Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul

Written by Simon J. Gathercole Reviewed By Guy Waters

Even the casual reader of Paul cannot help but appreciate the centrality of the death of Christ to the apostle’s theology. But what exactly does it mean to Paul that “Christ died for our sins . . .” (1 Cor 15:3)? In Defending Substitution, Simon Gathercole defends the proposition, controversial within New Testament scholarship, that Paul understands Jesus to have died as substitute for the sins of his people.

Gathercole begins by providing definition and parameters for his study. He defines substitution as “Christ’s death in our place, instead of us” (pp. 15, 17). Gathercole observes that substitution may but need not entail such concepts as penalty, propitiation, and satisfaction (pp. 18–23). Gathercole’s interests lie strictly in substitution in Paul’s writings. Gathercole furthermore distinguishes substitution from the similar category of representation. Representation entails that the agent and beneficiaries are “part of the [same] body”; substitution, that the agent “tak[es] the place of and thereby oust[s]” the beneficiaries (p. 20). That Jesus’s death is substitutionary means that he “did something, underwent something, so that we did not and would not have to do so” (p. 15).

Observing that many New Testament scholars understand Paul to teach that Christ’s death was representative but not substitutionary, Gathercole surveys some of the leading exegetical objections voiced against substitution in Paul: Tübingen’s understandings of representation, Morna Hooker’s theory of “interchange,” and J. L. Martyn’s model of apocalyptic deliverance. For all their diversity, Gathercole concludes, each objection fails to account for the fact that Paul understands Jesus’s death to address individual trangressions, not merely sin in the aggregate, and that Paul understands sin not only in terms of its power but also in terms of guilt.

Gathercole proceeds to defend substitution from two passages in Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 and Romans 5:6–8. In 1 Corinthians 15:3–4, Paul specifies what is central to the gospel that he and the other apostles preach. Part of that core is the proposition that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” Gathercole argues that the “Scriptures” that Paul has in mind here must include Isaiah 53, the account of the Suffering Servant. When we recognize this background, then we must acknowledge the place of substitution in 1 Corinthians 15:3. The Servant “suffers alone” for persons “who are responsible for this suffering and yet are miraculously saved by it” (p. 68). His death, furthermore, is not only “caused by the sinful behavior of his persecutors but also regarded as a punishment in place of the people for their benefit” (p. 69). Christ, Paul declares, is this Servant who died a substitutionary death.

In Romans 5:6–8, Paul draws a comparison between Christ’s death and “other heroic deaths” (p. 86). Which deaths might Paul have had in mind? Gathercole argues that within Greco-Roman literature and philosophy there was a venerable tradition of the noble, vicarious death. In particular, the substitutionary death of Alcestis for her husband, Admetus, was “perhaps the most well-established example of substitutionary death for pagans” in the first century (p. 96). This example may well be in the background of Romans 5:7. For all the differences between the death of Jesus and the death of Alcestis, their tertium comparationis is telling: the death of a substitute in which “the sacrificial death of the one aims at rescuing the other from death” (p. 104).

Gathercole concludes by observing that defining the meaning of Jesus’s death is not a zero-sum enterprise. That Paul understood Jesus’s death to be substitutionary in no way necessarily militates against it being also representative or liberating (p. 111). What must be granted, however, is that, for Paul, Jesus’s death is never less than substitutionary.

Defending Substitution is a measured, fresh, and persuasive statement of the case that Paul understood Jesus’s death to be substitutionary. In addressing two critical passages in Paul, Gathercole highlights dimensions of those passages that are sometimes overlooked in this discussion—the Isaianic background to 1 Corinthians 15:3 and the Greco-Roman background to Romans 5:6–8. While Paul should be understood in these texts to speak of Jesus’s death in substitutionary terms independently of these background considerations (cf. p. 72), Gathercole’s findings offer welcome corroboration of an often-embattled biblical teaching.

At points, greater clarity would have strengthened the argument. Gathercole states, for example, that “Jesus’ death is for Paul a theological consequence of sins rather than a straightforwardly historical one” (p. 72, emphasis original). Gathercole here means to say that Jesus’s death “cannot be explained merely in terms of historical causation.” Rather, “the divinely ordained consequence of sins is always death” (pp. 72–73). Gathercole’s point is well-taken, but the wording of his proposed distinction (“historical,” “theological”) could permit a distancing of the divine purpose from the events of history that Paul would not have acknowledged. Furthermore, while Gathercole distinguishes substitution and representation, he rightly acknowledges the difficulty of maintaining a distinction, given the inherent overlap and similarities between the two ideas (p. 20n14). He subsequently offers some suggestions how the two might be integrated, but stops short of a concrete proposal (pp. 111–12). Further reflection on the relationship between substitution and representation would have enhanced Gathercole’s case.

One of the most salutary features of Defending Substitution is its unwillingness to be forced into false dichotomies. Is Christ’s death substitutionary or representative? Substitutionary or liberating? In declining to accept such terms of debate, and in probing the depths of Paul’s teaching on substitution, Gathercole succeeds in helping us to grasp the magnitude and depth of Christ’s death for our sins.

Guy Waters

Guy Waters
Reformed Theological Seminary
Jackson, Mississippi, USA

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