Penal substitutionary atonement and narrative theology

I can recommend an astute essay on the current state of the atonement debate by Jason Hood, who is scholar in residence at Christ UMC in Memphis.1 He makes two general points.

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.

  • 1Hood, J.B., ‘The Cross in the New Testament: Two Theses in Conversation with Recent Literature (2000-2007)’, Westminster Theological Journal 71 (2009), 281-295.

Thanks for the interaction Andrew. “But I would question, in two respects, whether Hood has fully appreciated the significance of his observations.” You and me both! Lots to say about the theses and their implications…and I definitely don’t understand it all.

But ignorance is bliss and doesn’t stop conversation!

Two thoughts here:

I’m not sure I grasp the radical disjunction btwn narrative and systematics. (1) But what if we take systematic theology as a particular type of commentary on what happened in narrative theology (if by latter you mean something tied to redemptive history)? I ask in part because I’m going to be working on Summaries of Israel’s Story (major part of my dissertation, just finished) for papers this fall. I haven’t thought much about how such stories relate to systematics/dogmatics; perhaps I should do so. But I’d rather not take my supervisor’s path (Mike Bird, journeying from his NT post to systematics).

(2) On your second point, I’m not following why would be “circumscribed” temporally.

From a narrative perspective I’m interested in tying Jesus’s suffering not just forward but bkwd, to the sort of redemptive suffering Israel and her characters exhibit. Boaz sacrifices (somewhat) for Ruth; Judah and Jechoniah are both rewarded for putting themselves on the line (see the sweept of Gen 37-50 for the former, particularly the willingness to self-sacrifice on Judah’s part with his father/Joseph as testament to change from Gen 38; for latter see esp Josephus’s description of the way in which Jechoniah offers himself in place of the whole city, War 6.2.1 I think, and also mentioned elsewhere) for others (interesting that both are cited in Matthew 1:2, 11 with the annotation “and his brothers”), and other characters (Esther) and teaching in wisdom lit. See on the latter Waltke’s killer definition of righteousness in Proverbs, “disadvantaging oneself for the sake of the community”…(which acc to some reports Waltke lived out this week!) It’d also be interesting to tie in Jewish thought on messianic woes/birth pangs of kingdom; on a progressive or “overlap” view of kingdom, surely messianic woes (this time by those in Messiah; so Col 1:24, Apocalypse, maybe Rom 8:17, 35-36, etc) are still necessary.

In that sense I’d be inclined to think that narrative theology doesn’t “circumscribe” but inherently expands the possibilities for redemptive suffering, esp if we take redemption in its full, biblical sense, and esp if we move bkwd in the narrative as well as forward.

Jason, thanks for the quick response (how did you do that?).

But what if we take systematic theology as a particular type of commentary on what happened in narrative theology (if by latter you mean something tied to redemptive history)?

I’ll admit to having a lively prejudice against systematic/dogmatic theology. It is probably irrational to a large degree, but my basic problem is the damage that it appears to have done to our reading of the texts. There is no absolute disjunction between narrative theology and systematics, but it seems to me that even if systematics starts out as ‘commentary’ (a nice metaphor but to my mind euphemistic), it very easily takes on a life of its own, evolves in an alien cultural environment, and then insists on reading scripture on its own mutated terms.

It is, of course, always possible and perhaps necessary in principle to extract theological material from scripture and in some way rationalize it. But at the moment, I think the key task we face as theologians is not to take systematics for granted, to quarantine it, to cage it up and tell it to mind its own business for the time being, while we pursue the imaginative task of recovering scripture as a narrative engaged with history. This is not, in fact, simply a matter of ‘redemptive history’ – that seems to me already to reflect a dogmatic reorganization of the material in the interests of supporting the notion of the church as a saving institution. Arguably, at least, covenant has more to do with vocation than with salvation.

On your second point, I’m not following why would be “circumscribed” temporally.

I fully agree that Jesus’ suffering has its antecedents. You highlight some interesting examples; I would add particularly the stories of the Maccabean martyrs (eg. 2 Macc. 7:37-38; 4 Macc. 17:20-22). My argument in The Coming of the Son of Man (and elsewhere), however, is that the New Testament thinks specifically of the church sent out to confront the pagan world as participating in the pattern of Jesus’ suffering – not in redemptive terms (ie. not as an atonement), but as the necessary means by which the people of God would, first, survive the judgment of AD 70 and, secondly, overcome pagan opposition to the point that Christ would be concretely acknowledged as sovereign over the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. In other words, I think, messianic suffering in the pattern of Jesus (you aptly cite Col. 1:24 and Rom. 8) is understood quite realistically and practically as the means by which the people of God would make the difficult transition from being a localized Jewish nation subject to empire to being an ecumenical (that is, empire-wide, oikoumenē-wide) third race.

So I agree that narrative theology greatly expands the theological potential of the redemptive suffering motif. But it seems to me that at the same time it confines that potential to the story of the people of God between Jesus and Constantine. So what are we to do with a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement that has been formulated largely from the perspective of Western Christendom with its rationalist and universalizing presumptions? And what does it mean for us to relate to this redemptive, transformative episode diachronically rather than synchronically?

Hi Andrew,

Can you help me by clarifying? Why exactly limit relevance from Jesus to Constantine? If they had seen substantial links back to Macc and beyond to exile (Daniel and 3 lads are model for all future suffering); Hebrews 11:25-26 draws on the mistreatment and reproach Moses endured to be identified w/ people of God; perhaps a forwarlooking, open-ended, universal approach is not too strange an adaptation?

Moreover, if one focuses solely on Rome, one misses important missional emphases in early Christianity (a la Phil Jenkins, Lost History of Christianity). Your readers know from text criticism alone, Christianity also went east—Armenia was the first nation to be so “conquered”, not Rome; churches east of Roman control were common in the early 2nd century.  Then there’s Ireland, which was never under Roman control yet still a target.

That may be sidebar and not central to what you’re saying, I can’t tell, but I’d love to know why we would limit to Constantine.  Granted there is an oikoumene focus in NT, I don’t think we can ever say they expected some limit thereupon:  see Acts 2:9.  Clearly other Empires were in play, even if they don’t dominate the canon.  Rev 21:24 seems more universal than simply the Roman Empire.

I’m sympathetic to asking how we do theology.  I’d say however that redemptive history as I understand it, and as I usually see it played out, seems to be simply the focus on how salvation over the course of history.  When Scripture old and new was written, the people of God seem to put a great deal of emphasis on how redemption happened.  I’m hard pressed to think of a summary of Israel’s story that doesn’t involve redemption (Heb 11, Acts 7 and 13, Matt 1:1ff, Mark 12:1ff, Judith 5, Neh 9, Pss 78, 105, 106, 135, Josh 24, 1 Chr 1-9, etc.)  In Scripture covenant seems to be treated in those terms as much as ”vocation” (assuming we mean the same thing by those terms, which is not certain…I’m assuming you mean task of covenant people particularly and humanity more generally).

I also would suggest that renewal of humanity in redemption is renewal to vocation (Ezekiel 37; Eph 2:8-10, etc).

Here’s how I see it…

The tradition of redemptive suffering that you have described culminates in the Jewish imagination in an archetypal conflict with a pagan ruler who seeks to destroy the ‘saints of the Most High’. That is Antiochus Epiphanes and the conflict is described symbolically in Daniel 7-12 and in the Maccabean writings. My view is that Jesus uses the Son of man story to focus this tradition upon himself but also upon his followers in order to make sense of their suffering. The giving of kingdom, etc., to the Son of man becomes a symbol for the assurance that this faithful suffering community, which finds its identity in Jesus, will not be overwhelmed by the pagan aggressor but will be vindicated – and indeed will come to share in the reign with Jesus. The story is actually more complex than this, involving apostasy on the part of Israel and the idea that the people are subject to the wrath of God, which is why it can be used both from Jesus perspective in his clash with ‘apostate’ Israel and from Paul’s perspective in his clash with paganism.

Admittedly the historical picture is more complicated than the focus on Rome suggests. But the New Testament is dominated by the preaching of the gospel across the oikoumenē. My view is that most clearly in his preaching on the Areopagus in Acts 17 and in Romans Paul proclaims a gospel that announces judgment on the Greek-Roman world and the whole tradition of classical paganism. This clash between the proclamation that Jesus has been given the name which is above every name and the whole pagan worldview naturally lent itself to apocalyptic expression. What Paul teaches is that the emerging community of Jesus’ ‘brethren’, who are called to be conformed to his likeness, will gain a concrete victory over their enemies because of their willingness to endure suffering according to the pattern of Christ’s faithfulness.

The reason why I think it is misleading to extend this pattern beyond the horizon of the defeat of Greek-Roman paganism in the name of Jesus is that the New Testament presents Jesus’ death and resurrection as a final and definitive defeat of the hostile pagan nations, the empires, that sought to destroy the people of God. The judgment on Rome in Revelation 18-19 is the climax to this hope, marked by the chaining of the satanic power that inspired this imperial aggression and the vindication of the martyrs (Rev. 20:4-6). This is not to say that the church has not experienced similar conflicts outside the oikoumenē and after Constantine; it is just that such analogous situations are beyond the purview of the New Testament.

By the time we reach Revelation 21:4 it seems to me that John has taken us far beyond the horizon of judgment on Rome and the public recognition that God has made Jesus sovereign over the oikoumenē. The thousand years pushes the final renewal of all things into a remote, perhaps abstract, and unthinkable future.

My point about redemptive history and vocation is that salvation is not an end in itself. Yes, redemption is an issue right through the story because Israel kept getting into trouble, one way or another. But Israel was saved, I think, in order to fulfil its fundamental calling to be, actually and symbolically, God’s new creation in the midst of nations and cultures that have repudiated the Creator. Abraham was not saved. He was called to be blessed, to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the new land that God would give him. Salvation, including the decisive and transformative salvation of the people of God through the faithfulness, the redemptive suffering, of Jesus, is secondary to that purpose.

Thanks for the dialogue Andrew, it’s really stimulating.  I think we largely agree on the last part inasmuch as I’d see redemption as restoration to vocation (which is why we aren’t fully adopted until we have resurrection bodies, Rom 8:23, and are in renewed creation which no longer groans).  Abraham seems to be ”saved”:  I don’t separate vocation from salvation; Abe’s obtaining the promise (Sir 44:19, Abe’s perseverance; and Heb 7:15, probably provisionally obtained in his life w/ Isaac and the sojourn and blessings in Canaan) was part of his salvation.  So, too, was the fact that he was chosen from the nations “apart from God” and brought into covenant relationship with YHWH (4 Esd 3:12-15, Neh 9:7-8, etc).

“analogous situations are beyond the purview of the New Testament.”  I simply think the presence of those from outside the Empire in Acts, the universal emphasis in (among other passages) Matt 28:18-20, etc. argues against limits.  Every Roman knew that much of the world existed beyond Rome’s borders.  Just because the story takes place (almost entirely) in oikoumene does not limit its relevance beyond borders.  If a Parthian Jew or Babylonian Jew (there were such in mid first century) asked Paul and John if their teaching applied in their sphere, what would the apostles say?

Jason, if you don’t mind me pushing a bit further on this…

1. I would locate Romans 8:23 in the suffering Son of man community narrative: those who are conformed to the image of the Son who suffered and was vindicated are adopted as sons specifically like him, they share in a ‘first resurrection’ of the martyrs (Rev. 20:5-6), etc. This coincides in effect with the defeat of Roman paganism as the salient oppressor of the people of God. Creation and the rest of us then have to wait for a final resurrection and the renewal of all things.

2. Still not sure I see how Abraham can be said to have been ‘saved’ in the basic sense, which prevails in the NT, of being saved from judgment or from the wrath of God. He is chosen, but that is not characterized biblically as a salvation. He certainly had faith, but the issue there is the future of the descendants that were promised to him. It is only once we get to Egypt that Israel comes to be in need of salvation, though I would say that it is then a crucial matter that the people need to be redeemed before they find the fulfilment of the promise in the land.

3. I guess I would go along with the thought that the presence of Jews from outside the empire in Acts 2 points to the potential for the extension of this kingdom movement beyond the boundaries of the oikoumenē. But this remains only latent within the New Testament’s outlook.

4. I disagree that Matthew 28:18-20 looks beyond Rome (see also ‘The not so Great Commission’). The reference to the authority that has been given to the vindicated Jesus alludes to Daniel 7 and, therefore, I think, invokes the narrative of the clash with paganism, judgment on apostate Israel, and the renewal of the covenant people. The reference to the ‘end of the age’ also sets temporal (and by implication geographical) limits to their mission – I would associate the ‘end of the age’ in this context probably with AD 70, though Jesus may have in view the eventual vindication of the suffering church in the pagan world.

5. Undoubtedly the good news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead would have been relevant to Jews in Parthia and Babylon, because it is the announcement in principle that their God is about to demonstrate his sovereignty first with respect to Israel, then with respect to the kings of the earth. Still, the focus of Jewish apocalypticism, of New Testament apocalyptic texts, and of Paul’s apostolic mission is on the Greek-Roman world. Moreover, the fact is, historically, that it was this clash and ultimately the marriage of the Jewish-Christian narrative and Greek-Roman thought that came to define the dominant forms of Christianity for the next two thousand years. From a historical (and theological) the emergence of the church into the oikoumenē proved to be of massive significance for the identity of the people of God in Christ.

Would there be no takeaway expected from (1)?  "Creation and the rest of us then have to wait for a final resurrection and the renewal of all things."  I of course agree!  But it seems to me to be a waiting modeled on the way in which they themselves waited, w/ the same reward (Rom 8:23 applies to us).

(2)  Abe was saved from the judgment due humanity given rebellion in Gen 3-11 (already actualized once in Flood).

(3)  Those outside oikoumene are receiving eschatological benefits in Acts 2. 

(4)  Have you considered the rather universal dimension of Matt's bookends in 1:1 and 28:20?  "biblos geneseos" (literally, "book of Genesis")?  These inform the sort of conclusion expected at end of age, i.e., full recreation, palingenesia (Matt 19:28ff).  Not just a Roman end/beginning; cosmic, global end and beginning are in view in Matt 1 and 28.

I guess I would say that the accidental ties to oikoumene, although they are very strong as you point out and certainly shape the texts (esp apocalyptic), don't determine the implications of what's taught in those texts.

1. Well, my thesis is that what the community addressed in Romans 8 was waiting for is not the same as what the church is waiting for today. Romans 8 has in view the fulfilment of the particular Christlike experience – they will be ‘fellow heirs with Christ’, his brothers, conformed to his image, provided that they suffer with him in order to be glorified with him (8:17). The ‘we’ of 8:23 refers not to the universal church throughout history but, in effect, to the suffering community in the early centuries that was called specifically to replicate Jesus’ distinctiveness, self-denying, cross-bearing faithfulness. To that ‘martyr’ community was held out the promise of being vindicated, glorified, with Jesus, of being raised to reign with him at the right hand of the Father in heaven in advance of the final resurrection and renewal of all things.

The corollary to that would be that subsequent generations do not go to heaven when they die, because they have not participated in the suffering and vindication of Jesus (there may be exceptions but they would be beyond the purview of the NT); rather they die and are raised again at the final judgment to answer for what they have done.

2. Do you have any evidence for the view that Abraham was understood to have been ‘saved from the judgment due humanity’? Or is it just an inference? It just doesn’t seem to me to be the point of the story. As you say, the flood is in the past. All I can see is that he is called be a ‘new creation’ – to be blessed and be a blessing. Salvation becomes an issue subsequently when this new creation project gets into trouble.

3. Certainly, Jews from outside the oikoumenē shared in the eschatological benefits of the Spirit poured out on the community of Jesus’ followers. They shared in the covenant renewal of Israel and in the prophetic witness to judgment on the nation (Acts 2:19-21). Acts 2 has in view not the challenge that Christ represented to the pagan world but the fact of impending judgment on Jerusalem – it tells an intrinsically Jewish story. As the NT story develops, however, the story that is told is worked out in a rather focused fashion, it seems to me, not least in Acts, in relation to the fate of the oikoumenē.

4. It would be fully in keeping with OT prophecy to regard the renewal of Israel as ‘new creation’ (cf. Is. 65:17-25). Josephus uses the word palingenesia to describe the restoration of Israel following the exile (Ant. 11.2.9). The resurrection admittedly gives this a cosmic dimension and potential, but this does necessarily mean that this potential is immediately realized in the experience of the early church – or better, that the early church did not have to deal with a more pressing agenda, namely the confrontation with paganism, which it interpreted particularly by means an apocalyptic narrative drawn from the archetypal clash with the pagan ruler Antiochus Epiphanes.

Other than speculative nonsense I can't think of a better term to describe the musings of you people. For "It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13 FYI. A change has been made to the law of God by Jesus' crucifixion which has made the loss of his life by bloodshed directly accountable to God. The man who refuses to to confess to God that he is sorry Jesus' life has been lost by bloodshed commits a sin for which there is no forgiveness possible. Jesus' crucifixion was not him dying in your place nor anyone else's. The actual purpose for his death was to perfect a unilateral sin to reconcile each man to God's set purpose of obedience according to law.

Teddy, you sure know about nonsense.

The purpose of Jesus' death was to perfect a unilateral sin? Does that have a meaning in english?

So people have to be sorry that Jesus died by bloodshed? They just can't intellectually assent to the premise? How sorry to they have to be? Really sorry? Really really sorry? Crying? Flog themsleves sorry? Is there a sorry-meter to which I can hook myself up, like Scientology?

Why can't God just forgive people? That would be nice.