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.