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Substitutionary Atonement: One of Many Perspectives

Substitutionary Atonement: One of Many Perspectives

I have often annoyed people by saying both that I believe in substitutionary atonement, though I prefer not to use “penal substitutionary atonement,” and also do not believe it is the sole reason for, view of, or metaphor to describe what God did in the atonement.

So it’s nice to link to Roger Olson, who may be a bit less critical of substitutionary views than I am, but yet explains both the positive in this theory of the atonement and also some of the misunderstandings. If nothing else, this may help us discuss serious presentations. Well worth reading.

Bloody Sacrifices and Salvation

Bloody Sacrifices and Salvation

One of the problems with understanding biblical talk about salvation is that we do not live with a sacrificial system. For many Christians, the whole idea of sacrifices is that someone sinned and a bloody sacrifice was required for atonement. Christians believe that because of one bloody sacrifice, that of Jesus on the cross, no other bloody sacrifices need be offered, and we’re very relieved. In Judaism, the sacrifices have been replaced by Torah observance, without sacrifices due to the absence of the temple. Despite the desire of some Jews to rebuild the temple, I suspect the majority are quite happy with its absence.

This was emphasized to me recently as I prepare for (never ending) episodes of my study on Paul, especially as I read Galatians, and even more as I read Hebrews. The problem is that every word needs to be defined, and we are, to a large extent, convinced that we already know what the words mean. In fact, we are so convinced that we can define ourselves right past the message of the scripture we’re reading. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Read more at BrainyQuote).

My purpose here is not to provide a new and perfect (I have been reading Hebrews, after all!) answer to the question of what sacrifice really means. The word means different things in different places. I has a range or ranges of meaning. In cultic terms, as opposed to the more personal,, it seems to grow out of the idea that one needs to communicate with the divine. That can be as simple as the need to present your petitions effectively or as complex as wanting to hear from God, or from the gods, what is the ultimate plan for the physical universe, always assuming there is one.

That’s why you have a complex array of sacrifices and rituals in any religious system. The actual sacrifices and rituals evolve as worship takes place, and as people believe they receive communications, or more specifically directions, from the divine. The actual rituals are a mix of what people expect such things to be (tradition), from what people perceive to have worked (accurately or not), what people have heard, and available options and resources. These rituals will also combine the perceived needs of people, secular authorities, and religious authorities in various measures.

It may seem somewhat irreverent to some to apply this kind of process to biblical rituals, but as I argue in my book When People Speak for God, communication involves at least two termini, and one of those, in this case, is human. The lesser (slower, narrower, less precise) terminus determines the quality of the received message. In addition, a culture does not turn on a dime. Even revolutions are actually evolutionary to some extent.

The result is that the cultic system serves a range of needs. In modern Christianity we’ve come to think of salvation in rather simple terms: Avoid hell, and go to heaven. The intervening problem is that we’re sinners (though that term can get complex too), and the solution is the sacrifice of Jesus. All of which can be quite helpful except that it leaves us living in this world with all the many and varied issues in our lives.

The biblical concept of sacrifice was not quite so narrow. Or, rather, I should say that the biblical concepts of sacrifice were not quite so narrow. There is no particular reason to assume that every author in scripture is going to use the word “sacrifice” (or rather, various words sometimes so translated) in precisely the same way. If you read the texts carefully, you’ll find they are quite varied and nuanced.

In Leviticus, the world is made up of sacrifices. That’s because, for the most part, Leviticus is a book giving instructions about the cult to priests who were to carry it out. In that book sacrifices speak to the continuous presence of God, to atonement for specific sins, to atonement for guilt perceived for unknown reasons, to thanksgiving for blessing, to rituals for healing and purification, and ever so much more. The sacrifices were an integral part of the way the community of Israel was to live in community with its God.

The sacrificial system was not universally loved. For the prophets, it was often a dead routine carried out in Jerusalem by a nation in rebellion. Even earlier we have Samuel’s comment to Saul:

22 And Samuel said,
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obedience to the voice of the LORD?
Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed than the fat of rams.

(The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (1 Samuel 15:22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.)

Or as Hebrews Hebrews 10:5-7 quotes Psalm 40:6-8:

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Hebrews 10:5–7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Now the author of Hebrews puts Psalm 40:6-8 into the mouth of Jesus, and here emphasizes something that is often missed in Christian discussions of atonement. One of the claims made by various New Testament writers was that Jesus accomplished God’s will in a way that humans had failed to do. It’s not that we don’t have in mind the idea that Jesus accomplished God’s will. Rather, it is because that is not part of our view of atonement.

I think this is why we so often have trouble understanding something like John 3, in which yet another different view of atonement is presented, one in which we immediately “have” eternal life. The typical response to this is that I’m going to die. How is it that I can have eternal life? But that’s because we get off the track of a desire to create community here and to be in communion with God (and both of these concepts invite further discussion and definition), and have limited our idea to one thing. Where do I spend eternity?

That is a question that doesn’t work well in isolation. It makes faith, salvation, and atonement a narrow and selfish thing. It’s not that we shouldn’t want to care for our eternal reward. Rather, it’s because we shouldn’t try to plan our eternity independently and as a solely future event.

I’m mostly raising questions here, and providing way too little in pointing the way. The key thing I’d like to suggest is that we need to quit reading scripture in the elementary or high school sense of “look the word you don’t know up in the dictionary.” That’s a good starting point. But then you need to allow the context of one author’s work build a nuanced definition for you.

I recall reading Ludwig von Mises’s book Human Action back when I was in college. It’s more than 800 pages of rather intense prose. In that book von Mises creates his own vocabulary. He’ll say that a particular word (psychology, for example, which he replaces with thymology [but not precisely]) has problems of definition. Then he defines the word himself and proceeds to use it in further discussion. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll wind up completely baffled a few pages further. You can’t use the dictionary, because the word is not there. What you can do is develop your own understanding of the term as von Mises uses it.

Try that with your Bible. It can be rewarding!

(Featured image is from Adobe Stock [#126750439] and is licensed. It is not public domain.)
Penal Substitution is ONE of the Ways to Talk about the Atonement

Penal Substitution is ONE of the Ways to Talk about the Atonement

I think The Truth Is … Out There on the Wesley Bros. Blog did a good job of expressing this.

To my liberal brothers and sisters: Yes, I do believe in penal substitution.

To my conservative brothers and sisters: No, I don’t believe in it as the one and only way to believe in or discuss the atonement.

One of the ways. Your mileage may differ. In fact, I hope it does.

The Relevance of Atonement Theories

The Relevance of Atonement Theories

Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman's hand on a white background
Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman’s hand on a white background

On the Energion Discussion Network we have two essays posted in answer to the question “Do atonement theories continue to speak to the human condition?” The “yes” answer, written by Dr. Allan Bevere appeared yesterday. The “no” answer appeared today, written by Rev. Steve Kindle. I find both of these articles well worth reading.

In the past I have been accused of rejecting penal substitutionary atonement because of the fact that I don’t see it as central, or as the explanation of the atonement. In fact, I don’t see any theory of the atonement as a single explanation of the atonement. Our theories of the atonement are metaphors, used to carry across some of the meaning to us.

As does Allan Bevere, I do find pretty much all theories of the atonement relevant in one way or another. Where I tend to be concerned is where a metaphor begins, in some people’s minds, to become the reality, i.e. that rather than believing in the cross of Christ we believe in our particular metaphor, the one that may best speak to us. I recall a professor from whom I took a class in exegesis of Romans from the Greek text. What was remarkable about the class was that his favorite theory, or metaphor, for the atonement as the moral influence theory. Now I have a bit of a liking for that metaphor myself, but it is not the metaphor Paul uses in Romans. There is some overlap. But this professor, because that was his very most favorite metaphor, taught nothing but, twisting Paul considerably in the process.

I’d add one more caveat. Relevance is a word that points both ways. A metaphor, to be relevant must communicate to one who hears. If it doesn’t, it isn’t working as a metaphor. I think quite often we need to correct the presentation of some metaphors to make them function better. If they don’t carry something over, they aren’t relevant in that case, however great they might be otherwise.

Why Jesus Had to Die

Why Jesus Had to Die

In the study of the gospel of John I’m doing via Google Hangouts on Air, last Thursday night’s session was titled “I Finished the Work.” This reflects Jesus confidence that he had completed his mission, even before he had died on the cross or risen from the dead.

For many Christians the reason Jesus had to die is quite simple. He had to die for our sins. More specifically, by his death, Jesus took the penalty for our sin(s) so that we would not have to. In theology this is referred to as penal substitutionary atonement, or sometimes just as forensic atonement, because it is set in a metaphor of the courtroom, and we avoid the just legal penalty of our actions because Jesus takes it instead. Thus if Jesus had not died, we would not be saved, and would be doomed to eternal death.

But the courtroom is a metaphor, and as such, it may not provide the complete or the only meaning of what it tries to describe. Another metaphor is built on the family, in which we are adopted into God’s family as God’s children and thus are saved. You can find a clear statement of this in 1 John 3:1, but this metaphor is in play frequently in the gospel of John as well.

Someone familiar with 1 John might point to 1 John 1:8, with the blood of Jesus cleansing us from sin. And indeed there are a number of points where the various metaphors touch. One thing we don’t always understand well in the west is the sense of community, of being collectively part of one nation, people, or family, so much so that we can be referenced as a unit, or spoken of by reference to a king or leader. In Genesis 14, there is a battle. We’re told in Genesis 14:9 that it was “four kings against five.” Surely it wasn’t just the kings! They must have had armies. Of course they did. But they were referenced by the titles of their kings.

So when these kings were defeated, the people were defeated. If they won, the people won. We have that sort of vocabulary left in terms of sporting events and even of war, but we use it with less meaning. Thus if we said that one person suffered or died for a nation, we would generally be saying that the one person suffered instead of others. But in the ancient near east, we might well be saying that the a whole family or a whole people group was included in the suffering of that one person. In this way we can say that in Christ we have all died, and in celebration of Easter, in Christ we have all been raised. It’s helpful to read the servant passages of 2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55 is identified as 2nd Isaiah) with this in mind. Is the servant a single individual, a group, or the whole of Israel. I think the answer must be “yes,” if we incorporate all the references.

In 1 John 1:8, we also need to note that there is a different sacrifice in view than a sin offering. Here the issue is cleansing, and it would probably be much better to understand this as a purification offering than a sin offering. (I will try to blog more about these offerings soon!) Jesus dies for us, in this case, but it is not in a forensic sense, not taking a penalty, but rather is a cleansing ritual.

In the gospel of John another way of expressing atonement, bridging the gap between God and humanity, is the simple one of looking up. We always cite John 3:16, but we’d do well to start with John 3:14 and not stop before John 3:21. Here the metaphor is a simple one of looking up. Looking up at the One sent by the Father, looking to the one who is our pioneer and representative, who is the head of our family, who is showing us the Father (John 1:18). It’s a very simple but important metaphor.

And in this metaphor Jesus also dies for us, i.e. on our behalf. It is not here a sacrifice for sin, but rather it is the way that he is lifted up so we can see him. The son of man is lifted up on the cross, and in turn, lifted up right out of the world at the resurrection, and this finalizes the mission, the work, that he performed for us, and a great deal of that work was revelatory, showing us the father, curing our blindness so we could see, and getting us to look up so we would be looking at the right person.

And this leads me back to the question implied by my title. Why did Jesus have to die?

One reason is simple: To complete his mission. If Jesus was the one sent from the Father, here to show God to us, and thus bridge the gap between heaven and earth, infinite God and finite us, then he needed to do so completely. One cannot come and live as a human without facing and eventually experiencing death. Death is such an overwhelming fact of life. To skip it would make the rest of the story rather meaningless. “For God so loved the world that he looked in on us for a while” just doesn’t have the same ring as coming and going the whole distance as we have to.

But why did the death have to be so awful?

Because that is how someone who behaved as Jesus did would die in first century Palestine. That was how the ruling government, the Romans, behaved. If you or I had lived in that time and had possessed the courage and integrity that Jesus did, we would likely have ended up the same way. Certainly, divinity could have avoided the end, but by doing so would have separated itself from humanity. And Jesus was here to do just the opposite.

I don’t want to deny any metaphor for the atonement. I think it is rich enough of a reality to allow for many metaphors. But I also don’t want to find myself limited to one way of looking at it. It is too rich in meaning to allow for that.

Here’s the YouTube of “I Finished the Work.”

Quote: The Son of Man Lifted up on a Cross

Quote: The Son of Man Lifted up on a Cross

From my reading for next week’s study on John (Thursday night, 7:00 pm central time via Google Hangouts on Air):

In the same way in which a flag lifted up on its pole draws together a people and constitutes it a nation, the Son of Man lifted up on a cross draws toward himself all who believe and constitutes them “born of God.” (Weiss, Meditations on According to John, 42)

I am truly enjoying my reading in preparation for this study. I’ve been talking about metaphors, and leading toward the point that we use multiple metaphors to describe something that cannot be readily depicted in concrete language. Metaphors allow us to talk about the same subject in a variety of ways, each of which may contribute to our understanding.

When a single metaphor becomes the one and only one permitted in describing an event, we begin to lose some of the content of the reality. Similarly, any time we allow one word for (or description of) God to replace God—what I call conceptual idolatry—we lose some of the reality of our experience of God. We can allow our description to limit who God is. In terms of the atonement, I believe that stating that the one explanation of the atonement is the metaphor of substitution in a forensic context, we start to lose some of the meaning of the atonement.

Unlike some, I do see forensic and substitutionary metaphors in play in some scriptural descriptions of atonement. I don’t deny them as ways to discuss and understand atonement. My concern is that they not become the sole view, driving out other strong metaphors. The gospel of John uses a couple of different metaphors, especially centering around light and family, and we need to read those in their own context with their own integrity.

When I was in college, I took Exegesis of Romans, which was intended as a sort of taste of Greek III, from a professor (Malcolm Maxwell for my fellow Walla Walla alumni), who was an advocate of the moral influence theory of the atonement. I was very attracted to the theology involved, but despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find it in Romans. It is wrong, in my view, though without any diminution in my great respect for Dr. Maxwell, to force the moral influence metaphor onto Romans. It is equally wrong to force forensic substitution onto the gospel of John. You may hear its echoes, but it doesn’t dominate.

The quote above provides a taste. I’ll be discussing this in more detail on Thursday night.

St. Gregory the Theologian on Ransom and the Bronze Serpent

St. Gregory the Theologian on Ransom and the Bronze Serpent

I was delighted to find this quote via the Orthodox Study Bible, though I must add to my complaints about that edition the fact that they cite church fathers by name, but without providing a reference to the particular work.  A visit to the St. Pachomius Library and then resolved the latter question.

The quote is from St. Gregory the Theologian’s Second Paschal Oration, XXII:


Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most
people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into.  To Whom was
that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed?  I mean
the precious and famous Blood of our God and Highpriest and Sacrifice.
We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and
receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness.  Now, since a ransom
belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this
offered, and for what cause?

If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage!  If the robber receives
ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself,
and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for
whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone

But if to the Father, I ask first, how?  For it was not by Him that we
were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His
Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even
Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the
sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim?  Is it not
evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor
demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity
must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us
Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the
mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the
Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things?

So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say
shall be reverenced with silence.  But that brazen serpent [Num. 21:9]
was hung up as a remedy for the biting serpents, not as a type of Him
that suffered for us, but as a contrast; and it saved those that
looked upon it, not because they believed it to live, but because it
was killed, and killed with it the powers that were subject to it,
being destroyed as it deserved.  And what is the fitting epitaph for
it from us?  "O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy
victory?"  Thou art overthrown by the Cross; thou art slain by Him who
is the Giver of life; thou art without breath, dead, without motion,
even though thou keepest the form of a serpent lifted up on high on a

There are two elements that particularly attracted me to this quote.  The OrthSB quotes the final section about the serpent, which goes well with this week’s lectionary texts.  I like the idea that it was precisely the fact that the serpent on the pole is dead that provides the healing.  He is a defeated serpent.  It would also provide some interesting context to the worship of the serpent up to Hezekiah’s time, that is until Hezekiah broke it up (2 Kings 18:4).  This differs from part of the interpretation I provided yesterday in my Numbers 21:4-9" href="index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=69&catid=2&Itemid=5" target="_blank">lectionary notes.

If you’re missing out on the eastern church fathers regarding the atonement, you are missing out on a lot.

Corporate Identity and the Atonement

Corporate Identity and the Atonement

I want to briefly point to something that we often miss in Bible study and theology in the western church–corporate identity. We are very individualistic, and that makes it hard to see when some form of corporate identity is in play.

This turns up in certain views of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Many view the baptism as a single event for the church on Pentecost, into which the individual believer is incorporated when he or she becomes a part of God’s people, normally through baptism. The separate baptism is a more individual idea. (I think there can be some accommodation between these views; I simply want to point out the corporate identity inherent in at least one of them.)

Paul says in Romans 6:3-4:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (NRSV, cf. 2 Corinthians 4:10-12)

Again, our baptism incorporates us into God’s people, and by this means we have a part in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Applied to atonement theory, I would suggest that this means that there is a sense in which we have each paid the penalty, and that this element is often lost in discussions of the atonement. In particular, placing the reality of the atonement in the courtroom makes it essential an individual act, and an individual attributing [imputation] of Christ’s merits to us.

I do not mean to suggest that this, by itself, is a theory of the atonement, but rather that we should take the corporate elements of scripture more seriously in forming our understanding of New Testament writing on the subject.

PSA: An Unbalanced and Ineffective View of the Atonement

PSA: An Unbalanced and Ineffective View of the Atonement

I want to warn those who expect a certain amount of conciliatory tone in my posts on doctrinal issues that I intend to speak more harshly in this post. If that offends you, try reading a different one. I don’t mean to dismiss you, but I feel the need to make some points very strongly so as not to be misunderstood. Also, for those who may not be aware, PSA stands for “penal substitutionary atonement.” I will also be speaking very much of a debate within Christianity, and I will make many assumptions that will generally be shared only by Christians.

As has happened very often recently, this post starts from a comment made or quoted by Adrian Warnock. In his recent post Mark Driscoll Preaches on the Atonement in Edinburgh, Scotland, Adrian provided a video of Mark Driscoll preaching on the atonement. Peter Kirk has responded to Mark Driscoll’s comments, and I am in agreement with what he has said about those.

I, however, am responding only to one line in Adrian’s summary of Driscoll’s comments:

  1. The Central Theme—Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA)

This is the reason I have spoken out against PSA so frequently, not that PSA has no basis whatsoever in scripture (though as I study the new perspectives on Paul that basis gets smaller and smaller), but that its centrality has no basis in scripture, and in fact, does great harm to large portions of salvation history. I like Tillich’s definition of idolatry, paraphrases as “having as your ultimate concern something that is not ultimate.” I apply that doctrinally to state that making something central that is not, in fact, central will have the same effect, and will lead to idolatry.

Now before I go on, let me answer a question. Just what do I regard as central to the gospel?

I can answer that in two parts. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, NRSV). The first central point is God’s love. God gave his son so that, if we believe (or put our trust) in him, we could live with him eternally. That’s one statement of the gospel in a nutshell. Now note that it doesn’t mention a courtroom. It doesn’t mention God’s wrath. It doesn’t mention punishment. It does not call for belief in a set of doctrines, but rather in a person. It operates from a foundation of love that results in giving–giving of the Son, and giving of eternal life.

I can inversely state this with the two laws, love for God and love for one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40). The starting point for this command is loving God with the whole heart, mind, and soul. I cite the Matthean version because Matthew explicitly records Jesus as saying that the law and the prophets “hang” on these two commands, thus giving them a certain centrality. I think they are central as the opposite side of the same coin with John 3:16. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). While the two commands are central, they attach to the even more central idea that love in general starts with God. If God did not “so love,” then we would not love God, and if those two events did not happen, the full measure of love for one’s neighbor would never become a reality.

Note here that I’m not claiming that only Christians can love. God’s love is there because God is love (1 John 4:7-8). I actually think I should be able to stop there, because I think it is so abundantly clear that God’s love is more central than any theory of it, and that’s God’s love is the central point of the atonement. God loved; God gave. The courtroom is simply one way in which people have tried to express how God can carry out his love in practice and how we can understand it. But the metaphor, the attempt to understand, cannot take over the center from the reality.

How would PSA suggest we express the first commandment? Well, we have at the foundation of PSA God’s essential revulsion at human sin, and even his inability to look at it. In order for God to accept us he must look at Jesus, who is the only righteous one. Rather than God’s love, we have God’s loathing placed into focus. Even if one says he’s doing it all ultimately because he loves us, PSA puts the focus on the negative, on the complete depravity of humans and God’s inability to forgive them without killing somebody.

So how does this evoke my love for God? I am to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, even while he loathes me, a sinner, with everything in his being. To look at me, he has to play pretend, and look at Jesus instead.

How would this work in real life? Supposing that I inform my wife that I loathe her, that I cannot stand to look at her body, and that in order to make love to her, I must imagine her to be someone else. Would this tend to improve or to destroy our relationship? Would she enter into passion with her whole heart, knowing that I must imagine another in order to find her presence acceptable in our bed?

Yet this is essentially the “love” with which we are presented in PSA. Is it any wonder that advocates search for texts about God hating his enemies, and find the language of hatred, disgust, and loathing more appropriate than any normal language of love? We are constantly reminded that various excessive expressions are just individual views, and may be hyperbole taken out of context. But should I constantly tame the rhetoric of actual advocates of PSA in order to match up with an ideal view that is rarely expressed?

Now in a few paragraphs I’m going to spend a few moments on PSA as a metaphor, taken out of the center, but nonetheless seen as expressive of the atonement. But first, let me look at the human centered nature of PSA.

Human centered? The constant refrain is that those of us to don’t accept PSA as central are the ones who are taking God out of the center. But consider just what the most important issue in PSA is for the believer.

Let me take this through a metaphor. When I was a boy I would occasionally get in trouble, shocking as that may seem. I would be confronted by one of my parents. Now think of me as a boy standing before mother or father after I have committed some significant infraction. What is my major concern? Well, as I remember it, my major hope was to avoid punishment. Reform, relationship building, the peace of the family as a whole, and ultimate justice in the universe were nowhere in my thinking. I wanted to avoid punishment.

That is precisely the focus of PSA. With all the emphasis on human depravity, on God’s sovereignty, on universal justice, and other such concepts, at the bottom line PSA tells me that I get to avoid punishment. If PSA is the central understanding of the atonement, then that implies that the primary problem following the fall was not the damage caused by evil actions, or the devastation caused by people separation from and rebellion against God. The central problem that God faced, in this scenario, was that he just has to punish someone.

On the one hand we have helpless humans. Having committed one sin, they have become totally incapable of doing anything good, totally depraved. They are helpless. But on the other hand, we have a God who is so hopelessly out of control and helpless that he cannot manage to handle this in any way but to strike out and punish someone, anyone. So this helpless God arranges some sleight of hand, and strikes out at his son instead, so he doesn’t have to punish those helpless depraved humans.

The only thing that is solved in this view of PSA is that the people don’t have to be punished. I don’t have to be punished. Now that’s some pretty good news right there, but it is a very narcissistic set of good news. I’m filled with joy that I dodged the bullet. There is no purpose, however, other than this satisfaction of an oddly medieval sense of justice. So the problem of punishment is solved, but the nasty behavior continues, and is essentially doomed to continue.

It has always seemed odd to me that so many people of my acquaintance can find such joy in predestination, when the opposite side of that coin is that some are predestined to hell, or if we state it in a less extreme form, some simply fail of being predestined to heaven and thus default into hell. I’m sure that while burning in the fire, this doctrinal nuance will be of great comfort to them. But supposing I believe that I am predestined to heaven. What if my wife is not? You say, “Is she not a Christian?” Well, according to some Calvinists I have encountered, should she backslide, one might conclude that she never really was. Or perhaps I will backslide. Great comfort there! But for some reason nobody who currently professes belief assumes that he or she is headed for the wrong place. That seems a bit narcissistic to me, and so does PSA if made central.

Now how can PSA be read when not central? Well, first, we do not have to make it walk on all four. If it’s central, then somehow each element must fit around the core, and thus we get imbalances such as God’s loathing for sinners.

Second, we no longer have to assume that the problem referenced and solved by PSA is the central problem of the fall. Certainly, we would all see avoiding punishment as a very important point, but if that was the most important point, then surely a most powerful God could figure out a way to solve it. But there is a more central problem of sin–the damage that it does to the creatures God loves. I think the atonement addresses this problem as well, and I think that the problem of sin and its damage is more important in God’s eyes than the problem of the consequences I face for being a rebel.

Third, I am more free to bring the trinity into the equation. In some ways, PSA starts to make less sense, when we bring trinitarian theology to bear. God killing himself? God taking the penalty on himself? In other ways it begins to make more sense. One way for God to demonstrate to us both that sin is horrible, but that he is willing to forgive and redeem is to himself take on those consequences.

And those are not the only items. What I want to bring out here is that there are many theological themes that tend to blunt the nastier aspects of PSA, but those themes also tend to move PSA out of the center. As the central doctrine of the atonement I think PSA will always become a stumbling block and result in the language of pure wrath, loathing, and of a God who is truth challenged, limited, and has to pretend in order to accomplish his will.

I am not a pastor, though I took my MA in Religion (concentrating in Biblical and cognate languages) at a seminary. But for me the key issue here is first pastoral–how do I reach people. I believe Jesus gives me every license by his words and deeds to place that first. Second, the issue is Biblical, and only third do I see it as theological. (The theologically trained may blame that on the lack of theological training in my Biblical studies programs.)

My focus is illustrated by a gentleman who came to my office, referred to me by a pastor. He believed he was oppressed by the devil and by demons and I began to ask him about his relationship with Jesus and his personal trust in Him for salvation. He could recite doctrines. He was a sinner, and knew it. He knew the offer for his salvation. He could recite John 3:16. But he could not honestly say, he told me, that God so loved him.

He was a transient, and he left the area before our second appointment, so I do not know how well the seed I tried to sow grew, or if it grew at all. But for me the bottom line on a view of the good news and the atonement is this: How well does it help you look someone in the eye and say, “God loves you!”

In that task, I believe, PSA repeatedly fails.

New Perspectives on Paul – Shifting the Paradigm

New Perspectives on Paul – Shifting the Paradigm

I find myself commenting a bit on this topic before I really feel ready to do so, but there are certain things I’d like to insert into the conversation that is being generated from Adrian Warnock’s blog, through the discussion of John Piper’s book The Future of Justification. (Some preliminary notes on the new perspectives may be found on my participatory Bible study blog, category New Perspectives on Paul. All these are just my notes as I journey through some of this interesting writing.)

Adrian has put a good deal of emphasis on what he sees as the gracious approach that John Piper has taken toward N. T. Wright’s work, and how accurately, in his view, Bishop Wright has been portrayed. I have no reason to believe that Piper is intending to be anything but gracious and accurate, and yet there are some things that bother me just a bit. (On these, see below.)

I’m going to outline the points here, but much of my reading on the new perspective has been from sources other than N. T. Wright, so I want to emphasize two things. First, I am in no way trying to characterize Wright’s views on this. I think those who really want to understand him should read what he has written. I linked to an excellent paper he wrote in my previous post on this topic, Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism (PDF). Second, I am myself exploring these ideas, and my training was primarily Old Testament, though I did a considerable amount of exegesis in Greek in school, and afterward. But even so I think I can perhaps help clarify a couple of things.

I started from Adrian’s post today, Legalism Versus Grace in First Century Judaism, in which he says:

Anyone who has read anything about the New Perspectives on Paul will realize that one of the key arguments is that we have misunderstood the Pharisees through the perspective of the Reformation. The first century Jews were never legalists, we are told. . . .

But there are a number of problems with this claim as well. First, it is not essential for the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) that one assume that there were no Jewish legalists, or that there were no legalistic Pharisees. The key position is that Judaism was and is not a legalistic religion, and that in it favor with God was based on grace. I can find any number of legalistic Christians, plenty of whom would fit as targets of some passages in Luke 18 (cited by Adrian later in the paragraph), but they do not make Christianity into a legalistic religion by nature.

Jesus can encounter dozens and hundreds of legalistic Pharisees, and yet the essential foundation of Pharisaism need not be legalistic, nor does it have to carry over into modern Judaism in a legalistic fashion. Just how far one goes on this issue is another matter, and one which I am studying. I definitely believe that the religion of the Mosaic covenant, Israelite religion, was founded on grace expressed through the covenant. That has been my position long before I read any NPP material.

I tend to see first century Judaism as both a bit more corrupted and also more fragmented, so that I find it questionable to make many generalizations about first century Judaism. One could make a few generalizations about groups. Having said that, the Pharisees were probably one of the less corrupt groups. I suspect that they often disputed with Jesus because they were able to connect more frequently, while still not agreeing with him.

But this whole debate illustrates one of the problems I’m seeing with the online critique. (And again I must emphasize that I have not read The Future of Justification, and thus am not commenting on Piper’s own work, but only on Adrian’s presentation of it on his blog.) This issue of legalistic Pharisees as opposed to the legalistic nature of Judaism (or not, as Wright would maintain), illustrates the major paradigm shift that Wright and others are making. They are not seeing justification as dealing with whether an individual is “saved” or not, but rather as proclaiming/acknowledging that person’s entry into God’s people as a group. It is an individualistic perspective that, in answer to the claim that a faith position is based on grace, points out individuals who are legalistic.

For the NPP, we have been reading Galatians and Romans from the wrong perspective, asking the wrong questions. This was drilled into me both as an undergraduate Biblical languages student and in seminary: The message of Galatians is that we are saved by grace through faith and not by the works of the law. Essentially, in that case, Galatians is written in opposition to legalism, and particularly Jewish legalism.

Since first reading a bit about the NPP, I have worked through Galatians twice in Greek, using two different commentaries that at least partake of portions of the NPP. Each time through has been a bit mind twisting. But as I teach at the most basic level of Bible study methods, your questions often determine your answers, so it is very important to ask the right questions. In the case of Galatians, in the seminary classroom, I asked the question “How can I be saved?” I found an answer there–not by the works of the law, but rather by faith.

The NPP suggests that Paul is answering a different question: How does one become a part of God’s people, i.e. how does one come under the covenant? Paul’s enemies say it is by becoming Jews, with the sign of circumcision; Paul says that incorporation takes place because of the death and resurrection of Jesus and through faith. We are looking here much less at individual salvation, and much more at the definition of community. Neither side believes that being part of the covenant people can be earned by works. The sign and the means of incorporation are different.

This is over-simplified, partially because I haven’t incorporated the vocabulary myself, but after two passes through the book of Galatians trying to answer those questions I think I begin to see how the categories work. If you really want to try to understand the NPP, one good exercise is to ditch the “how does an individual become righteous in God’s eyes?” question, and replace it with “how and why does a person come under God’s covenant?” Then read Galatians looking for the answer to that second question. I’m not saying give up your view ahead of time. Just tentatively ask yourself how the book would work if you were asking a different question.

Ironically, it looks to me like Piper might have erred in an attempt to be as gracious as possible. He attempts to read Wright as favorably as possible from his own perspective. In Adrian’s post John Piper: Is N. T. Wright Preaching Another Gospel?, he quotes Piper noting the areas in which Wright would agree with the reformed view, and then the single item on which he disagrees. From Piper’s point of view, making Wright agree in most senses with the reformed view appears gracious. But it looks to me like he is missing the point. It is not that Wright goes along with the standard view and then disagrees because he does not believe righteousness is imputed or imparted. Rather, he is defining righteousness in a different way, and therefore the declaration that one is righteous means something different. It is a paradigm shift in which almost all definitions are adjusted, not a minor alteration.

I think we need to understand the NPP, and particularly Wright’s view of all of this carefully as a whole. Picking it apart in a point by point comparison with the reformed view, or any other for that matter, will not work well, because Wright is shifting the categories. Justification doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it does to a traditional reformed theologian.