The Obliteration Of Penal Substitutionary Atonement – You Can’t Get There From Here

blood-dropFirst off, what is Penal substitutionary atonement? it refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.

Secondly, I’d like to dispel the notion that it is a late doctrine.  Some say that the above idea was not formed until the reformation or shortly thereafter.  Others say that it was during the Constantinian era.  These propositions fall flat in the writings of those like Ploycarp, a disciple of John, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Ambrose, and Justin Martyr.  These men represented the first centuries of Christendom.  All of them were of course, preceded by the accounts of scripture in both the Old and New Testaments where a good case can be made for the existence of this critical atonement aspect.  It’s important to remember that the Church Fathers often spoke or wrote of the atonement in narrative, rather than in doctrinal terms and that we should apply the same hermenuetical techniques to those extra-biblical writings as we would the scripture.

In the book; “A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology,” Scot Mcknight says; “Atonement language includes several evocative metaphors: there is a sacrificial metaphor (offering), a legal metaphor (justification), an interpersonal metaphor (reconciliation), a commercial metaphor (redemption), and a military metaphor (ransom). Each is designed to carry us, like the pole, to the thing. But the metaphor is not the thing. The metaphor gives the reader or hearer an imagination of the thing, a vision of the thing, a window onto the thing, a lens through which to look in order to see the thing. Metaphors take us there, but they are not the “there.”

I not only appreciate that statement, but the overall tone of the book as well.  It does not seek to obliterate the idea of ‘penal substitution’ from the atonement, but seeks to incorporate it as a critical aspect of it.  Sweeping generalizations which seek to completely dismiss the penal substitutionary component of the the atonement are often motivated by innacurate accounts of Church history, emotion, faulty logical syllogisms, and just plain shoddy hermeneutics.  Some would say, and have said things like “The idea of God punishing His own Son is ‘cosmic child abuse,’ or ‘completely opposed to the character of God.’  They remain, however, exactly that, ‘sweeping over-generalizations.


“The problem arises when advocates treat penal substitution as a totalizing theory of atonement set against Christus Victor or moral influence, or some other kind of atoning action. Proponents all-too-often hold it up as “The One Atonement Theory To Rule Them All”, as one friend put it. Instead, I’ve already argued before that all of these “theories” are more properly seen as containing insights into various aspects and angles of one great work of atonement. I do think there is a place for ordering these elements logically, and penal substitution is something of a lynchpin here, but there is no excuse for downplaying or ignoring the other themes.”

Some see the penal substitution theory of the atonement as violent, unjust, or unpleasant. However, the doctrine of propitiation is biblical, and the Bible does say that Christ took our ‘punishment’ upon Himself. He became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13), and He was made sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21).

I don’t think any of you, although I could be wrong, are trying to completely obliterate all semblance of penal substitution from the atonement, but instead; are reacting to the heavy-handed way in which this important aspect has been made the dominant one, misused, or abused.  I myself have certainly seen it used excessively and exclusively in anemic and threatening gospel presentation.

The different atonement theories (e.g. recapitulation, Christus Victor, satisfaction, representation, ransom, or penal substitution), are useful for answering different theological questions – for instance; all the multiple ways that we are oppressed by sin.  As Mcknight also points out in the book;

“How we think the atonement solves the “problem” depends very much on what we think the problem is in the first place, and that if the problem is multifaceted, then it makes sense that the solution would be as well.”

One of the things that I see as constantly treated hastily in atonement discussions is the glossing over of the Passover. If we want to understand the atonement in all of its aspects, we should try to understand the story of Passover.

Did Christ die in place of rebellious sinners? Yes this is clearly seen in the Passover lamb being a substitute so that the Israelite’s firstborn didn’t have to die.

Finally, I am amazed when the proponents of more holistic theologies, the ‘BOTH & AND’ folks, default to being ‘EITHER OR’ folks when it comes to the atonement.

I suppose the most pertinent question I could ask when it comes to atonement theories is this;

Are any of the ‘other’ theories mutually exclusive to the Penal Substitution theory? If so, how? 


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