'PENAL SUBSTITUTION' UNDER FIRE
'PENAL SUBSTITUTION' UNDER FIRE
If asked to summarize the gospel, most of us would probably say something like this. We humans all have sinned. Sin offends God's holiness (and, Calvinists emphasize, provokes his wrath), and God must punish it with death. But the sinless Jesus took our place and accepted our punishment. As a result, God's holiness (and/or his wrath) is satisfied, he forgives our sins, and gives us eternal life instead of the second death in hell. Because this explanation involves Jesus being punished ("penal") instead of us ("substitutionary") to set us right with God (atonement), it is commonly referred to as the theory of "penal substitutionary atonement" (PSA).
Today, a number of biblical scholars and theologians are reacting against PSA. Objectors claim that PSA distorts the biblical view of God's nature (He is not subject to any rule outside himself), God's motive (acting from anger instead of love), and God's goal (salvation means far more than missing hell); distorts the Trinity (pitting Father and Son against each other; some even charge PSA with "cosmic child abuse"); and distorts justice (it is wicked to punish an innocent person for the sins of the guilty; sin can be punished or forgiven but not both).
Penal substitution is only one of several atonement theories that can claim biblical support. It seems clearly taught in Isaiah 53, perhaps less explicitly elsewhere. In Isaiah, we meet the Messiah who is "wounded for our transgressions" and is "bruised for our iniquities;" the "chastisement" that makes us whole is "upon him," and "with his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5; cf. Acts 8:32-33). Because penal substitution has been used so long and so nearly exclusively among evangelical Christians, many equate PSA theory with the very gospel itself.
Some other atonement theories also involve Jesus' substitution for sinners. The penal substitution theory is unique because in it, Jesus substitutes for sinners to receive their punishment. Like all theories that have been advanced, PSA also has defects when measured by the Bible. For example, in John 3:16, God's love is the cause for giving his Son; in the PSA explanation, God's love for sinners sounds like an effect of Jesus' death.
In classical Greek, to "propitiate" the gods means to appease them and to turn away their anger. In the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), the verb translated "to propitiate" normally means to cause to be merciful; in the passive voice it means to be forgiven. The idea of appeasement is rarely present. (If you wish to examine it for yourself, click here and go to paper #13 to read my personal study of the relevant Greek words in the Septuagint.) This Old Testament usage, rather than the paganism of classical Greek, is the background for understanding "propitiation" in the New Testament, where "expiation" is an accurate equivalent. The Bible never portrays the Father as angry with his well-beloved Son.
The truth is that no human explanation can fully lay out the inner workings of God's reconciling the world to himself. No theory can account for all that Scripture affirms on that subject. Nor is any theory the gospel. That is the "good news" of God's achievement wrought in Jesus Christ, an accomplishment that can be summed up in declaratory statements (1 Cor. 15:3-8), poetically (1 Tim. 3:16), or through dramatic enactment in the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11). The gospel tells the "what." Theories attempt to explain the "how." No doubt, theories and explanations can be helpful, if clearly labeled for what they are, and if always used accordingly. Which, in the present conversation, just might be the most important thing I can add.