It is no secret that atonement theories abound, each one vying to be the account for how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. In this discussion it seems to be de rigueur these days to explain the abundance of atonement theories in terms of the fact that there is an abundance of metaphors of atonement to be found in scripture.
However, some theologians have argued that despite the diversity of atonement images in the New Testament, there is one root metaphor or image at the center and heart of atonement: penal substitution. Perhaps the most influential defense of this position in the last fifty years comes courtesy of J.I. Packer in his outstanding 1973 essay “What did the cross achieve?” (which, as with all Packer’s writing, is eminently worth a close reading).
This brings me to Alex’s recent comment. Alex appears to be in, or at least broadly sympathetic with, this “penal substitution is the root metaphor of atonement theories” position. As he writes: “though Jesus’ atoning death is more than just a human sacrifice to appease God, it is *at least* that….”
This issue has flared up in recent years with the claim of many theologians and church leaders like Steve Chalke and Brian McLaren critiquing penal subsitution as immoral and claiming that it isn’t biblical.
In my view, this is a debate that was settled long ago. Seventy years ago Gerhard von Rad argued forcefully that the pivotal hilasmos word group (present in key atonement texts like Romans 3:25 and 1 John 2:2) is best interpreted as describing Christ’s death as removing sin (i.e. an expiation) rather than satisfying God’s wrath (i.e. a propitiation). But both Roger Nicole and Leon Morris wrote critiques of von Rad’s position in the 1950s-60s which I take to be decisive. In their view, propitiation is an ineradicable part of the hilasmos word group.
So I have no problem recognizing that propitiation is indeed a key metaphor, perhaps the key metaphor, for atonement in the New Testament.
The essential question is whether it provides us with a theory of atonement, or at least whether it provides the essential parts of a theory. That is a question which is not as easily answered as Alex and many others might think.
Lessons from the Ascension
Consider another important, oft overlooked New Testament christological doctrine: the ascension. Based on a close reading of the key NT texts on the ascension, most importantly Luke 24/Acts 1, you could come to the conclusion that
“though Jesus’ ascension is more than just Jesus rising bodily through space to the right hand of the Father in heaven above, it is *at least* that….”
But there would be something wrong about coming to that conclusion. Can you tell what it is? No? Okay, I’ll tell you.
It is true that for a first century Jew the ascension would mean at least a bodily ascension up from earth to heaven above. You see, the first century Jew accepted a three storied view of the universe (for a succinct picture of it read the familiar passage Philippians 2:5-11 and see how Paul describes Jesus descending to earth, then down to hades, and then back up to earth and into the sky). It is no surprise that the Greek word ouranos meant both “heaven” and “sky”.
But we no longer accept a three storied view of the universe. So chronicling the least that NT writers believed about the ascension sort of misses the point. We can no longer accept that view of ascension.
Back to the atonement
Just as we no longer accept the requisite three-storied universe that is required to make sense of “the least” that the ascension meant for a first century Jew, so we no longer accept the requisite framework of sacrifice and imputation that is required to make sense of “the least” that the atonement meant for a first century Jew.
The error would come in thinking that this obliges us to surrender either the ascension or the atonement. It doesn’t. Ascension theories abound today and we can be thankful that they are not woodenly beholden to the minimal three-storied view of ascension that was widely accepted in the first century. It seems to me that it is time for a similar conversation about the atonement.