Hans Boersma

The Disappearance of Punishment

Metaphors, models, and the meaning of the atonement.

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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.

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