Monday, July 10, 2017

What about Penal Substitutionary Atonement?

There will be decidedly different reactions to the main topic of this article. Some readers no doubt think that the Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is of utmost importance. Others, however, think that such a doctrine is wrongheaded and should be opposed. So, which side is right?
The Emphasis on PSA
The emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) has been prominent in Protestant theology for nearly 500 years now. That theory of the atonement, however, has come under more and more scrutiny in recent decades
Some Protestants even reject the idea of PSA. Wm. Paul Young, about whom I wrote in my June 25 blog article (see here), is just one such person.
Because of the growing opposition to the idea of PSA, last month the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming “the truthfulness, efficacy, and beauty of the biblical doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as the burning core of the Gospel message and the only hope of a fallen race.”
That strong emphasis on PSA probably expresses the position of the majority of conservative evangelical Christians.
But other Christians disagree.
Questioning PSA
In addition to Young’s contention that the core element of PSA might be thought of as a “lie” believed about God, there are contemporary theologians who seriously question the PSA on biblical and theological grounds.
Of many who might be cited, let me mention only two Mennonite theologians: J. Denny Weaver and Ted Grimsrud. Weaver (b. 1941) is now Professor Emeritus of Religion at Bluffington University. He is the author of two important books about the atonement: The Nonviolent Atonement (2nd ed., 2011) and, secondarily, The Nonviolent God (2013).
Grimsrud (b. 1954) served as a professor of theology at Eastern Mennonite University until his early retirement in 2016. He is the author of Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (2013).
Both of these theologians reject the traditional doctrine of PSA, emphasizing that violent retribution, such as by Jesus’ crucifixion, was not necessary in order for humans to be saved from God’s wrath. Rather, because of God’s unfathomable love and mercy God has always been able to forgive sin and to restore sinners who seek forgiveness.
An Alternative to PSA
In 1967 when I was still in Japanese language school, I read Interpreting the Atonement, a new book by Dr. Robert H. Culpepper, my missionary sempai (older colleague).
After reading the book, I wrote two typewritten pages (which I still have) of reflections and questions. The main question I raised was about the necessity of penal substitutionary atonement, although I didn’t use those exact words.
Bob, as I came to know him, wrote a good and helpful book, but even then I was drawn primarily to the subjective, rather than an objective, view of the atonement.
An objective view of the atonement means that something had to be done, in history, in order for God to be able to forgive sinful humans. Sin had to be punished. The “something” done was the crucifixion of Christ, who became the substitute for sinful humankind.
The subjective view posits the need for repentance but sees no objective, historical event as necessary for God to be able to forgive sinful humans. God is seen as all-merciful, all-loving, and always ready to forgive repentant persons.
According to this latter view, the prodigal son’s father can be seen as depicting the true nature of God. Restoration with a wayward child is dependent only on that child's repentance and returning home. No violent sacrifice is necessary.
Reflect deeply on this point as you look at the following detail of Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.”  


  1. In the above article I mention the 1966 book written by Robert H. Culpepper. Bob became a close friend, and I posted an article about him in August 2012 shortly after his death. Here is the link to that article:

  2. In my view, any understanding of God that can justify the PSA is fully wrongheaded. I would also argue that the PSA was one of the worst wrong turns taken in the history of Christian thought.

    1. Thanks for reading and responding early this morning, Anton.

      You are clearly on the side of thinking affirmation of PSA is wrongheaded (and I appreciate the unambiguous nature of your comment). It will be interesting to see if someone will write strongly supporting PSA.

  3. As he often does, Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago has also responded to this morning blog article with the following comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing up this interesting topic.

    "It is hard to believe, since human sacrifice is so strongly condemned in the Hebrew scriptures, that God would then demand a human sacrifice in the person of Jesus. I prefer to think of Jesus as an innocent victim of Roman cruelty.

    "Rather than being the victim of an expiatory sacrifice, Jesus instead frees us from blood sacrifices and challenges us to directly seek the forgiveness of those whom we have offended. Most sins are against public order or other persons. If I offend my wife (i.e., this has been known to happen), should I sacrifice some poor animal and seek God's forgiveness or should I seek my wife's forgiveness directly? If my wife forgives me, then I think it would be safe to assume that God also forgives me.

    "Even so, the idea of blood sacrifice persists in the New Testament. The writer of Hebrews wrote (9:22) that 'under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.' That's a hard one to swallow from our modern perspective; perhaps Luther was justified in his doubts about the canonicity of Hebrews."

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Eric.

      I thought about Hebrews 9:22 when I was writing the article--and I don't have a good explanation of how it fits with the main point I emphasized.

      I just now checked, and neither Weaver or Grimsrud seem to deal with the implications of that verse.

      Still, the whole context of Hebrews 9-10 is the Jewish sacrificial system and the replacement (or fulfilment) of that system by Jesus Christ. So, perhaps we should not take that passage as the basis for developing the Christian doctrine of the atonement as much as for noting the replacement of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament with the New Testament emphasis on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    2. Here is something else that I was thinking about as I was jogging a few minutes ago.

      If Hebrews 9:22 is taken as a universal statement of truth, how was it that the father forgave his prodigal son? Was it not real forgiveness--or had the son not really sinned, in spite of his admitting to doing so?

      Of course, there was shedding of blood--after the repentance (return) of the son and the forgiveness (acceptance) of the father: the fatted calf was killed for the celebration party!

    3. Here are more comments from Eric, made in response to what I wrote in reply to his first comments:

      "Thanks, Leroy, for replying. I always enjoy your comments.

      "In my original email, I said, 'I prefer to believe that Jesus was the innocent victim of Roman cruelty' (or something to that effect). Actually, it's not a preference; it's simply how I see it, whether right or wrong.

      "There is tremendous power and beauty in the message of Jesus in which he challenges us to treat everyone directly with dignity, compassion, and humility. We seek the forgiveness of those we offend and grant forgiveness to those who offend us (as the Lord's prayer urges)--the goal is reconciliation and renewal.

      "This seems to have been a key message of Jesus (but not the only message) while he was alive. His sudden trial and death came as a shock to his followers and they tried to make sense of it by using the symbols of sacrifice. This has been something of a distraction from the key message(s) of Jesus (at least as I see it).
      . . . .
      "While Jesus may have ended the sacrificial system, as the writer of Hebrews says, he had some help from the Romans, ironically. They destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the Jews have not sacrificed any animals since (at least not in Jerusalem). Note that the 'letter' (actually more a treatise) of Hebrews was probably written after the destruction of the Temple."

  4. I was happy to receive the following comments from local Thinking Friend, and pastor of a Disciples of Christ church, Rob Carr.

    "Thanks for a fine overview of this current live issue in the Church. My first of several questions is: Was not PSA also (and today) 'celebrated' in the Roman Catholic Mass pre-dating the Reformation? My sense is that this is a much bigger discussion than just one involving the range of views within Protestantism.

    "Jesus clearly had a sense that the 'messiah should/would suffer,' as he interpreted the Prophets. We are working with deep Mystery here--which is why the Christian Faith is an inexhaustible wellspring of wisdom and light. What this suffering necessary? Yes. Was it to appease God's wrath? I'm not in that camp. Was God angry that Jesus was tortured and killed by humans? I can certainly understand THAT.

    "Was the wrath on humanity's side? Was there an unconscious need for humanity in its collective pain and anguish, to test the limits of God's grace? Was there an unconscious need to see if humanity could overpower the Divine Light? And in this 'testing of God' was a deep unconscious healing initiated in the human collective psyche? (By his stripes we are healed). In other words, did the Prodigal need to 'act out' in order to reach a realization of how loved he was?

    "When all is said and done, I think we have to allow multiple convictions and multiple questions with respect to the cross, kneeling all the while.

    "Thanks for this opportunity to stretch my brain on a Monday morning."

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Rob.

      The sacrificial nature Jesus' death on the cross was, of course, emphasized in the Church long before the Reformation and the satisfaction theory of Atonement was propounded by Anselm at the end of the 11th century and widely used after that.

      But it seems that the emphasis on the penal aspect of what was thought to be Jesus' substitutionary atonement was a particular emphasis of John Calvin and the Reformed tradition following him.

  5. My primary alternative narrative for many years has been Jonah 3:5-10. Its use of ‘shub’ (turn), ‘nacham’ (relent, repent [as in ease up because of ‘empathy’], and ‘amen’ (trust) words lends it to much fruitful (I think) exploration. ‘Turn’ and ‘repent’ are used for human and divine action. Indeed, God ‘repents’ and does not act. The use of ‘metanoeo’ in Septuagint for ‘nacham’ connects with NT usage and thus the NRSV (and others) renders ‘nacham’ as ‘change (his [God’s]) mind’.

    Perhaps we, like Jonah, underestimate the amount of ‘blood-letting’ involved in true ‘change-of-mind’ and need something more; unless it is ‘we’ who need to change. :-)

    1. Thanks, Dick, for your (as always) erudite comments.

      So, yes, Jonah 3:10 says (according to the NRSV), "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it."

      But this was in keeping from what Jonah had perceived about God all along, as he is reported to have said in 4:2 -- "I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing."

      And speaking to my point: Yahweh did the forgiving of the Ninevites without there being any sacrifice (shedding of blood).

    2. Precisely the point: Jonah isn’t *satisfied* with ‘change-of-mind’ and change of behavior; *he* wants more. Jonah’s own ‘knowledge’ of God’s heart still did not help him to have (divine) empathy for the real effort and energy involved in changing one’s ways. [Hence my metaphorical (in quotes) use of ‘blood-letting’.] Jonah wanted real blood shed! God does not!

      Jonah wanted someone else’s blood shed, not his own. That’s a problem (in my opinion) with PSA: it suggests God as using an act of deadly violence to effect reconciliation objectively (because we cannot turn as did *they*, the Ninevites?); yet it is *we*, when we do not turn and do not have empathy, who are guilty of blood-lust!

      I have often thought that the “sign of Jonah” is that God acts to change us; not punish.

    3. Thanks for your excellent clarifying comments, Dick.

      Sometimes I, and perhaps some of my readers, miss or are not sure about some of the subtleties of your comments.

      I especially like your concluding sentence.

  6. Here are powerful comments from local Thinking Friend Don Pepper:

    "PSA is a disgusting superstitious extension of animal sacrifice. Jesus was executed by the state to squelch a 'troublemaker' in a cruel demeaning manner intended to deter noncompliant, (criminal?) behaviors in the population​.

    "If Abraham's only son (not really) got a 'pass' in that mythical sacrifice, why not one for Jesus?

    "An interim minister of my acquaintance was fired at a called board meeting (in my presence) for having advocated (in committee, not from the pulpit) that: 'Children should not be taught in Sunday School what they will have to unlearn as adults'!

    "One board member stated: 'It is imperative that PSA be taught as truth, otherwise the whole Christian Faith collapses as a "House of Cards"'!

    "The Interim responded: 'Then this congregation should consider changing its affiliation to Southern Baptist.'

    "Whether it is true or not, for my spiritual journey I regard PSA as an unnecessary, recent, contrivance of 'church'."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Don--and for the example of how important some people think PSA is. For that reason, I expected to get more negative feedback that I have received to this point. (Of course, I guess I shouldn't expect much negative feedback from Thinking Friends!)

      While it may well be true that PSA is unnecessary, since the strong emphasis on it began with John Calvin and his followers in the 16th century, it can hardly be called recent.

  7. Thinking Friend Thomas Howell, who is a professor of history at William Jewell College, has given me permission to post his comments here:

    "As you know, I make no claims to any expertise in theology and I certainly don’t know--nor, in truth, does anyone else--whether PSA is required or not. I guess we will all find out.
    "However, there is an issue that has always bothered me about 'something had to be done, in history, in order for God to be able to forgive sinful humans. Sin had to be punished.' For God to be able? Isn’t that putting a limit on God? Something He (or She—I don't think there is a sexual distinction) is forced to do? The all powerful creator of heaven and earth—the universe in modern terms—has to abide by a regulation? To me that is a ridiculous contradiction.

    "Whatever the 'system' (pardon the word but I’m trying to use a non-theological term) is, it exists because God chose to set it up, not because He had to. If PSA is the system, He chose it. Forgiveness without PSA is, like all things, entirely within the power of God who is constrained by absolutely nothing, not even the thinking of Southern Baptist theologians."

  8. A Thinking Friend in central Missouri shared thoughtful comments with me this morning. Here is a part of what she wrote:

    "Leroy, I'm glad you posted this today. I have come in more recent years to reject the PSA notion. This is oddly strange since it is the only view I was ever taught while growing up and for most of my adult life!

    "In seminary at Central [Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City], I first began to question that--noticing how much of our 'theology' is based more on hymns than actual scripture!
    . . . .
    "I would even go further than the interpretation you mentioned referring to Prodigal Son to say that the father forgave him even before he repented, if indeed he did repent. The notion that God forgives even the unrepentant seems most evident when Jesus prays from the cross, 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.'

    "Again, thanks for keeping us on our toes and thinking!"

  9. Just a few minutes ago, Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona sent the following comments, which I am happy to post here.

    "Thanks for the thoughtful blog. PSA makes about as much sense as paying ransom to the devil for our sins. I really haven't thought very much about this esoteric doctrine, but I liked your alternative to PSA. That gets my vote."

  10. I just now read the following statement, in italics, by Richard Rohr in his new book,"The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation."

    "I think penal substitution is a very risky theory, primarily because of what it implies about the Father’s lack of freedom to love or to forgive his own creation" (Kindle loc. 2509-10).

    1. I don't find it risky, since in previous covenants there were penalties. However, it is just a theological theory which one can proof-text, and a novel one at that - the early Church did not understand sacrificial redemption this way, and the traditional Church still does not. Sadly, the western Church is an amazing source of novel theology.

  11. I never miss a chance to reference my book reviews. Since you mentioned two books by J. Denny Weaver I've provided the following links to my reviews of those two books.

    Review of "The Nonviolent Atonement" by J. Denny Weaver:

    Review of "The Nonviolent God" by J. Denny Weaver:

    1. Thanks, Clif, for posting your reviews of Dr. Weaver's books.

  12. Here is a link to Bart Erhman's blog for an essay in which he makes the case that "Luke did not have a doctrine of Jesus’ death as an atonement."