The first – a matter of systematic theology – is that despite the sustained scholarly and sub-scholarly onslaught against the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement in recent years the idea remains intact. This is largely because it can be shown to be solidly underpinned by the redemptive-historical narrative on which the New Testament relies:
The background of covenant disobedience and curses within the narrative of covenant, exile and judgment, and redemption suggests that an emphasis on covenant and Israel’s story buttresses rather than repudiates penal substitution. (283)
The second point addresses the cross from the perspective of a practical theology: ‘the NT’s message of the cross may be variously identified as imitatio Christi, the way of the cross, cross-bearing, suffering for the sake of Christ and his kingdom, or following in the sacrificial footsteps of Christ’ (286). Hood makes the crucial, and widely disregarded, distinction between common suffering and missional suffering – ‘the latter term being reserved for suffering that incarnates and actualizes the self-sacrifice Jesus requires of any who would follow him, the suffering that endures discomfort or duress for his sake and the sake of his kingdom’ (287). Hood insists that this ‘cross-shaped missional suffering in the pattern of Jesus’ has to be regarded as a central component in our understanding of the cross.
Both these ‘theses’ seem to me spot on as far as they go. On the one hand, there are significant moral, philosophical and theological – and to a degree biblical – problems with the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as it is commonly taught and preached, but this is not sufficient ground for eliminating it from emerging or post-Christendom theologies. On the other, concerns about the risk of ‘missional suffering’ being misconceived either redemptively or masochistically should not be allowed to obscure the very close – indeed, essential – connection between the suffering and death of Jesus and the suffering and death of those called to follow him along the difficult and narrow path leading to life.
But I would question, in two respects, whether Hood has fully appreciated the significance of his observations.
First, if the idea of penal substitutionary atonement has been saved by appeal to the redemptive-historical narrative, I think we must acknowledge an important consequence: it is thus saved from systematic or dogmatic theology (we might say from Brian McLaren’s Greco-Roman paradigm) for a narrative theology. The idea has been reclaimed by a narrative theology that understands and respects the contingencies and limitations of history: it can no longer, therefore, simply and uncritically be asserted as a matter of general and abstract theological significance. Jesus suffered the punishment for Israel’s sins. That is the price that must be paid for saving the ‘doctrine’, at least in the short term. For now at least, we cannot have both penal substitutionary atonement and the systematic appropriation of it as part of a Christendom or modern systematic theology.
Secondly, at least as far as biblical interpretation goes, the practical theological argument about the imitation of Christ’s suffering is also subject to narrative-historical constraints. The suffering of Jesus resulting from his clash with official Judaism and official paganism specifically anticipates the suffering of the early church in its own clash with antagonistic powers, first within the Palestinian setting, then within the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. Hood correctly restricts the suffering that is described in the New Testament as an ‘imitation of Christ’ to the specific scope of participation in his mission; but a narrative theology, I would argue, also circumscribes this suffering temporally: it is the suffering of the community called to overcome Rome for the sake of the realization of Christ’s lordship in the ancient world.
In both cases the narrative continues beyond the horizon of the New Testament, and both issues may come around again for consideration. We may ask whether the essentially Jewish-covenantal thought of penal substitutionary atonement might be transposed into a creational or cosmic key following the concrete historical salvation of the people of God. We may also allow that there have been ‘post-eschatological’ periods of intense missional suffering that warrant classifying – perhaps by way of analogy – with the suffering of the early ‘Son of man’ community. But we need to grasp first just how powerful and disruptive a narrative theology can be if we are going to appeal to it for help in interpreting, defending and sometimes rescuing traditional doctrines.