Stephen N. Williams

Antonement: the Penal View?

Toward a trinitarian theology of atonement

icon1 of 4view all

Do you ever spare a thought for Philipp Melanchthon? In terms of theological controversy, he saw it all, or most of it. There are many good reasons for spending sympathetic time with him, and sympathy is surely never better warranted than when we attend to his dying hope: "You will be redeemed from sin. And set free from cares and from the fury of theologians." He conceded the necessity, but denied any delight in theological controversy. The man in whose shadow he has so often stood, Martin Luther, knew that life, justification, and theological thought must all take place coram deo, consciously before God. If there is an area of Christian doctrine where we need equal reminder of what stirred Luther and what saddened Melanchthon, it is that which concerns the atonement.

Earlier essays in this series in Books & Culture have communicated the force of the criticism of a position that has enjoyed much authority in the West, the view that regards atonement primarily in terms of satisfaction and substitution. Richard Mouw has considered the claim that this view, along with others, hallows a pattern of social violence (January/February 2001). Hans Boersma has treated the accusation that penal substitution is a dehistoricizing, individualizing and juridicizing teaching (March/April 2003). Frederica Mathewes-Green has weighed Anselm in the balance, found him wanting, and supported the older Patristic outlook from which he consciously turned aside (March/April 2004). And now a number of essayists have joined issue in what is, overall, an uncompromising and tenacious defense of penal substitution, The Glory of the Atonement, a Festschrift for Roger Nicole. This volume is in three parts, comprising one on the biblical materials, one on historical theology, and a very brief one on "Atonement in the Life of the Christian and the Church." Keeping in mind what Luther said about the context and what Melanchthon said about the tone of the theological enterprise, it might be as well to get general criticism out of the way and comment that the collection should be read according to just two of the three considerations that moved the editors to put together the essays. The two are: to salute Roger Nicole and to contribute a substantial volume on the atonement. This is achieved, but the third stated consideration should be discounted, or largely so, namely, the resolution to produce a textbook. Why this demurral?

"Textbooks" come in various shapes. Bracketing the question of whether they should always be introductions, the question here is whether this is a textbook on (or largely on) the penal substitutionary view of atonement or on the idea of atonement more generally. Some may suspect that the disjunctive form of the question shelters a presupposition which the volume is trying to dislodge, that is, that penal substitution constitutes just one way of approaching the atonement rather than being its essence. But this is not presupposed. The problem is the balance of the content.

Of the 20 essays, exactly half cover the Old and New Testaments, but only three of these deal with the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Bible) itself. The first is a linguistic defense of a controversial substitutionary interpretation of Leviticus 17:11. The second is a brief account of atonement in Psalm 51. The last is a discussion of how "bearing guilt" and "carrying sin" in Isaiah 53:11f. relate to the book of Isaiah more widely. These are unquestionably important texts. But will not many a reader come away with the impression that, since editors and essayists are eager to defend penal substitution, the Hebrew Bible must yield only very little that supports it? Does penal substitution, then, belong to the heart of New Testament teaching, while being relatively foreign to the fabric of the Old? Answers to that question may differ. But when we remember, for example, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood," can we, in a textbook, avoid surveying covenant theology in the Old Testament?1 Covenant aside, one of the other contributors to the volume makes a methodological plea for an "overarching biblical theology" that seems to cut against what is happening in part 1.2

Part 2 covers Augustine's preaching, medieval theology, Luther, Calvin, Bavinck and Barth, definite atonement and postmodernity. Without doubting the quality of these contributions, we note that there are no Greek Fathers at one end nor a Schleiermacher, Bushnell, or Forsyth near the other.3 This is not just a case of: "Well, if I had been editing a textbook, I should have included. … " Supposing we do read "textbook" as (largely) "textbook for the penal substitutionary view." If so, will not the worrying impression be conveyed or perpetuated that advocates of this view hammer away at the texts and traditions that defend it and fail to cast a sympathetic eye as widely as possible before reiterating their case?4

icon1 of 4view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide