In light of my work on a book on atonement and then, on top of that, the CT article I wandered into, it might be good to look at some terms. My big point in many of my comments over the last few months is this: penal substitution, as a categorical theory for atonement, is inadequate. Terms:
Identification: this is the sine qua non of atonement. In some sense, Jesus comes to earth (I’m assuming that we have a high enough christology to think Jesus was intentionally sent by the Father; those who think he was not divine cannot have a theory of atonement beyond Abelard.) to identify with us. He becomes one of us. All atonement theories assume that in Christ we have the Son of God who identifies with us. The Son identifies as a result of the Father’s sending.
Substitution: the central feature of this term is that Jesus did something for us by being there “instead of us.” Something happens to him that, because it happens to him, does not happen to us — and what happened to him, because it happened to him, eliminates the need for that happening to us. I think the best word for what happened to him is “death.” Paul says he became sin so we might become the righteousness of God. He died for us. He undergoes the kind of death we don’t have to — namely, what we sometimes call “spiritual death.” If death is the final end of sin (which is what Paul argues over and over in Romans, esp. 6–8), then going to “death” for us is to go “all the way down” for us.
Theologically, for any of these terms to be thoroughly Christian, there has to be the entire Godhead at work, and not a system wherein the Father and Son (and Spirit) are divided or against one another. This may seem obvious; it is not always to keep in balance. It is fine to distinguish the work of the Son, but that work can’t be set over against the Father. All of the atoning work is established as an overflow of the trinitarian love and grace.
Now not all who believe in substitution believe also in penal substitution, though the line some draw here is usually one of semantics rather than actual substance. But, penal substitution focuses (and I’ll deal with this tomorrow) on Jesus’ substitution “instead of us” in his suffering the punishment of God/Father (but be careful not to divide the persons against one another). That is, we have the God’s wrath (penal) directed at sin and sinners, and Jesus steps in, suffers/absorbs that wrath “instead of us” so we are relieved or let off the hook. But once again: for a genuinely trinitarian penal substitution, we must not divide the persons of the Trinity: this, too, springs from Father, Son, and Spirit.
Nearly all who believe in penal substitution use the term propitiation for what they mean. Oddly enough, while this term was used more often a few decades back, today it seems to be penal substitution that has taken on the load. Propitiation means “to pacify the wrath of God.” That is, Jesus’ death is the just exacting of God’s punishment against sin and sinners — and by dying, the wrath of God is spent on Jesus. Therefore, there is no wrath left for humans. Therefore, they are relieved of this wrath. They are shielded from God’s wrath by Christ’s protection at the initiative of the trinitarian God.
The wrath of God came under severe review in England decades back. First, CH Dodd wrote a chapter that argued a case for wrath being impersonal, and it was Dodd whose view became famous. But, for my read of the idea, it was AT Hanson’s book on the wrath of God in the Bible, which argued over and over that wrath is impersonal, that really set the tone for this viewpoint (it is the way God has made that world that bad deeds result in bad consequences; that is wrath; but wrath should not be understood for Christians as an emotion on God’s part but the impersonal and inevitable result of doing bad things). Leon Morris countered the work of Dodd and Hanson with his dissertation, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, as well as few other publications, and argued that wrath is both personal and central to the concept of propitiation in the NT and, therefore, wrath is central to atonement. Many evangelicals have followed Morris; many have not, and the first group of “many” often don’t know about the others, and the first group of “many” sometimes ignore the studies of the latter.
Most anchor all statements of wrath in the justice of God; this is a mistake if that is all that is done. Wrath derives from the love of God who is Jealous; the love of God who is jealous to protect the sanctity and integrity of love and relationship. Justice preserves wrath. Here again we have to be careful not to divide attributes within God.
Representation: Exclusive and Inclusive: Vincent Taylor made the term “representation” more prominent, though it had been used all along. What Taylor also did was distinguish this term from substitution, and with this distinction created with the word “representation” a “soft substitutionary” theory. One need not, however, follow Taylor in all ways to use this term. However you cut the pie, “representation” is involved in nearly every theory of atonement. In my book, Jesus and His Death, I make the distinction between exclusive representation, which for me is virtually equivalent to “instead of” substitution and involves Jesus’ accepting the punishment of others (death), and inclusive representation, which involves our co-crucifixion and co-resurrection. Together, these two parts of representation are what is meant by “substitution” and they can together also include penal substitution. Again, representation occurs as the intent of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Satisfaction: This is the Anselmian theory, which is more often misunderstood than understood though it is always getting whacked by critics, and it means that sin dishonored God and there had to be either punishment (hell) or satisfaction (compensation as justice). Jesus, the God-Man, is that person and his death satisfied the honor of God. Inherent to satisfaction, though nowhere thoroughly developed in Anselm, is a borderline penal theory, though he opts for satisfaction as an alternative to punishment. It was Luther and Calvin that developed the penal substitution theory; Luther did not want the term “satisfaction” being used. But I see it is present in his Lectures on Romans in his glosses on Romans 3:25.
Recapitulation: In essence, this patristic view is that Jesus became what we are so that we could become what he is; what he assumed, he healed; what is not assumed, is not healed. Jesus recapitulated the life of Adam, this time perfectly, and his life recapitulates the life of all humans. All humans are ‘summed up’ in Jesus Christ. The strength of this view is two-fold: (1) it embraces the incarnation and (2) it is general and big enough to enfold within it all the ideas connected to substitution, even if those developments (like penal) are not fully developed by the fathers. This is the view of Irenaeus and Athanasius, as well as others. In my view, this is the only theory that is comprehensive enough to include all theories.
Exemplarist: this will sound harsh to some, but I don’t think this is a theory of atonement at all; it is a theory that Jesus is the demonstration of God’s love that evokes in humans repentance and surrender to Jesus Christ. Well and good; but there is no way this term adequately explains the NT evidence on atonement. I give one example: though I learned a lot from J. Denny Weaver’s book, The Nonviolent Atonement, his failure to to grapple at all with Romans 3:21-26 reveals that he uses a model (non-violence) to explain all evidence. His intent is to argue for a non-violent way of reading atonement language in the Bible. The exemplarist theory is true: Jesus is our example (1 Pet 2:18-25 proves it); but the exemplarist theory doesn’t explain the heart of what atonement is all about — rectifying humans before God, reconciling humans before God, whatever, in light of the sin problem.
Tomorrow: Why I think penal substitution is not the best expression for an evangelical or post-evangelical theory of the atonement.