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Atonement: The Error Adrian Warnock and Giles Fraser Share

Adrian says it wouldn’t be Easter “without a row about the atonement” and he has promptly located one in a Guardian article by Giles Fraser, in which Fraser says:

Thinking about the celebration of Holy Week in my new adopted cathedral brings home to me quite how important it is for Christians to insist upon a non-sacrificial reading of the death of Christ. For too long, Christians have put up with a theory of salvation that has at its core the idea that God requires the sacrifice of his own son so that human sin can be cancelled. “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin,” we will all sing. The fact this is a disgusting idea, and morally degenerate, is obvious to all but those indoctrinated into a very narrow reading of the cross.

Adrian, in presumed response (I can’t find his precise quote in the article he links), says:

I am not surprised by the strong language used by the opponents of the view of the cross generally called “penal substitutionary atonement” but understood by millions of children simply as “Jesus died to be punished for our sin.” If millions of Christians are as wrong as Fraser believes then no wonder that he would speak the way he does.

But I would note here that for many, the word “punished” is not nearly so central, and the statement is that Jesus died for our sins, whatever that may mean. Most of us will admit that we don’t know quite precisely what it means.

So let me confess here right up front that I don’t really understand the atonement. But before all you knowledge-filled people jump up to tell me how you do understand it, and are thus in a position to set me straight, I’m going to refer you to 1 Corinthians 8:2, which I think applies here.

And that’s the problem with these views. Adrian points out that both those who find penal substitutionary atonement is “the most precious truth of the Bible,” and those who believe it is “cosmic child abuse” cannot both be right. I agree! But both of them can quite easily be wrong.

Now I don’t want to make accusations regarding Giles Fraser. It’s possible that he might nuance his point a little more if he had more space than a newspaper column. Adrian, on the other hand, has convinced me rather thoroughly that he is clear on his view and intends what he says. My summary, which I make available for criticism, is that penal substitutionary atonement, the idea that Jesus took the punishment demanded by God for our sins, and that this is to be understood in a judicial sense, is the true core meaning of the atonement.

The response of some seems to be, “No, it isn’t. It doesn’t mean that at all. It means something else entirely.”

That’s the error that I think is shared. In fact, I’m going to suggest that any statement that says that the singular meaning of the atonement is X, is wrong for any value of X. Neither side seems to be able to handle metaphor. Oh, we’ll get acknowledgment that theological language is metaphorical, but the same persons who make such statements don’t behave as though the language is metaphorical.

To Adrian I would say that the language of penal substitution is a highly refined and narrowed form of one scriptural way of talking about atonement. It even deprives the sacrificial metaphors of much of their meaning, because sacrifice is not centrally about judicial penalties.

One of the problems with understanding the death of Jesus as a sacrifice is that most of us in the Christian world have a very narrow and superficial idea of what sacrifice was about in the ancient world. If we’re going to use the metaphor of sacrifice, we ought at least to use it in a Jewish context, and not emphasize the most pagan elements, such as appeasement.

But again, I would tell Adrian and those in his camp that if this particular metaphor suffices to make them believe that God forgives them, and thus is for them the most precious truth of scripture, then by all means see it as precious and cling to it. That’s what a good metaphor is about.

But at the same time, realize that this specific formulation isn’t all there is to it, and isn’t necessarily central. Others may find their understanding comes through other metaphors. Metaphors are useful that way–not everybody has to get cozy with every one of them!

But to turn to those on the side of Giles Fraser, don’t throw out the metaphor just because some people have grabbed it as a singular truth. You’re quite right to object to some results of the penal view of the atonement, and even the sacrificial view. But the penal view is only part of the sacrificial view, and the notion of sacrifice is an important part of how theology of the atonement developed and is understood.

It’s a metaphor; it doesn’t tell us everything. It’s not supposed to. But the beauty of metaphors is that you can use many different ones to describe the same thing, with each one giving you additional light and understanding.

In addition, one metaphor provides a corrective for another. When sacrifice or penal substitution leads us to see God as vindictive, we then need to look to other ones to help build our understanding of God.

There is a beauty in the cross, but it’s a beauty that comes through transformation. Jesus took what was disgusting, despicable, and evil, symbolic of the worst of human nature, and transformed it. A symbol can be transformed.

One way to understand that transformation is by the metaphor of sacrifice, but Jesus also transformed the very idea of sacrifice. Fraser alludes to this, but then proceeds to dispose of the metaphor itself. If you dispose of the metaphor of sacrifice, how can you see the transformation? If you dispose of the cross, how will you see God’s transforming power?

If you try to blot out Good Friday, how will you comprehend Easter morning?

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  1. his death ‘for’ me – aren’t prepositions wonderful!

    I have not tried to express the propitiation issue in my own words based on my own experience – but the metaphor and preposition that I like is ‘in’. I am ‘in’ Christ Jesus and he ‘in’ me. Too good.

    I think Tyndale has a nice accuracy in rendering of hilasterion as ‘mercy seat’ – for there is where we meet with him whatever we think of sin and sacrifice. There according to Hebrews is where we are invited to enter into the Holy place through the veil that is to say – his flesh. It is a reality not to be missed and not to be trifled with and of infinite preciousness and value – as Paul writes – this treasure in earthen vessels.

    Easter blessings to you

  2. Sam Norton says:

    And the 11th commandment is: Thou shalt not make your metaphors into metaphysics.

  3. Theodore A. Jones says:

    This is what God says about substitutionary atonement.
    1. There is no case by which any man’s life taken by bloodshed is not directly accountable to God.
    2. There is only one case of a man’s life taken by bloodshed by which each man too must give God a direct accounting.
    Gen. 9:5 NIV
    The idea that Jesus was a sacrifice in your place or anyone else’s is a totally false and ludicrous idea.
    Are any of you three in the classification of EACH man too? Yes or NO?
    That question ought to cut to the chase.

    1. Well, your question might cut to the chase, if it didn’t ignore the idea of metaphor. My contention is, and always has been that substitution is one way of talking about the atonement and not somehow the core meaning. A thing which cannot actually be can nonetheless be useful as a metaphor.

      And that ignores the flaws in your premises … but since the conclusion doesn’t follow, I’m not going there right now.

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