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Stephen N. Williams

Antonement: the Penal View?

Toward a trinitarian theology of atonement

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

This said, the fact is that much is well done in this volume to advance the desiderated line of argument. If I select three contributions, it is not in order to make comparisons and suggest that the three have no equals in this volume. It is because they give us good examples of forceful advocacy; despite what I have said about penal substitution, not all the essays focus on it. The first is a characteristically fine essay by Don Carson on the crucial "propitiation" passage in Romans (3:21–26). A subsequent essay by Richard Gaffin deals with "Atonement in the Pauline Corpus," so the passage from Romans can be considered in its wider context, but without forcing the text in any way, Carson shows how those who want to think biblically about atonement can not avoid what these verses say about Christ's bearing of wrath on the cross. The second is Bruce McCormack's essay on Barth. Whatever we make of Barth's doctrine of God, McCormack well emphasizes the need for a penal substitutionary view to be rooted in a sound trinitarianism, so that we focus less on the action of one person upon another than on the triune God taking into his own life and in our stead the penalty incurred by our sin. The third is Kevin Vanhoozer's engagement with postmodernity, "Of Guilt, Goats and Gifts." Using an idiom appropriate to that engagement, he argues that in an excess of justice and love, "God reconciles the world to himself by providing his own Son as a substitute for the exile that should be ours." These three essays show how the sound deployment of biblical, traditional, and culturally sensitive theological resources exculpate a penal substitutionary view of atonement from some major charges standardly leveled against it.

The main lines of a solid exposition and defense of substitutionary atonement were laid down effectively by James Denney a century ago. In another good essay, this time on "The Atonement in the Life of the Christian," Jim Packer reminds us of Denney and the forcefulness of his exposition in The Death of Christ.5 This was his principal treatment of the New Testament material, though Denney sketched the outline in compelling relief in his two chapters on the atonement in Studies in Theology.6 Denney was clear that the consequential element highlighted in the biblical treatment of sin was that it draws down on us God's condemnation. Our sin is borne and our condemnation taken in the death of Christ. This must be carefully understood and unraveled, but the basic theological datum contains the substitutionary notion at its heart. Denney puts things convincingly, though it is certainly right to view sin as a disruptive and disintegrative force wreaking ontological havoc on human beings, life and world. In fact, this is central. Doubtless, we need the Greek Fathers to remind us of this.7 But their insights can not stand without acknowledgement of penal substitution, just as the latter should not stand without giving its full place to sin and salvation in their non-juridical aspects.8 Those not persuaded by Denney on substitution might consult a number of the essays in our Festschrift; those not persuaded by the essays might consult Denney.

How should we harvest any biblical fruit that belongs to the genus: penal and substitutionary understanding of atonement? In three ways, perhaps. Firstly, a trinitarian perspective is vital: atonement is the work of Father and Son, the judgment on our sin borne in one way or another by both persons. Although I give little space here to Robert Sherman's volume on King, Priest, and Prophet: A Trinitarian Theology of the Atonement, we should welcome the emphasis portended in both the title and the subtitle of this work. Sherman theologically structures the biblical material by connecting kingship with God as Father and the "Christus Victor" emphasis on the atonement; priesthood with God the Son and the notion of vicarious sacrifice; then, prophecy with exemplarism and God the Spirit. If we do not elaborate on this outline, it is because, despite the embellishment of some conceptual novelty, the basic substance in this book is familiar. Familiarity must not breed contempt, but it is a dissuasive from delving deeper into this contribution in this article.

If we want to track down what Sherman says about penal substitution in particularfor present purposes, not because our theological antennae should pick up nothing elsewe might note that he seeks to do justice as far as is possible to all the biblical motifs and some of the main ones in the theological tradition. But, as the concluding chapter makes clear, his way of affirming penal substitution minimizes the significance of the intertwined issues of judgment, guilt, and condemnation and the associated personal sense of remorse, unworthiness and the need to repent.9 Certainly, such things can be exemplified in a thoroughly unhealthy, indeed a pathological, mode. But our widespread cultural sense of self in the West reinforces the wider human tendency that causes us to resist strenuously any accent on humbling. In general, however, what is most striking and welcome about Sherman's book is the irenic and pastoral vein in which he writes, as he threads his way through citation and commentary on a mass of biblical texts. Trinity and atonement are thought through together.

Secondly, the relationship of wrath to anger needs further thought. It is certainly true that biblical talk of divine wrath cannot be reduced to the claim that it is an impersonal process, for the language speaks of the reaction of God in his own personal being. And certainly, on the other hand, it is difficult to purify the notion of divine anger from all that is amiss in human angercaprice, resentment, lack of patience, lack of controlthough it is not conclusive simply to note the difficulty. But anger is surely not the component in "wrath" that is particularly pertinent to the atonement. The idea of the Father being angry with the Son indeed remains lodged in much popular evangelical consciousness. In relation to propitiation and the cross, it is the element of divine judgment that comes to the fore in relation to wrath. Cranfield, in a formulation considered by John Stott to be the most careful of them all, wrote that "God … proposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of the Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they [sinners] deserved.10 It is judgment rather than anger that is expressed; act, and not emotion, that is self-directed.

In this connection, Henri Blocher, expounding Calvin in The Glory of the Atonement, does not leave us with a Calvin which convinces. Having earlier quoted Calvin on the "misdeeds that rendered sinners hateful to God," Blocher remarks that "Calvin is not embarrassed to take up the Augustinian paradox: 'He loved us and he hated us at the same time.' " Calvin seems to consider the difficulty in the paradoxical formulation cleared up in the Augustinian gloss: "He hated in each of us what we had done, and loved what He had done." But there are serious difficulties here. To use the language of God loving us and hating us at the same time, even if Calvin's explanation shows how it is coherent, is surely to step outside the world of Scripture and the revelation of God in Christ. In the passage that Blocher quotes from Calvin's Institutes, Calvin is dealing with our justification. His problem concerns time and history: how can the elect be elect, and so loved, from eternity, yet regarded as objects of a wrath that is temporally expressed on the cross that achieves our reconciliation? If we consult the relevant portion of the Institutes, we find it studded with references to divine "accommodation," the way biblical language is accommodated to our human capacity.11 So we must all be careful. Still, the problem in Calvin's account seems to lie in the way that he thinks of God's enmity towards us.12 If the sacrifice of Christ is inexplicable without reference to wrath and enmity, it is yet not a display of anything which suggests a dialectic of love and hatred in God, a paradox generated by theological perplexity over election and justification. It is judgment that is to the fore. Does the Augustinian formulation not jar and grate, even carefully interpreted as Augustine and Calvin do?13 Henri Blocher deserves our very highest respect as a theologian and scholar, but, in his apparent complicity with Calvin at this point, he will either confirm or create afresh many of the difficulties that people have with penal substitution.

Thirdly and finally, in any advocacy of penal substitution, we need to connect our theology with human experience. Hosea insisted on enduring an unfaithful wife. We can imagine the outcry. She is not paying the penalty for her sin, by being cast off. Who, then, pays it? Does it go unpaid? If "payment" sounds like legalistic moralism, is the alternative a forgiveness which evacuates the moral order of much significance? To which we might respond: the burden of the wife's sin has fallen on Hosea and, in suffering what he has suffered and restoring her into communionfully appreciating, not light-heartedly waiving, what she has donehe pays the price for sin. A Protestant evangelical of another day, James Orr, could approvingly pull in Bushnell here: "The world is full of the suffering of the innocent for the sins of others. More than this, the world is full of substitutionary, of vicarious, forcesof the voluntary enduring of suffering for the sake of others." Yet Orr rightly insisted that this does not cover what is distinctive about the substitutionary office of Christ.14 Indeed, read on its own, the statement points to an "exemplarist" approach to atonement, whether or not Bushnell should be read in that way. At any rate, talk of the peculiar penal substitution of the cross will surely gain credibility if it is connected with examples of forms of vicarious sin-bearing in human experience. Indeed, preachers, more or less felicitously, often use such examples illustratively.

In conclusion, we might ask in which direction The Glory of the Atonement, on which I have concentrated, sways us on the question of whether penal substitution is absent, marginal, one element, or the principal element in a Scriptural view of the atonement. For reasons given, it may appear that, taken as a whole, it does not clearly sway us one way or the other. However, I have been able to mention only a few contributions and it seems to me that a fair-minded perusal of the volume will indicate the strength of its overall contention. Regular readers of Books & Culture will know the advantage of bringing in G. K. Chesterton if not for a last, at least for a penultimate, word. Somewhere in one of his Father Brown stories, he has a sentence to this effect: "He belonged to that type of French gendarme who could make mercy appear colder than justice." It is a superbly evocative line in its own right and perfectly captures what so often goes on when penal substitution is affirmed. Where John has a person and present tense"He is the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2.2) we very often have merely a scheme and a past tense: "It [the work of the cross] was the propitiation for our sins." Dramatic, Christus Victor, exemplarist, and moral influence schemes often succeed where penal substitution often does not, in conveying a lively sense of the greatness of the person of Christ. We need Luther and Melanchthon here as well.15

Stephen N. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

1. We may answer in the negative, even if we attend to Hans Boersma?s reminder of John Stek?s article on "?Covenant? Overload in Reformed Theology."

2. Royce Gruenler, "Atonement in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts." Of course, the New Testament essays often refer back to the Old Testament.

3. Roger Nicole himself adds a "Postscript on Penal Substitution," which includes a welcome reference to Bushnell.

4. We could expand these considerations, particularly in light of the previous contributions to Books & Culture, to refer to non-engagement with feminist thought.

5. It is important that we consult the edition which Jim Packer uses; the widely used edition by R.V.G. Tasker (Tyndale, 1951) quietly rewords those passages where Denney takes what the editor judged an unacceptable approach to Scripture.

6. J. Denney, Studies in Theology (Hodder & Stoughton, 1904), chapters 5 and 6.

7. It must be allowed that Denney did not do justice to a figure like Athanasius in this respect: see The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation (Hodder & Stoughton, 1917), p. 36ff.

8. I use "non-juridical" loosely here, just as talk of the positively "juridical" in atonement needs careful nuance. Omitting reference to other approaches, such as "exemplarism," is not a sign that they should be dismissed.

9. Sherman wrongly identifies Anselm?s thought with the notion of propitiation, but rightly points out that Anselm should be exonerated from the charge of holding God to be offended, like a petty feudal lord, because Anselm affirms divine impassibility.

10. C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (T&T Clark, 1975), p. 217; see John Stott, The Cross of Christ (IVP, 1986), p. 134.

11. Institutes II.16.1-4.

12. Yet the standard English translation of the Institutes (Westminster, 1960) has Calvin refer to God as our enemy in II.16.2 and 4 in terms stronger than either the Latin or the French edition necessarily warrants, and it misquotes Romans 5:10 at II.16.2 where Calvin refers to, without quoting, the text. Calvin?s biblical commentary on it notes that "because God hates sin, we are also hated by Him in so far as we are sinners." The Latin translated "hate," exosos, is a strong word.

13. Jonathan Edwards remarked in a slightly different context: "It is an exceeding difficult thing to know how far love or hatred are exercised towards persons or actions by all that is before us," Some Thoughts Concerning Revival in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Yale University Press) IV.417.

14. James Orr, Sidelights in Doctrine (Marshall, 1909), p. 135.

15. Because, for example, Kevin Vanhoozer and Richard Mouw deal so well with pertinent contemporary questions, I have confined the above discussion of penal substitution within a very traditional framework.

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