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Monday, February 1, 2010

One Evangelical sees the problems with Penal Sub. Theory

Dr. Greg Boyd is in the extreme minority among evangelical theologians. He rejects the Penal Substitutionary Theory of the atonement. Instead, he favors the Christus Victor Theory. As shown in a previous post, most evangelical theologians insist that the PST is one of the core doctrines of Christianity. Boyd, however, recognizes the problems inherent in the PST of the atonement. He lists them here:

*Does God really need to appease his wrath with a blood sacrifice in order to forgive us? If so, does this mean that the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the ultimate description of God’s character? And if this is true, what are we to make of Jesus’ teaching that this law is surpassed by the law of love? Not only this, but what are we to make of all the instances in the Bible where God forgives people without demanding a sacrifice (e.g. the prodigal son)?

*If God’s holiness requires that a sacrifice be made before he can fellowship with sinners, how did Jesus manage to hang out with sinners without a sacrifice, since he is as fully divine and as holy as God the Father?

*If Jesus’ death allows God the Father to accept us, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Jesus reconciles God to us than it is to say Jesus reconciles us to God? Yet the New Testament claims the latter and never the former (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:18-20). ). In fact, if God loves sinners and yet can’t accept sinners without a sacrifice, wouldn’t it be even more accurate to say that God reconciles God to himself than to say he reconciles us to God? But this is clearly an odd and unbiblical way of speaking.

*How are we to understand one member of the Trinity (the Father) being wrathful towards another member (the Son) of the Trinity, when they are, along with the Holy Spirit, one and the same God? Can God be truly angry with God? Can God actually punish God?

*If God the father needs someone to “pay the price” for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? Think about it. If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? It seems not, especially since the very concept of forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.

*Are sin and guilt the sorts of things that can be literally transferred from one party to another? Related to this, how are we to conceive of the Father being angry towards Jesus and justly punishing him when he of course knew Jesus never did anything wrong?

*If the just punishment for sin is eternal hell (as most Christians have traditionally believed), how does Jesus’ several hours of suffering and his short time in the grave pay for it?

*If the main thing Jesus came to do was to appease the Father’s wrath by being slain by him for our sin, couldn’t this have been accomplished just as easily when (say) Jesus was a one-year-old boy as when he was a thirty-three year old man? Were Jesus’ life, teachings, healing and deliverance ministry merely a prelude to the one really important thing he did – namely, die.

* Not to be offensive, but if it’s true that God’s wrath must be appeased by sacrificing his own Son – or, if not that, sacrificing all other humans in eternal hell – then don’t we have to conclude that those pagans who have throughout history sacrificed their children to appease the gods’ wrath had the right intuition, even if they expressed it in the wrong way?

I think Boyd is spot-on in his observations. His problem is that I believe and so do the vast majority of evangelicals that the New Testament teaches the PST of the atonement. While there may be a few verses that support the Christus Victor theory, most of the NT seems to formulate the atonement along the lines of the penal view.


  1. Ken,

    The Scripture is very clear that Jesus became sin for us since his geneaology can be traced to Adam; however, the point is that Jesus is the Son of God and you will notice in Luke that he traces his geneology back to (not Adam) but the Son of God.

    It wasn't the Son of God who sinned; rather, it was Adam whose geneology Jesus was born into. However, he was the sinless perfect Son of God as recognized in Luke's geneaology which recognizes the Son of God as being first in the geneology.

    The wrath of God was poured out on the God-man. Jesus was the Son of God; however, he was also shared in our humanity since he stood in the line of Adam. As a result, man in his humanity was under the curse (became sin for us); however, death could not hold him in the grave because he was the perfect sinless Son of God.

  2. Where does the NT teach PST? I suppose you can project on it anything you want, but in actuality PST is simply not taught, at all, in the NT. PST is a slur against the Bible as far as I'm concerned. Jesus, once and for all, definitively showed at the crucifixion and then at the resurrection, that it is not God who is violent/vengeful/wrathful, but that it is humanity/the pathological relationships between people that destroys and murders.

  3. Buck,

    I think its taught in Romans 3:21-26; I Pet. 2:23, as well as a host of other passages.

    Look at Leon Morris, The Cross in the NT and Steve Jeffrey,, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution .

    Whether you agree or not, the fact remains that the great majority of evangelicals not only consider PST to be biblical, they believe it to be a core, fundamental doctrine.

  4. I both like and dislike Boyd's first two points. I'll start with the dislike. I can't imagine the parable of the prodigal son having the son offer sacrifices to his dad, or the publicans and prostitutes offering sacrifices to Jesus. The dad in the parable represents God, but he's still a man in the story, so he wouldn't receive sacrifices. And, in the synoptics, at least, Jesus isn't flamboyant about being God. He may drop hints, depending on how one interprets the passages where he calms the waters or forgives sins, but he's not really at the point where he's receiving sacrifices, as God did in the temple.

    Here's where I like Boyd's points. A lot of times, evangelicals act as if God can't tolerate the sight of sin or even sinners, which is why he needed to be appeased. And they're getting that view from somewhere: Leviticus requires ritual or physical purity from those who approach God; Habakkuk 1:13 says God can't look upon evil. Yet, here Jesus is, hanging around with publicans and sinners.

  5. James,

    I agree that some of Boyd's points are weak. I do like the fact though that he sees at least three of the main problems.

    1. Personal guilt cannot be transferred.
    2. PST produces division within the Trinity.
    3. PST is a form of human sacrifice (which I think ultimately explains how the whole concept originated). The ancient peoples were used to the concept of offering sacrifices to the gods to appease their displeasure. The greatest sacrifice would be a human one and the ultimate sacrifice would be the offering up of God's son. Its within that context that the PST made sense to the ancient mind.

  6. 1. Surely you do realize personal guilt can be transferred, that idea has been the basis of all primitive religion. The crucifixion/resurrection unmasks this, it is no longer a glorious transfer of guilt and reunification of the community around a scapegoat who has had all guilt place on his/her head. Christianity strikes this idea down and declares that this is murder, this why Jesus doesn't bring peace because this collective violence cleansing the community of violence/guilt no longer can bring unity around a scapegoat. The scapegoat can no longer be guilty of the community's sin and this realization will tear families and communities apart, because we will never again be able to agree on who is guilty as the primitive religions did around their dead scapegoat gods. Jesus now has taken our sin upon himself and declared you will love one another or you will all be consumed by your own violence. 23Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. Jesus us tells us to forgive sins. This what we must do or we will surely die in our own endless violence.

  7. Love ZDENNY's response. It's as though you're discussing how a car works by examining the detailed chemical reactions of the internal combustion engine.

    Then he chimes in with "the motor makes the wheels go round" as though that answers your discussion in its entireity. When it comes to thinking like a child he seems to have it nailed.

  8. Very appropriate analogy, Derek!

  9. Buck,

    I think its clear that personal guilt cannot be transferred. It runs cross-grain to our innate sense of justice (which Christians claim we have because we are made in the image of god).

    I am not going to argue with your particular view of the atonement as it is not the dominant one in evangelicalism.

  10. What I don't understand is why on Passover. The passover lamb is not a sin sacrifice or atonement sacrifice. That is done on Yom Kippur. So how could atonement be had on remembrance day instead of the day of atonement?

  11. I think ZDenny is on to something, while Hebrews uses the OT sacrifice as a picture, the real miracle comes as described by Paul in Romans 5; one man brought sin into the world, one man took it away. Jesus' duality as God and man was required to fulfill the idea of Goel, or kinsman redeemer. He had to redeem us a man but the action was only accomplishable by God. Great food for thought!!

  12. Hey Ken, I never heard back from you on our discussion of atonement.

    BTW, I saw a post of Boyd's a while back in which he was musing and eclectic blend of PST and Christus Victor, for what it's worth.

  13. Matthew 26:28 .."for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."

    This verse puts the PST onto the lips of Jesus himself. There are others similar to this in the other Gospels.