I have, for some time, had a bee in my bonnet about the penal substitutionary atonement debate. There are those, on the one hand, who think it sits right at the indigestible core of a sound understanding of the atoning significance of Jesus’ death; and there are those, on the other, who think it sucks. To my mind there is a solid alternative that emerges when we put on our dogmatic-noise-cancelling ear-phones and sit and read the Scriptures as historical narrative, which in the broadest and simplest sense is what they are.
I came across a discussion on Derek Flood’s Rebel God blog, which got the bee buzzing furiously again. In his post Derek is primarily concerned to refute a penal substitutionary reading of Isaiah 53. I think he is quite right to say that ‘this is not a picture of the satisfaction of the demands of justice’, but I’m not sure that this makes the word ‘penal’ redundant. There is at least a difference to note between God directly punishing Jesus in order to satisfy the demands of justice and Jesus being implicated in the direct punishment of Israel (in order to satisfy the demands of the Law). It seems to me that the best argument for a narratively limited and historically informed (that is a crucial qualification) doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross in anticipation of the punishment of Israel by the instrumentality of the besieging Roman armies, who crucified Jews willy nilly.
But with a previous post on putting the theological cart before the biblical horse in mind, it was this statement in an attached discussion with Josh Rowley that caught my attention:
I am convinced that a theological interpretation of the Bible needs to prioritize a Christological reading over a historical-critical one, that is: the way the OT is read by the authors of the NT in the light of God’s self-revelation in Christ trumps the original intent of the OT author.
This makes us take a step or two back from the debate. It raises a couple of pertinent questions.
First, are we sure that we have understood the New Testament passage correctly? Just as it is possible to read the Old Testament in the light of the New, it is also possible to read the New Testament in the light of subsequent theological developments that are more or less disinterested in the original meaning of the text.
Then secondly, does the hermeneutical principle of prophetic ‘fulfilment’ have to prioritize the (supposedly) divergent New Testament understanding over the ‘original intent of the OT author’? Why do we so willingly accept that canonical unity must take precedence over exegetical integrity? Why do we have so little confidence in the internal coherence of Scripture? Why do we offer so little resistance to the assumption that our theology may be at odds with the biblical texts? Why do we as Protestants or post-Protestants not have the courage of our biblical convictions?
I would argue, in the first place, that the need to prioritize a christological reading here arises largely from the fact that both Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and New Testament citations of and allusions to the passage have been misunderstood; that this misunderstanding is the consequence of reading scripture from a post-biblical perspective, burdened by the weight of Christendom theologies; and that the issue of fulfilment is much less problematic when Scripture is read on its own terms as a historically constrained Jewish narrative.
Derek insists, in fact, that a theologically contentious verse such as Isaiah 53:10 has to be read in context, as part of a larger narrative – otherwise, it is very easy simply to ‘plug in our preconceived doctrinal understandings onto the words and phrases we see in those little verse snippets’. That’s true. But in this instance (as in most instances) the narrative from which the statement that it was the ‘will of the Lord to crush him’ has been snipped concerns the restoration of Israel following the devastation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the exile. For some reason that contextual detail gets ignored. Flood writes, ‘Though the people thought the servant deserved to suffer, really we were the sinful ones.’ But the servant suffers because of the transgressions of ‘my people’ (Is. 53:8); and it is correspondingly Israel that is healed by this ‘atonement’. The passage at no point suggests that the servant suffers because of the sins of the nations. The nations are cast only as spectators at the drama of Israel’s salvation.
Now the question is whether the New Testament respects or disregards the constraints of this story. These, I think, are the main texts to consider:
1. When Matthew claims that Jesus’ healing of the sick and demon-possessed constituted a fulfilment of Isaiah 53:4 (‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’), there is no reason to suppose that he has universalized the narrative framework (Matt. 8:17). Sickness, of course, is common to all humanity, but in the biblical setting we should recall that sickness is a consequence of Israel’s failure to keep the covenant (cf. Deut. 28:20-22). So when Jesus heals the sick, it is to be understood as a sign that the curse is being lifted, that forgiveness is being offered to Israel – this is the point of the story of the forgiveness and then healing of the paralytic (Matt. 9:1-8). It is this covenantal argument, rather than any post-biblical hindsight, that provides the proper theological frame for the interpretation both of Isaiah 53:4 and Matthew 8:17.
2. If Jesus’ statement that the Son of man ‘should suffer many things and be treated with contempt’ (Mark 9:12) alludes to Isaiah 53:34, all he has done is fuse two narratives about the redemptive value of the suffering of a righteous individual or group within Israel. Daniel’s figure ‘like a son of man’ stands for the righteous in Israel against whom the pagan oppressor makes war, but who remain faithful to the covenant (Dan. 7:13-27).
3. Philip no doubt understood Isaiah 53:7-8 as a fitting description of Jesus’ quiescent suffering in the face of injustice, but I’m not sure that this prioritizes a christological reading over the original sense of the text (Acts 8:32-35). At most we have analogous narratives: Philip interprets the injustice of Jesus’ suffering as a consequence of Israel’s transgressions in the light of Isaiah 53.
4. Paul thinks of himself as an apostle who will make known the suffering and vindication of Jesus to the nations according to the terms of Isaiah 52:15: ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand’ (Rom. 15:21). But this is still the story of one who ‘became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness’ (Rom. 15:8) – that is, it is the story of the reconciliation of rebellious Israel through the vicarious suffering of a righteous martyr.
5. Paul also speaks on behalf of Israel – as part of an argument about the advantages and prospects that the Jews still had prior to AD 70 – when he says, presumably with Isaiah 53:5-6 in mind, that Jesus ‘was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Rom. 4:25).
6. Finally, 1 Peter 2:22-25 uses the language of Isaiah 53 to account for Jesus’ willing suffering: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.’ But the Letter is almost certainly – despite Ramsey Michael’s rather perverse argument to the contrary1 – addressed to Jewish Christians, ‘elect exiles of the dispersion’ (1 Pet. 1:1), who naturally identify themselves as errant Israel, healed through the wounds of Jesus.
Isaiah 53 is a frustratingly difficult passage to interpret from a historical-critical point of view, but that doesn’t license us to abandon the historical perspective altogether in favour of some poetic or abstractly theological reading. It remains lodged firmly in a story about the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem; and even if we feel that it transcends its immediate historical context, there is no basis – historical, biblical, poetic, theological or otherwise – for removing it from an intrinsically Jewish narrative about the salvation specifically of Israel in the sight of the nations. It is on that premise that we must address questions both of how it is ‘fulfilled’ in the New Testament and of to what extent it may be used as the foundation for a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.
(Further discussion can be found under a post on Penal substitution and the OT narrative of judgment on Derek’s blog.)
- 1. J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary (1988), xlv-xlvi.