OK – I’m back, and I’m happy :o)
Here’s some things that I’ve enjoyed reading whilst on holiday:
A snatch of old song (or, why I might take up scything)
The dimensions of things (eg Pakistan flood)
Nine challenges of alternative energy
Biblical Christianity is bankrupt
How to save the music industry
Why we shouldn’t be afraid of fear
A philosophical look at penal substitution
How much is left?
Why Green Wizards will get us nowhere (or: Transition vs JMG – a good example of where there is more in common than there is separating)

That’ll do for now.

Transcript of Penal Substitution talk

The audio of this talk can be found here (downloadable mp3, played about 5% too fast so I sound as if I’ve just been snorting helium), but I realise that I have never actually posted the transcript. Please note that this is an unedited transcript as I want to link to it somewhere else…

Penal Substitution talk

Good morning and welcome. Today looking at penal substitution I want to begin with an apology because I am defeated by our new printer, I really wanted you to have some bits of paper in particular this chart which will come up later, but I apologise but it wasn’t going well for me up there, if I had had an extra ten minutes it might have been sorted, notes will be provided at some point, God willing. Now penal substitution, what’s penal substitution all about and why do I think it is being used as a shibboleth? My discussion of shibboleths is really focused on this issue and really then going wider into other issues about contemporary evangelicalism, but this is really where it gets sharply focused.

Well all Christians agree that Jesus saves, that’s almost axiomatic, no Christians would disagree that Jesus saves, OK, so to be a Christian is to accept the mystery of salvation in Christ. The discussion comes when we start to talk about how that salvation is accomplished, OK? So discussions on this subject are all discussions about the how, not the what. Does that make sense? I’ll come back to talking about the what next week, but there is a clear consensus, all Christians would say there is something wrong with us, there is something wrong with humanity, OK? Generally coming under the heading of sin, and Jesus puts it right, faith in Christ puts us right, reconciles us with God, etc. That’s universally accepted, so don’t talk anything I am going to say this morning as going against that, and as I say I will come back to that more strongly next week, but the issue is how is this salvation accomplished? Now the thing is the church has never actually established a set doctrine for how this is accomplished. In for example the creeds of the early church there isn’t a single way of understanding this which is prescribed. We are not told this is the way you need to understand it. Consequently there are lots of different ways of understanding it and what I want to do today is look at one particular, give emphasis, to one particular way of understanding it which as I say has become something of a shibboleth.

I should also say that as a doctrine, because that’s really what we are talking about, a doctrine of salvation, a way of understanding salvation, it’s not the most central Christian doctrine, the most distinctive and essential doctrine is that in Jesus, God became man, in other words the incarnation, the unification of the human and divine, and salvation is if you like a spin-off from that, so again all Christians would recognise the truth of the incarnation, that’s one of the things that makes them Christian, but how exactly salvation is accomplished comes on after that.

Now a quick summary of my perspective on this just to give you a bit of a steer before getting into some details, going back to my triangle with the green area being scriptural and so on, the doctrine that I am going to be talking about today is penal substitution. Now that’s very much a doctrine identified with the, well I would say it is almost a hallmark of a conservative evangelical perspective. Now I would really emphasise a distinction, it is not a fundamentalist doctrine at all, it is historically mainstream protestant, so it is not extreme even in that sense I have been describing before, it is very much slap-bang in the green section, the solid green section of my triangle. A bit like Luther, Cranmer, Calvin and so forth. Moreover, the rudiments of the doctrine can on the whole be found in scripture. In particular Isaiah 53, references to Isaiah 53 in the letter of Peter, some passages in Paul, do lend pretty clear… (well one of the things I am going to do today is look at one passage in some detail) but there is a plain reading of scripture which supports this doctrine. So Isaiah 53, he was pierced for our transgressions and so on. There is a fairly natural, certainly in terms of our culture, a natural way of reading that which lends itself to what’s called a penal substitution understanding.

However, my perspective is that this is a marginal theme in scripture, it’s there but it’s not where the main emphasis comes in scripture, it’s not the main presentation of the nature of God and in particular my concern is that an insistence that this way of understanding salvation is either the most important or the only way of understanding salvation is becoming a very divisive issue, it is being used to divide Christians, and I will flesh that out with a particular example later on.

Now as I say, this gets a little bit technical so a little word of warning, my talk this morning will get a bit more technical than usual, mainly because I want to look at the Greek in a particular passage of Paul, right with just a little bit of warning I hope to make it fairly clear. Now how are we to understand the phrase from scripture He died for us, now people are familiar with that language, Christ died for us, OK? Well let me run through half a dozen, six or seven different ways of reading that language. Is it that Christ was a martyr? This is something very much in Greek culture of the time, the heroic death that saved another group of people. I recently watched the film, “Three Hundred”, about the battle of Thermopylae where you have got three hundred Spartans sacrificing themselves so the rest of Greece might be saved. OK? Or the example used in Alpha from the “Bridge of the River Kwai” story where the nutty Japanese guard miscounts the amount of tools that the working group has and insists that someone has to be to blame, someone steps forward, is killed for it, when then they later discover the truth there weren’t any tools missing, that man saved the other group. So that’s the sort of martyr type model.

There’s a ransom model, an economic model, the language of redemption is very much part of this economic model, the language that Paul uses is language taken from the slave market. So Christ pays the price to set people free to set people free from their slavery. A diplomatic sense that we are reconciled through this death. So you have got two parties who are not at peace with each other and a reconciliation takes place. A sacrificial understanding that “by the blood of this sacrifice we are cleansed”. So the power is in the blood. A scapegoat understanding, are people familiar with a scapegoat? That He borne our sins, you know in the scapegoat ritual the priest lays his hand on the scapegoat, the sins are laid on the top of the scapegoat’s back and the scapegoat is driven out into the wilderness carrying the sins with it. And penal substitution that He the Christ died in our place, that we were condemned by a verdict and Christ steps in to receive the penalty on our behalf, so you can see the different ways of understanding just that phrase, Christ died for us.

What is this last one I mentioned, the doctrine of penal substitution? Quoting from this book, one of two of you may have come across, “Pierced for our Transgressions”, anyone heard of it? Does anyone know Oak Hill Theological College? This is written by the new Principal and a couple of the students, highly educated students, they have all got PhD’s in Science which is quite interesting. It’s a response to some of the controversy which I will come onto at the end, but it is a very thorough going through of a lot of the objections, it’s the doctrine of penal substitution. I have to say I am really not persuaded by it and most of the time it lists lots of the objections, you know I agree with the objections rather than the response, but this is a thorough an analysis and defence of penal substitution as we are likely to get in our generation. But the definition it gives at the beginning is this, “PSA, penal substitutionary atonement”, sorry I am going to use a little bit of jargon, atonement is the word given to how we are saved, atonement is a way to describe how salvation takes place. So penal substitutionary atonement says, our salvation takes place in this particular way, and this is their definition, “PSA states that God gave Himself in the person of His Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.” I’ll run through that again, because it is quite key. There are lots of quotes this morning and I will circulate these notes. The doctrine states, “God gave Himself in the person of His Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin.” So human-kind has sinned against God, God’s holiness requires that sin be punished in order that we might be saved from that punishment God sends His Son and the Son accepts the punishment on our behalf. That’s penal substitution. Clear?

Right, a few things just to pick out from this just to really bring out, it’s a western emphasis of understanding, the eastern church it’s completely foreign to their spirituality, it doesn’t exist really in the Eastern Orthodox church. So it is very much a western model and part of the way in which it links into western culture is the emphasis upon the judicial process, the impact of law and the importance of law and the processes of law, which stems really back to the way in which western culture, especially after the split in western empire really emphasised law, Roman law, so it is one of ways in which it is a western understanding.

It comes in most strongly after the Reformation, so with people like Luther and Calvin and Cranmer and so on. Now the thing to really emphasis is that it’s not simply about substitution, it’s not just about Christ being in our place, because I will come on to explain various models talk about Christ being in our place, the key bit where the weight of it comes is on the penalty, that there is a punishment, Christ takes a punishment in our place. So it is not just substitution, it’s penal substitution, alright? And one of the elements of it is that God is required to punish else His holiness is impaired. God’s holiness is such that it cannot be as the same place as sin, and so to allow sin to go un-punished is to make God less holy, so if you like where some of the weight lies in this doctrine is the emphasis upon God’s holiness, understood in this way that sin must be repudiated. Does that make sense?

And the other element I would pick out just for now, is that the punishment comes from God, God is the one doing the punishing, that sin offends God, breaks His laws, therefore God must punish. Alright? Now get onto the technical bit which I hope won’t be too scary. Right Romans Chapter 3, first half of verse 25, which I am sure many of you are crucially familiar with, I’ll give you some different translations. New International Version says, “God presented Him (Christ) as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” King James version, “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation,” which is strictly speaking, propitiation is about appeasing God’s wrath. “God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” The New Revised Standard version, “Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith”, but has a little note, the note by the phrase “sacrifice of atonement, says, “could read ‘place of atonement’.” Now what I want to focus in on is the word which is translated as “sacrifice of atonement”, or in the new RSV, possibly, “place of atonement”. Now the word is Hilasterion, I apologise it’s getting a bit technical, a Greek word, Hilasterion, that is the word that is translated in those different ways. OK? Sacrifice of atonement, propitiation, place of atonement, can you see that they are similar sorts of words, but much of the weight of understanding the text comes in quite how you take Paul’s argument to be developing.

Now this book has an analysis of this text and it says, “The undeniable teaching is that the Lord Jesus Christ was set forth as a propitiation to turn aside God’s wrath from his people by suffering it in their place.” In other words this is one of the key texts used to defend the doctrine of penal substitution, what’s claimed is that Paul is arguing very specifically that Christ’s death is this sacrifice which gives propitiation, in other words, it appeases the wrath of God. Does that make sense? That’s the weight which this passage is carrying. Now the issue is, is that the right way to understand this word? Now this is a source of intense academic debate and I am really just dipping into the surface here, but to say, which that book, those defenders do, that this is indisputable is simply not true, it is not at all indisputable. It is highly disputed. Now what I want to do is run through a different way of reading this text.

Now this word Hilasterion, there are really two environments in which that word is used in the time of Paul. One is in the wider Greek culture, where it does have this meaning of propitiation as used in the NIV. Now for example there were commentaries on Homer at the time that talk about the Trojan Horse being an Hilasterion that this was how in terms of the story Acclahysa and the Greeks offered appeasement to the Trojan’s to say sorry for attacking them. Make sense? So the Trojan horse is a Hilasterion, it is a means of appeasing the wrath. Alright, understand the image?

The other way in which the word Hilasterion was used was in more Jewish circles, in particular in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where it refers specifically to something called the mercy seat. This is the Ark of the Covenant which was central to the sacrificial rights in Solomon’s Temple, before it got stolen and destroyed, and these are the two cherubim, the mercy seat is here, this is the place of God’s graciousness, and what happens in the sacrifice, in various sacrifices is the blood is placed on here as the means of atonement. But the Hilasterion is this place, it’s the mercy seat. Now it is a rediscovery of this which is why the Revised Standard Version has “place of atonement” as a possible translation. Now can you see there is quite a significant difference between something being the means of atonement, the means of reconciliation, like the Trojan Horse, this is the offering to appease wrath, and something being the place of atonement, this is where the reconciliation happens. Does that make sense as a distinction? Because a lot hangs on understanding that difference. There is the means of accomplishing reconciliation and there is the place where it happens. So Hilasterion in the Septuagint in Silas, people like that, it refers the mercy seat.

Now, there is something quite crucial about this, which I think, for me is really the key for why I don’t think that penal substitution reading of this text works, there is another description in scripture. This is the Ark of the Covenant, you have got two angels with the mercy seat in between. There is another rather important episode in scripture in the New Testament which involves two angels with a place between them – the empty tomb. My suspicion is that this is what Paul is referring to. He is referring to the empty tomb, this is the place where reconciliation happens, in other words if you accept the resurrection, if you enter into the resurrection, you are reconciled, because you have got one angel here, one angel here and the gap in between, that the resurrection is the place where reconciliation happens. Does that make sense?

So one of the key texts used to explain and support the doctrine of punishment, or the element of punishment, Christ was the sacrifice, can be read in a different way, that’s really what I want to say, I don’t want to say, this must be the way it’s read, I just want to say it can be read differently, it can be read so as to talk about resurrection as the most important element rather than crucifixion for example.

Now I want to say a little bit more about the Old Testament sacrifices and how to understand them, and again a little chart which you will get. I want to discriminate between sacrificial language, the language of sacrifice, and the language of the scapegoat because the underlying logic of them is really very different, so the language of sacrifice is whenever we have the language of blood, you know , “we are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb” for example, that is using sacrificial language. It is drawing its meaning from the way in which Old Testament sacrifices were conducted and the meaning of them, whereas the scapegoat one is the burden of our sins was laid upon him. Does that make sense? You have got two different routes for the language, one is in the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, one’s in the scapegoat ritual, so just drawing some distinctions. In sacrifice what is important is what is being sacrificed is pure, OK, it must be without blemish, whereas with a scapegoat it doesn’t matter, the one on which the sins are laid doesn’t have to be pure, there is no regulations about it. The sacrifice is offered up to Yahweh whereas the scapegoat is absolutely not offered up to Yahweh, it is cast out into the wilderness. Sacrifice is a very careful and controlled process that happens in the most sacred space in the community and there is no sense in which the object of the sacrifice, the bull or whatever is being punished. So in the notion of sacrifice there is no notion of punishment, whereas it is in scapegoat, that the goat is literally punished and abused, before being driven out of the community. So can you see how they are really very different logics going on. That the sacrifice is all about the purity being offered up to God within the most sacred space in the heart of the community. The scapegoat is all about this is the vehicle to carry our sins away from the community. It is all about expulsion and punishment. Does that make sense, the distinction, there are two different logics being involved?

Right this is a red Heffer. One thing I was reading yesterday they only managed to in Old Testament times sacrifice 8 red Heffers, but the red Heffer was sacrificed to cleanse and purify the people and so the red Heffer was burnt, the ashes mingled with pure water, the water was sprinkled, that purifies. But the red Heffer had to be absolutely perfect, you couldn’t have hairs of a different colour. It had to be young, you couldn’t have one that had had for example a yoke on it’s neck. They only managed in the whole of Old Testament times, eight times to get a red Heffer that met all the requirements. You know Moses did it once, Joshua did it once, and so on. So just a little bit about the red Heffer.

There is in the Old Testament a progression in how sacrifice is understood, that when you go back to the earliest descriptions, for example Noah, after the flood, it is very explicit that what is going on is that literally the sacrifice appeases God. There is reference for example to the smell. God likes the smell and therefore his wrath quietens down. Now as the story of the Old Testament progresses, this understanding of how sacrifice works slowly becomes less literal, less anthropomorphic, OK less as seeing God as a big human being, and more spiritualised. So for example you get in Isaiah we had it the other day, Sunday morning, do you think I drink the blood of bulls and so forth? All the language that says “Don’t treat me like a big human being”. In the Prophets, in the Psalms. OK, you start to get within the Old Testament itself, a critique of what’s called the cult. Now cult here is not prejudicial, it’s not saying, “It’s a cult therefore it must be really, really bad”, it’s a technical terms describing the way in which sacrifice, the whole process in the temple hangs together, it’s the cultus. It’s a cultic practice. And what you have got within scripture as the story progresses is an on-going critique of what goes on in the temple, that the temple processes aren’t getting the understanding of God correct and that what is needed is the sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise, for example, that right action is the sacrifice demanded of God, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love kindness, to walk humbly with your God and so on.” So within the Old Testament you have got this gradual change of understanding in the Old Testament sacrifice, so it’s not so much about appeasing an entity that likes the smell of burnt bull, it’s about God of the whole world demanding a righteous life, that’s within the Old Testament.

Now of course you could say that that’s about what’s going on in the Old Testament from “do it like this”, “to do it in the right spirit”, “to make sure you get the right spirit whether you do it or not.” Can you see that as a progression, you must do it like this, in other words “if you don’t perform the ritual in this exact manner God will be offended,” very much part of you know the Hebrews in the wilderness, to “it doesn’t matter if you do it right, if you do it in the wrong way.” Think of 1 Corinthians 13 which we did in the housegroups recently, you know, you can speak in the tongues of heaven and of men, but unless you do it with love – it’s that sort of thing. To the emphasis in the end it is actually doing it with love, getting the spirit right which is the essential thing. Does that make sense within the Old Testament. Because of course what you then have is Jesus as the culmination of that process, Jesus who abolishes the temple and thereby the whole system of sacrifice and replaces it in three days. Again you have got this link back to the resurrection. “After three days He will rebuild it.” And it ties in with Paul’s language for example in Romans, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship, in other words finally with Christ you have a letting go completely of that sacrificial system. That in Christ we see what God is really like and we see that He is really not that interested in the blood of bulls, and so on. Does that make sense that Jesus is the culmination of growth through the New Testament? This change in the understanding of God, that finally in Jesus we see God clearly revealed. Whereas in the Old Testament we have got this gradual process of refinement in the understanding in the Jewish community as they slowly get to know what God is like. And in particular that the prophets who criticised often really radically criticised the processes that go on in the temple, that Jesus is the culmination of that. Make sense? Happy?

Right, well let’s leave that there because that was really all about whether this language of sacrifice has to mean penal substitution. The thing about the sacrifice and the scapegoat is that you have really got two metaphors, you have got two metaphors to understand what Jesus accomplishes. I really want to get at the logic behind those two metaphors is very distinct and actually if you really push it the logic of those metaphors is incompatible, but I’ll come back to that. Now, something about the early church, that Jesus criticised himself, one of the things which this book claims to do is to show how penal substitution is fully supported in the early church. They have one reference to a text from the first three hundred years of the churches history, as might go unsaid the interpretation of that text might be disputed but really what I wanted to get at there, if you imagine the writings of the first three hundred years put together with text the same as one of our Bibles, the amount of material there is six Bible’s worth. So three hundred years of writing about Christianity, about what Christianity means, about the wonders of the incarnation, salvation, etc., etc., etc., out of six Bible’s worth there is one sentence which might mean penal substitution, so effectively penal substitution is unknown in the early church. So what did the early church think about how our salvation is accomplished. Well one of the most common images and metaphors that they used is a light shining in the darkness. Simple as that. John 1, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” We were in the dark, Christ comes into the world and now we can see. That is probably the single most common image in the early church.
But there are a few others and these are, the next one is very much the way the Eastern Orthodox church primarily understands salvation, and that is that Christ is our medicine, we are sick, if we receive Christ, and of course explicitly the eastern church emphasises communion, if we literally take Christ into our bodies we will be healed. To really bring out, can you see how what we have got here is a metaphor, Jesus is not actually a pill, but the metaphor of healing and medicine is being used to articulate the truth that Jesus saves. Now hang on to that healing as a metaphor and come back to we are in the law court, we are condemned and Jesus takes the punishment. Can you see how that’s also a metaphor? It is using a different framework to understand what’s going on, I’ll come back to that because that is really my major theme.

Now another one often called Christus Victor, that Christ conquers the devil. We are in bondage to Satan, Christ conquers the devil and sets us free. We are free from the principalities and powers that previously held us captive. That is one of the most dominant images. Another one, a second Adam, in Adam we all sinned and we therefore all share in the brokenness of Adam, what God does when he sees that we are broken is that we have a second Adam which allows humanity to be restored and in a sense improved, according to God’s design. That’s something called recapitulation, that God is creating something new again. You see it’s different languages, different images. And the thing to really emphasis is, it’s all metaphorical. There are lots and lots of different ways to understand how salvation works but they are all metaphorical. This is Aslan, speaking to Edmund. No-one would say that C S Lewis’s discussion of salvation is literally true, it is an image, a way of understanding what is going on.

What I want to get at is particularly in Paul’s writings he is using metaphorical language, often through a flaw in the same sentence. He is cramming metaphors together because he is trying to testify to this overwhelming experience of salvation, and he is drawing in language from where ever he can find it, from the slave market, from the old temple sacrifice, from the scapegoat ritual, and he is bundling them all up together, which of course, in the context of the time was rhetorically seen as excellent. These days we think, “Oh well that’s a mixed metaphor, you can’t do that.” Well of course Paul is the master of the mixed metaphor. He bundles them all up together because he can’t think of any other way to express how wonderful it is. He is using everything he can and cramming it all together, often in the same passage. So to say for example, we are redeemed by his blood, is a mixed metaphor, you have got redemption, which is about a monetary payment and specifically in Paul, it is often talking about the slave market, we have been bought at a price, but we have been bought with the blood, and the blood is a sacrifice metaphor. So he is putting two metaphors together to try and explain what’s happened. Of course we two thousand years later have got so used to hearing, “redeemed by the blood” as simply a single very specific and often literal meaning, that we don’t hear the mixing up of the metaphors. Paul is jamming all these different metaphors together, because he has got something wonderful to share, something wonderful to say and the language isn’t quite adequate, so he is cramming it all together.

Now what worries me about the insistence on penal substitution is that what seems to happen is that it’s status as a metaphor is missed, and that this way of understanding how salvation works is taken as the literal truth. That this is literally what happens. So first step, the metaphor becomes literal and the second step is that this literal taking of Paul’s language becomes the single way of understanding what is going on, around which all these other ways of understanding it have to shift and adjust themselves. So think of a diamond, lots of facets to a diamond, it is a bit like saying one of the facets which is gleaming, not only is there only one way of gleaming the diamond, but the gleam is more important than that diamond. Does that work as an image of what I am trying to get at? It’s taken one metaphor and it’s saying this must be literally true and it’s really the most important thing, way to understand it, so as a diamond, diamond has lots of facets, no this one facet is the most important, this one gleam, and actually it’s the gleaming which is key, not the diamond itself. That’s what I think is slowly starting to happen. Does that make sense?

Let’s say a bit more about punishment, because one of the things I want to say is that I don’t think it really matters, I don’t think which way you understand salvation to take place is something that should divide Christians one from another. I think there are lots and lots of different ways in which you can understand it, all of which are acceptable. If someone says that God so loves us that He forgives us our sins through faith in Christ, that is fairly generally accepted as a Christian understanding, God loves us therefore our sins are not allowed to get in the way of that love. People are happy with that as a core Christian teaching? Change that to “God so loves us that He gave His Son to be a sacrifice for our sin so that He might forgive those who are in Christ.” In other words, you have still got God loves us, we are forgiven in Christ, and there is an extra step in the middle which is what penal substitution does. God so loves us He forgives us, God so loves us that He sends His Son to be the punishment for our sins so that we might be saved. The question I want to ask is what is that extra bit doing? Is is actually carrying any weight? Can you just say “God so loves us, black box, we are forgiven our sins.” because if you take the black box out you’ve got something which all Christians can unite around. But if you say, “God so loves us, this whatever is in the black box is the most important thing,” then it starts to get a bit divisive. What is it that penal substitution the doctrine, the defence of it, what is it actually accomplishing, what’s being emphasised? If we say the way in which God’s love for us and our salvation is accomplished it has to be this, what is being emphasised?

This brings us to Steve Chalk. There has been a lot of controversy in evangelical circles the last couple of years about this doctrine, triggered by a book by Steve Chalk, called “The Lost Message of Jesus” which is really good, there is a copy in the library upstairs if people want to read it, I would recommend reading it, it is very readable, and it really is a book about the Kingdom. Most of Jesus’s teaching is about the Kingdom, what it means to live in the Kingdom and the argument of the lost message of Jesus is that we have forgotten that Jesus is talking about the Kingdom so much, and it’s really just a popular presentation of that. But there is one part of it where he starts talking about this doctrine of penal substitution and he describes it as a barrier to mission. He says it gets in the way, it gives people the wrong understanding of God and, this is one of those classic examples of misquotation, he says, “Salvation is not about cosmic child abuse, that is a caricature, it’s not like that,” and of course he then is taken to be arguing that this doctrine on penal substitution is cosmic child abuse. Can you see how he is being negative about something, and he is saying “salvation is not this distortion.” Anyway it all gets a bit complicated and redundant really. He accepts substitutionary atonement, he accepts I think what is called the Christus Victor model, that Christ conquers the devil or God conquers the devil through Christ, and in many ways Christ is a substitute for us, Christ suffers where we ought to be suffering, but what he doesn’t accept is the penal bit. Now this is the source of the controversy.

I want to share some quotations with you. This is from the Evangelical Alliance, “It may be true as Steve has claimed that evangelicals are often perceived to be harsh, censorious and ungracious and that this can hamper evangelism, however, we do not accept Steve’s assertion of a causal or necessary link between affirming penal substitution and being harsh, censorious and ungracious.” Steve Chalk thinks if you go on about penal substitution all the time you end up being really harsh and judgement, because at the centre of the doctrine of penal substitution is this harsh judgement. That’s Steve Chalk’s critique. Now this is something which has been very much divisive, it is something which is separating out people in the evangelical community. For example on one side, have people heard of Wayne Gruden, he is a American theologian, very much in the conservative, evangelical stable, and he says, “There is a returnable, unchangeable requirement in the holiness and justice of God that sin be paid for.” There must be someone to bear the penalty of sin. This is an eternal and unchanging requirement, no way round it. Let’s read from the passage in Jonah who is in Nineveh, “When God saw all their deeds that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which he had declared he would bring upon them and he did not do it.” Now of course, what Gruden would say is that the punishment was foreseen at this time and the punishment that was due to Nineveh went on Christ. I think that is quite a creative reading of the text. I think that if you just stick with the text throughout scripture you have a different understanding of God being presented. That God is perfectly capable of forgiveness.

There are lots of examples in human society of forgiveness taking place. One that came to mind the other day is Enneskillen, remember the bomb twenty odd years ago, and one of the survivors, I think the father lost his daughter, and the father comes out and says “I forgive those who did this.” To me that is him participating in the nature of God. That God is capable of forgiveness, full stop. That there doesn’t have to be this mechanism by which forgiveness takes place. This is a picture of people waiting for a verdict of the Court, I thought it was quite Dickensian, this seems to be to be, if you like, the son waiting to try an alter a verdict which he has taken on for someone else. I don’t think that is a good way of understanding how our salvation takes place. But the thing is, this question about boundaries, which is really my emphasis, the shibboleth, and this is really where I am going to finish with, just some more quotes, from this book, “If those who impune penal substitution refuse to reconsider their position, there comes a comes a time when we have no alternative but to part company, for the critics are right in this, differences over penal substitution ultimately lead us to worship a different God and to believe a different gospel.” One of the things I vehemently disagree with about that.

Another one, this is after Steve Chalk had an open meeting with the Evangelical Alliance in Westminster where I think something like a thousand people turned up and he was grilled about his acceptability as an evangelical and Joel Edwards who is the leader of that group said, “The question we have to ask honestly and biblically together, is whether or not someone could deny penal substitution and legitimately remain in the Evangelical Alliance.” This is becoming the marker about, you have got to accept that particular doctrine or else you are not an evangelical. Here’s another one, people have heard of Spring Harvest, a group called Word Alive, which is the youth work element in Spring Harvest and there has been a division, a parting of the ways between Spring Harvest, which you might think of as mainstream evangelical and the people behind Word Alive, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, UCCF, this is a very widespread ministry to college age kids. UCCF as a result of this controversy over Steve Chalk and his views and so on said, “UCCF believes it can no longer work with those whose understanding of the nature of the gospel and the distinctive of the atonement is so different to theirs, and mainstream evangelicals and across the world.” They think that mainstream evangelicals have to have penal substitution. “There comes a point when loyalty to gospel as we believe it to be clearly set out in Scripture, and the drive for unity with others can come into conflict and we have reached that point”. So Word Alive and all that section of Spring Harvest no longer wants to have anything to do with Steve Chalk and the people associated with him in Spring Harvest. So this boundary is getting set.

This is the chart I wanted to print out for you in particular, I will just run through it extremely quickly because we are running out of time, these are just the different ways of understanding how salvation is accomplished, they all agree that there is a problem and the solution is Christ. That’s universally agreed, but quite how it’s done is different, so the only church, it is all about the light in the darkness, the incarnation is the light of God revealing us to ourselves. What’s called the Christus Victor, Satan holds us captive, so God either conquers Satan, or God pays Satan a price to redeem us, again early church but also quite common in a lot of contemporary theology, that’s pretty much the one I like, although I think there is truth in most of them. Recapitulation, we share in Adam’s sin, humanity is recreated in Christ. Satisfaction theory, this is the medieval one, in an honour society, an honour based society where honour is seen as the most important thing, our disobedience dishonours God and there must be a gift to restore God’s honour and the gift is Christ’s obedience. Can you see how the metaphor is what works in that culture of the time. Penal substitution which is the Reformation one, that what we need to be saved from is God’s wrath and so Christ is punished in our place.

Another one which runs really throughout a lot of the writings but is associated with a medieval chap called Abelard, is that it is all subjective, our hearts are dead, we have got hearts of stone and it’s the crucifixion which breaks open our hearts and reawakens our moral sense, our sense of what is right and good, so it is an inward conversion. These are all different models held by Christian’s throughout history, and what seems to be happening is that this one is seen as the most important to hold. And that if you don’t hold this, we are not prepared to be in a church with you. And that’s what I think is really wrong.

Anyway, pressing on rapidly, a final question. What are we set free from? This is the end of Shawshank redemption that I am sure you have all seen, you have got this wall and you are set free by getting past the barriers, and penal substitution seems to be the establishment of a barrier. I think the barriers need to come down. I think that the other models of the atonement often fit much better with biblical evidence taken as a whole. There are distinct passages which support something like penal substitution, but there are lots of other passages which support the other models of atonement much more clearly, they emphasis God’s gracious character, his forgiving mercy and so on. The other models can fit better with the early church, they emphasis the resurrection as much as the crucifixion which I think is really key, that don’t divide the communions, that don’t divide churches. The thing is ultimately, it’s a mystery, we are trying to describe how God has done this, and of course we will use the language of our community to do so, but if you look through Christian history that language which has changed over time, lots of different ways of understanding it have been used and deployed and I am sure it will continue to develop. The church has never said “this is the way you have got to understand it.” We are free to explore different ways of understanding it. I think that what Steve Chalk is putting his finger on is that this particular emphasis, that this is the only way possible to understand it can become distorting. You end up talking so much about the wrath of God that there isn’t enough room to talk about the God of love. That’s his worry. Because it’s the God of love which is primary and needs to be emphasised. Now neither he nor I would want to drop language of God’s wrath but if you like God’s wrath fits in underneath, the overarching of God’s love, it is not the other way round, it is not that God’s wrath is the most important thing we need to understand and then if we get that right there is a little pocket of God’s love available for us, it’s the other way round.

A final quotation which will set up next week. This is from John Piper, have you heard of John Piper, American theologian, he wrote the foreword of this book, he says, “If God did not punish His Son in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God.” I think that is profoundly wrong. And I will say more about that next week.

Any questions, thoughts?

Q: You are quoting from Jonah and the fact that God doesn’t visit his wrath on Ninevah, I wonder if you perhaps remind us of Jonah’s reaction to this.

A: Indeed, indeed it is half past ten by the way so if people want to head off, please do. Jonah’s reaction to the mercy shown by God is to lose his temper and get really fed up because his understanding of justice of the wrath of God is more important to him than the notion of the God of love. Exactly.

Q: What strikes me about penal substitution is that Christ didn’t to be divine, he only needed to be sinless and there is a great flaw there, a huge flaw there, and I think what I like about Erinais is that creation is a part of the cross as well, the work of the cross, creation is restored and I think that’s where penal substitution comes in.

A: One of the downfalls of penal substitution is that it tends to emphasis the cross above everything else. I think the cross is central, I don’t think you can really understand the cross properly without the Last Supper before it and the Resurrection after it, the whole package ties together, that is if you like the Christ event. You need to talk about his life, you need to talk about his teaching, who he was, what sort of God he showed us to be. Whereas this singular emphasis upon the cross ends up being distorting. If you hang on to the resurrection as at least in equivalent in importance to the crucifixion you are more likely to end up getting what God is like. Because the resurrection is all about gratuitous mercy and forgiveness. That’s the heart of what the resurrection means.

Q: What do you think Jesus was saying when he talks about the story of the rich man and Lazarus, was it too late then after death to go God’s way?

A: Can you be a bit more specific?

Q: Just what was he getting at in that story, the rich man who from the grave ..

A: Oh Dives and Lazarus? I don’t see the link, sorry I’m being a bit dense.

Q: Well it’s just about being too late isn’t it, after death, that you have got to come to God first in life and that’s coming to believe in Christ first which is our message as Christians.

A: Fine but I don’t see the link between that and penal substitution.

Q: No perhaps not.
A: It’s about the reality of hell. I’m quite happy to run with the reality of hell. That might be another whole session. I think there is something eternal at stake.

Q: Yes, and isn’t it the wrath of God then that puts us there because we haven’t accepted his calling on our lives? I mean there is some punishment there surely?

A: Next week I’m looking at the language of being born again. I will talk much more about that. And remember saying to me right at the beginning between what salvation means and how salvation is accomplished. This week is all about how salvation is accomplished. Next week I am going to talk about what salvation means. I might even start off with a quote from Jonah because it is all about repentance, what is repentance, what does it mean.

Q: Sam, I am worried that you are dividing what the Lord God has joined together which I believe in certain rituals in the Church of England you are not supposed to do, can I start off by saying that the central doctrine is the incarnation, I was always brought up that the real doctrine was the cross, this was heavy emphasis in my upbringing. The position I am now coming to is slightly different. It might be helpful to look at what our Lord said before he died in the Garden of Gethsemane where he said, “What shall I say? Shall I say Father take this cup from me, but for this reason I came forth?” In other words the purpose of the incarnation was the cross and we should not divide the two and one of the mistakes that modern theologians are making that they are dividing things which in fact stand as a heap and we really cannot understand the cross without the incarnation.

A: I would agree with that, in particular I would say all the different bits join together. It is the seamless robe. You know, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, for example, the whole sacramental process of Last Supper and so on. It all fits together it all coheres. Now actually I think the problem is the reverse that the cross has been over emphasised compared to everything else going on in the Christian story with this doctrine as it’s being done now and I suspect for example in Luther and Calvin’s time it worked as a way of telling people about the love of God, because it fitted so naturally with the wider culture. I think it is because our wider culture has changed that this model, this metaphor is no longer doing the work it was intended to do and the insistence of hanging on to it is starting to distort the faith. Does that make sense? I think when Calvin and Luther were describing this they wanted to emphasis the love of God, and within the culture of the time this image worked to do that, but I think that because our culture is so distinct from that of the Reformers, it can no longer do the work they wanted it to do, which is to share the love of Christ. Any others?

Q: I’m desperately trying to find a way of getting this lectures to mean anything to me when I sort of walk out of the door, and go home and what I do next week, and I find it all terribly academic really.

A: This morning’s was the most technical and academic I’ll do in this sequence.

Q: One of the things that you talked about today was the black box in the middle of God and the sinners. I feel that that black box contains the recognition of the people that they have done something wrong. I mean God didn’t kill Christ, the people did, and they had to recognise their folly and it’s no good them just being forgiven and walking away, if they don’t actually see what they have done and this really we can relate to in our lives all the time, we are all the time making mistakes and unless we actually see the biggest mistake it doesn’t help.

A: I agree with you. I will tie in much more strongly with that next week, when it will become a bit more practical, but I just want to pick up one thing when you said, “we killed Christ, it wasn’t God who killed Christ”, one of the inferences of penal substitution and sometimes it is a distorted way of putting it, but one of the inferences is actually, God is responsible, whereas I think very much that we were responsible, it is sin who executes him, it is the actions of sinful humanity which cause him to be killed. But that is disputed. We’re hitting twenty to, thank you very very much for coming, next week I am going to be talking about what it means to be born again and repentance. Thank you.

Shibboleth #2: Penal Substitution

Learning Church (Mersea) #11 – Penal Substitution – Shibboleth #2

A discussion of the doctrine of penal substitution; Mersea Learning Church

I’ve moderated my views a little since the summer – in other words, I’ve calmed down!! I think the fundamental question I would ask is: do you have to accept PS to be a Christian? I would say no – but the authors of PFOT clearly say yes. I think that’s a problem. For them, that is.

By the way, if you click on the link that takes you to the gabcast site you can download the mp3 file directly, so you don’t need to be attached to a computer to listen to it.

Problems with Atonement (Stephen Finlan)

This was principally an excellent discussion of the metaphors used in Paul’s writings which the doctrines of atonement depend upon, and as such it was very enlightening. Much more radically, Finlan ends by arguing that Christianity would be better off doing without any doctrine of the atonement at all, and concentrating on theosis instead (sanctification). I find myself in great sympathy with that idea.

I was prompted to get this book (and a couple of others by him) after reading this review, which is worth reading itself if you’re interested.


This might seem paradoxical, but I suspect part of my drive in digging into PSA is a desire to find common ground with evangelicals. It’s one aspect of how and where I’ve grown in my understanding of the faith over the last few years because in person (and I accept that this may not come across on the blog!) I do seek consensus and common ground. I just find PSA virtually impossible to swallow. So it becomes like a pebble in the shoe – I just won’t get comfortable until I know what to do with it.

A different image: I feel like I am emerging out from underneath a heavy rock as I get stuck in to understanding evangelicalism. I still carry some wounds from early exposure to bad theology (bad evangelical theology). The trouble is, I see PSA as part of the rock and I still have to do some heavy lifting to get the rock off my back.

If PSA isn’t part of the rock then that is a good thing. But clearly – as at least Tim has realised 😉 – some of the issues at stake in all this aren’t simply about PSA! Ho hum. This blog – and my life – are works in progress.

Or: it’s not enough to be right, I have to be loving. I have become precisely that which I was criticising; I am mirroring the spirituality.

I am cursing the darkness when what I actually need to get on with is lighting candles.


Sometimes the search for the truth can become overbearing and oppressive, both internally and externally. A sign that the sense of proportion has been lost, and idolatry has been entered into.

Which is a way of saying I might change the direction that I was going in with my PSA posts…

For I am God, not man (IV)

An interlude, giving a few more ‘big picture’ points.

What most drives me in my rejection of PSA is the pastoral consequences of the doctrine. That is, the insistence on PSA as ‘the heart of the gospel’ seems to me to elevate divine wrath and punishment, and therefore the notion of justice and rule following, above the elements of gracious forgiveness within the gospel – and this has very damaging consequences in the life of the faithful. This isn’t just an abstract thing for me – a not insignificant part of my ministry is precisely picking up the pieces of souls that have been smashed by this insistence. The healing is difficult, and takes a long time, and both those parts testify to the depth of the damage done

I don’t have a problem with an acceptance of PSA which sees PSA as a minor element of the gospel, as one image – one METAPHOR – with which to ponder the mystery of salvation. That seems to me to accord moderately well with the importance given to it in Scripture and Church History. In this understanding it is essentially adiaphora – it is something on which Christians may disagree, whilst being united by the much more crucial doctrines (creation, incarnation, resurrection, redemption, trinity…).

The problem to my mind is when that single image is raised up and reified as the defining theory for understanding the work of Christ. When the wider testimony of Christianity and Scripture is conformed and constricted around a metaphysics built upon that image. Hence my remark that penal substitution is what happens when you take a metaphor and turn it into a metaphysics. I had two people in mind influencing that statement – James Alison, who criticises PSA precisely because it is a theory and not something that of itself changes lives, and Wittgenstein, with his criticisms of metaphysics more generally. Sometimes the whole weight is in the picture.

It is rather ironic that PFOT begins with a Foreword from John Piper saying precisely the opposite to this – but for the same reasons. That is, John Piper also sees this as a pastoral issue, and he references Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees as an example of how importantly we can take this issue. Piper goes on to say “…if God did not punish Jesus in my place, I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God.”

That is precisely what I object to, and which I see as a distortion of Christian faith. It is an attitude which has raised up God’s wrath into the determining feature of reality and existence.

To sum up my position:
– I would accept that there are some comparatively minor passages in Scripture which can be construed as referring to something like PSA; however
– I believe that Scripture has many more full and explicit passages which undermine PSA and give a much more healthy and liberating understanding of God and his most gracious favour;
– I believe that PSA is virtually unknown in the early church, and hardly more known for the first thousand years of Christian history;
– I believe that Anselm paved the way for PSA, but that Calvin was the first theologian to give it something like its modern form and place weight on it; more crucially I think Charles Hodge is the thinker with most influence on the way that it is presently portrayed;
– I think the doctrine is intimately tied together with a Modernist understanding of faith; it is a very good example of a ‘doctrine of men’; and I think that as we progressively move away from a Modernist culture so too will PSA lapse first into irrelevance and then it will be forgotten;
– I believe that PSA is a factional and party issue; that is, it is virtually unknown in orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism; it is not actively central in mainstream Protestantism; it is principally pursued by those who are already committed to a Calvinistic perspective on Christianity. It has become a shibboleth separating one Christian from another, and that, in itself, is one of the things most wrong with it.

For I am God, not man (III)

Continuing the sequence on penal substitution, this time wondering – if there are some who support the sort of doctrine that I am objecting to, what would we expect them to look like? Click ‘full post’ for text.

I should say right up front that I have specific examples from my own personal experience in mind as I write this, but the truth of what I say isn’t dependent on that.

I’ve outlined what I object to in the doctrine of penal substitution, viz:

the doctrine is believed in wholeheartedly and the consequence drawn from the doctrine, within the life of the believer, is that the character of God is fundamentally one of inexorable justice; that the response to any transgression is ‘there must be punishment’; and that the life and witness of Jesus Christ is conformed to this controlling narrative, rather than all other narratives being conformed to the life and witness of Christ.

In other words – there is a distortion in belief, in terms of the prominence given to punishment when describing God’s character (a form of idolatry), and there is a distortion in christian behaviour consequent to this, which (to summarise in advance) becomes a form of ‘law not grace’ – guilt is prominent, and fostered, and forgiveness is underemphasised. Where rules and punishment are given excessive emphasis in the presentation of salvation there will be consequent harm done to the listeners. Where there is paradox – God is a God of justice and mercy/forgiveness – then much depends on how things are presented, if one isn’t to eclipse the other.

I’ll unpack that, as it’s quite dense, and begs lots of questions.

1. The character of God
Advocacy of this form of PSA would emphasise the holiness of God, understood as the utter incompatibility of sin with God’s existence. Such sin would be seen in personal and individualistic terms, and much would be made of the offence given to God. There would be less emphasis upon the gracious and forgiving aspects of God’s character, along with the corporate side of sin.

2. The character of Scriptural witness
PSA would be seen as either the sole or the determining way in which Scripture talks about redemption. Texts referring to PSA would be given the highest possible prominence; texts which give different models would be addressed less; arguments about the character of Scripture as a whole would be downplayed. The teaching of Jesus, eg about the Kingdom, would be considered much less important than the achievement of the crucifixion – understood through the lens of PSA.

3. The nature of preaching and the call to repentance
Emphasis would be given to the way in which humanity has sinned and broken the laws of God; PSA would be explained and the guilt provoked would, instead of being eliminated, be nourished as a healthy response to ‘the truth’. The important thing for a disciple would be to understand the way in which ‘Christ died for you’.

4. The nature of church behaviour
Consequent to the consistent emphasis upon rules and the breaking of rules, there would be an excessive concern to establish and police the boundaries between the rule keepers and the rule breakers, in order to prevent further provocation of God.

5. The tone of advocacy
There will be a shrillness of tone (eg “damn this diabolical doctrine to hell” 😉 associated with discussions on the topic; this will be directly linked to the level of fear of punishment felt by the advocate. There will be little concern to understand the objections to PSA, and there will be a comprehensive rejection of the possibility of Christianity without an acceptance of PSA.

6. The most important: the pastoral character of doctrine
The sheep pastored under this understanding of PSA will remain bound up in guilt and sin; they will not be enabled to experience forgiveness; they will remain emotionally crippled and not enjoy the abundance of life promised. Aware of their own sinfulness they will be reminded of it on regular occasions and not encouraged to affirm their original blessing of being made in the image of God.

Now – obviously! – these are very broad brush strokes, but I think they will serve for the time being. The question is: do such places and advocates exist? That’s for the next part.