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Hans Boersma

The Disappearance of Punishment

Metaphors, models, and the meaning of the atonement.

Our late modern culture has become increasingly sensitive to the dangers of abusive structures and institutions that foster self-interest, domination, exploitation, and other forms of violence. Atonement theologies have followed this trend with an increasingly apprehensive stance toward traditional notions of covenant curse, divine justice and wrath, and penal substitution.

Of the many recent examples of atonement theology that illustrate this trend, three books published in the last five years are representative. Joel Green and Mark Baker, in Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, argue that we need to do justice to the "diversity of voices" in the Bible and that we must recognize that not all the New Testament models and metaphors are equally suitable for our situation today. In particular, they are troubled by the uncritical acceptance of penal substitution among North American evangelicals. C.J. den Heyer, a Dutch New Testament theologian with a Reformed background, strikes a more radical chord in Jesus and the Doctrine of the Atonement: Biblical Notes on a Controversial Topic. He states that he can no longer identify with the "old confessions and dogmas": "I know the old and familiar truths of faith, but they no longer move or inspire me. The words and images have lost their significance. The excitement has slowly ebbed away." Finally, from a feminist perspective, Darby Kathleen Ray harks back to the patristic ransom model of the atonement in her book Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse, and Ransom. She believes that the other models of the atonement tend toward individualism, the idolizing of power, and and the valorizing of suffering.

Indeed, Ray has little use for atonement theologies that encourage us to imitate the suffering of Jesus. She criticizes the moral influence theory of the atonement that originated in the 12th century with Peter Abelard and that looks at the atonement as an expression of God's love, inspiring in believers the desire to show the same sacrificial love to others. Den Heyer, on the other hand, stands squarely within this Abelardian tradition, and in certain ways his book is in line with the "lives of Jesus" that the liberal theologians of the 19th century used to write. Green and Baker's approach is more broadly based. They want to do justice to each of the biblical constellations of images connected with the theme of atonement: those of law, commerce, personal relationships, worship, and battleground.

Despite these differences, the three books share a common opponent: the theory of penal substitution. Much of this opposition is driven by fears that penal substitution leads to violence and oppression. Richard Mouw's article beginning this series in Books & Culture offers a helpful discussion of these issues.1 What I want to do here is to tease out some of the other underlying theological concerns with penal substitution and to present some ways in which penal substitution may be of assistance in presenting a fuller picture of the significance of the cross.

Penal substitution runs up against a number of theological objections. The first problem is that of dehistoricizing the gospel. Ray argues that by "depicting sin as an a-historical quality, traditional notions make it into an abstract state separate from the particular relationships that shape human beings." Den Heyer is a "historical Jesus" scholar whose emphasis on the historical Jesus makes him uncomfortable with the classical christological dogmas. Den Heyer's description of Jesus does not go beyond that of "a special person, inspired and creative, in search of people in need, a man after God's heart who provoked opposition and ultimately died a violent death on the cross." From an evangelical perspective that is in some ways sharply distinct, Green and Baker nonetheless share this emphasis on the historical particularity of Jesus' death. When he explained his death, they say, "Jesus pushed backward into Israel's history and embraced Israel's expectations for deliverance." Clearly, the authors of all three books share an interest in the historical particularity of atonement theology, an interest that they feel penal substitution does not sufficiently uphold.

The second concern is that of individualizing the gospel. Penal substitution, argue Green and Baker, is tied in with an "autobiographical notion of justice" that operates on the basis of an atomistic understanding of people and leads to an individualistic understanding of justification. Concerned that the emphasis has so long been on the individual and his or her personal sin, Ray argues that "the emphasis now should be on the social," so that atonement theology can address not only individual sin, but also the evil of structures and institutions. Sin should not be defined as disobedience, because this "defuses rage, resentment, and other catalytic emotions, entrapping abused women and children in cycles of violence buttressed by cultural and religious assumptions of male authority and prerogative." Ray's steps are clear: she first wants to broaden sin and evil to include a communal and institutional element, and she then argues that this sin or evil is not a matter of disobedience but should be defined as "the abuse of power."

Finally, the fear is that an ahistorical and individualistic understanding of salvation allows for an abstract and harsh juridicizing where God's love and mercy and his desire to draw people into a relationship of love fade from view. Den Heyer rejects the notion of penal substitution in which "God cannot just let evil slip through his fingers. Forgiveness is possible only when the law has run its course. Sin must be punished." Similarly, Green and Baker argue that in the penal substitution model "God's ability to love and relate to humans is circumscribed by something outside of God—that is, an abstract concept of justice instructs God as to how God must behave."

There are points clearly worth heeding in these critiques of penal substitution. For example, Ray's retrieval of a Christus Victor model of the atonement draws on some significant biblical data. On the cross, Christ "disarmed the powers and authorities" and "made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col 1:15). Looking at the atonement from the perspective of God's battle against evil does render significant support for the human struggle against injustice. And to be sure, an individualistic legal framework may indeed be used to justify sinful human structures and perhaps even to glorify suffering and tolerate abuse. Ray's penetrating account of the misuse of atonement theology in Latin America—where one identified either with Christ the Conquering One (who sanctions power) or with Christ the Conquered One (the model of the powerless)—reminds us of Christendom's complicity in horrific forms of cultural and ethnic violence. Den Heyer is right to point out that Jesus' life and death should function as a model that we are to imitate and that Jesus gives the "poor a new perspective and shows the rich how they can live" (cf. Mark 10:43-45). Finally, Green and Baker are helpful when they draw attention to the notions of shame and honor that need to complement those of guilt and justice; and we do well to learn from their understanding of the different voices in the one New Testament choir that make up a delicate harmony of "wonderful hints of powerful melodies contending with countermelodies."

One group of voices, however, is consistently banned from choir practice: the legal metaphor, and in particular the notion of penal substitution, hardly gets to sing along. Perhaps the shrillness of these voices in the past is one of the reasons why people are tired of listening to them. A lack of historical awareness, individualism, and a legalistic attitude are not alien to the evangelical mindset. Neither would I dispute that to some extent these problems go back to certain emphases in the Reformation itself. Fear of tradition, distrust of the Church as an institution, and a focus on the individual's sin and forgiveness have certainly influenced the evangelical North American outlook in unhealthy ways. To the degree that an exclusive focus on penal substitution has contributed to such myopia, I welcome the return of the other traditional models of atonement theology.

But does this mean that penal substitution has no place at all in a proper understanding of the atonement? Aren't there virtues as well as liabilities to the individualizing emphasis of penal substitution? Ray's preoccupation with the question of power leads to a narrow definition of sin. She neglects both the vertical dimension of sin—human rebellion against God—and its personal dimension.

Moreover, the fundamental notion of substitution clearly comes with biblical warrant. In fact, both Den Heyer and Green and Baker acknowledge that substitution is part of the biblical picture. "Paul need no longer experience judgement," comments Den Heyer, "for Christ did that 'for him' on the cross. So the expression 'for us' or 'for him' can also take on the meaning 'in our/his/my place.'" Green and Baker maintain that the logic of Jesus' death as a sacrifice "introduces Christ's dual role in his death—his substitution for humanity before God and in the face of God's justice, but also his substitution for God in the face of human sin."

Why then the apprehension toward penal substitution? Why say yes to substitution but no to penal substitution? Could it be that the dehistoricizing, the individualizing, and the juridicizing of salvation in the past now leads to a theological backlash in which we close our eyes to the biblical themes that used to dominate? Could it be that our cultural situation with its (very legitimate!) concerns about victimization and violence so colors our lenses that we run the danger of marginalizing the voice of punishment from the biblical narrative? In negotiating the relationship between our contemporary horizon and the biblical models of the atonement, we cannot simply ignore a large part of the theological tradition.

Green and Baker, as well as Ray, do much more justice to the wider theological tradition than does Den Heyer. Indeed, Den Heyer's popularly written exposé led the General Synod of his denomination to the unusual step of issuing a reprimand in 1997, charging that the author had not proceeded with adequate care and had insufficiently accounted for the confession of the church. Although Synod did not pass an unequivocal condemnation of Den Heyer's book—for which the conservative faction of the church had been hoping—the pronouncement nonetheless highlighted a major weakness in the book: it intends to be a corrective to a traditional understanding of the atonement, but it almost entirely fails to engage or even describe the traditional model. By contrast, Ray as well as Green and Baker provide the reader with some detailed descriptions of the patristic, the Anselmian and the Abelardian models of the atonement. Green and Baker, although they severely criticize it, at least explain in some detail the view that they repudiate, in particular Charles Hodge's penal substitutionary view of the atonement as a derivative from the medieval Anselmian model. And so it should be: theology cannot be done in a historical vacuum.

Today's inclination to leave behind the penal aspect of the atonement is at least in part the result of our cultural sensibilities. One might argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Green and Baker comment: "For a huge percentage of the world's population the penal substitution model of the atonement is a stumbling block to people experiencing salvation in Jesus Christ, not because it presents the scandal of the cross, but because its language and images are foreign to their reality and difficult to understand." For many societies, Green and Baker contend, penal substitution is "simply unintelligible" because these societies have concepts of justice different from those that are dominant in the West. Thus, there is a pastoral dimension to Green and Baker's account of the wide variety of biblical metaphors for the atonement: the message must be articulated in culture-specific ways.

Seen thus, penal substitution is simply a metaphor that can be readily discarded if it doesn't speak to a particular cultural situation. It is true, of course, that language about God is metaphorical. But perhaps we need to reflect a little on the character of metaphoric language. Green and Baker argue—rightly, I believe—that in the Old Testament, God's wrath was a response to Israel's failure to maintain the covenant. They then go on to suggest, however, that maybe we need to understand this metaphorically, so that "perhaps we attribute 'anger' to God only because we have no language other than human language with which to comprehend God." I would certainly agree that "anger" or "wrath" is not an independent characteristic of God. God is not wrath, but he is love (1 John 4:8). Does this mean, however, that we need to understand God's wrath metaphorically, while we understand his love literally? I am not so sure. To say that anger as applied to God is metaphorical sounds like it is just metaphorical, and hence somehow less real.

But isn't all language about God metaphorical? Whether we speak of sacrifice, of punishment, of scapegoating, of justification or of victory, we are making use of metaphors. The various models of the atonement all tend to base themselves on these metaphors. The biblical metaphors used to describe the meaning of the cross are not just metaphors. Colin Gunton has argued cogently that in metaphors we encounter "linguistic usages which demand a new way of thinking about and living in the world. Here is real sacrifice, victory and justice, so that what we thought the words meant is shown to be inadequate and in need of reshaping by that to which the language refers."2

While metaphors are culturally formed and embedded, we cannot simply exchange them for others without also affecting the contents of what we are saying. We need to ask what is lost in the shift from one metaphor or model to another.

Suppose, for instance, that we drop the metaphors of God's wrath and of a legal penalty in describing the meaning of the cross. This has certain consequences for the overall biblical message. We are then faced with the question what role the legal codes of the Torah, along with their dyadic structure of blessing and curse, could possibly have played in Israel's history. We also need to ask why God sent his people into exile, if it was not because of his anger with their rejection of his love and with their disobedience to his law—or if this anger was just metaphorical. After all, the biblical authors saw exile not just as a natural consequence of a certain way of living but also as active divine punishment (Deut. 31:17; Ezek. 5:8). The notions of divine anger and of penal judgment are intimately tied up with the overall narrative structure of the Old Testament (and perhaps also the New). It is not so easy to give up biblical metaphors and to replace them with others that are more culturally acceptable. The Church will regularly find the need to mimic the very words and repeat the very metaphors handed down to us by the biblical witness. It is necessary to do this in order to safeguard the Tradition that has been entrusted to the Church.

How, then, can we retrieve the notion of penal substitution without falling into the traps of dehistoricizing, individualizing, and juridicizing salvation? The history of Reformed scholasticism unmistakably displays some of these tendencies. The covenant theology that developed in the late 16th and 17th centuries was often remarkably ahistorical and individualistic in character. According to a common strand of covenant theology (particularly among the Puritans, the Westminster Assembly and the Princetonian tradition), Adam broke the paradisiacal covenant of works, and so drew all of humanity into the vortex of sin. Only eternal punishment could remedy this situation. By means of his plan of predestination, however, God drew certain elect individuals into his eternal covenant of grace and so saved them from the punishment of hell. Atonement, in this line of thinking, often came to mean a strictly legal exchange between Christ and the elect: the direct imputation of Christ's righteousness to the elect and the imputation of their sins to Christ who on the cross bore the eternal punishment in their place.3

But such an atemporal and individualistic understanding is not the only possible way to construe a theory of penal substitution. Not all covenant theologians adopted the equation between covenant and election. Many of them had their hesitations about the harsher aspects of predestination, strongly emphasized that the covenant was made not with individuals but with a community, saw this community as the continuation of the covenant community of Israel, and maintained that this covenant bond came with certain conditions: it required a response of faith and obedience. In this line of thought, eternal predestination was not allowed to set the interpretive grid for the historical covenant community. Some scholars so emphasize the differences in approach between the various understandings of the covenant that they refer to this more moderate covenantal theology as "the other Reformed tradition."4

Yet even with a "mellowed"—more historical and corporate—form of covenant theology, do we not still labor under the juridicizing of our relationship with God? It is true that particularly in the Reformed tradition the "penal voices" of the choir have tended to exclude others. When a "federal theology" structures itself around the biblical notion of "covenant," one's theology tends to get one-sided. Still, we must ask what happens if we let go of judgment and punishment altogether.

In Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, Richard John Neuhaus comments that "forgiveness costs dearly": "Things must be set to right. … Whatever it is that needs to be done, we cannot do it. Each of us individually, the entirety of the human race collectively—what can we do to make up for one innocent child tortured and killed?" Justice must be done, Father Neuhaus insists.5 Otherwise we end up with "cheap grace" that not only trivializes evil, but as a result trivializes good as well, and so shatters the meaning of everything. When atonement theories carve out a place for judgement and punishment, do they really legitimate unjust violence? The opposite may well be the case: By ignoring the judicial meaning of the cross, we convey to victims of violence that their pains and concerns are irrelevant, that they need to "get over it and get on with it." When punishment has no place at all in our thinking about the cross, sin and evil receive a legitimate and permanent place as an intrinsic part of a world that forever remains out of joint.

By retaining a penal aspect in atonement theology, we do not necessarily turn justice and law into ultimate categories and so juridicize salvation. God's love for Israel and humanity is the motivating factor that underlies the incarnation and the atoning death of Christ. The restoration and perfection of an alienated creation is God's ultimate concern and purpose, a concern we need to share. An emphasis on the priority and ultimacy of God's shalom hardly excludes, however, the possibility of giving a secondary and penultimate position to concerns of law and justice in an imperfect world. The former may not even be possible without the latter.

In a 1994 article in Calvin Theological Journal, Old Testament theologian John Stek called on Reformed theology to address the problem of "covenant overload," which had been a prominent feature in Reformed thought ever since the second part of the 16th century.6 Stek objected to attempts to make the biblical notion of "covenant" into the centerpiece of systematic theology and insisted that covenants occur in the biblical account only as ad hoc commitments, based on already existing relationships. Stek argued that "covenants were called into play only when circumstances occasioned doubts concerning desired or promised courses of action. The specific purpose of 'covenants' was to add a guarantee of fulfillment to commitments made." The idea of a covenant, in other words, is secondary, and is built on a relationship that was already there prior to the establishment of the covenant. Covenants are simply "emergency measures" that are necessary until God's kingdom has fully come.

Stek's insightful corrective to Reformed federal theology has implications beyond its original biblical theological context. The juridical notions of divine law, human transgression of divine law, and Christ's obedience to the will of God (both in his sinless life and his atoning suffering on the cross) were directly tied up with the covenant theme and have thus been central notions to federal theology. The resultant emphasis on law, sin, and penal substitution have led to some justified criticism: by turning the covenant law into the central biblical category, it is possible to lose sight of the abundance of God's grace. God's gracious initiative, his unconditional commitment to the restoration of his relationship with people in the context of a restored creation, and the priority of his love and mercy over judgment and anger have not always been as prominent as they should have been.

My question, however, is whether today's strident opposition to any penal notion doesn't fall into the opposite error. Covenants may not be the be-all and end-all of the biblical picture, but as secondary emergency measures they nonetheless have their place. When we see covenants as secondary emergency measures to strengthen an already existing relationship to which God is unconditionally committed, this means that notions of law and punishment may likewise have a penultimate, instrumental value. This means, on the one hand, that the element of punishment does not have an independent place and that therefore the juridical aspect of the atonement is not the overarching element. It means, on the other hand, that punishment may have a positive, instrumental place in God's project of perfecting his creation.

It seems to me that that Green and Baker offer some stepping stones that may contribute to a more positive appropriation of a penal view of the atonement. They comment that "Jesus developed the sense of his death in terms borrowed from the constitution of Israel as the covenant people of God (Ex. 24:8), the conclusion of the exile (see Zech. 9:9-11), and the hope of a renewal of the covenant (Jer. 31:31-33), so as to mark his death as the inaugural event of covenant renewal." Jesus, they say, "viewed himself as the focal point of God's great act of [Israel's] deliverance." They in fact argue that Jesus "took the place of the Jewish nation as a representative substitute." This language about substitution is remarkably historical and corporate: it speaks of Israel's historical exile and renewal through Jesus' representative substitution. It is impossible, however (as N.T. Wright, one of Green and Baker's sources, consistently argues), to speak of exile and restoration without at the same time conjuring up notions of covenant curse and covenant blessing. Jesus' death may well be the climactic and substitutionary suffering of exile. If it is, this means that his death is the suffering of the exilic curse, and so of divine punishment.7

It seems to me that without allowing it to dominate, we should let penal substitution have a voice in the choir. Suffering the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13), Jesus drew the exilic punishme upon himself—hardly a dehistoricizing view of the atonement. As Israel's substitute and representative, he endured her punishment on the cross—hardly an individualizing notion. As a means to restore Israel and humanity into fellowship with God, the punishment opened the way for reconciliation and growth into fellowship with God—hardly a juridicizing of the relationship with God. By allowing the entire choir to sing together, I suspect we may end up serving the interests of God's eschatological shalom.

Hans Boersma is assistant professor of religious and worldveiw studies at Trinity Western University. His book, Violence, Hospitality, and The Cross: Understanding the Atonement, will be published by Baker Academic in 2004.

Books Discussed in this Essay:

C.J. den Heyer, Jesus and the Doctrine of the Atonement: Biblical Notes on a Controversial Topic. Trans. John Bowden (Trinity Press International, 1998).

Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (InterVarsity, 2000).

Darby Kathleen Ray, Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse, and Ransom (Pilgrim, 1998).

1. Richard J. Mouw, "Violence and Atonement," Books & Culture, January/February, 2001, pp. 12-17.

2. Colin E. Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality, and the Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1989).

3. Cf. Robert Gundry's careful critique of such an understanding of the atonement in "Why I Didn't Endorse 'The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration,'" Books & Culture, January/February 2001, pp. 6-9.

4. J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition (Ohio Univ. Press, 1980); Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition (Westminster/John Knox, 1991).

5. Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (Basic, 2000). It should be added that, although Neuhaus believes that justice is done on the cross, he does not think that atonement is also penal in character.

6. John H. Stek, "'Covenant' Overload in Reformed Theology," Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 29 (1994), pp. 12-41.

7. See my forthcoming book, Violence, Hospitality, and The Cross: Understanding the Atonement (Baker Academic, 2004).

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