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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ben Witherington III on the Atonement

Ben Witherington III is one of the most prominent and prolific evangelical scholars today. He has written over 30 books and is currently Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. He has an interesting article on the atonement posted on As a biblical theologian, as opposed to a philosophical theologian, he is concerned with ascertaining precisely what the Bible teaches about the atonement in its historical and cultural context, rather than explaining the atonement in a philosophical sense and answering logical difficulties associated with the explanation.

He writes:
Herein lies one of the great problems for theologians--- the danger is that history and praxis will be ignored, and one will try to settle theological controversies simply on the basis of debating ideas, or rearranging ideas, or logically thinking through and connecting ideas.
This resonates with me because my training was in biblical theology as opposed to philosophical theology. However, I do think that once the teaching of the Bible is ascertained, it's meaning must be dissected and analyzed through the use of analytic philosophy.

He begins by pointing out that atonement theories have been developed by theologians in the context of the particular theologian's time and culture. This results in reading back into the text the philosophical ideas that were common in the particular theologian's day.

One of the great problems one sees in the great debates about the meaning, significance, and effects of the death of Jesus is the problem of anachronism. Already in the classic discussions which begin at least as early as Anselm, significant terms, ideas, concepts are being read into NT texts resulting in skewed interpretations of some of the more crucial and explicit NT texts which deal with atonement for sins. This trend unfortunately did not end with the Patristic period but continued on into the Reformation period, and indeed into the modern period. Juridical ideas and theories which didn't not even exist in the first century A.D., or did not have the bearing they were later to have, have been imported into the discussion "ad libertum" with telling effect.

I think he is accurate in his evaluation. Atonement theories have largely been shaped by the culture, its theories of punishment and justice, that were dominant during the time that the theory was developed. Much better, it is, to go back and look at the concepts of god(s), punishment, and forgiveness that were prevalent when the Scriptural writers wrote to understand what the atonement meant to the first century Christians.This is what Witherington does in his article.

He explains:

Most religions in the Greco-Roman world, like most religions in the Ancient Near East had three things in common---- temples, priests, and sacrifices. One of the real problems Christianity must have had in the first three plus centuries of its existence was establishing that it was indeed a "religio" and should be taken seriously as such, despite the fact that it had no temples, no priests, and offered no literal sacrifices.

So, the concept of offering sacrifices in order to appease the anger of a deity was common in the first century, in both Jewish and Gentile circles (As a matter of fact, the offering of a sacrifice to a deity is one of the oldest and most widespread practices among all religions (see Jeffrey Carter, ed. Understanding Religious Sacrifice: A Reader [2003]).

Witherington continues:

If one probes Greco-Roman religion, and indeed early Jewish religion when it comes to atonement thought, it becomes very clear indeed that offering sacrifices, and making atonement was seen as a way to deal with one god or another's anger with some action or attitude of the suppliant. It is hardly possible to remove the notion of anger or wrath and the notion of appeasement or satisfaction from these discussions, and have anything significant left to say about the atonement thought in play. And if a non-Christian Jew or Gentile in the middle of the first century had read the following words in Romans: "for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness..." (Rom. 1.18) and then went on to peruse the discussion of the hilasterion in Rom. 3, it can hardly be doubted that they would conclude that the Christian God as well was a God who was angry about sin and demanding atonement, or justice, or satisfaction or some such thing as a result. And when such a demand is stated or implied, we are most definitely in the territory of the term 'propitiation' which might as well include the notion of 'expiation' though not necessarily. It was not Jonathan Edwards who invented the notion of a Christianity which included the concept of sinners in the hands of an angry God. My point is simply this--- it takes a lot of ignoring of the larger religious context and conceptualities about God or the gods to be able to exclude ideas like appeasement, propitiation, divine wrath, and the like from the discussion of the atonement in the NT [emphasis mine] whatever other sorts of concepts we might want to include in the discussion.

I agree with Witherington. It is obvious to me that the Bible merely adopts the ideas of its time and culture. Granted, in the OT, the Jews put a different twist on the concept of sacrifice than what was prevalent in the societies around them and in the NT, the Christians did the same thing with regard to the death of Jesus. The most radical concept being that the death of Jesus was the ultimate and thus final sacrifice in time. Nevertheless, the basic concept of what a sacrifice was, why it was needed, and what it accomplished with regard to the deity were not unique to either Judaism or Christianity. This leads me to see both Judaism and Christianity as not uniquely true religions. They are explainable based on the concepts of god, sin, and forgiveness that were prevalent in the time and culture in which they developed. Each succeeding generation has put a new twist on the nature and purpose of the atonement based on their own cultural thinking. This has led to a number of different theories of the atonement during the course of church history. Today, atonement by means of a blood sacrifice is mostly repulsive to the Western mind. Thus, new concepts of the atonement that try to erase the deity's need for a redemptive violence are prevalent, even within some evangelical circles. However, for most evangelicals, they realize that this notion of a blood sacrifice to forgive sin is a fundamental notion. It cannot be compromised or removed without destroying the very heart and soul of the Christian religion. As Witherington remarks:

"[W]ithout the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins"(Heb. 9.22). So much for the modern notion that that's Jesus' death was not absolutely necessary in order for God to forgive our sins. To those who like to make such statements these days, our author would rebut--- if Jesus' death was not both the absolutely necessary and sufficient sacrifice to procure for us the forgiveness of sins, if God could do it just because God is a nice God who likes to forgive sin, then strangely enough that God is not a good God, not a good Father, for what Father would put his only and beloved Son through that agony if it was not the one means necessary to save the world?


  1. Dear Ken,
    I've read your history and some other articles on your site. Thank you! I red the story about your struggle with the usual doctrine of Penal Substitution Atonement. I recognize yout struggle ans history, for I had the same struggle and two years ago I gave up my work as a minister in church. But I didn't give up my belief in Jesus Christ. Oh no! I love Him now more than ever and the unity with Him and the enthusiasm about Him and the Bible is growing every time - however I don't have an other job till now and my wife and I are still looking for an other way of earning money!
    I want to let you know, that in my opinion there is a better exegesis of texts in the Bible as the usual PSA-exegesis. You think that the Bible teaches it, but that's not true.
    After studying it I saw that the Bible doesn't teach the doctrine of PSA, the payment of our debts by sacrafices (and by Jezus). The sacrafices in the Bible are meant to train and express the heart-longing to offer ourselfes to the Lord. That's what Paul teaches too in Rom 12:1,2 about the real religion. It is 'to offer our own bodies/lives as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship' (etc). That has already been the goal of worship in the Old Testament too. But the Jews treansformed it often to a pure outward ritual legalistic religion.
    I think that 'giving symbolic his hearts and lifes to the Lord' were the head-meaning of the burnt offerings and that this is the headpoint in all offerings (conversion from sins is to renew our selfoffering and love to the Lord). Payment of debts to the Lord is never meant. How should the only real God can be pleased with an other offering than the offering of ourselfs? The headpoint of all commandments is the love to God and neighbour. We only can please our God when we give ourselfs to Him in His service with free love.
    From that point of view it is explanable that the Lord didn't like offerings when the hearts are not in it - then the offerings and the lives are contradicting. See Ps 50:9,10,12-15 and Isaiah 1:10-17.
    It is onjust to think that the Lord of Israel and the Father of Jesus thinks about offerings at the same way as the gentiles did. They are gods made by men, and He is - so the Bible sais -the only real heavenly God. So I think that your filosofical axioma about the offerings is not just. It makes the a good Bible-exegesis impossible. And the pitiable consequence is, that you loosed your faith in Jezus and the Father of Him and in the trustworthiness of the Bible.
    More and more theologians recovere in the world that the doctine of the PSA is not realy biblical.
    I hope this little letter will help you a step back to the belief in Christ.
    When you can read a little Dutch, please see my website: and the website of Norman McIlwain about The Biblical Revelation of the Cross.

    With heartly greatings - God bless you,
    Ton de Ruiter

  2. Ton,

    Thanks for your comments. I have read McIlwain's book and have had email correspondence with him. I am aware that there are other interpretations of the atonement but the fact remains that whether you hold to Penal Sub. theory or not, somehow and in someway the death of Jesus brings about salvation or makes it possible. There is no escaping that point in the New Testament. And thus in some real sense, Jesus had to die before I could be forgiven. Otherwise, why did he die? His death would have been unnecessary. So in some sense or another the Bible teaches the concept of redemptive violence.

    This is not my only problem with evangelical Christianity. I have lots of them.

  3. Ken,
    You blog about the PST the most and based on that, the observation is that is the most significant. You have other trivial writings on other subjects. I'd say without PST your blog wouldn't have much of substance. Nothing personal...

  4. Dear Ken,
    (sorry, I'm from Holland and to write in English is not easy to me - sorry, I hope you understand me and you will overlook my faults).
    A few points in reaction:

    1. You're right: the dead of Jesus on the Cross is necessary for us to be saved. Your question is the really good question that matters: for what goal He died there on the Cross?

    2. I think that we have to look for the answer in the Bible and not in philosophy. What kind of freedom we need? We are to be saved/freed from our sins in us (Mat 1:21), not from debts of sin on our backs. The debts we have are not the problem to our very rich Lord. He can freely forgive them (cf. Mat 18:27; Luke 15:22). The problem is much bigger and more intensive. We have to become new men: stronger than all temptations! The love in our bodies has to become as strong as the love of heaven.

    3. And therefore Jesus became really flesh to overcome all powers of temptations who wants to bring us to sin. After He had disarmed all those powers and authorities triumphing over them by the Cross (Col 2:15), He received the Spirit from the Father (Acts 2:33) to bring His power in us to overcome all spiritual temptations. So we become people of heaven (in oneness with the Lord). In my view tells Hebrew 2:14,15 the meaning of the dead of Christ in short. Hebrew 5:7-10 tells too that Jesus became through misery the conqueror of all our enemies (through learning obedience); and now – after Pentecost - He is through the Spirit in us to make us conquerors with Him too in all circumstances (see Rom 8:37).

    4. Not the wrath of God was on Him on Calvary; it was the wrath of men. God the Father let it be – even as in the situation of Abraham, Job and other men – to discipline them for the future in the Kingdom – cf. Hebrew 12 about Jesus and about disciplining people by God. The Cross was the last test/training in the school for Jesus to become as man our King and as the second Adam the King of the Lords Kingdom. He received as man all power in heaven and earth. ‘Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place’ (Phil 2:9).
    Now He knows our lives and temptations and knows what kind of help we need to be true to our Lord in heavenly love and truth (Hebrews).

    5. Jesus did not die on the Cross to make forgiveness possible but to make us heavenly people with the heavenly attitude or with the same spirit of Jesus (Phil 2:5).
    Jesus did not come to realise forgiveness but to build the Kingdom of the Lord. That’s what the four Gospels are telling us. And the letters of Paul tells the same. But theologians have laid the doctrine of PSA on all Bible verses.
    Perhaps – this may help you?

  5. Ton,

    Thanks. It sounds like you are advocating something like the Christus Victor theory of the atonement?

  6. The atonement, and especially its evangelical Protestant version, seems to me a topic central to the concerns of any Christian.

    And in my opinion KP's comments on other topics are astute and stimulating. His is one of the best skeptic blogs going, in part for its acute understanding of the Christian viewpoint.

  7. Here's the NASB's translation: "And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."

    You suggest that according to the author of Hebrews, the shedding of blood is required for forgiveness. I think the wording above, however, shows a more nuanced spin, where the author is saying "forgiveness under the old law, and the religious paradigms you are familiar with, requires blood (but with Christ it might not be so)."

    Also note the word cleansing, and the fact that under the law, uncleanliness was remedied by sacrifices but intentional crimes and sins were not. (I.e. the stealing your neighbour's goat didn't demand a blood sacrifice for justice to be served, so why would such a sin require Christ's blood for forgiveness?)

  8. I should add that I find the atonement theory generally repugnant and prefer something along the lines of Christus Victor, although my understanding of that theory is complete. I'm also open to the idea that salvation has little to do with Christ's death — however otherwise St. Paul may have thought.

  9. Ken,

    I appreciate that you used Witherington as an example, pointing out the nuances of biblical and philosophical theology. Of course, philosophy was mixed right in during biblical writing, including Paul's, despite his derogatory remarks about it... the pot calling the kettle black!

    Paul and the other canonical writers (almost certainly NOT any of the "twelve apostles"), were collapsing, gradually--not all at once--a bunch of functions and roles into Jesus over the first century. A revved-up version of "Messiah" is one of them... which may have included a suffering aspect in Hebrew Scripture, but not an atoning sacrifice concept (that I recall--correct me if wrong). And it most certainly did NOT include any idea of a god-man, who shared fully in both God's nature and humanity's.

    As you've so well pointed out in this series, Jesus' divine nature is a central part of PST, even though it does not logically stand up. It's no wonder "the Jews" didn't get the idea of Jesus as divine Savior, and that even some (2? 3?) of the Gospel writers make a real point that even Jesus' closest disciples were confused, to the end, re. his real identity and purpose. (I'm not saying that was the real situation, but that it is significant that the story WAS written that way!)

    Seems to me that while Paul had gone part way, writing before Jerusalem's fall, it was after that watershed event, and the attending rapidly-widening gap with all of Judaism, that the other biblical authors and their successors had to pull over to the new religion as much analogy and connection to Judaism as possible.

    (For the first apologists on this, during early stages of canon-formation, see Justin Martyr of around 150, e.g.) Thus it makes sense they would borrow and update/modify (as was typical methodology) sacrifice/atonement concepts from the OT and the ancient (thus respectable in the Roman world) religion of the Jews. So Jesus became a new kind of Messiah, still promising to keep Israel central via the Kingdom of God. AND he became atoning sacrifice that saved the world, and for Paul particularly, brought Jew and Gentile together.

  10. Howard,

    Thanks for the comments. I think you are right when you say that the early Christians " were collapsing, gradually--not all at once--a bunch of functions and roles into Jesus over the first century." They were piecing together various ideas into what eventually became the portrait the church accepted as to who Jesus was and what his death accomplished.

  11. Paul,

    If you read the rest of the chapter after 9:22, you will see that the picture is of Jesus presenting his blood in the heavenly tabernacle. It seems to me that the author is not making a disconnect between the OT sacrifices and the sacrifice of Jesus but rather saying that Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of those OT pictures.

  12. Ken,
    Yes - my exegesis and theory is a kind of Christ Victor theory of the atonement. But it is not the same.
    Jesus didn't redeem us by conquering all our enemies in our place (so usual in the old Church - substitutional). No, after conquering all our enemies Jesus comes in us to make us conquerors over them (they'r still alive yet) and to give us the power and capacity to live in Gods will and in the heavenly love. So He makes us one with the Lord and that’s exact the atonement, I think! (not the strange substitutional payment of our penalty – that’s never a problem by reconciliation between our rich God and us).
    I belief that bloodshed is never the symbol of payment of the penalty of our sins. No, it is everytime the symbol of our commitment (the Jews gave in it symbolic their lives to the Lord). As Jesus, our King, did, so now we are capable to do by His power (Rom 8:37; 1 Cor 10:13). Every one who wants to accept and learn that style of Jesus in his life is redeemed by the grace of the Lord. Then His life is in us (the holy supper sais: we eat and drink His lif in our life - that's the symbol of rebirth in the Kingdoms life!)

  13. John, it's my personal opinion that Ken is a very good writer when it comes to other topics discussed here. That being said, for someone who is supposed to have the Holy Spirit living in him, you sure do act like a dick on here!