Atonement angst

I wonder how the following will sound. It was really hard to write. My assignment was to write a seven minute speech defending Penal Substitutionary Atonement. My friend defended Christus Victor. I had hoped to develop more competently the idea of Christ as our federal head. This is what Garry Williams of Oak Hill seems to be interested in. Perhaps, however, this is representation rather than substitution, perhaps it is a combination of the two.

What the exercise helped me to do is stop polarising. There was always something in me that was a bit afraid of those people who held to a very defensive PSA. It was as if you have to believe that solely, anything else just is not the gospel. As I struggled with it, I polarised Christians a little. They were falling into the PSA camp or not. I know that there was even something in me that wanted to be as sure as those that preached solely PSA. It seemed so neat and satisfying. It seemed like an answer. In researching all the counter arguments, actually they are not really even that, I'll rephrase...in researching many of the other glorious things that the cross achieves, my appreciation of the cross (which will never be enough) has grown. I feel better equipped to explain, without too much bias in one direction or the other, the atonement as the multi-faceted gem that it is. Preaching and teaching these various views all need to be thoughtful. My speech below is one-sided but it was supposed to be, as an academic exercise. The thought and the prayer that goes into preaching the atonement has to consider faithfulness to the biblical text and an awareness of the pastoral implications of each model. Moreover, how is theological praxis as a whole impacted by the model(s) of the atonement to which we hold?

There is much of me that is dissatisfied with what follows for various reasons. One of the problems with Psub is that it is so hard to come up with contemporary analogies and metaphors that work for a postmodern, post-Christendom generation. Every time I created an image, I found some way in which it just didn't work on the level that Psub works - the exchange, the incorporation, the exchange that is more on one side than the other, the benefits....etc

This is something I hope to give more thought to. I consider it part of my role not to explain my own feelings about what happened at the cross, although I am aware people might want to know what I think, but more helpfully to explain to people what the church has thought over the ages and allow God to accompany people on a journey of wrestling with it for themselves. I am still on my journey.

So here goes nothing...

What I have written is inevitably full of holes, both because it is theologically one sided and also because of my own linguistic inabilities. Perhaps bear in mind the exercise set before me and also that for missional reasons, I really do want to be able to learn from you how much better I might express this way in which the church has articulated the cross of Christ. This is not the place for your objections to the doctrine per se but just for your suggestions about how much better it might be explained. Bear in mind, I didn't set the question either, this was set for us as if it came from a person at church.

Did Jesus need to be tortured to death?
Philippians 2, verses 5-11 confirm that Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Martin Hengel in a book, originally titled Mors turpissima crucis (“the foulest death, the death of the cross.”), tells us that crucifixion was the most horrible, contemptuous form of execution known to the ancient world. Crucifixion was torture visited by the Roman imperial army on Jesus.

Did he need to be tortured to death, you are asking?

That you are asking is understandable. Paul expressed to people in Corinth how the cross could be difficult to understand (a stumbling block) or seem crazy (foolishess). (1 Cor 1:21-24). We struggle to comprehend this mystery at the heart of the Christian faith and say with Paul 'now I know in part’ (1 Cor. 13:12) but also 'we preach Christ crucified' (1 Cor 1:23). Jesus is glorified in His death on the cross, and the Father's name is glorified and through that cross, his being raised and ascended and then giving us the Holy Spirit, we are included in that glory. That makes little sense to us, because we're into human glory, as we prove through our fascination with celebrity but Paul says to Galatia, 'God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,' [Galatains 6:14].

This glory is yours, you who are asking this question, because Christ did all of this for you. John Stott says 'If God in Christ did not die in our place,'. We could have not come into relationship with God. God offered Jesus in our place and this is the foundation through which all the ideas about what Christ achieved at the cross make sense, and it is worth saying at this point that there are many biblical ideas which have resonated with different times. Christ is the sacrificed paschal lamb of the Passover, the priest offering himself as a sacrifice in the temple, the ransom paid in the slave market to secure our freedom and the victor over sin and death and Satan in a cosmic battle (Col. 2:15). The lynchpin holding all these images together is that 'Christ, though guiltless, took our punishment, that He might cancel our guilt, and do away with our punishment.'Sin's penalty is paid with the death of Christ, securing our spiritual and eternal life (Rom 6:23). God in Christ cancels the accusation that stands against us with its legal claims. Part of that accusation in today's post-Christendom, postmodern world is that God's is simply a retributive punishment of Christ that is not restorative. In articulating the work of Christ, we need to be aware of a postmodern sensitivity about God's wrath. His is not a petty anger: God’s wrath is about his being 'too pure to approve evil' (Hab 1:13), it is his wounded covenant love, it is in reality more salvific than punitive in its intention. Punishment is not the goal, relationship is the goal. Wrath and love coexist in a Holy God and we must not present these characteristics as antagonistic. Cyril of Jerusalem says 'behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness.' We must not separate the cross from the resurrection either and we must not separate the members of the trinity from one another. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit together purposed that the Son should become a man and as a man bear on the cross God’s just punishment for sin in the place of sinners. Our old life is dead with Jesus, our sin and our new life is alive with the resurrected Christ. God is about life and love. Love is the basis of the divine reconciliation that is ours (2 Cor. 5.19-21). God initiates it with us through Christ. This work 'none but God can make and none but man ought to make, [so] it is necessary for the God-man to make it': Christ. God does not enjoy suffering and torture, he wants to prevent suffering and torture, God wants for us so much to be in covenant relationship with him and he provides the way so that we become Holy through Jesus and can be that covenant partner. Jesus is gift, given for us. For – given. It was decided before time began that God in Christ would offer himself as the means by which the sin which provokes God's wrath could be done away with. He is 'for' us – he is hyper, hyper means 'for', we know it to mean extreme, it took an extreme act but we must hold on to the idea that John explains God is love. . . . 'Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,'(1 John 4:8-10). If we are still offended by this God whose justice can not leave sin unpunished and like Green and Baker think 'an abstract concept of justice instructs God as to how God must behave,' we must look to the psalmists and the prophets and Jesus who understood that hostility to sin was a characteristic of the holiness of God. If God cannot deny His own nature (2 Tim 2:13), then we are foolish to deny it. In the OT a realtionship was ratified by walking through the severed halves of animals. On breaking the covenant, the punishment was to become like the animals: broken and slain. Significant in Genesis 15, is that it is God who 'walked between'(Jer . 34:18) the severed animal halves. Under the New covenant, God through his Son becomes broken and slain instead of us. He suffers where we should have done. He is a God who 'so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son’ (John 3:16);who 'shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8). It comes about because Jesus knows that ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends . . .’ (John 15:13). The apostles, moreover, understand Jesus as punished for our transgressions for when the Ethiopian reads about the suffering servant 'stricken', 'smitten', 'afflicted', 'wounded', 'crushed', 'upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace', 'he bore the sin of many...' Philip tells him about Jesus. If we think that God's Holy justice does not demand our punishment, then we are ignoring Jeremiah's warnings and hearkening instead to the false prophets' assurances that all is well. To appreciate this idea in all its glory and to avoid seeing it as simply a legal exchange between humanity and Christ, as simply an exchange of guilt for innocence between parties, which in any court of law would be very unjust, we must understand our incorporation into the Godhead. We are 'in Christ' and he is in us. There is a union rather than a simple representation and in understanding this union, we understand that we died and rise with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4)). As Ireneaus explains, 'The Son [has]...entered into communion with us.'

1Stott, J., The Cross of Christ, InterVarsity, 1986, p.196.
2 Augustine:Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists, Bk 14:4
3Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 13, Section 33
4Anselm, 'Cuer Des Homo', chp 6
5Green, J., B., & Baker M., D., Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, p.147
6Irenaeus Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 18, para 7)


David Ould said...

Rachel, if I may - i think there's one real problem with what you write; the questions that you set.

The language of "torture" is unhelpful for any attempt to fairly portray PSA. After all, torture is violence enforced upon an unwilling party. But PSA does not set itself out in those terms - rather, it is striking that Jesus willingly goes to the Cross and resists every temptation to turn away from it.

So perhaps you need a better "provoker" that a word that doesn't fairly represent what you have been charged to defend.

Rachel said...

Ah thanks David - the question was set by the lecturers to capture postmodern cafe church style questions provoked by the critics of PSA. I had an answer for the charge of 'divine abuse.' Here it is: holding steadfast to an orthodox understanding of the triune God, the charge of divine child abuse fails. Critics propose that we are presented with an unjust God whom Jesus came to save us from; a God who angrily punishes his son. Surely, caution needs to be exercised so that we do not think, like Dodd, in terms of pagan ritual child sacrifice. Christ's death expiates sin and thereby propitiates God's wrath in a way that differs from pagan appeasement of the gods. In pagan religion, it is man who seeks to appease the angry god, by means of sacrifice, ritual or magic. But Yahweh cannot be placated thus. There is nothing we can offer. God, in effect, offered himself, in the form of his own Son. In the gospel of John 17:21, Jesus says to the Father: “you are in me and I am in you”. There is a perichoretic life to the Trinity which we ignore at our peril. If ignored, one of the members of the trinity is presented to have its will set in opposition to the other. If we subscribe to a trinitarian understanding of God and the hypostatic union of the human and the divine in Jesus Christ, then we see a God who punishes himself rather than someone separate from himself. Through death on the Cross, God inflicts violence upon himself in his Son (care needs to be taken to avoid patripassianism). God’s judgment is that humanity is wicked, but his response to that judgment is to suffer the evil himself in order that we might be reconciled and our sin no longer be a barrier. We see a beauty in the reconciling action, if we set it within a trinitarian context and as a result the charge of divine child abuse makes little sense.

This criticism also ignores biblical testimony to the voluntary nature of the Son's death. In John, Jesus explains about his life that “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again." (10:18) When someone is abused, they have no autonomy, it is stolen by the abuser. Christ willingly undergoes the punishment which we deserve. We have an active God and an active Christ, there is not the object appeased or the object violated etc

Avey said...

Without getting into the argument for/against Penal Substitution, it would be interesting if you redressed the balance somewhat by also including what your colleague presented on the position of Christus Victor also......

It would have been even more interesting if you had to present the opposing view yourself and have to read things through a different lens...

Rachel said...

Interesting Avey - the opposing view would be my more comfortable lens...yes, there was a very good presentation of Christus Victor...of course, the atonement is both and more besides...

John said...

Hi, I am from Australia.

Please find a completely different Spiritual Understanding of the at-one-ment Spirit-Breathing Spiritual Way of Life taught and demonstrated by Saint Jesus of Galilee while he was alive.


Plus how to live Right Life altogether via:


The Truth About Death (as the key to the Fullness of Being)


Rachel said...

Hi Avatar Adi Da Samraj
Interesting, but from an orthodox Christian point of view, much that is dualistic, gnostic and hard to conform to scripture.

But may God continue to challenge you and call you more closely into his presence.


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