Stephen N. Williams

Antonement: the Penal View?

Toward a trinitarian theology of atonement

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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.

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