Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History
Stephen R. Holmes
This is a book that deserves to be widely read if for no other reason than that its subject matter lies at the very core of Christian belief. The message of the cross, of Christ's death and resurrection, is central to our faith: take this away and we have nothing but castles in the air, empty philosophy and pious dreams. As Holmes himself puts it, "Without the cross, there is no Christianity" (p.1).
Add to this the fact that Holmes writes, as a friend of mine once said of Tom Wright, "wonderfully, accessibly and as smooth as fine chocolate", and we have a book that even those like myself — who disagree profoundly with his affirmation of penal substitution as a model for the atonement — can appreciate.
Holmes' lays out his approach to the atonement in his first chapter: "It is what I call the 'stories of salvation' (or 'multiple models') way of talking about the cross." (p.6) — "if we are prepared to accept that penal substitution is one very powerful metaphor, one story that will help us to illuminate aspects of the wonderful thing that Jesus has done for us, then we can and should continue to hold on to it." (p.8).
Helpfully he outlines how he himself was drawn into the debate:
I did not come to the question with a strong awareness of an evangelical orthodoxy that needed dethroning or defending. Instead I came to it in the context of a wider theological scene that assumed the doctrine had been destroyed long ago, and so never bothered to understand what it claimed, or why it might be wrong. (p.9-10)
I find myself puzzled by this observation: of those I know who have wrestled with this issue, there are none who have simply dismissed it. Here, however, we come to something of the crux of the matter: that little word 'doctrine' — is the concept of penal substitution of such importance that we should consider it a doctrine, one of the defining points of our faith? Or is it rather a model — a model that many have found (and many do still find) helpful, certainly, but one that has become irrelevant, that we can now leave behind?
After a systematic review of key biblical (chapters 2 and 3) and historical (chapters 4 to 6) treatments of the cross, Holmes concludes not:
So, I think that in a society that has lost its sense of sin, penal substitution is more difficult and we need other stories of salvation also, although the penal substitution story is not rendered irrelevant. But I do not believe that our society has yet lost its sense of sin completely. Our churches certainly haven't. We need to hold on to this way of speaking of the cross also because it speaks powerfully to needs that are still real, if less universal than they once were. (p.114)
I am, of course, jumping ahead of myself here: leaping from chapter 1 to chapter 8 in barely a single paragraph. I would urge you not to follow my example: read what lies inbetween — you'll find the full Table of Contents, using the titles of a number of reasonably well known hymns, below. Regrettably, the book has no index or bibliography, whilst the historical section in particular (chapters 4 to 6) is weakened by a lack of references, omitted because "the book is intended for a general audience... All should be easy to track down for anyone interested." (from the preface, p.xii) — to my mind, it is surely that hypothetical 'general audience' who stand most in need of the missing references to help them find their way through the historical maze.
This isn't the place for a blow by blow response to Holmes' arguments — I leave that to others who may be so inclined and restrict myself to some brief reflections on one part of chapter 2. Revisiting the story of Abraham and Isaac, Holmes raises some pertinent questions:
Abraham sets out to obey, and ties Isaac to the altar, and raises the knife to kill him — and only then does God intervene, stop the senseless, monstrous act he apparently demanded.
The answer, of course, is that God does not "go through with it in the end himself": God does not raise his hand to kill his chosen one, Jesus — we do. God in Christ submits himself to a human court of law, to the ultimate travesty of justice — for that is what the story of Abraham and Isaac surely shows us: that this God, the true God who gradually reveals himself against the backcloth of ancient Near-Eastern mythology, does not demand human sacrifice. We do, and in Christ crucified we get it: God himself, at last, in the dock, incarnate, accepting the punishment that we mete out to him. This, indeed, is penal substitution — but it is we who punish, we who reject this God who walks amongst us, we who place upon him "the weight of all our woes", our angst and anger. Somebody, we cry, must be to blame, somebody must pay — and God in Christ takes the blame, pays the price, faces humanity's wrath.
God's response? I can state it no better than I did in my review of Norman McIlwain's The Biblical Revelation of the Cross: the resurrection, the most mind-blowing reversal of a court's decision ever made. "Not Guilty!" declares God, and turns humanity's verdict upside down: God's righteous servant vindicated, raised victorious — and carrying humanity with him, the glorious liberation of the children of God!
Finally, then, I skip to the end, to chapter 9: after addressing the question of what difference he believes a belief in penal substitution makes, Holmes ultimately concludes,
Unless Jesus returns first, I imagine that the time will come when [penal substitution] must be relegated to the history books, as a story that makes little sense to new cultures that are born. I have written this book because that time is not quite yet, and because this story gives us insights that no other story we currently have to tell does. (p.121)
I beg leave to differ: to my mind, penal substitution, as traditionally understood, distorts the gospel — the time has already come and is long since past to relegate it to those history books. But disagree with him or not, this is, without a doubt, one of the more helpful books published on this topic: Holmes writes with humility, with a pastor's heart and a scholar's insight, even to the point of acknowledging the New Testament does not demand penal substitution: "there is no explicit statement of Jesus bearing the penalty of our sins." (p.43). Rather than polemicise or ostracise, he seeks reconciliation: and that is the message of the cross.
Table of Contents
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Phil Groom, November 2007
Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.Comments? Feedback? | Order from www.christianbookshops.org