, 2012

Is the Doctrine of Penal Substitution Unjust and Immoral? Part 2: The Earliest Christian Tradition

As I discussed in my last post, the venerable Protestant doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement has fallen on hard times in recent decades. Typical is the criticism leveled by New Testament scholar James McGrath, a former youthful advocate of the doctrine, who levels two charges against it: it is unbiblical and it is immoral. Pointing to the 2 Corinthians 5:14, McGrath notes that the Apostle Paul prefers the language of participation to that of sacrifice, let alone the type of "punishment and exchange" (i.e., "substitution") found in the martyr theology of such Jewish documents as 4 Maccabees, supposedly written after the early Christians had interpreted Jesus' death in atoning, sacrificial terms (though McGrath's certainty about the dating is not matched by such scholars as E. J. Bickerman and David deSilva, who date the text between 19 and 54 CE, i.e., contemporary with early Christian theological reflection on the significance of Jesus' death). According to McGrath,
This is not only different from substitution, it is the opposite of it. Jesus is here understood not to prevent our death but to bring it about! This fits neatly within his understanding of there being two ages, with Christ having died to one and entered the resurrection age, and with Christians through their connection to him having already died to the present age and thus made able to live free from its dominion.
Furthermore, McGrath argues that penal substitutionary theory is overly literal and exclusivistic in its adoption of the Bible's debt/accounting imagery, and thus mistakenly claims that God cannot forgive without exacting punishment for sin. In his words:
First, the Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin as debt and literalizes it to the extent that one’s actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship. It is not surprising this is popular: in our time, debts are impersonal and most people have them, and it is easier to think of slates being wiped clean and books being balanced than a need for reconciliation. But the latter is the core element if one thinks of God in personal terms. And for God to forgive, all that the Bible suggests that God has to do is forgive. 
With regard to the claim that penal substitutionary theory is unjust, McGrath is succinct: "Despite the popularity of this image, to depict God as a judge who lets a criminal go free because he has punished someone else in their place is to depict God as unjust." Not only this, penal substitution doesn't get at the heart of humankind's problem because it does not impact how humans relate to one another: "It is popular because it makes people feel good about themselves in spite of their not following the challenging parts of the Bible that have to do with how we relate to others."

Such charges are, no doubt, shocking to those Christians raised to view substitutionary atonement as one of the "fundamentals" of the faith and adherence to it as a hallmark of genuine belief. Indeed, I was one so raised, and I well remember, from personal experience, how incredulous I was when in my theological studies I learned of scholars and theologians who disputed this theory I considered one of the church's bedrock teachings. Then again, these same studies made me realize how little the issues of atonement and (individualistic) "salvation" drove Jesus' own theological conversations and controversies with his Jewish contemporaries still chafing under Roman occupation. And even in my earliest years of Bible study I was confused as to why Paul's supposed companion, Luke, rarely engaged in atonement theologizing in his records of the apostles' earliest evangelistic sermons, preferring instead to emphasize Jesus' resurrection and consequent Lordship. Indeed, as I have aged I have come to see the New Testament's atonement teaching as multi-faceted, with the model of Christus Victor providing the glue that holds all the various facets together. But that still does not settle the matter at hand, which is simply this: does the New Testament teach that Jesus died as humanity's (or the elect's) substitute in judgment, bearing the penalty of their sin and thereby appeasing God's just wrath against them?

The place to start is with the text Herman Ridderbos referred to back in 1974 (in the famous Leon Morris Festschrift entitled Reconciliation and Hope) as "The Earliest Confession of the Atonement in Paul," namely, 1 Corinthians 15:3:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures ...
I have previously discussed this text in detail with regard to the light it sheds on  how the "gospel" was understood and defined by the early Christians. Its importance to the issue of the nature of the atonement is obvious at first glance: Paul explicitly includes the fact and theological significance of Jesus' death as a constituent element of the gospel he proclaimed to the Corinthians. More importantly, he expressly claims that the gospel message he recounts in these verses did not arise out of the fertile theological soil of his own mind, but was rather the exact, verbatim message he himself also received from his mentors as authoritative tradition (1 Cor 15:1, 3). From another (perhaps his earliest) letter, we can infer that this instruction most likely occurred some two-plus years after his conversion experience on the Damascus Road (Gal 1:18-19), when at long last he finally met Peter and James the Just, whom he cites in 1 Corinthians 15:5, 7 as primary witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.  Paul’s use in this verse of the language of authoritative tradition is significant for the simple yet profound reason that the gospel message he records  including especially its interpretation of Jesus' death  is precisely the same gospel message proclaimed by the earliest Palestinian church not more than four years after the death and resurrection of Christ.

As I discussed at length in my earlier post, this verse makes three primary claims about Jesus' death. First, Jesus' death was Messianic ("Christ"). To be more precise, the earliest "gospel" message, dating from at least the mid-30s CE, was that Jesus died in the exercise of his Messianic  and that means Davidic  role. Indeed, as I would argue, Jesus learned, as early as his baptism (from the heavenly voice that identified him as God's Davidic "son" [Ps 2:7] and the Isaianic servant in whom God was "well pleased" [Isa 42:1]), that the road to the attainment of his kingship was through exercising the servant role described in the oracles of Isaiah 40-55. As such, his death is imbued with definitive, representative, and eschatological significance for Israel and God's covenant promises to that nation.

Second, Christ's death was expiatory in its basic significance ("for our sins"). Though the precise significance of the modifying prepositional phrase (hyper tōn hamartiōn) is disputed, and indeed the saving significance of his death is laid out only in general terms, it is widely accepted that atonement here is related to the removal, in some sense, of the sin that causes estrangement from God. The fancy theological term for such removal is expiation. Expiation, to put it as simply as possible, refers to the removal or erasure of the  guilt and liability to punishment that are the otherwise inescapable consequences of sin. Though the tradition quoted by Paul doesn't elaborate, it is clear that, at least in some sense, Christ's representative death as Israel's Messiah is at the same time, and thereby, also a vicarious death that atoned for the sins of his people.

Third, Jesus' death finds its theological significance in the hermeneutical grid provided by the "Old Testament" scriptures ("according to the scriptures"). The preposition used (kata) and the plural reference to Israel's "scriptures" suggest that Paul means more than simply the fact that Christ's death provides the climax and fulfillment of the saving designs adumbrated in the Hebrew scriptures. More to the point is the hermeneutical function of those scriptures: they provide the lens through which we are to understand the significance of his death. One such text is clearly Isaiah 53, the famous passage about the suffering servant whose death is repeatedly painted in substitutionary colors "for (our/their) sins" (Isa 53:4-6, 10-12), and whose language in verse 12 (in the LXX) clearly provides the model for the traditional formula cited by Paul in Romans 4:25 (for details, see my previous post).

It is a significant fact that one can say, without hesitation or embarrassment, that there never was a time in which a non-theological interpretation of Jesus' death prevailed. And this is in striking contrast to the cases of each and every other so-called failed Messiah figure in the decades on each side of the ministry of Jesus, from Judas of Galilee in 6 CE to Simeon ben Kosiba in 135 CE. The obvious explanation, for those who are Christians, is that, in Jesus' case, his apparent "failure" was reversed when he was vindicated dramatically in resurrection. This triumphant vindication certainly would have necessitated a fundamental re-thinking of Jesus' death and its role in God's plan to establish the kingdom. But this still begs the question as to why Christian theologizing about Jesus' death took the shape it did, and why such theologizing seems to have been formalized so quickly after his death, without the evolutionary type of development one might expect (and that was so often posited in the past by luminaries of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule). It is to this question that I will turn in my next installment, where I will look at Jesus' own attitude to his (clearly) approaching death.

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