Volume 29 - Issue 1

A Free Lunch at the End of the Universe? Sacrifice, substitution and penal liability

By Paul Wells

Paul Wells Is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Faculté Libre de Théologie Réformée, Aix-en-Provence and editor of La Revue réformée. This article was originally given as a lecture at the Karoli Gaspar Reformed Seminary in Budapest, The Theological University of Apeldoorn and the Evangelical Theological College of Wales at Brigend.

Although the language of the business world is unexpected in a theological context, Christina Baxter makes no bones about answering this question negatively in an article in the recent book of essays Atonement Today:1 there is no free lunch not even for God.

This question may seem irreverent, but it is, in fact the hermeneutical transposition of a fundamental issue for Christian faith. Is anything gratuitous, if God is a moral being and not an arbitrary monarch who acts according to Sartre’s ‘acte gratuit’? Can there be an open door for the human race into the eternal kingdom of God without any payment? How is the door opened?

Transforming the question into more traditional language: Is atonement necessary for salvation? What is the nature and the result of atonement? Who demands payment and who pays what? These formulations of the question may not be very satisfying as they already smack of Anselm’s model.

It has been said that the Canterbury theologian based his model for the atonement on private law, debt and honour while H. Grotius referred to criminal law, relaxation and remission, as a form of moral government. Calvin’s theory has sometimes been classed in the penal category, but the Reformers maintained a real and not just a nominal or moral substitution. The Reformed model of atonement can be better related to associative or federal law, which can incorporate many elements including private and penal aspects.2

Calvin’s scholastic successor in Geneva, F Turretin wrote extensively on this question3 before the likes of A.A. Hodge, R.L. Dabney and H. Bavinck and, more recently, G.C. Berkouwer, L. Morris and J.I. Packer Reformed theology owes its particularity concerning the atonement to the fact that it has not shunned the questions raised by the notion of sacrifice and vicarious penal substitution. In fact, working backwards, it can be said of the cross in the classical perspective that without its penal character, substitution has little sense and without substitution, sacrifice has little value.

The theological evidences in the Reformed tradition are widely contested today. The history of exegesis and dogmatic theology is laden with attempts to explain the rationale of the death of Christ and in the last century many efforts have been made to clarify the mystery and reformulate the doctrine. More recently, it may be observed that the notion of the sacrifice of Christ has been displaced from the field of soteriology to that of christology with renewed interest in the humanity of Jesus and christology from below. At the same time, the accent in theological debate has moved away from the priestly to the prophetic office of Jesus Christ, from his messianic self-consciousness to the proclamation of the kingdom of God.

Reformed theology, however, has always sought to hold together redemption accomplished and applied within a covenantal structure, and has been aware of the danger of unilateral visions of Christ’s offices. As H. Blocher has pointed out, the history of theology seems to indicate that over insistence on one of the offices in isolation produces the following possible permutations:4

  • Prophet, favours rationalism and moralism. It can be construed that this has happened in a liberal perspective.
  • Priest, fosters pietism and mysticism. Does not much evangelicalism and charismatism focus on the ‘blood of Christ’?
  • King, leads to utopic and apocalyptic theologies. This accent has been associated with dialectic theology. Has not J. Moltmann criticised K. Barth’s monarchical view of God as absolute Subject?5

The state of play today

Radical theologies, often of the liberationist or feminist kind, generally reject the notion of sacrifice as a suitable interpretation of Christ’s death.6 it is suggested that the idea of an atonement in which the Father makes the Son suffer is an unhealthy form of ‘divine child abuse’. The cross is not an altar, Jesus was not a priest and he did not suffer to abolish sin. Moltmann has said that the notion of sacrifice is not appropriate as Christ’s death is followed by resurrection and the sacrificial victim does not rise.7

Without going to these lengths, attempts are made to deal with the death of Christ in terms of substitution or representation, but without sacrificial and legal categories.8 J. McLeod Campbell, in the 19th century, proposed a theory of ‘vicarious repentance’ which has remained influential. Jesus is said to have made a confession on behalf of humanity in order to explain how forgiveness could be obtained without imputation of sin.9 Others wish to reckon with what is considered the inadequacy of the traditional notions of sacrifice. In particular they seek to redefine sacrifice by removing its more unacceptable aspects and insisting on the sacrificial offering as a form of festive communion and praise.10 The cultic language of sacrifice is preferred to the penal. In recent years there has been a remarkable evolution in Roman Catholic works which now place the accent on the liturgical aspects of sacrifice rather than on its penal and sin-removing character. Sometimes it is claimed that the NT teaching constitutes a ‘subversion’ of the OT model of sacrifice. In the field of anthropology, R. Girard has provoked a good deal of discussion by his proposition that sacrifice effects a transfer which tempers mimetic rivalry. Violence, the motor of religions, is abolished with the ultimate sacrifice.11

The approach to sacrifice without penality attracts theologians in the evangelical camp too, as the essays in Atonement Today illustrate. There is a serious attempt to find a basis for this view in Scripture and a redefinition of the sacrifice of Christ as a demonstration of love and identification with human misery. The cross involves incarnational identification and not forensic imputation. In this perspective, if the language of sacrifice includes legal and cultic aspects, the legal is invariably played down in favour of the cultic.

Finally, there are those who, like E. Brunner and J.I. Packer, point out that for Calvin and the Reformers the satisfaction of Christ was more than an expiation of sin, but also an act of propitiation of divine wrath. The notion of sacrifice only receives its full dimension when these are considered as its results. In this respect R. Nicole has argued convincingly against C.H. Dodd’s watering-down of the NT notion of propitiation.12

Brunner went so far as to say in his classic The Mediator that ‘as long as we continue to reject the biblical idea of the holiness of God, of his wrath and justice in punishment the processus of the regression of the Church will continue’.13 Brunner wrote this in the 1930s and his warnings have passed unheard. In the post-modern context the problems of sacrifice and penal substitution have become increasingly a question of hermeneutics.

Some possible approaches

The Reformers appropriated Anselm’s idea of satisfaction and redefined it in terms of God’s law and holiness and his anger against sin. Punitive justice requires sacrifice and the office of the Mediator. These concepts, which have been termed eccentric and narrow by Socinians and liberals of all shades, are as broad as biblical history, as they imply the doctrine of the divine covenant. Socinians and their successors, whose individualism appeals deeply to the modern mentality, have never properly understood this.

Recent studies including that edited by M. Neusch, Le sacrifice dans les religions14 have tended to indicate the universality of sacrificial practice in religion. In a Christian context, the sacrifice required has never been better encapsulated than by Augustine. Echoing Hebrews 5:1: ‘Every priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin’, Augustine laid the basis for the classic definition of the notion of sacrifice by indicating its four constitutive aspects:

  • to whom sacrifice is offered;
  • who offers;
  • what is offered; and
  • for whom the offering is made.

Brunner adds to these considerations an element that has sometimes been overlooked, perhaps because of the human cultic aspects of sacrifices—that if men offer sacrifice, it is not accomplished by them but by God himself. God it is who instituted the sacrificial system and according to Hebrews 3:2 Jesus was ‘faithful to the one who appointed him.’ The repeated references, including in the teaching of Jesus, to obedience and not sacrifice being primarily desired by God indicate this.15 If institutionally many sacrifices were legitimate, their ethical acceptability depended ultimately on the obedience of the incarnate Son himself, prefigured by the high priest and his acts, God alone could perfectly accomplish sacrificial obedience.

Sacrifice implies some form of representation on behalf of others. This has been described by the words ‘vicarious’ and ‘substitution’. However, both are approximations. Vicarious does not imply a representation which corresponds exactly to the need implied, but only that one is acting on behalf of others. The word ‘substitution’ can be taken in different senses, not all of which are penal, and the word ‘representative’ is even more imprecise. The reason why the notions of sacrifice, substitution, vicariousness and representation are still common currency is that they are relatively flexible and like credit cards can be used in different theological banks.

By adding the word penal to substitute things are more precise. The model of one who takes the place of another is qualified, indicating that the replacement is penal. The notion of penal substitution means that Christ acted on behalf of others in the sense of liability to punishment, judgement and retribution.16 It involves the character of God who demands reparation, the need of a substitute, the anger of God against sin undergone by the sacrificial substitute and condemnation. Penal substitution effects expiation and the propitiation of God. The result is reconciliation, which must imply not only our reconciliation to God but primarily God’s reconciliation to us.17 These theological notions, both individually and collectively are extremely offensive to the modern mind. Our contemporaries do not like crime and punishment!

W. Pannenberg resumes the situation quite well. His point of view seems to have changed between Jesus God and Man and his Systematics:

The vicarious penal suffering, which is rightly described as the vicarious suffering of the wrath of God at sin, rests on the fellowship that Jesus Christ accepted with us sinners and with our fate as such. This link is the basis on which the death of Jesus can count as expiation for us.18

The status of penal substitution

What is the status of vicarious penal substitution in the Christian faith? This question raises at least three important issues:

  • Is there a correspondence between doctrine and the reality of what happened?
  • Is this the fundamental model for atonement, or is it just an accessory, as suggested in some recent propositions?
  • Why is this doctrine, if it is central, always contested?

Brunner said that the doctrine of penal substitution, like all biblical language, is parabolic (or symbolic) using natural language to describe spiritual realities, which implies a loose connection with the reality it describes. Packer, on the other hand, refers to the doctrine of penal substitution as an analogical model in which knowledge corresponds conceptually to a reality in objective but limited fashion. The doctrine of penal vicarious substitution, like any other doctrine, is an approximate model which must be verified by its correspondence with the Scripture. The paradoxical nature of penal substitution is the conjoining, in one act, of expressions of justice and love, wrath and approbation, judgement and grace, death and life. It is precisely this which many find unacceptable today. However as Packer says, penal substitution does not offer an explication of the how but only of the what of atonement. Rationalism in the formulation of penal substitution and the temptation to play the Socinians on their own ground must be avoided. Mystery surrounds atonement.

If the biblical language concerning sacrifice is very often metaphorical or symbolic, this does not imply it is mythical. Bultmann recognised that the cross is presented by the NT writers as a penal substitutionary sacrifice, but deemed this truth so time-bound as to be limited and inapplicable.19 Reformed theology has affirmed that concerning the sacrifice of Christ and its meaning, the forensic language is fundamental and lasting and the surround is peripheral.

There may be many reasons why such a central doctrine to the Christian faith has not won universal acclaim, including the fact that the doctrine of Christ’s priesthood implies theological discernment and that involves presuppositions. However, the forensic model for divine acceptance of sinners is fundamental and others are compatible with it in a complementary sense.

Traditional objections

Traditional objections to penal substitution are interesting in so far as they are echoed in recent constructions, even in the ‘evangelical’ camp. These criticisms can be reduced to a short list. Dabney, in his book published in the last century, Christ our Penal Substitute, lists six and in Atonement Today five are presented.20 The model of penal substitution is deemed unacceptable by its detractors because it is:

  • ontological and objective, not demonstrative or subjective (liberalism);
  • unethical, as sin and guilt are personal and non-transferable (Socinianism);
  • untrinitarian, or implies tri-theistic divisions in God;
  • self-contradictory, since God the Father cannot act for and against Christ at one and the same time;
  • finally, a wrong interpretation of Biblical data. Sacrifice does not imply penal substitution. Various images are merged in a totalising way and the legal model is given a non-bibical pre-eminence.21This proposition is influential at present in the Anglo-Saxon world.

If nearly all of these criticisms of penal substitution retain their relevance, perhaps the hermeneutic one, expressed by C. Gunton and others has become most important, and its themes are taken up in Atonement Today.

Some recent objections to penal substitution

Atonement Today is interesting as it comes from what is thought to be an ‘evangelical’ stable and it shows how modern academic evangelicalism is evolving; how it is taking its distance from the classic doctrine and what criticisms of the former approach are deemed important. Any proposition which wants a hearing on the issue of penal substitution will have to reply to what is said here, particularly in the articles by J. Goldingay, S. Travis and T. Smail.22

Three criticisms are made of vicarious penality, in the following areas: hermeneutic adequation, linguistic and exegetical plausibility and the meaning of sin and guilt.

In the field of hermeneutic adequation it is stated that owing to culture shift, talk of penal substitution is no longer intelligible. People today are not worried about sin but about suffering. It is hermeneutically impracticable in the present climate to speak of suffering for sin rather than suffering related to destiny. Human experience is not related in any meaningful way to sin and righteousness. The existential problem for our contemporaries is alienation or meaninglessness, and how it should be handled.

Smail says that contemporary society is not interested in the solution of penal substitution, because it is not even aware of the problem.23 Furthermore, the wrath of God and punishment are really offensive to the modern mind. It is hard to disagree with this analysis. Christian preaching finds itself in difficulty when God’s holiness and law, judgement against sin and eternal perdition must be mentioned. Modern individualism has led to a breakdown of universal moral law, and when moral law goes down in the cosmic computer, judicial law inevitably follows suit. When the link between moral right and wrong and judicial consequences is weakened on the social level, it becomes difficult to speak about judgement for moral wrongs, and even more impossible to understand how any man could undergo judicial consequences for the moral wrongs of others.

The problem of hermeneutical adequation appears to be correctly stated, but have the right answers been given?

On the level of exegetical and linguistic analysis, the argument in Atonement Today is clear. The language of the NT is metaphorical, which implies a great diversity of ways of speaking of the death of Christ and a comparable diversity in ways of reading it. The legal metaphor, one among many for describing the death of Jesus, is not necessarily the central one and should not be separated and isolated from others in such a way as to become a controlling matrix. The metaphors for the death of Christ do not come together in a unified way in one theory. The presupposition reigning here is a disjunctive one, to use Blocher’s expression.24

How does Goldingay in his article on ‘Old Testament sacrifice and the death of Christ’ deal with this theme? He states that sacrifice can mean the following:

  • a way of giving a gift;
  • a way of cleansing and restoration;
  • a bridge between this world and the holy which also often requires the destruction of the offering;
  • a way of handling violence in the community.25

He concludes that Jesus’ death was punitive to satisfy not divine, but human justice. Goldingay sees no relation between the fact that Jesus was condemned for treason and blasphemy and that sinners are accountable to God for just such offences. In addition, he affirms that if Jesus died a cursed death, his death was not a sacrifice because he was killed by an act of violence. Sacrifice does not require cruelty or violence, a theory to which neither Girard nor animal rights activists would necessarily warm! In this way, Jesus absorbed the power of evil which is a key to peace in the world.26

This blunt summary hardly does justice to the sophistication and complexity of Goldingay’s argument, but one gets the drift. If Jesus’ death can be called sacrificial, it has little to do with divine retributive justice. On the exegetical level, penal substitution is not adequate to explain what happened at Golgotha—it is only one of many dimensions involved in the cross. And when it is referred to, the meaning of the cross is transformed. Does not this way of examining texts imply a non complementarity which plays off some texts against others and makes a selection of favourable models, rather that seeking a genuine analogy of Scripture in exegesis?

In addition to these formal comments, the classic doctrine of vicarious penal substitution does not escape material criticism in Atonement Today. What is the meaning of substitution, of sin and guilt in this perspective? In an article on ‘Christ as bearer of divine judgement in Paul’s thought on the atonement’ Travis states that Paul expresses the results of Christ’s death not its character, and that the NT is more concerned with the nature of salvation than with its means.

The traditional doctrine of atonement by penal substitution implies two notions-punishment inflicted from the outside and that of correspondence or equivalence in which the sin corresponds to the crime. Having examined the texts which could support this argument (Gal. 3:3; 2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 3:24–26; 5:9–10), Travis says that in these passages the retributive interpretation is the most unlikely. God takes sin seriously and Christ experienced divine judgement on our behalf, but to speak of Christ suffering vicariously or undergoing the penalty for sins is to go further than Scripture allows. Paul has more than one framework for speaking about the death of Christ. The symbolism of sacrifice does not fit in with retribution.

According to Atonement Today27 it is questionable whether Scripture presents sacrifice as propitiating God’s wrath. The language of atonement, propitiation and expiation does not coalesce. Sin pollutes and stains and sacrifice deals with stain and repulsiveness. The sinner can identify with the sacrificial victim as sin is transferred to the animal and destroyed through death. God has made it possible for our stain to be dealt with. Sacrifice is not something humans do for God, but something God does for humans in removing the stain of sin. The basic language of sacrifice is not retributive but participationist. Paul does not imply that Christ bore retribution for our sins, which presses the legal metaphor too far. Rather, Christ experienced the destructive consequences of sin, which is different from undergoing punishment.

Sin is not judged from outside. When Paul speaks of condemnation/salvation he is speaking about relationships. Christ bore and destroyed the effects of man’s separated relation with God by absorbing and exhausting sin. The cross is not primarily a case of legal status, but one of relation, and Christ in his death absorbs the mass of human condemnation.

The approach to biblical exegesis found in Goldingay and Travis is underlined in a systematic sense by the Smail’s comments. Guilt and debt are not like fines incurred by one person and paid by another. The cross is not the story of forensic imputation but of Christ’s identification with us. Christ did not remove sin as punishment through payment, but he removed sinful humanity and replaced it with new humanity. The ‘for us’ of the cross does not mean Christ was a substitute instead of us, although it can include this. What Christ did for us and without us concerns the goal of his suffering, which includes union with Christ and restoration of true human identity.

In résumé: as in much current theology, the fusing of the hermeneutical horizons between the biblical texts and our context is sought via an emphasis on biblical pluralism and selection of what seems adequate in the text in the light of present concerns. Sin is seen in a personalistic way and sacrifice is not considered in terms of penal guilt but as dissolution of alienation and meaninglessness. The sacrifice of Christ is the factor that removes the barrier of separation separating from new humanity.

In this way some sort of comprehensive view is sought between creation, sin and redemption, a triad which the authors of Atonement Today do not wish to deny.

Forgotten aspects of Reformed theology

Two specific aspects of the Reformed tradition seem to have disappeared from the theological horizon that has been scanned.

In his little book entitled Christ our Penal Substitute, Dabney makes frequent use of the term ‘relational’, as do the authors of Atonement Today and many others. In fact few expressions about sin are more prevalent, as Blocher says, in the search for a gracious neighbour rather than a gracious God.28 It is interesting to note that Dabney uses the same word in a different sense from Goldingay, Travis et al., ‘relational’ being synonymous with ‘federal’ not ‘horizontal’.

Speaking of sin, Dabney makes an important distinction between reatus poenae and reatus culpae. The first refers to sin as guilt and liability to punishment in the juridical sense, whereas the second is personal and subjective sin. The word condemnation is not writ large on the pages of Atonement Today. What happened? Ignoring the distinction between subjective sin and divine punishment according to the criteria of the law, subjective sin has been universalised. In other words, individual stains are generalised to describe the globally degenerate situation of humanity. Subjective-relational sin is consequently ‘absorbed’ by Christ who assumes the stain and wipes it away.

However, absorption is material and sin is spiritual. Christ absorbing subjective spiritual demerit does not make much sense. Reatus culpae, or subjective culpability, is inalienable; sinners remain such until the final redemption of the body. Subjective sin can never be dissolved or transferred to another. What was done yesterday belongs to the sinner until the final resurrection and judgement. Past memories, past sins and dreams are inescapable. Even Bruce Springsteen knows that: ‘these memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse’ (The River)!

The Reformed doctrine of reatus poenae can handle this problem. The dual triads: sin, condemnation and death/righteousness, justification and life are made theologically intelligible in forensic terms, not in subjective and personal ones. There is an essential distinction between sinfulness and guilt, which corresponds to Scripture’s doctrine. Sinfulness is not removed subjectively during this life. Guilt, however, is removed as condemnation and judgement by the cross. Is not this the meaning of Luther’s simul justus et peccator?29

By his sacrifice as penal substitute, Christ does not remove personal subjective sin, which will die with this body, although it is progressively limited in its vitality by mortification and sanctification through the Spirit (Rom. 8:12ff). The Mediator removes liability to penal judgement and guilt in the sense of condemnation. Thanks be to God that Jesus abolished the objective liability of sinners! This allows the Christian to get up tomorrow a justified sinner knowing, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, that the imputed righteousness of Christ covers all sins, past present and future (q. 60)!

Much exegetical work would be needed to establish this point and even more to establish the second one. It concerns divine law which according to Turretin30 has three qualifications in Scripture. The law of the Creator functions in a triple sense:

  • moral (or natural) law, which is universal;
  • federal law, which is covenantal and binds humanity to God;,
  • and penal law, which exacts punishment on sinners.

In covenantal theology the moral law orders the universe, because God is essentially a holy and righteous God. This implies that federal law acknowledged by obedience and penal law can never co-exist in the same individual. Whereas moral law is permanent, the federal relation of communion is not intrinsic or perpetual. Hodge put it this way:

The penal relation to the law is that which instantly supervenes when the law is violate … the penal and federal relations to the law are mutually exclusive. The instant a moral agent occurs the penalty his federal relation to the law necessarily terminates because the end of that relation—that is his confirmation in a holy character—has definitely failed … Adam was created under the natural and the federal relation to law. When he sinned he continued under the natural, and passed from the federal to the penal, where his non-elect descendants remain for all eternity.31

This serves to indicate the nature of the office of the Mediator. As second Adam, Christ fulfils all the federal requirements in our place by perfect obedience to the moral law. His relation to God was not penal on his own account as he suffered the judgement and condemnation of sin on our behalf. Thus God had no anger against the person of his Son, but against sinners in the office Christ executed on their behalf. It is clear that the sacrifice of Christ does not imply a crude transfer of subjective sins to the person of the Mediator. It was an undergoing of judgement for sin on our behalf, which removed the penal accusation of the law, as divine justice will not judge twice.

Thus when Scripture, as Dabney points out, refers to Christ bearing our sins in his body on the tree, we are to observe that metonymy is being used. Individual sins are not incorporated in Christ, but Christ bore our death and judgement in his body. As Morris has indicated, when Scripture uses the word ‘blood’, in almost all cases it indicates not the life of the animal, but its death.32 The high priest enters the holy place with the blood, symbolising expiation and propitiation. Jesus suffered outside the city to make the people holy through his own blood, the blood of the eternal covenant (Heb. 13:12, 20). Again ‘remission of sin’ refers to the remission of guilt-condemnation and not to the subjective dimension of sinfulness. Ignorance of this distinction leads to a theologically unsophisticated notion of what the sacrifice of Christ involved.

The motivation for the refusal of the classic doctrine of substitution invariably lies in distaste for the penal aspect of sacrifice and the wrath of God it expresses. In some cases universalism is just around the corner.

Some conclusions in the light of Reformed theology

It has been observed how the attack in the other team are playing in hermeneutics has been observed; also, how their defence is organised in exegesis. Many of their efforts, however, are concentrated in the mid-field of systematic theology where both exegesis and hermeneutics work hard against penal substitution. These are further discussed in the following three areas.

One: To affirm that sin is always personal and that sacrifice is not vicarious and penal in nature has as a double theological result.

Firstly, the alternatives proposed both in the past and more recently are reductions which, as Packer has indicated in his article, ‘What did the cross achieve?’, can be harmonised in a satisfactory way with the notion of penal substitution. There is a sense in which the suffering of Christ is exemplary as in liberalism, the cross presents a victory as G. Aulen proposed, God is justified as P.T. Forsyth argued, the judge is judged as in K. Barth, or in which Christ has paid a debt. All of these can fit in with penal substitution, but to reduce the cross to one of the other of them is to lose the essence of the work of Christ.

Secondly, Reformed theology at its best has always been attentive to contextualise the doctrine of penal substitution in terms of the relations between God and man expressed in the covenants of redemption, of works and of grace. Dabney insists repeatedly on the relational character of the work of the Son. Far from creating Trinitarian problems or veering to tri-theism, covenant theology allows substitution to be placed in the context of the eternal relations between the Father and the Son—the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world—and the historical relations with his people. Insofar as the relation to the law, not actual sin, is the locus of the transfer from the sinner to the sinless, nothing unethical is implied. Consent and free choice characterise the engagement of the Mediator (John 10:18). Furthermore, since sin and virtue are not two principles, but aspects of one and the same principle in relation to the Holy God, Christ’s sin bearing is not to be considered theologically apart from the fact that he is the source of righteousness, justification and life. Penal substitution through sacrifice implies at the same time:

  • moral the substitution of the innocent in the place of the guilty;
  • moral the transfer of guilt;
  • moral satisfaction by vicarious death;
  • moral and forgiveness through the imputation of justice.

On the other hand a denial of penal substitution will invariably raise questions about divine providence, God’s distributive justice, the nature of original sin and everlasting punishment.

Two: Concerning the biblical metaphors and the allegation that penal substitution is non-fundamental and inadequate, is it possible to demonstrate that the forensic metaphor is fundamental and pervasive in Scripture? The legal aspect does not minimise the relational, as the authors of Atonement Today would have us believe. Rather the legal is the foundation of all that is relational, as everyday experiences demonstrate. Blocher affirms the centrality of legal language in the following terms:

The legal and sacrificial metaphors in Scripture have such frequency and regularity, they constitute such a stable network, with predictable usages, they are so consistent, that they cannot be dealt with as ‘mere’ metaphors … there are concepts attached to linguistic signs.33

Paul says in Romans 8:32, ‘God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all’. The terms ‘sparing’ and ‘giving up’ have almost a technical sense in Scripture (the one sacrificial and the other legal). The expression ‘not sparing’ is used in the LXX to describe the sacrifice of Isaac and in Acts 2:23 we read that Christ was ‘given over’ by God’s decision and foreknowledge. This technical language fits in well with Romans 8:32—God sent his own son to be a sin offering. It is not exegetical forcing to see in this passage that Christ’s death was judicial, divinely ordained and substitutionary.

It is to be regretted that theologians of the calibre of Gunton and Goldingay doubt that penal substitution is present in Isaiah 53, where penal language and sacrificial language effectively come together. Legal metaphors are not isolated from others in many Scriptural passages. Blocher refers to Romans 3:24–26 and affirms that here forensic, ransom and sacrificial language are mixed. In the light of this it is difficult to follow Goldingay when he states that the languages of atonement-propitiation-expiation and divine wrath do not come together in Scripture. Such a position can only lead to impoverishment and the invention of crude non-biblical metaphors, such as sin being absorbed, to describe how it is dealt with at Golgotha.

Three: There remains the question of hermeneutics. As the authors of The Myth of God Incarnateargue,34 many of the correlates of incarnation are incomprehensible to our day.35 Since they wrote, post-modernism with its critique of meta-narratives and the deconstruction of the person have appeared; both render the biblical notion of sacrifice irrelevant.

Hermeneutically, why not reply: Well, so what? For two reasons: first, the ancient Greeks would never have thought of making Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven and was chained up by Zeus, their mediator with the gods. The cross will always be a folly. Second, in so far as ‘dynamic equivalences’ for the cross and sacrifice are concerned, have there ever been any at all? The cross is absolutely unique and belongs, as Brunner said, not to the realm of general but to that of special revelation.36 In that respect it cannot be reproduced, without reducing Christianity to the level of other religions and the cross to that of other religious acts. To do so is to liquidate the gospel. For that reason the theology of the cross must remain central in preaching, in spite of the offence it inevitably causes.

There is no free lunch at the end of the universe, because Christ proposed to pay for us. If the marriage supper of the lamb was costly for him it is the foundation upon which invitations are free. ‘Come all you who have no money, come buy wine and milk without money and without cost’ (Is. 55:1).

1 C. Baxter, in J. Goldingay, ed., Atonement Today, (London: SPCK, 1995), published following a symposium at St John’s College, Nottingham, England.

2 On the complexity of Calvin’s views see R.A. Peterson, Calvin and the Atonement, (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1999).

3 F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, II, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, ch. x–xiii).

4 H. Blocher, Christologie, II, (Vaux-sur-Seine: Fac étude, 1986), 341ff.

5 J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, (London: SCM, 1981), 139ff.

6 Cf. J.D. Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

7 J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), ch. 2, §2.

8 Cf. C. Gunton, The Actuality of the Atonement, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988); P. Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation, (London: DLT, 1989), M. Winter, The Atonement, (London: G. Chapman, 1995).

9 J. McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement, (London: Macmillan, 1856).

10 Influenced perhaps by R. de Vaux on ‘communion sacrifices’ Ancient Israel, II, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965). ch.10. Cf. F.M. Young, Sacrifice and the Death of Christ, (London, SPCK 1975), 96—‘Sacrifice is properly treated as cult-language not the language of the law-courts and judgements.’

11 P. Wells, ‘Sacred violence or covenantal sacrifice?’ in a forthcoming Festschrift for R. Rushdoony, All Things in Subjection, ed. M. Selbrede. Also R.G. Hammerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence. Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).

12 R. Nicole, Standing Forth. The Collected Writings of Roger Nicole, (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2002), chs 11–16.

13 E. Brunner, The Mediator, (London: Lutterworth, 1934), ch. xix.

14 M. Neusch, Le sacrifice dans les religions, (Paris, Beauchesne, 1994).

15 1 Samuel 15:22, Ecclesiastes 5:1, Hosea 6:6, Amos 5:21ff, Matthew 9:15; 12:7, Hebrews 10:5, 8 etc.

16 J.I. Packer, ‘What did the Cross achieve? The logic of penal substitution’, Tyndale Bulletin, (1974) 1ff. Cf. D. Kidner, ‘Sacrifice, metaphors and meaning’, Tyndale Bulletin, (1982) 119–36.

17 Contra Baxter’s criticism of B.B. Warfield, in Atonement Today, 61ff. Cf. J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 33ff.

18 W. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, II, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 427.

19 R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, I, (New York: Scribners, 1951), 46, 84f.

20 R.L. Dabney. Christ our Penal Substitute, Harrison, Va, Sprinkle, 1985.

21 Gunton, The Actuality of the Atonement.

22 G. Williams makes a noteworthy attempt in ‘The Cross and the Punishment of Sin’, D. Petersen ed., Where Wrath and Mercy Meet, Carlisle, Paternoster, 2001.

23 Smail, in Goldingay ed., Atonement Today, 76.

24 Blocher’s article ‘The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Current Theological Situation’, European Journal of Theology, 8:1, 1999, gives a detailed analysis and criticism of the ideas of Atonement Today. I have greatly benefited from this article at several points.

25 Goldingay ed., Atonement Today, 3ff.

26 The word ‘absorb’ was used earlier by P.T. Forsyth, C.F.D. Moule and F.M. Young in Sacrifice and Death of Christ, London, SPCK, 1975. Cf. Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation, 105ff.

27 Baxter excepted.

28 Blocher, ‘The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ’.

29 In a sense, it is quite possible and logical that Roman Catholics can change their doctrine of sacrifice, with their notion of infused righteousness leading to justification. In discussions concerning justification, more reflection is needed concerning its relation to penal substitution.

30 F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, q. 22, 140.

31 A.A. Hodge, The Atonement, (Cherry Hill, NJ: Mack, nd.), ch. vi.

32 L. Morris, The Atonement, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 55. Out of 362 uses of ‘blood’, 203 refer to a violent death.

33 Blocher, ‘The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ’.

34 J. Hick, ed., London, 1977.

35 Cf. also J. Hick in The Metaphor of God Incarnate, London, SCM, 1993, ch. 1.

36 Brunner, The Mediator, ch. i–iii.

Paul Wells

Paul Wells
Faculté Jean Calvin
Aix-en-Provence, France