Wednesday 2 August 2006

Ten propositions on penal substitution

by Kim Fabricius

1. The doctrine of penal substitution is a theory – or, better, a model – of the atonement, an extended metaphor that narrates how God reconciled the world to himself in Christ. It is one model, but it is not the only model. Indeed, without radical recalibration, it is a theologically repugnant model with potentially vicious and disastrous social and political implications. For now, however, the point is this: while the church dogmatically defined its Christology at the Council of Chalcedon (451), it left its soteriology underdetermined. Therefore penal substitution – or any other doctrine of the atonement – should not be deployed as a litmus test of faith. Stanley Hauerwas says, “If you need a theory to worship Christ, worship your f---ing theory!”

2. The doctrine of penal substitution finds its classical expression in the theology of John Calvin (1509-64), and its definitive form in the theology of Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Today it is the lynchpin of “sound” conservative evangelical theology. In essence it says that the divine justice demands that humanity must “pay the price of sin,” and that the sentence is death; but that on the cross, Jesus identified himself with our sinful condition and died in our place, taking our sins to the grave with him.

3. It is usually claimed that the doctrine of penal substitution is Pauline (indeed, pre-Pauline), but Paul Fiddes observes that while Paul certainly thought of Christ’s death in terms of “penal suffering” (since “Christ is identified with the human situation under the divine penalty”), Calvin’s doctrine requires the additional idea of the “transfer of penalty” – and this theory “requires the addition of an Anselmian view of debt repayment and a Roman view of criminal law” (Calvin, remember, was trained as a lawyer!). A fortiori, to cite patristic evidence for the doctrine is anachronistic.

4. It is also usually claimed that St Anselm (c. 1033-1100) anticipated Calvin. Insofar as Calvin was dependent on Anselm’s view of debt repayment, and also added to Anselm’s feudal emphasis on the compensation of God’s honour his own late medieval emphasis on the expiation/propitiation of God’s wrath, this claim is true. However, in contrast to Calvin, for Anselm punishment and satisfaction are not equivalents but alternatives: aut poena aut satisfactio. For Anselm, Christ is not punished in our place; rather he makes satisfaction on our behalf. Therefore Anselm does not propound a doctrine of penal substitution. “Indeed, in the end,” according to David Bentley Hart, “Anselm merely restates the oldest patristic model of atonement of all: recapitulation.”

5. If the doctrine of penal substitution is to have any place in contemporary soteriology, there are certain elements of its demotic form that have to be eliminated: especially the notion that Jesus died to placate or appease God, or to secure a change in God’s attitude, or to settle a score or balance the books – and, indeed, the notion that the cross is itself a divine punishment. Rather than drive such a wedge a between God and Jesus, the cross expresses their unity and mutual love. It is not a matter of anger or honour but of rescue and risk, obedience and self-sacrifice, of putting the world (Anselm’s ordo universi) to rights and making it beautiful again. Penal substitution is often narrowly construed in individualistic terms, so that the cosmic scope of the atonement is marginalised or missed altogether.

6. I repeat: God does not punish Jesus, or even will the death of Jesus tout court. Herbert McCabe: “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human.... [T]he fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but what we have arranged.” That is, the crucifixion of Christ is not a penalty inflicted by God but the result of human sin, what inevitably happens when human sin encounters divine love. The cross, therefore, represents the wrath and judgement of God not directly but indirectly: God “gives us up” (παρέδωκεν, Romans 1:24, 26, 28) to the consequences of our destructive desires and actions, the human condition with which Christ identified himself in life, and to which God “gave him up” (παρέδωκεν, Romans 8:32), and to which we (with Judas) “betrayed”/“handed him over” (παρέδωκεν, Mark 3:19), in death.

7. Expounders of the doctrine of penal substitution often elide the juridical with the sacrificial. This is a mistake: the law court, not the temple, is the metaphorical setting of this model. Sacrifice, in the Bible, is never punitive; rather, it is a divine gift which, as human offering, becomes an expression of praise and gratitude. It is also a demonstration that reconciliation is a costly matter. But justice too, in the Bible, is not essentially punitive or retributive; it is restorative. If we continue to think of the atonement in forensic terms, it is essential to see it not as a legal transaction but as the transformation of a relationship. No cross without a resurrection, and no justification without sanctification – connections not always convincingly made by advocates of the doctrine of penal substitution.

8. Substitution – or representation? Did Jesus die “in our place,” or “on our behalf”? The debate is barren: both are true. They are, as Colin Gunton says, “correlative, not opposed concepts. Because Jesus is our substitute, it is also right to call him our representative.” But, again, it is in the court, not the cult, that substitution gets its metaphorical purchase: in Christ, the judge steps into the dock and is judged in our place (Barth). And, again, the theme is God’s liberating initiative, not the demands of the law. “The centre of the doctrine of the atonement is that Christ is not only our substitute – ‘instead of’ – but that by the substitution he frees us to be ourselves. Substitution is grace” (Gunton). And grace, not sin, runs the show.

9. Nevertheless, others – particularly students of René Girard – declare that penal substitution is an inherently violent model of the atonement; moreover, that it underwrites a culture of brutality and vengeance, ethically, socially and politically. Radical feminist theologians Joan Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker have gone so far as to speak of “divine child abuse,” and to argue that the model’s image of Jesus voluntarily submitting to innocent suffering contributes to the victimisation of women. Black liberation theologian James Cone links the model to defences of slavery and colonialism. Michael Northcott suggests that it is no coincidence that leaders of the Religious Right, for whom the model is so central, are such staunch advocates of the lex talionis, capital punishment and the war on terror. Yet even Miroslav Volf, hardly a conservative evangelical, argues that “the only way in which non-violence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment.”

10. I am unimpressed and unconvinced by – and find myself finally opposed to – the idea of divine violence. Spin it as retributive justice all you like, I am with James Alison: “Nothing that is dependent on vengeance can be called reconciliation.” How can one say such a thing? The doctrine of the Trinity! If opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa, and if the economic Trinity reveals the immanent Trinity (Rahner’s rule), how can the Spirit-anointed Jesus of Nazareth, who rejected the way of violence and vengeance, have a violent and vengeful Father? Not surprisingly, expositors of the doctrine of penal substitution usually isolate the cross not only from the resurrection of Jesus, but also from his life and witness. To rephrase I John 1:5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is non-violent, and in him is no violence at all” – not even the violence of retributive justice! The work of Moltmann and Jüngel is an indispensable resource for working out the soteriological implications of the inextricable relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity and a theologia crucis. A doctrine of substitution may be salvageable, and still serviceable – but not a doctrine of penal substitution.


PamBG said...

Thanks for this. Sounds like I need to read McCabe, who I never heard of until you mentioned him elsewhere (my MA thesis is going to focus on atonement theories).

I'm very much in agreement with Alison's thought in his article on the atonement( that..."God is propitiating us. In other words, who is the angry divinity in the story? We are. That is the purpose of the atonement. We are the angry divinity."

Will link to this article from my blog.

Anonymous said...

Good summary.

pax et bonum

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I find J. Denny Weaver's, The Nonviolent Atonement_ to be helpful. Influenced somewhat by Rene Girard (and more by being Mennonite), Weaver offers a narrative reconstruction of the Christus Victor motif.

Eleanor Burne-Jones said...

Will also link from my blog. I found the summary helpful.

I have been reading Jack Nelson Pallmeyer but don't feel you have to move that far from the basic creeds of Christianity in order to see the non-violence of God. Some other writers have stayed closer to traditional Christian doctrine, but I am not always convinced they have really engaged with the wider question of violence in the Bible.

Exist-Dissolve said...


Great post. I think you have eruditely explained some of the most central issues which lie at the heart of PSA theory, and the controversy which surrounds it.

I especially appreciate the references by which you established the points you make, drawing from a diverse range of theological perspectives.


Anonymous said...

There's also a response at The Boar's Head.

thegreatswalmi said...

thanks ben and kim...very helpful.
also, ben, where'd you find that graphic of the crucifix? love it!

Buck Eschaton said...

I think the idea of substitution is crucial. I think it's a given that God the Father isn't going to punish us for our sins or for our offense against His honor, or whatever PSA contends. Jesus is a substitute. He is a substitute for us. He is a substitute for our neighbor and for us. He stands between us, instead of directing our violence and sin at each other we direct at Jesus. He literally takes our sins away. I think the communion is Jesus offering us His broken body so that we don't have to break someone else's body. God is not violent, human beings are violent. Jesus takes on our wrath. Jesus was killed by our wrath, just like so many others.

Hammertime said...

The following quote perplexed me:

"Rather than drive such a wedge a between God and Jesus, the cross expresses their unity and mutual love. It is not a matter of anger or honour but of rescue and risk, obedience and self-sacrifice..."

How does the substitutionary atonement of Christ, God the Son, who submits in his role as the Son to the Father despite his equality to the Father, "drive such a wedge between God and Jesus"? It is not a matter of anger or honor, but of rescue, obedience and self-sacrifice (I'm not sure where risk comes from). It is a glorious thing, that Christ dies to save sinners, of whom I am chief.

If there is no remission of sins without the shedding of blood, how can we claim that "Sacrifice, in the Bible, is never punitive; rather, it is a divine gift which, as human offering, becomes an expression of praise and gratitude." My brief review of OT sacrifice flies in the face of such an assertion. Levitical commands for sin offering involve the sacrifice, then the forgiveness, not a thankful slaughter of an animal borne of forgiveness. Hosea 8:13 reflects that the sacrifices are rejected, and thus Israel will be punished for her sins.

Are there sacrifices that are not for sin? Yes. However, Christ was given as a propitiation for our sins. I'm not sure who is making PSA a "litmus test of faith", since it is godliness borne of faith in Christ that is evidence (not theology), but the substitutionary atonement of Christ is a key element of soteriology. It wasn't invented by Calvin or Anselm - it is evidenced in the earliest church fathers, to include Justin, Irenaeus and Augustine (reflections on Psalm 130 and Homily on 1 John, for example).

Quoting radical theologians who claim that PSA was used as justification for any silly thing doesn't mean anything. They often say the same about Biblical inerrancy!

Substitution is grace. That is certain! However, to equate the cross of Christ with vengeance is to create a straw man. No wonder you don't buy it - neither do I! Instead, obedience is how substitutionary atonement is spoken of by leading conservative scholars, and if you must disagree with it, than disagree with how it is presented, not how it is most often misrepresented and hence most easily attacked.

Anonymous said...

I suppose we could do away with the idea of Justice being an essential attribute in God and throw out the whole substitution thing. Then we could further do away with any notion of justice in society and let every man do as he pleases without consequences.

Na, not a god worthy to be worshipped.

PamBG said...

I think the communion is Jesus offering us His broken body so that we don't have to break someone else's body.

I see it as God stopping the vicious circle of “You annihilated me, so I must annihilated you in return”. The human race seems almost irresistibly tempted to this view of justice but God was willing to allow himself to be sacrificed at the cross of human violence and in the resurrection, he overcame human violence and turned it into abundant life.

The above is why I resist the suggestion that the God of non-violent atonement is not just. I believe that the Gospels attest to the fact that that it is the gods of violent atonement who are the unjust ones. Many want to worship the god of violent justice, of course; this is why the Gospel of Jesus is upside down.

Buck Eschaton said...

This is where the Bible and Girardian theory are so beyong the PSA theorists. God simply does not require payment for sin. The sin is payment in itself. If Jesus/Yahweh Himself did not stand between us and absorb our violence, no flesh would have been saved. He substituted himself for us and for our neighbor. Without Jesus we would eventually kill ourselves.
Blood is life. It heals the damage to the covenant. PSA theory makes no sense in opposition to the Bible and Girard's work.
God doesn't require sacrifice to Himself, he requires mercy. Jesus, if anything, was set forth as a sacrifice to humanity.
I simply don't understand PSA theory, really never have, it requires too much magical thinking.

Brett Berger said...

As I read this, it is not that I don't agree that there is more to the cross than just substitunary atonement, but I really was confused by this concept of a non-violent God, a non-angry God. It seems to me that this is a filter by which Scripture is being read that sees non-violence as the highest virtue. Particularly this retranslation, "God is non-violent and in him there is no violence at all." For one, that is a baffling translation of "light" and "darkness." I mean what do we do with prophetic literature that pictures God with blood spraying all over his robe? Do we write this off because it doesn't fit our modern sensibilities, or do we wrestle with it and see if God might not be very resistant to squeeze into any of our boxes?

Buck Eschaton said...

This is why the concept of literalism makes no sense. Not directed at you Bab, but how are people to take passages literally if they don't know what the words and symbols mean or even what is being described in the text.
The blood on the robe is referring to the Day of Atonement, where the goat as the Lord is killed. So the Lord, Yahweh is killed in front of the people. Then the High Priest takes the blood of the goat which is the Lord into the temple and splatters it around healing creation. The temple represented creation. Then the High Priest comes out, now he is wearing the name YHWH, the High Priest is now the resurrected Yahweh, and splatters the blood on the people renewing and healing the covenant and community. Previously the High Priest had absorbed the sins of the community and placed them on the head the other goat which was Azazel. They ran the scapegoat into wilderness where he was killed. The blood was not for God it was for creation and for the people. The blood was the life, it gave life to the people. It wasn't something that was required as payment to God. The people required the blood. Humanity requires blood to reinforce the bonds of society. God requires mercy.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a great article, but assumes a lot of familiarity with the debate in detail. Coming from an Evangelical background there are a ton of assumptions that we tend to map onto Scripture that assume a Penal Substitution framework. So it would be necessary not simply to declare what is wrong with Penal substitution from the perspective of justice and morality, but also to show what Scripture says if we do not interpret it in the PS way.

For instance Hammertime asks "If there is no remission of sins without the shedding of blood, how can we claim that 'Sacrifice, in the Bible, is never punitive'?"

The full quote in Hebrews is "The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness". In the context of this sentence (and in the whole passage of Hebrews) we see that the purpose of the blood was not punitive, but to cleanse or sanctify. So we should read "Without being cleansed with blood there is no forgiveness". That cleansing is not punitive but rather is sanctifying. Thus in the OT we also see that the temple was consecrated with blood, as were the law, etc.

There is here something violent. Some thing involving blood and sacrifice and death. It is also substitutionary. So I don't think we can really have a "bloodless cross". But it is not s punitive legal model of retribution, rather it is about God in Christ entering into our wretchedness and darkness in order to liberate us from its bondage.

PamBG said...

There is here something violent. Some thing involving blood and sacrifice and death. It is also substitutionary. So I don't think we can really have a "bloodless cross".

Yes, there is. But the "something violent" that requires blood is us. Humanity. If you want to call it this - with scare quotes around it because Augustine would probably not approve - "Original Sin" is the violent thing that requires blood, not God.

And I don't think that "being a Girardian" is just about having a gut abhorrance for violence. To me, it just makes sense of whole swathes of the Christian narrative that never made sense before. Miroslav Volf prefers to talk in terms of inclusion and exclusion rather than violence because religion traditionally makes exclusion a virtue and it is not a virtue. "Inclusion" is attested to again and again in the bible, from the Abrahamic covenant to the sacredness of hospitality to Jesus to Paul. Modern-day Jews do not see their God as violent; why do Christians keep insisting that the God of Jewish scripture is violent?

Buck Eschaton, thanks very much for your comments which I've found quite thought-provoking. With your permission, I'd like to save them for future reference.

Anonymous said...


Can you suggest a brief reading list to follow up on your excellent post?

Buck Eschaton said...

Regarding atonement I find Girard's work re primitive religion and the origins of primitive religious rituals to be most informative re the meaning of atonement, covenant, etc. To go along with Girard, Margaret Barker at has done some amazing work into the symbolic origins of Christianity. Her research centers on the myth/rituals/symbols of the First Temple in Jerusalem. Very informative re the symbolism of atonement and how the covenant and creation is renewed. Really amazing stuff, especially when one is familiar with Girardian theory. James Alison's recent essays on atonement have been influenced by Barker. Mr. Alison was the theologian-in-residence at church for several weeks and it was very rewarding, was expecting standarding mimetic theory, then he let's loose on all this Margaret Barker stuff and it was simply amazing. Check out Margaret Barker hard to put down. Trying to synthesize Girard and Barker on my blog, unfortunately not doing a very good job.

Buck Eschaton said...

Here's a Margaret Barker article on atonement

Here's James Alison's atonement lecture

David Williamson said...

My alarm with this debate in the wider church has become a litmus test which is violently (ironically) dividing Christians and genuinely thwarting collaboration and sowing discord.

Almost all parties agree on a strong element of substitution, whether it's expressed as Jesus dying "in our place" or "for our sins". It would be a tragedy if the ambassadors charged with such a proclamation became enemies.

But we can never spend too much studying the mystery and miracle of the cross. A spirited defence of another perspective is JI Packer's The Logic of Penal Substitution, which can be found at

Ben Myers said...

To answer your query, Theoblogian: the picture of the icon is from this (rather nutty) site.

The Borg said...

Hi Kim,

While the concept of retributive justice has led to some cruel and violent practises as you outline in no.9, I don't think you can say that these cruel and violent practises disprove penal substitution. The wrongness of effect or the byproduct of a theory has no logical bearing on the veracity of that theory.

To assert that it does is to commit a logical fallacy. And I'm afraid that you have commited one here.

Anonymous said...

A very good contribution to the ongoing debate surrounding penal views of Jesus' death. I find much that I agree with, but balk at the notion of God's utter non-violence. Have you happened to have read Hans Boersma's Violence, Hospitality and the Cross? He offers a nice defense of the penal view situated within a broader Christus Victor model. I find it to be much more persuasive than Weaver's Non-violent Atonement (not surprsing given my Reformed heritage.)

Buck Eschaton said...

I've been studying the Bible and Girard since the beginning of the War on Iraq and he pretty much destroys the idea of a violent God. There is no violence in God. He is the one being murdered continually, since the foundation of the world. Humanity must take responsibility for our own violence. God doesn't drop atomic bombs, humanity does. God doesn't commit genocide, humanity does. God doesn't kill our neighbor, we do. I just can't imagine what God's violence would consist of. We need to get away from the idea of equating God with the lynch mob or any other kind of authoritative violence. Authoritative and collective violence is how Satan builds his kingdom.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all your comments so far, especially from those (like me) struggling to keep but restate a doctrine of substitution purged of the notion, not of God's anger, and not of God's justice, but of divine punishment violence.

There are certainly problems with the ideas Girard and his followers - his alleged gnosticism and pessimism, for example - raised, interestingly, by Latin American liberation theologians - not to mention the intransigence of certain biblical texts; also what Michael Kirwin calls "The single, most telling counter-example to Girard's theory," viz. "the bloodstained histoty of the church."

Conversely, however, The Borg's point that "The wrongness of the effect or the byproduct of a theory has no logical bearing on the validity of that theory" has some merit but perhaps could do with a more pragmatic understanding of truth, some unease when apparently "sound" doctrines do seem to have more than a contingent connection to unpleasant practices. I am a firm believer in the inextricable link between doctrine and ethics, and always remember the example of Karl Barth's horrified realisation that the liberal theology of his esteemed teachers seemed to feed rather than thwart their First World War fever - ergo there must be something radically wrong with liberalism.

Von Balthasar also puts some pointed questions to Girard, within an overall appreciation of his theory, alleging, for example, that Girard marginalises the justice of God in his account, and privileges the social dynamics of the crucifixion to the exclusion of the significance of the event for trinitarian relationships. Von Balthasar, like Volf, finally insists that we can only hold on to God's just anger if we allow it to issue in just, if violent, retribution.

I, however, always return to the praxis of Jesus, which reflects
the praxis of God: in Jesus there is no violence and God's only power is the power of love - which means a revolution in our understanding of power - and also of justice.

What do we do with the bloody bits of the OT sacrificial cult? A counter-question: What do we do with the ultra bloody bits of the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites? Not what the Religious Right does with it in its repellent analysis of and policy on Israel-Palestine! All our exegesis, finally, must be filtered through the Jesus of Nzareth who stalks the pages of the gospels, refuses all violence and vengeance, and tells stories of reconciliation without retribution like the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Finally, Irenaeus' doctrine of recapitualtion, and Christus Victor readings of the atonement -they do it for me and must be allowed to interact with later substitution theory.

That's enough for now. Thanks again, everybody, both for the generous comments and the searching criticism.

Finally, a little bibliography. Of course all the great "systematic" theologians from Anselm to Moltmann - that goes without saying - and classic studies like Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor (1931) and Frances Young, Sacrifice and the Death of Christ (1975) - and Girard. Of more recent vintage I have found helpful and challenging (in chronological order):

Colin Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement (1988)

Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation (1989)

Timothy Gorringe, God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation (1996)

Stephen Sykes, The Story of Atonement (1997)

James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong (1998)

J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (2001)

Peter K. Stevenson and Stephen I. Wright, Preaching the Atonement (2005)


gmw said...

If I may offer another book, Joel B. Green & Mark D. Baker's Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (2000) is an excellent resource that examines NT texts and major theories through Christian history.

Green and Baker both critique particular theories (and penal substitution theory is rightly critiqued pretty hard) in light of the Scriptural texts and criticize the "litmus test" approach of the "conservative" penal substitution only crowd. They insist that the NT authors and the theologians of the church have developed many models or theories of the atonement (a) because no one theory can capture the vast wonder of the atonement (Paul himself employs several ways of understanding the atoning work of Christ, certainly not just one), and (b) because the atonement must speak incarnationally to people within the culture in which they find themselves.

byron smith said...

Thanks for this discussion. Kim, as always, thought-provoking.

I repeat: God does not punish Jesus, or even will the death of Jesus tout court. Herbert McCabe: “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human.... [T]he fact that to be human means to be crucified is not something that the Father has directly planned but what we have arranged.”

To take this line, what do you do with Acts 2.23? 'this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.'
or Mark 10.45 'For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.'
or John 12.23-27? 'Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say--‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour."'

Ben Myers said...

A number of blogs have been commenting on this post. In case anyone's interested in following them up, there are some interesting posts here, here, here, here, here and here.

Anonymous said...

The Spanish liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría has a different perspective on violence which is interesting. His book titled Freedom Made Flesh (1976) divides violence into two forms: "there are two forms of violence. One is the violence of the unjust oppressor; it is the original, aggressive violence. The other is the violence performed on behalf of the oppressed, the violence with which God punishes the unjust oppressor on this earth". So, Ellacuría says, violence can never never be removed, it can only be "redeemed".

David Shedden said...

Folks, this is indeed a fascinating discussion. Lots of references to lots of intelligent discussion. Here's my rather simple question: what is death? If we can agree an answer to this theoloigcally I think we go a long way to understanding Christ's death. Or, does that beg the question? Perhaps understanding Christ's death is the only way to understand death. Whether or not the atonement is penal, moral, exemplary, or whatever, really depends on what death is or is not. Is death penal?

Buck Eschaton said...

I think Girard would call the relationship between the unjust oppressor and the oppressed a mimetic rivalry. I don't believe violence can be redeemed. I think Girard would refer to the above as an example of the scapegoat mechanism. A collective expulsion of the the oppressor. One scapegoat is exchanged for another. Satan casting out Satan. Another one of Girard on Satan.

These are fairly easy to read articles on Girard, atonement, etc.
Part I
Part II

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Another title , perhaps? This is not specifically Girardian since it predates Girard's impact on biblical scholars and theologians, but it does show the multiple NT perspectives on the cross, only a few of which could be called "sacrificial." Kenneth Grayston, _Dying, We Live: A New Enquiry into the Death of Christ in the New Testament_ (OUP, 1990).

Alan Bandy said...

Ben you are a theological tour de force. Thanks for that great summary.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks, Alan -- but I must protest that it's Kim who is the theological tour de force (since this post is by him!).

T. Baylor said...


Thanks for the thought provoking essay. Very interesting. Thanks also for the links to all the articles.

Many thanks too, Byron, for asking about those texts. Those texts have been running through my mind as I read as well. In addition to these themes what do we make of judgment themes?

2 Thess. 1:6-10; Rom. 1:18, Jesus' many sayings regarding eternal judgment, or Jesus' forming of a whip to enter the temple?

Anonymous said...

Regarding the texts that Byron mentions - and for which T. Robert Baylor thanks him (Yeah, thanks a lot Byron! :)) - they are among those "intransigent" texts that I mention (above).

Acts 2:23 can act as a kind of programmatic statement: the divine plan and purpose - Luke's frequent use of dei ("it is necessary") - George Caird observes that "this notion of fulfilment in one form or another pervades the New Testament." And who's going to argue with Caird? Not me - he was my teacher at Oxford!

But Caird also asks: "How are we to account for this apparent contradiction, that Luke plays down the atoning effect of the Cross, but that he insists that it happened in accordance with the plan of God? The obvious answer is that Luke believed that the atoning work of Jesus ought not to be concentrated on Calvary." That is a point I raise at numbers 7 and 10: the isolation of the cross from the pre- and post-Good Friday Jesus in models of penal substitution. Admittedly, however, that doesn't answer the main point about the divine plan as such, it just shifts its focus.

Perhaps one could point out that for the Hebrew mind, result implies intention - i.e., if it happened, it was planned? But might then one not go on to draw several classical distinctions?

One is John of Damascus' distinction between God's antecedent will (eudokia) and God's consequent will (sunchoresis), the former arising from God's own nature, the latter in response to human beings.

Then there is Maximus the Confessor's distinction between God's natural will and God's gnomic will, and Aquinas' distinction between the divine will and the divine permission. Of course Calvin rejects these distinctions - as he does the distinction between God's foreknowledge and God's predestination. But then, before you know it, we are knee-deep in the problems of theodicy that the rejection of these distinctions raises. There is, I would argue, an inextricable connection between what say about God in the passion of Jesus and what we say about God in the suffering in the world - which is why we have to tread so carefully, so dialectically, if you like.

So set beside what Caird says what David Bentley Hart says: "One must acknowledge that the solicitude shown by some Christians for total and direct divine sovereignty in all the eventualities of the fallen world is not shared by the authors of the New Testament. Much less is there anything to be found in Scripture remotely resembling theodicy's attempted moral justification of the present cosmic order." Referring to The Brothers Karamazov, Hart observes that "behind Ivan's anguish lies an intuition - which is purely Christian, even if many Christians are insensible to it - that it is impossible for the infinite God of love directly or positively to will evil (physical or moral), even in a provisional or transitory way." If this is true for the slaughter of children, is it not true a fortiori for the murder of Jesus?

But let McCabe himself have the last word: "There is no need whatever for peculiar theories about the Father deliberately putting his Son to death. There is no need for any theory about the death of Jesus. It doesn't need any explanation once you know that he was a man in our world." "God is omnipotent," McCabe fully concedes, "the world he made is full of evils and they were not put there by human beings independently of God." Nevertheless, "though God brings about everything that is good . . . he does not directly bring about anything that is evil. . . This is an unfathomable mystery but it is not a contradiction."

Jake said...

A lengthy essay discussing penal substitution and Gustaf Aulen's Christus Victor can be found here.

I mention it because it may be of interest to the non-academic among us, as the ideas are presented in such a manner that most readers will be able to grasp the concepts.

Unfortunately, I have no idea who the author is, other than the nom de plume "shark tacos."

T. Baylor said...


Could you illuminate McCabe's quote a bit more? Is he speaking of natural or moral evil -- or is he not making a distinction. In some manner of speaking, such a distinction as it relates to Christ is unnecessary since he was the object of both. Nevertheless, I think such distinction is necessary when speaking of divine dealings.

Anonymous said...

Hi T. Robert Taylor.

Regarding natural and moral evil, in his essay "Evil" in God Matters (1987, 2005), McCabe appears "as though in a lawcourt for the defence of God against his philosophical accusers." He writes:

"I shall not defend God on the grounds that he is incompetent, or that the evidence is phoney, or on the grounds of mistaken identity - that someone else did it. God is omnipotent, the world he made is full of evils and they were not put there by human beings independently of God.

1. I am going to argue that everything good in the world is brought about by my client.

2. I am going to argue that some kinds of evil - suffering - what I shall call 'evil suffered' is a necessary concomitant of certain kinds of good, and God can only be said, therefore, to have brought it about in the sense that he brought about that good.

3. I am going to argue that another kind of evil - sin - what I shall call 'evil done' is not brought about by God at all. I shall grant that he could have prevented it, but I shall give reasons why this does not make my client guilty by neglect."

Cf. David Bentley Hart in The Doors of the Sea (2005): "God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills." So, for example, contra Calvin, "God did not will the fall" - or, I would argue, following Hart's logic, the crucifixion.

Hart's book has got to be one of best theological contributions to the theodicy discussion in recent years. Although fiercely rejecting a Calvinist solution, Hart does not follow most crucified-God theologians, strongly maintaining against them, like Thomas G. Weinandy, Does God Suffer? (2000), the doctrine of divine apatheia.

Is this helpful?


Anonymous said...

T. Robert - PS:

By the way, I see you're a Mets fan. Obviously, then, you will know something about (long-)suffering! After years of grief and despondency, may our text for 2006 be Luke 24:25-26. For the Knicks, however, I'm afraid we will have to continue to hope against hope.

Anonymous said...

PPS - Oops - please forgive me for the "Taylor" (above), Mr. Baylor!

T. Baylor said...

Don't worry about the name . . . worry about the Knicks next year.

I can see how the non-determinist position supports your understanding of the atonement. I don't think this format is particularly helpful, but I would like to discuss it more, if you wouldn't mind e-mailing. I was thinking about pursuing this topic in PhD studies.

Anonymous said...

Jake says "A lengthy essay discussing penal substitution and Gustaf Aulen's Christus Victor can be found here (, I have no idea who the author is, other than the nom de plume "shark tacos."

That would be me (the "nom de plume" thing made me laugh, thanks for that :) ) My real name is actually at the bottom of every page (Derek Flood) on the article.

Anonymous said...

PamBG says "the 'something violent' that requires blood is us. Humanity" I think this is essentially right. I agree that God did not require a violent satisfaction in order to forgive us. I think this is in fact a profound misunderstanding of what justice means biblically.

However the problem I have with the Girardian approach is the implication that the cross was done to appease us. That God was satisfying the demonic mob mentlaiity in us. There is a certain element of truth here since we are the enemies that God first loves and reconciles through the cross. But to imply that the cross was only about an appeasement of our sick need for violence seems to be just as potentially abusive as the "divine child abuse theory" can be. I think it would be more accurate to say that our evil and need for violence was not appeased through the cross, but was rather overcome and conquered through Christ's humiliation and death. Judgment was judged. Condemnation was crucified. That idea of taking on suffering in order to overcome evil and turn the hearts of enmity is at the core of non-violence. Non-violence is not simply a refusal to be violent, it is a means to overcome it.

Girardian theory, like moral influence theory alone is too thin (It is part of what is going on but not all of it) because there needs to be an objective necessity to the cross. A firefighter who dies saving people from a building has an objective reason to endure suffering (saving the people inside). If on the other hand a person sets themselves on fire to "show their love" for you, that is abusive. In the same way if the only reason for the death of Jesus was to "show us God's love" then that would be abusive too. Objective necessity does not need to imply penal substitution (for instance the firefighter analogy does not). Christus Victor is also an objective theory that fits well with the way of love of enemies and servant heart of Jesus.

I think it is possible to have a theory of the cross that combines moral influence with vicarious atonement (one which goes beyond Christ bearing our sin to him bearing also our suffering and sickness) and Christus Victor all in the context of kenosis and love of enemies.

Weekend Fisher said...

Re: violence

God wills the destruction of evil; he also wills to rescue us evildoers.

In substitutionary sacrifice, we participate by killing that part of us that is evil, having it die also. Repentance, in the full sense of the word, involves a death and rebirth. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, & so forth.

Our hopes rest on God's destruction of evil. And our fears recoil from that because of the evil inside us.

Kim's right that we have to keep an eye on our sinful natures when we discuss violence. Some would take God's violence towards evil as an excuse to indulge sin, make it violent, and cover it in a religious mask. As far as world history goes we've been there and done that and don't show any signs of letting up. Which is all the more reason why God's power and might, used to stop this nonsense, is a comfort to me.

Take care & God bless

T. Baylor said...

"Sacrifice, in the Bible, is never punitive; rather, it is a divine gift which, as human offering, becomes an expression of praise and gratitude."

How would you see this factoring into John's theme of Jesus as the "Lamb of God" -- both who "takes away the sin of the world" and who "was slain before the foundations of the earth?"

stc said...

I am very much in sympathy with your position, but I am often unable to see past my evangelical training when I look at the New Testament texts on this subject.

Re Acts 2.23, I don't see the difficulty. On the contrary, it seems to support the line you've taken. Jesus was "handed over … according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God," yes. But it was his lawless human enemies who crucified and killed him. Isn't that the very distinction you seek to establish?

On the other hand, there's one text that no one has mentioned: 1Pe. 2:24, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree". Obviously, this concept of sin-bearing is derived from the Mosaic covenant. It appears to directly contradict your plea, "If we continue to think of the atonement in forensic terms, it is essential to see it not as a legal transaction but as the transformation of a relationship."

Despite my reservations on that point, I find much to reflect on in your post — I know I haven't absorbed it all on a first read. Thanks for providing such rich food for thought.

T. Baylor said...

Same question, new text:

Revelation 5:9 You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.

Anonymous said...

Revelation 5:9 "...with your blood you purchased men for God"

Wouldn't this have the same connotation as the idea of "ransoming" or "redeeming" elsewhere in the NT? These are terms from the slave market, and specifically for Jews at the time, they would think of their own story of the Exodus where God redeemed Israel out of slavery. The "purchase" was not buying their freedom from judicial penalty, but liberating them from bondage like a ransom.

Steve Hayes said...

One reason that the schism between East and West has lasted so ling is, I believe, Anselm's theory of the atonement, elaborated by Calvin.

Because Cur Deus homo was published shortly after the schism, its theiries were never on the agenda for reunion discussions, yet it changed the whole theological mindset of the West, and because of this made it more difficult for the two sides to understand each other.

T. Baylor said...

Love the name -- yeah, my point wasn't so much regarding the theme of redemption as much as it goes to the fact that Christ's blood is the agent of redemption at the will of the Father. It may miss the point, but if Jesus and the Father are united in their resolve to save mankind, and if the blood of Jesus is the agent used to redeem mankind for God, it seems difficult to claim that the death of Jesus was not required by God.

Anonymous said...

Luther's Stein,

I here what you are saying, but a lot of people who are pro penal substitution (including Anselm, PT Forsyth, James Denney, etc) would argue that God did not will the death of Jesus, He willed obedience to holiness and love. I think they are right on that. God is willing to suffer for love, but it is not suffering he desires, it is salvation at any cost to himself.

There is something to the cross being the Fathers will: Jesus said "thy will be done" and also the choice of Jesus "No one takes my life from me, I give it". The question is why was God's death necessary. I don't think the reason was appeasement. I think it has more to do with God entering into our wretchedness in order to live representatively as us (which is part of the incarnation - fully God fully human, but not jsut a human but humanity) so that we can die with him and live in Him. Recapitulation.

p.s. have you read much of Luther's theology of the cross?

T. Baylor said...


oh, ok. I see your point. Thanks for the clarification.

T. Baylor said...

I just perused your articles on Christus Victor. There are many points I would agree to -- and, though I would want to disagree here and there, I do see an aspect of universal reconciliation in the atonement. However, throughout you oppose the God of love to the God of legalism -- that is, one who demands perfect obedience to the law. In my quick survey, I did not see a discussion of the theme of Justification. Could you sketch your understanding briefly?

Anonymous said...

Luther S,

I'd be happy to, but since this is regarding my article, I think it might be more appropriate to do that over on my blog since I don't want to monopolize things here in Kim's thread. I just went live with the blog today. Click on my user name and it will pop you over there.


Anonymous said...

I think the Bible teaches that Christ "paid" for us (and so, to continue the economic language, he "redeems" us) but the Bible does not say that he was punished for us. Instead, I believe the Bible says that God in, as, with and through Christ and (chiefly his death) forgives sin. (But I'm no universalist: this forgiveness has to be accepted and received.) Where does that leave punishment? Redundant, not because the offence is overlooked or ignored but because it is dealt with by being forgiven. Jesus forgave his enemies and tells us to as well, and he puts an end to "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" retributive justice (as well as ritual religious sacrifice: he quotes Hosea 6:6 -- "I desire mercy not sacrifice" -- twice: Matthew 9:13 and 12:7.) But this forgiveness is not a cheap option: in fact it is more costly and painful than punishment. I would rather those who wronged me were punished than I had to bear the burden of forgiving them. Dag Hammarskjold said: "Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who 'forgives' you -- out of love -- takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice. The price you must pay for your own liberation through another's sacrifice is that you in turn must be willing to liberate others in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself." And so being perfectly obedient to the will of God and showing complete mercy is a true (self-)sacrifice, indeed the ultimate sacrifice. And that is how Christ is an atoning sacrifice for sin (Romans 3:21-26) -- not by satisfying God's wrath or being punished in our place (which is the sort of third-party sacrifice that Jesus says God doesn't want when he quotes Hosea 6:6). One aspect of the sacrifice of Christ (which is a self-sacrifice) is that he bore our sin and therefore also the consequences of it: namely, death and separation from God. But this is not punishment. And in forgiving our sin (and thus "destroying" -- i.e. ending or finishing it) he also overcame its consequences, hence his death and separation from the Father was temporary. And, of course, he did this once and for all.

Maybe I'm completely wrong about all this but my Bible says nothing about Christ being punished for us. It does say a lot about him taking (and then taking away) our sin (and therefore all its consequences) in a unique and universal act of forgiveness that does not defy or deny justice but is only possible precisely because of it: after all, if there was no justice there'd be no concept or idea of forgiveness as no law would be broken and no penalty due. Penal substitution has a certain symmetry but I fear it is a neat scheme devised by small and tidy mind of man rather than God's outrageous and radical and mind-blowingly counter-intuitive plan of reconciling the world to himself by becoming a sort of black hole which absorbs all the sin of the world. God soars far above any petty demands of justice and takes breathtaking step of being the one who is cosmically wronged and who then alone can and does forgive all our sin. He does not ignore or overlooking sin but carried it himself, even in himself, and overcame it, extinguished it, by the power of his love. That's hard to believe and even harder to accept (we want someone to be punished! we like neat schemes! we're raised on cause and effect narrative symmetry) but it is the grace of God. Penal substitution (i.e. God punishing Christ) is justice fair and square; overlooking or ignoring sin is less than justice and is impossible for a holy and righteous God. But forgiveness is radically more than justice, going above and beyond the simple redress or retribution: sin -- our sin -- is swallowed by Christ, the buck stops there, "it is finished". No one is punished, except that it is personally "punishing" to forgive, to take it and bear it and let it end in and with you. And so the cross is the place of mercy -- supreme and ultimate -- that is necessarily contingent upon justice but infinitely higher than it. It is not that Christ is punished (he isn't, except perhaps by the principalities and powers of this age who kill him) but that we are not. At the cross sin (the world, the flesh and devil) does its worst and God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) does his best.

Like I said, I might be way off the mark on this and completely wrong but it's my reading of the cross and it humbles me more than any justice ever could.

Tom ta tum Tom said...

Kim, Ben, All,

What an overwhelming thread! You guys are an education just in your blogging! Praise GOD for the world wide web and for the blogosphere.

Oliver Harrison,

Hopefully, I am hearing you correctly. The Body of Christ takes away the sins of the world by absorbing them (being anointed with them) and transforming the anointment into the sweet smell of forgiveness (Jn 12:1-8, especially v 3). Sounds outrageously costly. Worth the price of a jar of perfume? (Luke 7:36-50)

Kim, Ben,

Thank you for the incredible treasure of these 'propositions' posts. MORE! MORE! MORE!

Anonymous said...


deuteronomy 32

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all this. Remarkable. Sorry to be late joining in. Here's another book on the subject, review by yours truly: The Biblical Revelation of the Cross.

Anonymous said...

If you believe, as stated in point 6 of your article, that it wasn't God the Father's plan to have Jesus crucified but that this was brought about by sinful people, then what do you understand these words from the book of Acts to mean, in refering to Christs crucifiction:
Acts 4:27-28, "Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (NIV)
This passage is a prayer, so the "your" refers to God the Father.

Sam said...

Ben, you rock! Thanks for this. The way most professing Christians present the Atonement (and conversion itself) is so absurd it is difficult for me to respond lovingly when listening to it. I certainly don't think we need to be nice about it. It is unbiblical and wacked. Lots of evangelicals thinks Paul wrote theological treatises; he wrote loving CORRECTIVE letters.

Dallas Willard's Spirit of the Disciplines starts out with this whole issue and basically says, "Christians are obsessed with figuring out how the atonement works; enough already...let's follow the Divine Teacher!" Enough said.

gethnc said...

I just caught on to this post, and have enjoyed the discussion. Although I am surprised that there is such little biblical grounding in the claims of those who purport a non-violent God. I most definitely understand the difficulty with divine violence, yet the biblical witness depicts divine violence in positive terms from the first several chapters of Genesis: the Fall, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and Sodom and Gomorrah. According to Holy Scripture, God does deliver retribution explicitly (Deut. 32:35- "Vengeance is mine..."). In fact, a consistent and prominent vision in the canon is that of God repaying all of humanity based upon their deeds (e.g., Deut. 32:35; Job 34:11; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Jer. 17:10; 32:19; Matt. 16:27; Lk. 17.26-32; Rom. 2.5-11). It is vital that the world of scripture shape our theology. The biblical narrative consistently depicts a sometimes violent God acting redemptively to save the world through Jesus Christ.

Ken Pulliam said...


I have just found this post. Thanks. It is helpful. I am a former evangelical theologian who has since become an agnostic. One of the reasons (and there were many) for my departure from the faith was my inability to reconcile PST with any viable concept of justice.

I am doing a series on PST on my blog:


Dan said...

Where can I find the reference for that Stanley Hauerwas quote? Is it in any of his works/ interviews, etc. It does not look like a genuine quote?

Yewtree said...

Excellent. I just saw your letter about Hawking in the Independent and Googled to find out more. I am not a Christian but I have been reading Karen Armstrong and Richard Holloway and enjoying their work.

You might also find Steve Hayes' article on salvation from an Eastern Orthodox point of view interesting and useful.

Yewtree said...

Also, I just rediscovered this post on the Quaker view of atonement.

Susan said...

Wow, this has given me hope- my fears around the character of agod have been driving me. With badbad results. Tis article is helping. Thanks mate, Sooz

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