Notes on atonement

These are some notes from an atonement conference I attended from 5-7 July 2004.

On the whole I found the conference extremely worthwhile, enlightening and provocative. The doctrine of the atonement, unlike eg the doctrine of the incarnation, has never received an official definition within Church history, and the church’s understanding of it has changed over time. The aim of the conference was to bring together people with different understandings to seek mutual awareness and acceptance. The following are some of the key thoughts that I have taken away from it (this isn’t a representative account of all that was said!).

The theory of penal substitution
The first keynote speech was given by Dr Christina Baxter, the principal of St John’s Nottingham, and she had been asked to describe the way that evangelicals understand the Atonement, which is through the ‘penal substitutionary theory of atonement’. This is the view that Jesus’ death on the cross was a satisfaction for the sins committed by humanity, which meets the righteous demands of the wrath of God and through which Christians gain ‘imputed righteousness’ – Christ is punished on our behalf. That’s quite complex, but it is put across in the Alpha course a bit more clearly:

“What does self-substitution mean? In his book Miracle on the River Kwai, Ernest Gordon tells the true story of a group of POWs working on the Burma Railway during World War 2. At the end of each day the tools were collected from the work party. On one occasion a Japanese guard shouted that a shovel was missing and demanded to know which man had taken it. He began to rant and rave, working himself up into a paranoid fury and ordered whoever was guilty to step forward. No one moved. ‘All die! All die!’ he shrieked, cocking and aiming his rifle at the prisoners. At that moment one man stepped forward and the guard clubbed him to death with his rifle while he stood silently to attention. When they returned to the camp, the tools were counted again and no shovel was missing. That one man had gone forward as a substitute to save the others. In the same way Christ came as our substitute. He endured crucifixion for us.” (Nicky Gumbel, Questions of Life, p48)

Dr Baxter outlined seven ‘drivers’ behind the evangelical acceptance of this understanding of the doctrine. These were:
1. The ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah, especially the text ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we have been healed’;
2. The words of institution at the Lord’s Supper, and the idea that it is through blood (which is understood as a reference to propitiatory sacrifice) that we gain access to God;
3. An acceptance of language referring to the wrath of God – there are apparently 375 references to God’s wrath in the Old Testament;
4. The pervasiveness of ‘for us’ language in the New Testament (ie ‘Christ died for us’);
5. The relational framework employed by this doctrine, ie that God acted in Christ on our behalf;
6. The way in which this doctrine is effective as an evangelical tool (especially in prisons); and
7. That it represents a truth that has been found to be worth dying for, eg with missionaries.

In some ways the conference could be summarised as an extended discussion and debate about whether this understanding of atonement was the right one.

Objections to the penal substitutionary theory
At the end of Dr Baxter’s talk I overheard one of the group leaders saying ‘I didn’t agree with a word of that!’, and certainly there was significant disagreement with this way of understanding the doctrine. The objections included the following:
1. The Early Church did not put great weight on this way of understanding salvation, if indeed they employed it at all (Frances Young, another keynote speaker, spoke eloquently on this point; see below);
2. It employs a very thin understanding of ‘sacrifice’; in the Old Testament, for example, the oldest root for the understanding of sacrifice is simply saying ‘thank you’ to God. The idea that sacrifice is fundamentally about appeasing the wrath of God is not true to Scripture; it is a development associated with the Temple; and a strong case can be made that Christ’s achievement was in large part about overturning that theology (see Tim Gorringe, God’s Just Vengeance);
3. In particular, understanding the Eucharist through the lens of propitiatory sacrifice ignores the Passover context in which it is set. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – this is a reference to the passover sacrifice as described in Exodus, and the establishment of a new covenant community which is offered life through that sacrifice. So the sacrifice reflected in the Eucharist is an achievement of life, not an appeasement of divine wrath;
4. The character of God (the Father) portrayed in this doctrine seems in profound contradiction to the understanding of God (the Father) portrayed in Christ’s overall life and teaching; eg, in the Nicky Gumbel example above, God the Father is portrayed as a psychotic sadist, not the Father of prodigal sons;
5. The doctrine places violence at the heart of God’s activity in creation and redemption, and this carries through into the human activity of the church. So a culture which upholds the notion of penal substitution emphasises punishment as retribution, rather than notions of repentance, reconciliation, rehabilitation and restoration, all of which seem more Christian and grace-filled. Specifically, support for the death penalty is logically tied in with the notion of penal substitution, so if the death penalty is seen as anti-Christian, so too should the notion of penal substitution.

Alternative understandings of atonement
As Frances Young argued in her keynote talk, the idea that Christ was executed on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice in punishment for human sin is one that is, at best, marginal for the first thousand years of Christianity, and one that is largely unknown in the Orthodox tradition. It descends from the ‘objective’ account of atonement first put forward by St Anselm, whereby God’s honour and justice must be satisfied, but no human has the capacity to make such satisfaction – therefore God must become man. The early church’s understanding centred much more on ‘Christus Victor’ – that in Christ the ‘principalities and powers’ have been overcome, Satan’s hold over humanity in sin and death has been overthrown, and so the Christian is set free for the glorious liberty of the Children of God.

One contemporary account of atonement theory which was discussed is the ‘non-violent Christus Victor’ developed by J Denny Weaver, which seems to hold much potential. Specifically, the achievement of Christ on the cross is seen as being wholly consistent with his teaching and life, in that there is never a resort to violence or coercion, and that it is precisely in that loving approach that the principalities and powers are overcome – as much by exposure to the light as anything else. It is the resurrection that governs how we are to understand the cross, ie that the violence of the world is expressed on Good Friday, but that God’s sovereignty and love surpass that violence, and allow for creative resolutions of conflict within a community of reconciliation and redemption, which is the church. Without the resurrection the cross can only be interpreted through the ideology of wordly power and violence, and as a triumph for the world not for God. It is the resurrection that presents each believer with the choice of which way to follow – violence or non-violence?

There was no consensus at the end of the conference, although there was some agreement that the penal substitutionary theory should not be seen as the exclusive way to understand the atonement. If the atonement is the ‘crown jewel’ of Christian doctrine, then penal substitution is merely one facet.

A final analogy for understanding God’s wrath
I found the conference very useful as a means for clarifying my own thinking about the doctrine, and specifically for how it should be employed in teaching. In particular, my understanding of wrath has benefited. I was struck by the notion that although wrath in the Old Testament is personalised (ie it is always God’s wrath), in the New Testament it is more of an impersonal force. I find the following analogy, using terms taken from modern biology, quite helpful at present. In studying various species, biologists and zoologists distinguish the genotype from the phenotype. The genotype is the DNA sequence which is found in every cell of the life-form. The phenotype is the expression of that DNA sequence in a specific context, eg the wing of a bird as opposed to the beak, where both have the same DNA but the end-result is very different. In the same way, it seems to me that we must understand ‘God is love’ as referring to his essential nature, his ‘genotype’, whereas we must understand God’s wrath as something which derives from the interaction of that nature with a particular context (our sin), and so is derivative or ‘phenotypical’. The problem that I have with the notion of penal substitution is that it makes God’s wrath part of his genotype (and therefore part of the fabric of His creation), rather than being a reflection of human sin. If we are called to work towards a ‘peaceable kingdom’, as I believe we are, then I don’t think we will achieve it by worshipping a God whose fundamental nature is violent.