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I’ve suggested that the use of “penal substitution” is being used to carry too much weight in the atonement wars going on today. What I’m arguing for, and will in my book, is that we need a bigger and better category to express what we believe. So, today: Why I think penal substitution as a categorical term for a theory for the atonement is not enough:
Now let’s look at what is said when one says “My theory of the atonement is penal substitution.” Or, to test a person, to ask, “Do you believe in penal substitution?” I’ve been asked this numerous times; no one has ever asked me if I believe in the ransom theory. Ever. No one has ever asked me if I believe in a representative theory of atonement, either. What is about these two terms “penal” and “substitution”?
Here is what one is saying by using those terms: the atonement takes place at the cross; the cross is the place where God vented his wrath against sin; the cross is the place where God in Christ assumed the punishment for sin; the cross is the place where Christ substituted for my sins; the cross is the place where Christ was punished for the sins of the world (or, if you so think, the elect). The use of these terms suggests that it is stating atonement takes place on the cross (no resurrection, no Pentecost) and that is fundamentally about propitiating the wrath of God against sin. To clarify — I’m not suggesting for one second that those who believe in penal substitution do not think there is saving significance in the resurrection or in Pentecost; I’m suggesting the terms being used do not naturally convey those events as well. I’ve rarely heard anyone speak of a “vicarious” or “substitutionary” resurrection — though I think orthodoxy believes in such.
It is, in other words, this set of terms deals with not just substitution, but a restricted kind of substitution: a penal kind of substitution. This is too narrow, I am suggesting, to carry the load of what we (who are orthodox) believe occurs in the atonement.
For most who adopt this theory there is assumed a double imputation — of our sins to Christ and of Christ’s righteousness (perfect obedience to the Torah/will of God) to us. Because there is inherent to this theory a double imputation, it will not be fair to the view to argue that it is only about retributive justice or about punitive justice, which is exactly what critics of penal substitution as an adequate model for atonement often do, and they do so because the terms being used are “penal” and “substitution.” The critics are mistaken in this criticism when it comes to the best thinkers who speak of penal substitution, like John Stott or Leon Morris or JI Packer, whose study long ago is still the best. But, there is an inadequacy in restricting ourselves to this set of terms for framing what the atonement is all about.
I’m persuaded that the penal substitution folks are not listening to this point, and it is an important point that needs to be heard: many are hung up as much by the framing of the theory in these two words (“penal” as modifying “substitution”) as they are by some repulsive sense that God’s punishing of his Son somehow can take care of another’s problem or that the Father’s wrath results in sanctioning violence.
So, I’d like to get an audience on this one point at least: Do we understand what a theory looks like when we describe it with just these, and only these, two terms? It looks like it is about nothing but a substitution that was entirely penal. It looks like retributive justice only. It looks like atonement is nothing more than God venting his wrath; it looks like nothing more than God’s retribution against sin. That is what it looks like — at least to many. And, if we embrace those terms and we want to make our theory clear, then I am asking us to use terms that make our whole theory clear. I am asking we find a nice comprehensive term for all we believe occurred in the atoning work of God.
To me, restricting ourselves to “penal substitution” is like restricting one’s view of ecclesiology to one’s theory of authority, and one could imagine other such analogies being used.
I’m working alongside many other emerging thinkers and some of them have a lot of issues when it comes to penal substitution, but many of them are reacting to a bad image and to bad explanations and to an inadequate theory that is fostered by the overuse of the terms “penal substitution.” I’m with them in this. We all need to use our terms more carefully. If you ask some of us if we believe in penal substitution, and you make it sound like that is the whole theory, you are likely to get a non-commital response rather than a denial. (Some deny it, to be sure.)
So let’s also think together about how an “image” speaks: if these are the two terms we bandy about when we talk about what we believe, and I used to do this myself, then we are creating an image of atonement as something that settles justice [God’s just retribution against sin] — the image, as it is often used, is not being used to say something positive about the atonement, even though I know full well that many who use these terms do have in mind many other good things. Like forgiveness and reconciliation and justification and a lot of other good things.
Let me ask if the image conveyed by penal substitution excites those good things? I don’t think it does.
Now let’s also admit that our churches are filled with folks who have embraced the gospel that Jesus died for my sins (understood in terms of guilt) and that in so believing or accepting that gospel the problem has been taken care of — and they need not get any further than that. I am suggesting that a reduced gospel emerges from a reduced atonement theory.
What I want to say is not that this theory is wrong, dead-wrong, or anything like that for any theory of the atonement must deal with the issue of God’s just justice with respect to sin; what I want to say is that the atonement is so much more than this. And, if it is so much more than this, then it follows that using “penal substitution” as our guiding term is inadequate and misleads others. At the least, it does not provide enough information to explain what one really believes occurs in the atonement.
But, I’ll say more so it is clear how I think about these terms as a defining instrument for our theory of atonement: because this is the category used by so many, it defines atonement into its category and actually damages the other biblical images for what God does in his atoning work. Using this category leads us to think of atonement in just these terms, and before long we have no room for the other theories. In other words, we need to give some value to what is called the “linguistic turn.” If we use this category, we turn atonement into this theory.
Tell-tale evidence for this is to ask someone to construct an “evangelistic” method in light of ransom theory and see what you get: I’m willing to contend that 90% of those who do this will end up by turning ransom theory (which is a theory about liberation and justice) into penal substitution. I could go on. I’ve seen very few penal types who could describe Anselm’s satisfaction theory without turning satisfaction into penal substitution. (And they are not the same.) What I’m saying here is that penal substitution, when used as the sole defining instrument, will inevitably shape how we see everything else.
For goodness sake, let’s use all the images for atonement so the story will become grander that we can imagine! The atonement, friends, is a banquet, and we need to sample each course as it comes along.
BTW: For the sensitive ones about this expression “atonement wars.” The penal substitution types are fighting for penal substitution; some feminists, with others, contend penal subst is divine child abuse; some Abelardians think all this talk about violence is theologically erroneous; some social justice types think anything more than ransom as justice-establishment misses the whole point. There’s a lot of chat about this nowadays.

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