22.5.09

Is there a penal in penal substitutionary atonement? Lecture with Stephen Travis

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Stephen Travis

I think it is important to say I only came to this writing about the atonement quite a long time after I came to write about divine judgement which runs through Paul and other NT writings. My book looks at divine judgement in the OT. And while retribution is a significant element it is not the only one. Retributive punishment is a punishment inflicted for an offense which is equivalent to the offense ie an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, enshrined in the law codes. One can also think about judgement in terms of (although judgement isn't how its referred to ) , if we say that the the penalty you pay for driving on the right hand side of the road is chaos and injury and death – an action has built in consequences. Penalty for taking hard drugs is the way that it messes up your life. We are familiar with inherent judgement; the inevitable consequences of what you do and in the OT you find both of these ideas as described as divine judgement. God imposes plague and war on Israel – this comes from outside – this divine judgement – retributive judgement is from outside. But also in the OT the other judgement is expressed particularly in the psalms and proverbs – the man who digs a pit will fall into it.


The argument in the book as a whole is that there are both these kinds of judgement but in the NT, the retributive view of judgement is not there so much. There is intrinsic rather than retributive judgement in Paul. Does Paul's understanding of judgement think in terms of intrinsic or retributive judgement? The Evangelical and Reformed position is based on retributive judgement. Christ bears that punishment on our behalf in order to set us free. But I want to argue, in line with Paul, that we are to look at the inevitable consequences of sin. Christ is not so much bearing the punishment but absorbing the consequences by his involvement with humanity which is focussed on the cross.


There are two things which concern me about the traditional view – one is that the classic evangelical says that the heart of the atonement is this idea that Christ bore the penalty for our sin – I do not deny that there is a retributive element but this is not the only way that Paul talks about the atonement. There are several views – it is multi-faceted. I am not decrying it in itself. But it's dangerous if we only hold one view – it impoverishes our understanding of the NT and then, frankly, it is so often misunderstood. I have heard people say to me 'Jesus came to save us from God'. God punished Jesus rather than us seems to be the potential distortion. What we say is not necessarily what people hear. In contemporary society, where we are sensitive to child abuse, people are repelled by it rather than attracted to it. Often these dilemmas arise not because of what the biblical text says but because of the illustrations used by preachers. It can be misunderstood by the people. What they don't do is safeguard the unity between the Father and the Son – it is so easy to split the Father and the Son apart so that it is not God dealing with the problem but Jesus over and against the Father. We need to find a whole new set of illustrations which are not open to these kinds of misunderstandings. I go through the key texts in Paul in my article and look at the retributive idea, which may not be as claer as you thought it was. I've learnt to try and write footnotes because I might meet my opponenant tomorrow.


I asked why certain branches of the church are so protective about Penal Substitutionary atonement. What else might really be going on? Are they reacting very much against the specifics of the times that they find themselves in and seeking to reach Christians who, somewhat like Marcion, fail to be entrenched in the teachings and culture of the Old Testament?


Stephen explained that there might be an overcompensaton to protect us from a lack of doctrine. The evangelical movement has become more diverse. There is more to defend. In The 1920's with the rise of fundamentalism with the work done in America with the resultant pamphlet about the fundamentals – this influenecd what was happening in this country. The SCM advocated world mission in the first decade of the last century and the more conservative people, they thought those with them were going off in another direction. The IVP became the UCCF – this movement was formed in the 1920s out of a desire to stand for classic reformed evangelical Christianity. The SCM gradually became more liberal and the Christian unions grew in strength. Certain branches of the Church are concerned that they do not want what happened in the 20s to happen again.


Back to the topic of the lecture.


The images used in the NT are used because there is no neat sentence. They are coming at it in ways which illuminate the truth. This is true of any of the images of the atonement. Whether it's the victory image or the ransom image.


I asked how Stephen translates Romans 3:25 and what does he make of the debate over the word Hilasterion .


Stephen replied, it is translated propitiation – to turn away the wrath of God or expiation to clean out the consequences of sin. Traditionally there has been a big debate between Morris and C H Dodd. The language points to both and we can not divide them. You only deal with the wrath against sin by dealing with it. Both ideas are there. Leviticus gives you lots of information for a sacrifice and without a real explanatoin – some have argued that when the priest lays his hands on the lamb – the lamb is bearing the punishment. The Bible is not explicit about the punishment – it is about dealing with the sin. Where the Greek word might be translated as propitiation, it is hard to see this as uppermost.

A book is recommended at this point: 'Aspacts of the Atonement' by Howard Marshall.


Someone in the group speaks about how he is mainly persuaded by the Christus Victor model.

Stephen responds with how important it is to hold many models together. We need to see Christ as Christus Victor. In the language at the Last Supper – my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins – he is offering himself on the behalf of the people – the suffering servant language. Moses offers his life for the people – one person expending themseves for the many.


Stephen is asked how Jesus saw his own death.


He speaks briefly before the next lecture interrupts us, we are running out of time about the language of the suffering servant from Isaiah 53.


I ask whethet we are to give credence to the view that because we have the sense of chastisement in the language used there, penal substitutionary atonement is what is going on but Stephen responds with the view that the original Hebrew word translated chastised is much broader and has nothing to do with guilt and punishment. We end the lecture deciding that translations are in themselves inserting meaning and we need to be aware of this.


Thank you Stephen. Round of applause.

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