Welcome to Part Two. I certainly stirred up more with Part One, Substitutionary Atonement: It’s just a theory than I expected! I do want to explore what I began in The Six Deadly Sins of Evangelicalism — namely, that penal substitutionary atonement may not be the right story to frame the cross of Christ in post-Christian cultures. That’s a lot of buzzwords — or as Kay complains, too many syllables.
There is no “ultimate explanation,” because salvation is in a Person who is deeper than the sum of our explanations.
But I need to clarify some things before we dig in further. Unfortunately, this means I will not get to Matthew Tuck’s good questions this time: “1) What is your critique of the penal substitutionary atonement theory? 2) What alternative(s) would you propose?” Sorry, Matthew, I only have room for hints this round! I’ll get there, but let’s regroup before we go on.
First, I want to acknowledge that penal substitutionary atonement is widely taught (and dearly held) by many evangelicals, especially those in Reformed traditions. So for some people, my raising questions may sound like I am questioning whether Christ died for our sins. And my suggesting alternatives may sound like I am suggesting there are other paths to salvation that avoid the cross.
Of course, that’s not it at all.
Let me respond to some specific comments. (And thank you for each comment!)
i’d like a primer on all this in your own words. i tried to take in the wiki pages and just got overwhelmed by jargon.
The wiki pages of nine different explanations of atonement can be rather boggling! So let me take a quick stab at it:
atonement — Put simply, this is the forgiveness of our sins. For this discussion, it is a question, “How does God forgive our sins?” (…But even this question raises questions for me. It can be distorted into a gospel of “sin management.” What is good news for a “sinless” society?)
substitutionary atonement — This is one answer to the question. In this answer, “Christ takes our place on the cross.” That’s great, and I say that with no irony. (…But what about the resurrection? Doesn’t that figure into this somehow? Because evangelicals tend to focus on personal sin, and substitutionary atonement as the answer, I’m afraid the resurrection is largely an afterthought.)
penal substitutionary atonement — This is a more specific definition of substitutionary atonement that says that God must punish something for our sins, so Christ took that punishment for us. If you see things in terms of cosmic justice, this makes a lot of sense, and the cross becomes the means for both justice and mercy. (…But if you’re someone like Randy who saw God as a cosmic bully, this only reinforces the idea!)
Sounds like you are just choosing one atonement theory (personal) over another (penal substitution). So what makes your theory ultimate, and the other theories just theories?
I’m afraid my use of the word “personal” confused things, unintentionally bringing in a theological term. “Personal atonement” is a way of saying Christ died not just generally for “the sins of the world,” but for my sins personally. I was not saying anything about personal atonement. In fact, my point is that there is no “ultimate explanation,” because salvation is in a Person who is deeper than the sum of our explanations. This is was what I tried to say with the facets-of-a-diamond illustration.
Is there then a time, a situation, where using the penal description of atonement is the best way to lead someone to saving faith?
Of course! It worked for you, didn’t it?
And this may actually help bring out where I differ with many devout Christians, both “conservative” and “liberal”: I am less interested in “What is universally true,” and more interested in “What is helpful in this situation.” My goal is not to define truths, but to help people enter into relationship with Truth (a person, not a doctrine). …Is it okay if that looks different for people of different cultures?
Coming up: Why is penal substitution an unhelpful story in post-Christian contexts? Can Jon offer an example of a helpful story? Make sure to subscribe to see how this unfolds…