All posts tagged Penal Substitution

Jesus’ Death – Seeking An Understanding of Atonement – Part1

Beginning with this introductory post and the ones to follow, I will be seeking a deeper understanding of the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death and in what sense it is ‘atoning’.

Jesus Death Saves Us

Followers of Jesus across the spectrum of traditions have learned to speak of Jesus’ death as God’s way of somehow solving what was broken with humanity and the world we live in.

La descente de croix Rubens

La descente de croix – Rubens

Atonement Through the Ages

When investigating the history of Atonement theories over the last 2 millennia, you will discover that there are basically about 3 main categorical theories; Christus VictorMoral InfluenceSatisfaction. To be sure, there are more subsets and sister theories to these 3. If you have not yet looked into this topic too deeply yourself you may be in for a twisting and turning roller coaster of a ride! I certainly have been.

Which Atonement View Is Right?

But when we are asking how atonement works, what the mechanics of it are, how can a person’s death (specifically Jesus’ death) actually resolve things? -The answers actually vary quite broadly.

At first I didn’t know there were ‘other’ explanations. I thought there was just the one, and that it can be boiled down quite economically to a single paragraph of elboration. At least that is how it was first presented to me; atonement boiled down to a 3′ x 5′ 2-3 page illustration & text ‘gospel’ tract. This gospel tract atonement theory was soon reinforced in quick summary most Sunday mornings at the tail end of the sermons. This particular view which I first learned falls within the Satisfaction view of the atonement but has been shaped and refined in a particular fashion by John Calvin and since then has come to be known as the “Penal Substitutionary View” of the atonement (P.S.A.).

The P.S.A. explanation does help in some ways in communicating truth & meaning about Jesus death and what that means for us, but it also created many problems for me as well. And with problems became questions, and in time, those questions forced me to consider that their might be ‘other’ atonement explanations more satisfactory. ; ) But, onced I learned there were other theories about the atonement, I thought to myself, “I need to figure out which Atonement theory is the right view”,  with my added assumption that in declaring to myself that one of them is ‘true’, by definition out rules all of the other views of being true.

Truth In Part

But, after deciding upon one view as being the “right” one, I quickly found myself wanting to double back on that decision because suddenly a different one sounds more convincing.

I couldn’t find a single atonement view which by itself appeared to express the complete meaning and significance of Jesus death. Each view left to itself, seemed to come up short in explaining the full weight of what was going on. And each of the Atonement views appeared to have at least some truth. Anyway, why must only one view be right?

I resolved to settle on the idea the we may very well need all of the perspectives to help round out the fuller picture of Jesus’ atoning work.

You might imagine one person seeing one unique thing and another person sees another thing, each explaining in their own way, informing us what they see. It is a reasonable enough idea to think that quite a few explanations, similes, and metaphors might be needed to capture a richer and fuller understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death.

Metaphor & The Real Thing

After all, most of the Atonement views employ metaphor to explain the significance and meaning of Jesus’ death. And a metaphor being a metaphor, isn’t by its very nature the real thing which we’re getting at, is it? A metaphor is a device and a tool which seeks to point to something beyond itself, merely a representation, a likening -to the real thing.

Quentin Massys Ecce Homo 1520, Doge's Palace,Venice

Quentin Massys Ecce Homo 1520, Doge’s Palace,Venice

The real thing in this discussion, of which the various atonement metaphors are pointing to, is the real-in-person death of Jesus on a Roman cross. The real facts on the ground, so to speak. All that real stuff which led to Jesus death. The context surrounding it all. The different historical actors within the drama. Asking the questions, “Who killed Jesus”, and “Why did they want to murder him?” are necessary to make any plausible conclusions. Also, What role did God play in his death? Who is responsible for killing Jesus? Was it a just or unjust death? How did Jesus understand the meaning of his own death?

We might say the real thing of which the metaphors are merely pointing to, are detailed within the Gospel accounts themselves, in the narrative historical events and explanation of his death.

If the Gospel writers themselves were asked what their Atonement views are, they might each simply hand you their own books.

All Views Equally Valid?

A generous orthodoxy might welcome all atonement theories, every perspective, all views, and thus be saying, “they are all equally valid”. I had come to this conclusion- for a short while.

But then I began to realize that in spite of having concluded that the multiple views are all necessary in their own way because of their individual strengths in highlighting each of their particular truths, there is also a noticeable and stark incompatibility between these views and their various metaphors. That is to say, even though the various atonement views have so much that is solidly compatible between them , some of them are at times claiming things that are incompatible or contrary with the others. Sometimes, affirming that part of one atonement theory is true, then by reason, at least parts of a different atonement theory cannot also be true at the same time. One truth excludes another.

This incompatibility is the space that I am currently wanting  to continue my search for understanding: with further questions, observations, and conversation..

 

 

 

Scott McKnight’s “A Community Called Atonement”

Atonement Theology, or how we understand the meaning and consequence of the death of Jesus on a Roman cross has been a much discussed topic in the last decade. I believe this is a very good thing to be asking these big questions about what is at the very heart of the Christian Faith.

If my history is right, we have William Tyndale to thank for the coinage of our english word atonement.  Atonement being a concatenation of the words ‘At One’ to describe Christ’s work of restoring a good relationship — a reconciliation — between God and people.

If you are like me, you came out of a tradition that explained the totality of what Jesus did through the Cross strictly in Penal Substitutionary terms. This might have been the only lens in which you have seen what Christ has done for us. According to Wikipedia:

Penal substitution (sometimes, esp. in older writings, called forensic theory) is a theory of the atonement within Christian Theology, developed with the Reformed tradition. It argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying  the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.”

Along with this strict interpretation, the dots might not have been connected between Jesus “Kingdom”message and his death on a Roman cross.

In Scott McKnight’s book, “A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology“, he argues quite persuasively for a more comprehensive and varied understanding of the atoning work of Jesus. Scott begins his exploration and explanation of the atonement by likening the various New Testament atonement metaphors to the many golf-clubs that are needed in playing a good game of Golf. He says if we were to only use one club/metaphor for an exhaustive explanation of what is happening with Jesus going to the cross then we will be playing a very poor game of golf.

Scott explores the proper understanding or Metaphors; the reality to which they point as well as a metaphors limits . He explores the question, “What did Jesus think of his death?”  He gives good summary of the main atonement metaphor categories: Identification for Incorporation, Recapitulation, Ransom/Christus Victor, Satisfaction, Substituion, Representation, Penal Substitution.  I feel that Scott McKnight has done us all a great service by  framing the atonement in the manner that he has. Thank you. : )