In December-January I had some rather spirited exchanges in the blog with my colleague, Old Testament professor Jerry Shepherd. Then Jerry fell silent as the business of the semester took over once again. But now he’s back with some spirited comments in response to my article “What is the atonement at least? Lessons from the ascension“. I have responded to some of his comments in the article and am as yet waiting a reply.
In the interim I’d like to deal with another part of Jerry’s comment here. As you will see, Jerry writes with spit and vinegar which definitely helps liven things up. He writes:
You say, “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.” My reply here would be to say please leave me, and pretty much most of the rest of the evangelical world out of your “we” (what do you mean “we” paleface?). How many millions of people in evangelical churches this coming Sunday will sing “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”? It seems to me that the coroner is attempting to issue the death certificate way too early!
Thus, Jerry apparently believes that “pretty much the rest of the evangelical world” (with the exception of me, apparently) accepts that Jesus literally paid for our sins on the cross. And the evidence he provides? The fact that every Sunday millions of evangelicals sing “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”. Case closed, right?
Um, not so fast.
Jerry is making the claim that all “pretty much” all evangelicals (excepting me, and perhaps a few other stragglers) believe that penal substitution provides a literal account of how the atonement functions. And he does so based on the evidence that evangelicals commonly utter certain phrases in worship.
This is called doing theology from doxology, and there is much you can glean theologically from doxology. For example, Christians have long pointed to Pliny the Younger’s observation in a letter to Emperor Trajan that the Christians in his district arise early to sing hymns to Christ as to a God. That is theologically loaded doxology.
No doubt you can glean theology from the doxological utterances that Jerry flags as well. But can you conclude from those phrases that the evangelicals who utter them accept penal substitution as a literal account of how the atonement functions? In this context that is the only thing that matters. And two observations make it clear that Jerry cannot in fact conclude that at all.
Problem 1: Those who reject penal substitution as a theory but still sing the songs
First a general observation. If Jerry thinks my criticism of penal substitution as a theory is an idiosyncracy among evangelical theologians today, he really needs to get out more. But that can’t be the case because Jerry is well read on the topic and he is very well aware that there are many Christians who self-identify as evangelicals but who do not accept penal substitution as a theory. Perhaps then Jerry’s comments are simply indicative of the fact that he insists anybody who does not agree with him on this matter is not an evangelical.
Now I don’t want to get into an endless discussion of what the necessary and sufficient conditions are (if that is even a proper way to discuss the matter) for calling oneself an evangelical. But if we grant historically based criteria such as David Bebbington has proposed any probative force then denying evangelical credentials to anyone who does not accept penal substitution as a theory is indefensible. (As I have noted in the past, perhaps the dominant historical Arminian position has been to deny penal substitution as a theory. Thus, Jerry’s comments amount, at the very least, to denying evangelical credentials to the dominant historical Arminian position. I suspect that says more about Jerry than it does about the evangelical credentials of historical Arminianism.)
So I am not alone in being a self-described evangelical who does not accept penal substitution as a literal account of how the atonement functions. There are many of us who have carefully considered penal substitution as a theory and have rejected it. And here’s the key: most of us still continue to sing “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”. This is because singing hymns isn’t only about singing theories. And to think it is, is to adopt an almost perversely narrow understanding of the function of doxological utterances.
Consider, for example, how many pew warmers sing “When we’ve been there ten thousand years” one moment and “When the roll is called up yonder and time shall be no more” the next. Does singing the former commit one to a temporalist understanding of eternity? And does singing the latter commit one to an atemporalist understanding? And if so, how can you sing both?
So the first problem with Jerry’s claim is that many Christians have rejected penal substitution as a theory and still continue to sing songs that refer to penal substitution. They simply don’t affirm that these phrases provide a theoretical account of penal substitution when they sing them.
Problem 2: Those who sing the songs but never really thought about penal substitution as a theory
The first group, people who have thought through the possibility of penal substitution as a theory and have rejected it, is relatively small. The second group, people who have a minimal grasp of penal substitution but do not really understand it as a formal theory, is huge.
This means that even if you could poll the pews and you discovered that, say, 80% of evangelicals responded that the wrath of God was satisfied on the cross, that response wouldn’t be a reliable indicator that 80% of evangelicals would accept that penal substitution provides a theoretical account of the atonement.
Consider an illustration. Let’s say that in 1996 Americans were polled on this question: “Should the United States continue to support sanctions against Iraq?” And let’s say that 80% of Americans responded “yes”. Would this be a green light for continued sanctions? Not necessarily. It all would depend on the degree of understanding those polled had on what the sanctions entailed. Let’s say that they watched this famous exchange between Leslie Stahl and Madeleine Albright in which Albright says that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children is a price worth paying for the sanctions. Now they would understand better what is at stake. And you can bet that with a fuller understanding that 80% would drop significantly.
Jerry seems to think that the vast majority of evangelicals who sing in church but don’t understand the theory of penal substitution would indeed accept it as the theory once they understood it. How does he know this? He doesn’t.
In conclusion, Jerry’s comments are high in the rhetoric of righteous indignation, but they are empty when it comes to providing any evidence that the vast majority of self-described evangelicals would agree with his view of the atonement based on the songs they sing in church.