[It would really help new readers if they read Part 1 of this conversation on the atonement]
In Afrikaans we have a saying, vasbyt! lit. bite tightly! This blog is not a light piece of toast but ‘strong meat’ and indeed a large portion of it!
As promised, the ‘pro’s and con’s’ of the Penal View (def. in Part 1):
Briefly, some of the ‘pro’s’ of the Penal View:
- The Penal View does represent a more important metaphor concerning the atonement in both OT and NT, although not the only one or the major one.
- It takes the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sin seriously. Sin is undoubtedly an affront to God, both in his holiness and love [a question, can we actually separate these??]
- It takes the law of God very seriously, as did Jesus. [Greg Boyd (I don’t go with all his writings) asks whether the Penal View doesn’t take it more seriously than God’s love – the law is deep, God’s love is deeper]
- It takes Christ’s sacrificial death as our substitute very seriously.
Some ‘con’s’ with regard to the Penal View:
- As already pointed out, though often seen as the main club in the golf-bag, it is one among others, although an important one.
- It seems to have so focussed on Christ’s death that it doesn’t give enough attention to his incarnation and life.
- It is strongly based on a legal relationship between God and man. According to the Penal View, Jesus earns an excess of merit which is paid to God as satisfaction or compensation. One sees here the influence of the pentitential system of the Middle Ages Church. The root idea is that man must make an offering or payment to satisfy God and his justice, which explains the work of Christ. However, Boyd points out that God is not a lawyer, but a Father – cf. the Parable of the Lost Son/Loving Father (Lk. 15:11-32).
- It makes much of God’s law and wrath against sin (not wrong per se), but they seemingly compete or even over-shadow his love. As a result, in my own experience, non-Christians and even many Christians have a warped perception of God as an angry judge or divine policeman. I have encountered Christians seemingly ‘obsessed’ with the law. They maintain they ‘love sinners’ but ‘hate their sin’ – why then do they often not hang out with ‘sinners’ as Jesus did? [I heartily recommend Jon Zens’ marvellous ‘This Is My Beloved Son, Hear Him!’ (The Foundation for New Covenant Ethics and Ecclesiology) – so much depends on a biblical understanding of ‘The New Covenant’]
- Closely linked with the judicial character of the Latin View is its rational character [we are not denying man’s ability to ‘reason,’ surely a God-given gift]. Nothing can be more ‘reasonable’ than the demand for ‘satisfaction,’ and the way in which the demand is met. However, often such reasoning becomes a kind of ‘system’ into which Scripture is forced [my quarrel with some Reformed Theologians]. As Luther pointed out, law and rationality are often inseparable allies, but God and the cross defy rationalisation and systematisation. The cross is an antinomy (contradiction in a law or between two laws, a paradox), according to which God is simultaneously Reconciler and Reconciled). [R.P. Martin and N.T. Wright believe that Paul’s main theme in the NT is reconciliation rather than justification, although of course the latter is of critical importance to man’s salvation]
- Wright and Boyd point out that the Penal View can portray a God of ‘violence,’ whereas Christ came to defeat violence on the cross (Col. 2:13ff). According to Wright we simply can’t see God as ‘a kind of bullying headmaster in dealing with his class which includes his son: the rest of the class are bad, so in his anger he picks on his own son and beats him up.’ This contradicts God’s very nature! Boyd asks why it is that we ‘love Jesus’ but ‘fear God?’ The fact is that in the Penal View the debt/punishment of sin is transferred (is guilt transferable?) whereas in the Bible it is cancelled (Col. 2:14).
So why are so many taking another look at the Classic View of the atonement?
- Because it gives better recognition to Jesus’ incarnation, early life, and his ministry leading up to the cross and beyond [N.T. Wright, a Pauline specialist, has often noted the Church’s neglect of the Gospels. My comment: test the preaching/teaching in your assembly]. Christ obeyed the Father in every part of his mission: Jn. 14:9 (Jesus’ response to Philip) ‘”Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?'” Think of his invaluable teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7). Here’s the point, the disobedience of one man which inaugurated the reign of sin in the world is answered by the obedience of One Man who brought life. ‘By his obedience unto death the Word annulled the ancient disobedience committed at the tree’ (Irenaeus). Paul wrote to the Corinthian ecclesiae, ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19). The cross must never be seen in isolation but always in connection with Christ’s life-work, including his resurrection and ascension.
- God is not ‘placated’ by the death of Christ as the Latin Theory believes. Augustine rightly asked, how can God the Father in any way be ‘placated’ by the Son’s death? This would imply a difference, even a conflict, between the Father and the Son. This is unthinkable, for there is always perfect harmony between Father and Son.
- The Classic View displays Christus Victor in a way the Penal View doesn’t. We are talking about Christ’s victory in his life, death and rising: over sin, death and the devil. Heb. 2:14-15, ‘Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.’ Jesus as our merciful and faithful High Priest ‘made atonement for the sins of the people’ (v.17). The deliverance of man from the power of sin, death and the devil is at the same time his deliverance from God’s judgment! Paul is clear: God has come in Christ to destroy the power of evil, demons, principalities, powers and all that bear rule in this world, God having permitted them for the time being to have limited power (Eph. 6:10-20). Christ descends from heaven, becomes subject to the powers of this world, whereby he finally overthrows them by his death and resurrection.
- The Classic View is beautifully underpinned by the OT and NT drama of ‘redemption.’ My seminary dissertation confirmed this [referred to in Pt. 1]. For a detailed study, cf. G. Aulen’s classic, Christus Victor. It includes a good survey of the redemption motif in the Gospels, Pauline and General Letters of the NT: pp. 66-80]. The Classic View builds on the OT (Exodus, Isaiah, Daniel etc) and Jesus’ words in Mt. 20:28), ‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (cf. Mk. 10:45). The Pauline Letters abound with the redemption theme: Rom. 5:18, 6:11; 1 Cor. 15:26,56; Gal. 3:10,13; Col. 2:13-16a, ‘When you were dead in your trespasses and sins and in the uncircumcision of the sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross…’ Note: it is misleading to argue that Christ’s triumph over the powers of evil whereby he delivers man at the cost of the cross, is a work of ‘salvation’ but not ‘atonement.’ The two themes are inseparable! It is precisely the work of salvation wherein Christ breaks the power of evil that constitutes the atonement (at-one-ment) between God and the world, for it is thereby that he removes the enmity between God and man and the judgment that rested on the human race. 2 Cor. 5:17ff, ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the ministry of reconciliation… God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ As N.T. Wright has pointed out, in the cross the biblical narrative of God’s love for mankind becomes focussed: sin and the devil ‘did their worst’ at Calvary, yet he was raised from the dead and vindicated by the Father. Since Christ by his death has both redeemed us and atoned for our sin, this provides the key to all the passages which speak of Christ’s work as ‘vicarious,’ ‘for our sake,’ ‘in our place,’ ‘our Passover sacrificed for us, ‘the new covenant in his blood,’ etc. [other NT references to the redemption-atonement drama include: Jn. 12:31, Heb. 9:12, 1 Jn. 3:8, Rev. 1:5]
- The Classic View puts the OT law into biblical perspective. While some may dispute this, it appears that in Paul’s Letters the law at times is seen as a ‘hostile’ power to the believer. While on the one hand the law is ‘holy and righteous and good’ and the expression of God’s will and commandment, on the other hand 1 Cor. 15:56 tells us that ‘the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Gal. 3:10ff talks about ‘the curse of the law.’ That the law is sometimes considered a hostile power does not depend chiefly on the fact that it inexorably condemns sin – more profoundly, the way of legal righteousness which the law demands can never lead to salvation and life. Just like human merit, it leads not to God but away from God (Rom. 4:4, 7:9). Gal. 3:13, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law.’ Rom. 10:4, ‘Christ is the end of the law so there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.’ In summary, the law, as an enemy, is overcome in/by Christ. God’s love can never be imprisoned in the categories of merit and justice; it shatters them in pieces, and creates a new order to govern the relation of man with God, i.e. grace!
Until our final blog in this series on the atonement, ‘May the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, our rock and our Redeemer.'(adaptation of Ps. 19:14).