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Narrowing a Doctrine: Penal Substitution and Isaiah 53

In a previous post, Adrian Warnock said there were two reactions to his interview with the authors of Pierced for our Transgressions. I’m guessing he referred to the favorable and unfavorable, and intensely so in each case. In the rest of that post, he implied pretty strongly that those of us who are opposed to PSA [as the sole metaphor for the atonement I would add, but Adrian did not] are not spending enough time with the scriptures.

I also note two sets of reactions. I see one set of reactions that deal with the actual position of opponents, and one set of reactions that prefer to make accusations. I don’t want to spend much time on this, but let me just quote one example, from Grave Updates

Isn’t off how it is always those with robust theology who are told to become broad and drop our distinctives, as if the greatest sin is to offend those who hold to vague and are like those Paul speaks of in 2 Timothy 3:7, “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”:

I would simply like to note here that my position on PSA has nothing to do with avoiding offense to anyone. I’m also not afraid of giving offense to the proponents of PSA as the exclusive or “real” teaching of the atonement when it is, in fact, one metaphor for the atonement. I am quite open in saying that such teaching is wrong and presents a stumbling block. It’s very easy in Christian circles to attribute “truth value” to being persecuted, and to give great credit to teachings which are exceptionally offensive. After all, the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). But Paul never said that every stupid and offensive thing thereby automatically became God’s truth. It is crucially important, I believe, for us to make sure that it is the gospel that is offending people when they are offended, and not our behavior or our made up teachings.

Now Adrian hits us with Isaiah 53. It’s not a bad chapter to use in discussing the atonement, but I find it amazing to have Adrian quote it and let it “speak for itself” as though nobody who rejects his view of PSA has ever read the passage. Well, I have read, memorized, studied, and restudied that passage many times. Having Adrian quote it one more time is unlikely to change a thing, unless he can point out how that scripture challenges my view that:

  1. Substitution is broader than penal substitution
  2. Atonement is broader than substitution

I have never denied substitution. I took a class Exegesis of Romans (from the Greek text) from a professor who believed in the moral influence theory. He tried to teach it from Romans. It didn’t work. He massacred Paul’s teaching. I did my very best to see it his way. I was inclined to see it his way. I liked the professor and enjoyed his lecture style. Nonetheless, I just couldn’t do it. Nonetheless there is an element of moral influence in the atonement.

There is also an element of substitution in Isaiah 53, though very little of it is penal in nature. Isaiah 53 needs to be viewed in the broader context of the servant passages of 2nd Isaiah (40-55), but even that is not the primary point. I’m not arguing that Jesus is not described here, though that interpretation will not work as an exclusive look at the chapter. That is another debate. But let’s look at the substitution in this case:

Notice in verse 4 that it is the people in general who esteem the servant “smitten by God.” They view him as suffering for his own sin, and thus under the wrath of God when in fact the servant is suffering for their sin. The servant gets all the suffering for the guilt of the whole people, and he submits to it. That is absolutely substitution, but there is no indication that God’s anger is directed at the servant. He certainly dies as a substitute, but the notion that God turns his anger purely on the person of that righteous person is simply not there.

The debate here, at least with me, is not that Jesus did not suffer and die for our sins. It is rather with the penal aspect, and with the exclusivity of either substitution or the penal aspect. I see nothing whatsoever in Isaiah 53 that denies my position. Even verse 10, that especially in the ESV sounds most like penal substitution can be read quite easily and appropriate as the Lord allowing the stroke to fall on the servant rather than the whole nation.

Incidentally this goes well with the view that the servant is in the first instance the remnant of Judah, taken into exile, and viewed as the greatest transgressors by those left behind. But they were the ones God was using to preserve the future of his people. In the second instance, Jesus fulfills the remainder of the prophecy as the pure remnant, the final representative of the people who took the punishment on himself. It is consistent both with God’s action and with the action of Jesus in laying down his own life (John 10:18).

The problem I see repeatedly here is that texts that fit well with more than one view of the atonement are being cited as exclusively supporting one narrow view. I do not regard this approach to interpretation as scriptural. That is my problem with PSA. It cuts a square inch out of a large tapestry and then declares the square inch to be the whole. That’s too close to idolatry for me.

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4 Comments

  1. But Paul never said that every stupid and offensive thing thereby automatically became God’s truth. It is crucially important, I believe, for us to make sure that it is the gospel that is offending people when they are offended, and not our behavior or our made up teachings.

    Ha! Yes! Amen, brother.

    Can we add this to the creed somehow?

  2. We don’t need to add anything to the creed to condemn some of the stupid and offensive things that this crowd say. Take for example UCCF director Richard Cunningham’s words “God doesn’t forgive sin, he punishes it”. This is already in specific contradiction to the following words in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in … the forgiveness of sins”, and of course in contradiction to Jesus’ solemn words instituting the Lord’s Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28, TNIV). No need to add anything to the creed to show that Cunningham is a heretic.

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