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Sunday, May 30, 2010

James McGrath on "What's Wrong with Penal Substitution"

Dr. James McGrath holds the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair of New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. He earned his Ph.D. under the renowned NT scholar, James D. G. Dunn, at the University of Durham. McGrath has a popular blog entitled: Exploring Our Matrix. Its one of the few blogs I make a point to visit every day. McGrath is also the author of three books: The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (2009); The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith (2008); and John's Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology (2008).

He wrote a blog post back in 2007 on What's Wrong With Penal Substitution? While McGrath is a Christian believer, he is not an evangelical. He recognizes the problems with the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the atonement. He writes: I abandoned the penal substitutionary view of the atonement while I was an undergraduate student at an Evangelical Bible college in the UK, in spite of it being the view of the professor who taught Christian doctrines. McGrath does not believe that the PST is the teaching of the NT nor did the doctrine have a place in the teaching of Jesus. He argues:

Much early Christian literature is focused on the cross. It is worth noting, however, that very little that Jesus says, and certainly little or nothing that can confidently be regarded as authentically going back to Jesus himself, focuses on the cross. This is easily explicable: the earliest Christians in the post-Easter were persuaded that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and were persuaded that his death could not have been unforeseen but must have been foreordained. And so, beginning with Moses, they went back and made sense of what had happened with the help of Scripture. Probably even more helpful than "Moses" was 4 Maccabees 6, which presents a martyr praying "Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs" (4 Macc. 6:28-29). Clearly there were ideas that existed in the Judaism of the time that helped make sense of the death of the righteous in terms of atonement.

Yet the New Testament does not use the language of punishment and exchange in the way 4 Maccabees (which was written after the early Christians had already interpreted the death of Jesus in atoning, sacrificial terms) does. Paul can talk about sacrifice (and discussing what sacrifice meant in the Judaism of this time would be a subject of its own), but he prefers to use the language of participation. One died for all, so that all died (2 Corinthians 5:14). This is not only different from substitution, it is the opposite of it. Jesus is here understood not to prevent our death but to bring it about! This fits neatly within his understanding of there being two ages, with Christ having died to one and entered the resurrection age, and with Christians through their connection to him having already died to the present age and thus made able to live free from its dominion

I personally disagree with McGrath as I think one can find the essential teaching behind the PST in the NT. I believe, Leon Morris, for example, makes a strong exegetical case for penal substitution in The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. But I also recognize that other models of the atonement can be found in the NT and certainly, the participation model, which McGrath holds is one of them.

McGrath has two problems with the PST as it is popularly taught. He writes:

One is Biblical, the other is moral. First, the Bible regularly depicts God as forgiving people. If there is anything that God does consistently throughout the Bible, it is forgive. To suggest that God cannot forgive because, having said that sin would be punished, he has no choice but to punish someone, makes sense only if one has never read the penitential psalms, nor the story of Jonah. The penal substitution view of atonement takes the metaphor of sin as debt and literalizes it to the extent that one's actions are viewed in terms of accounting rather than relationship. It is not surprising this is popular: in our time, debts are impersonal and most people have them, and it is easier to think of slates being wiped clean and books being balanced than a need for reconciliation. But the latter is the core element if one thinks of God in personal terms. And for God to forgive, all that the Bible suggests that God has to do is forgive.

I agree that there are portions of the Bible where God's forgiveness seems to come without any prior punishment or sacrifice. In addition to the OT passages to which McGrath refers, there is also the teaching of Jesus himself in which he forgives based on repentance and faith and without any mention of a sacrifice or an atonement. For example, see Luke 5:20 and 7:44-48. However, there are also portions, large portions in the epistles, which base forgiveness squarely on the fact that Jesus died for sins and his blood was a propitiation to God thus allowing him to forgive (for example, see Rom. 3:21-26; Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 John 2:2). One could try to harmonize these two teachings by saying that the forgiveness that appears to be unconditional actually presupposes the atonement that Christ would make. Or, one could hold as I do that there are contradictory and conflicting teachings in the Bible. Regardless, it is my contention that the idea of penal substitution can definitely be seen in certain parts of the Bible.

Now to where I agree with McGrath. He writes:
The moral issue with penal substitution is closely connected with the points just mentioned. Despite the popularity of this image, to depict God as a judge who lets a criminal go free because he has punished someone else in their place is to depict God as unjust.

The heart of the matter is that there is a stream of Christianity that soothes the conscience of Christians about the misdeeds they do by claiming that (1) God is the only one whose forgiveness matters, and (2) this forgiveness is already available and can wipe away your debt through a miracle of divine bookkeeping. All sense that anyone is harmed by what one does (whether God or other human beings), and that that is what matters, disappears from view entirely (cp. Job 35). Again, I can understand the popularity of this view. But it isn't popular because it is Biblical, neither is it popular because it is self-evidently true. It is popular because it makes people feel good about themselves (emphasis added) in spite of their not following the challenging parts of the Bible that have to do with how we relate to others. I say this as someone who used to hold this view, and so in my discussion of psychological motives for the popularity of this view, I am being first and foremost self-critical. Indeed, discovering that the Biblical view of sin and atonement is not that set forth in the penal substitutionary view was a key step in my ability to be self critical in precisely this way.

I agree that there is a psychological component that makes the doctrine of the PST attractive to people. Most people feel guilt when they do wrong. They sense intuitively that they should be punished for what they have done. When they are told that their sin is really against God, they feel that God has a right to punish them. To think that Jesus took that punishment as our substitute is very appealing. Now the punishment that we deserve does take place but we don't have to suffer it ourselves. The notion that the penalty for all of our wrongdoing has been paid and we are held guiltless is psychologically very satisfying. Its better even than thinking God just forgives without any punishment because we would still intuitively feel like we deserved to be punished. Something that is cheap or free is often not appreciated as much as something which costs a lot. When we are told that the Son of God loved us so much that he paid the penalty for our sin, we realize just how expensive our forgiveness really is. So, I think McGrath is right, the psychology behind the PST leads to its popularity and this fact helps to explain why Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, has such a large following.


  1. It seems to me that any theory, or analogy the church has used to explain God's work in Christ will always seem crude, and fall short of the reality itself.

    As a Christian, I affirm that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. It was God who fully entered into human life, and suffering, absorbed the consequence of sin, and evil into Himself, so that we might share in His life.

    However, I certainly can't fully understand, or explain the precise mechanics of all this in human terms. I lean more toward the view popular in Celtic interpretations of Christianity that stresses our unity in Christ. In a mystical sense, we share in His death, and resurrection, and are being made "like Him."

    Our lives are hidden in Christ with God.

    But, it does seem pretty fruitless to me to argue with other Christian people about this, or suppose that everyone has to fully agree.

    God in Christ has saved me, and is redeeming the whole creation. I think that's all I need to know for now.

  2. Hi Grace

    I used to be a Christian myself, and all of what you are saying used to make sense to me. Until I really started asking myself what lies behind the words, the real meaning beyond the cliches and plattitudes.

    What does it really mean when we say "... that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself"? Or that God "... absorbed the consequence of sin"?

    Why does it seemingly assure you and comfort you to say things like "Our lives are hidden in Christ with God"?

    I know that you admit that you do not have all the answers, and I appreciate your candour, but I fail to see how the above examples can really be sufficient to form the basis, the essence, of one's worldview. As I say, I used to cling to those same "answers" but once I looked at them without my "Jesus lenses" they became completely empty.

    How do you manage to hold on to them?

  3. As a young person, I was agnostic, and very rationally, and scientifically inclined, looking for truth. Still am, to a great extent, and don't think we should check our mind at the church door, by any means.

    Andre, I can only say that God showed up in my life. I mean this metaphorically, of course. I came to see, for me, the limit, and finiteness of human reason. By reason alone, we can't know God.

    I mostly came to theism by reflection, and study of the natural world,(the witness of creation) and Christian faith by a conviction of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    I can say that knowing Christ makes a difference, because over time, I've seen this experientally in my own life. He is changing(saving) me.

    I've become less judgmental, and inclusive toward people who are different, more sensitive, and concerned for the creation.

    It's like a mini taste of how God is "reconciling the world to Himself," in me.

    Also, have a lonnnng...way to go. :)

    Can you understand?

  4. Oh yes, I do understand. I've been there, I've used those exact same words.

    Good luck with the journey.

  5. Grace, you do realize that Mormons, Muslims and those of other religoins, worldviews etc. say basically the same thing you do about how their life has changed, right?

  6. Thank you, Andre. You too!

    Mike, I"m not able to speak for these other people, or personally evaluate their faith statements.

    I can only share from my own conviction, study, and experience.

    I'll leave the rest to God.

  7. That's fine, Grace. Just know that subjective experience cannot be proof that something is true. If so, every religion is true.

  8. With the name of God, I am interested to know about more articles and or books that deal with the issue of PST.

    Has it been challenged 'with in' the Church and what are the extra biblical and extra Church challenges from Judaism and or Philosophical arguments against it.

    I myself am a Muslim but I want to try and see this particular issue which is of interest to me from all possible angles.

    Very excellent blog and I will try and make it a point to read more of the material here.

  9. @thegrandverbalizer - Ken's blog is the very best resource on PST that I know of today (and on theories of atonement in general). Hopefully he will write a book some day, but I encourage you to read all of the posts, and take the time to investigate the resources he discusses. Ken discusses the "within Church" differences, and *some* arguments from Judaism and Philosophy have been discussed in passing.

    FWIW, I've read Maududi, Hassan al Banna, Qutb, and other Muslim theologians; as well as reading Quran a few times through. I have my own opinions about the relation of Islam to the issues that Ken focuses on, but my knowledge of Islam is very limited. IMO, it would be edifying (for me, at least) if you can remain engaged and regularly comment on your understanding of Islamic theology pertaining to the matters that Ken discusses.

  10. Grandverbalizer,

    I think the best approach is to read all of the posts under the label Atonement. I provide references and links to the resource material.

    Christendom has never agreed on one particular theory of the atonement. The Classic Theory or Ransom Theory was widely held for the first 1000 years of Church History (the Eastern Orthodox hold a variation of this theory). Then Anselm wrote his book, Cur Deus Homo, advocating the Satisfaction Theory and that became dominant. Later Peter Abelard developed the Moral Exemplar Theory. These last two theories are the most prevalent within the Roman Catholic Church, with conservatives holding Anselm's theory and progressives holding Abelard's.

    The Reformers modified Anselm's theory into the PST. This has been the dominant theory among conservative Protestants, especially the Reformed or Calvinistic branches.

    Hugo Grotius developed the Governmental Theory in the 1600's which became the dominant view among non-Calvinists.

    In the last 100 years there have been other theories developed as well.

    There is a lot of ground to cover! You can find a basic definition of each of these theories on Wikipedia.

  11. Yes, Mike, I agree. Although, I do think that subjective experience is one factor to consider, along with many other variables.

    But, in a deeper sense, what I meant to share is that as a Christian believer, I don't feel that I can rule out the various ways, and means that God might choose to impact someone's life.

    I've known Christian people to share how that an experience with Wicca led them to a greater appreciation of the natural world which drew them to God, and finally to Christ.

    I believe that God's most complete revelation is in Christ, and that ultimately all "salvation" so to speak is in, and through the cross. Obviously, all contradictory belief systems cannot be equally true.

    But, this doesn't mean, to me anyway, that no truth at all can be found in other faith systems, and philosophies.

    How can we limit God? If He wants to show up in the middle of a Buddhist temple, or while someone is reading portions of the Qur'an, He can do it.

  12. Grace, you're right. All religions can't be true, but they certainly can all be false, which I suspect they are. Notice I said suspect, and I did not say that I know this for sure. After all, we are talking about the super natural, right? Everything has to be taken by faith.

  13. Well, it's true that we can't empirically prove God in a test tube, that's for sure, but I don't think Christian faith is a totally irrational leap in the dark, either.

    Mike, do you come from some type of churched background?

  14. Grace, Yes I do. For just over 10 years, I was a hard-core evangelical/fundamentalist Christian, and was involved in a several churches during that time.

  15. Mike, what are you feeling were some of the biggest influences in your moving away from Christian faith over time?