Mapping the hermeneutics of penal substitution: McGrath, Bird and me

Read time: 4 minutes

Yesterday’s post about Simon Gathercole’s little book defending substitution as an integral part of Paul’s understanding of the atonement got a brief mention in a piece by James McGrath along with a post by Mike Bird on the same subject. Here I attempt to map the three positions represented by McGrath, Bird and me, grossly oversimplifying in all three cases—people are always more complicated than the positions that they sometimes appear to take.

McGrath blogs on the “Progressive Christian” channel at Patheos. He thinks that the doctrine of penal substitution is deeply “problematic as a contemporary theological viewpoint” and that this “is a matter that no amount of prooftexting can address”.

Bird blogs on the “Evangelical” channel at Patheos. In the post cited by McGrath he takes issue with a Missio Alliance article in which William Walker recommends a “debt forgiveness” model for the atonement against a penal substitionary or payment model. Bird defends the traditional position on theological and biblical grounds, citing texts which in his view demonstrate that the cross is “satisfaction”, “penal” and “substitutionary”.

Both positions, it seems to me, assume that there must be a general, coherent theory of the atonement. They belong on the theological side of the chart. Both appeal to scripture for support, and there is plenty of scope for detailed exegetical discussion on both sides. But broadly speaking, it is clear that progressives are much less comfortable with a formulation of the doctrine that conflicts with modern values. One commenter on McGrath’s post writes: “The idea that the death of somebody or something else has any effect on whether I should be punished for an unrelated crime doesn’t make any sense to me.” That is a typically “progressive” starting point. Traditionalists, to the contrary, are more likely to find satisfaction in affirming beliefs that don’t make sense, just to be awkward. That would be the caricature at least—I’m not saying that it is true of Mike Bird.

It also appears that progressives are much more likely to make bad jokes about penile substitution. By my reckoning McGrath’s post and comments (including comments on Facebook) had a total of 11 punning references, compared to none for Bird.

The narrative-historical approach asks how first century Jews and early Christians understood the stories that they told about their historical experience. It doggedly resists the pressure to extract from these stories universalised theories of the atonement that transcend the original historical perspective. It belongs firmly in the bottom-right quadrant. The Bible means what it meant. But it recognises that the narrative continues throughout the historical existence of the people of God into the modern and postmodern eras, raising all sorts of questions and furnishing all sorts of answers, not all of them satisfactory, along the way.

The popular debate about penal substitutionary atonement has been carried out almost entirely on the theological side of the chart between progressives and traditionalists. There has been some attempt to connect with the work of N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, but people seem to have a hard time getting the point. Walker thinks that the “expansion of the good news” entailed in these scholars’ accounts of the kingdom “is not fundamentally corrective enough”. It has not yet rid us of a doctrine that is felt to be incompatible with the basic modern theological prerequisite, which is that God must be experienced by individuals as love and grace.

But Walker can’t have his cake and eat it. Narrative-historical readings of the New Testament by definition have to work with the Jewish-apocalyptic worldview which frames the whole narrative and controls the theological content. We can’t take some supposed “expansive” definition of kingdom (which has probably been misunderstood anyway), wed it to a liberal post-enlightenment ethic, and pretend that it solves all our problems. Whatever the death of Jesus means in the New Testament, it is inseparable from a narrative that has in view the wrath of God, certainly as the historical destruction of the nation, and arguably as the overthrow of an idolatrous civilization.

Thanks, Andrew.  This helped shed some light on my question about the other article.

The only thing this article is missing is an infographic on how much more likely progressives are to make the penile substitution jokes.

Wow!  It’s very convincing when you see them side by side like that.  I wonder where they are on the whole “let Angel’s prostate fall” issue.  Maybe another study.

Margareth Rose | Thu, 06/18/2015 - 18:38 | Permalink

Your blog articles are really beginning to make a lot of sense now…I can see your point is not just the church looking afresh at the Scriptures they have always read, and investing them with what we think it means, but looking at them again with new eyes whilst respecting the earlier communities that wrote them. The aim is to to uncover through history how they understood these stories then, and why did they write what they did - and we have to realize that it is going to be a process that will shake things up a little bit as we may have assumes a lot of thing; debates are going to be the norm (argument for the sake of heaven is good for the soul that is still alive) but will prove later to be a blessing in the form of a far more robust, vibrant if not smaller church. We may have a church that has a far greater sense of identity that is solid — able to be relevant as time advances even as we go through our current crisis, while holding true to what were the core guiding principles/storyline of the previous communities of God’s people while telling its own story now for the future generation .

It may get us out of this quagmire of a new and strange form of anti-semitism that has gripped the church too (part of it anyway)…we cannot have just the New Testament in high regard without realizing that it did not arise in a vacuum. We do read it catching a glimpse of only a minute part of Paul’s worldview that whilst thoroughly Hebrew was also in contact with the Gentile world. He probably not become a “christian” as we normally see it — but rather came into an understanding as where Jesus as Messiah fit in a Jewish scheme of life.

We will have to come to terms as to where we fit in with a people who have also gone through a tumultous journey alongside us — namely the modern day Jewish people and where do they stand if we read things again with new eyes. If we do acknowledge it, their survival has been nothing short of miraculous.

So chances are if we wanted to know about atonement a little humility would be in order to learn from Second Temple Judaism (probably from Jewish professors well equipped in that field — why not?) - not that there was one form (there were many)…how did they “do” their theology? If “Aha” moments occur we might see the light and be surprised that it may blow a lot of debates we already have had in the church out of the water as so much waste of time and energy.

I don’t know about this…correct me if I am wrong.

I sometimes have to go over a piece twice to get the hang of things — but I do have a lot to think over every time I get to this site. It is an enjoyable exercise too.

Margareth, thank you for this. Very well stated.

I have to admit, though, that I’m in two minds about the implications for how we see modern Israel. On the one hand, we are gaining a much greater respect for the Jewishness of the New Testament narrative. On the other, I don’t think that the New Testament has anything to say about the fate of Israel following the “judgment” of AD 70. That is a consequence of limited historical perspective. Paul hoped that if the Jews failed to repent and believe before judgment, they would repent and believe after judgment. But he did not live to see the outcome. That perspective gives no grounds for anti-semitism, but it leaves our modern questions about the fate of Israel unanswered—and perhaps, from a New Testament point of view, unanswerable.

Concerning modern Israel I am still a bit puzzled, but I think it could still be a vehicle within real time history to convey God’s faithfulness to Israel to win the day. The number of Jewish people today coming to believe in Jesus as Messiah is growing and is a cause for alarm/concern by Orthodox Jews as well as other groups within Israel that see such a thing as a form of betrayal to their identity.

Messianic Jews are really going for it — solidifying their identity, debating, trying to get their own scholarly take (under a Jewish approach/context) as to why the 1st century Jews believed in Jesus as Messiah and worshipped him. This bolsters their claim that it does not exclude them from being thoroughly Jewish in any way.

The Old Testament and the New Testament highlight the fact that the underpinning key issue in both Testaments is God’s faithfulness — rather than than Israel’s faithfulness which fails again and again in their story. The Messiah is given to His people when the times are fulfilled according to God’s faithfulness despite their failings.

What Paul glimpsed was that the era foretold by Isaiah had begun - when not just Israel was to be part of the dawning Messianic Age that had been inaugurated by Messiah in his pre-resurrection time on earth (he had been warned by Jesus in a vision that many of the “tribe” would spurn the invitation later and severely persecute him) — but that Gentiles were the newcomers to the table — catching up on that promise to Abraham of his seed becoming a blessing to all the earth. And more so, God was calling him to be on the cutting edge of that new unheard-of-task given to a Pharisee to draw in Gentiles into the Messianic Kingdom. Not that there weren’t any Gentiles drawn to the God of Israel already to synagogues already at the time…

The Damascus experience I believe was a call for him to get on board with the new direction/state of affairs (still within the boundaries of Judaism) — rather like Joseph’s warning dream to go along and take Mary as his bride so as to fit in with where God was headed in His plans with the Messianic age.

That is why he mentions Israel’s stumbling as not a complete being-out-of-the-race moment or a break in in the story, but as rather as a setback already foretold. But finish they would one day, when the “fulness of Gentiles had come in.”

I don’t think it is unusual that God would work in today’s world to reach out to them again — (remember our hermeneutic strength is a historic leg!) even through secular governments to achieve his will, just as earlier prophets saw God’s outworkings in history despite terrible defeats and setbacks to the Kingdom of Israel. 

The Bible is a very ethno-centric book/story…and the silence of the New Testament should not make us think God has entirely cast Israel away. Rather we should wonder where, and in what way they would come in again into the picture to fulfil Isaiah’s vision of God’s faithfulness in their restoration and end of exile.

If we understand that God broke up with his Covenant people we have a huge dilemma (of theodicy) on our hands concerning why he should be faithful too to the Church/Gentiles at large considering our numerous unfaithful episodes…making our argument more or less not unlike Islam’s supersessionist arguments towards both Jews and Christians.

The New Covenant promised appears to be the same one, to the same people - this time written on hearts, not tablets of stone.

Remember we are now in crisis mode i.e. the fall of Western Christendom — can we too still talk about God’s faithfulness to us as his people (i.e. we, the Gentiles who have put our Hope in the Jewish Messiah) considering the ruin we see all around us.

Should we not sit up and wonder at what is happening among Jews today — why are they suddenly recognizing Jesus not just as Messiah now (for M. Jews) but as one of them again (for those who don’t acknowledge him as Messiah but as non believing New Testament scholars)? Why now? What happened to cause it? What is our role in it to facilitate things? To bring healing over what happenened in the past is part of our task. 

He is not just our Messiah even today —  unless he is Messiah first to his own people today, just as he was considered to be Messiah to his own people in the past, long before any Gentiles had come on board.

Our hermeneutic is still apparently still writing itself out.

Sorry for any grammatical errors…Am on steroids due to relieve severe laryngitis and my brain is quite fuzzy (it explains the length of this commentary!)

Hi Margareth,

Thanks for putting all those thoughts down!

I think the question of how God can be faithful to His promises to Israel when so many of them fail to enter the kingdom is a critical concern of Romans, and Romans 9 especially.  While obviously Paul wishes all Israel would be saved in the coming eschatological crisis of his time, he also recognizes that not all Israel are of Israel.  It’s always been the faithful, even in the OT.