Is The Doctrine Of Penal Substitutionary Atonement A Late, Western Doctrine?

It is unfortunate that so many have chosen to use the noun religion as a foil.

According to James, there is nothing wrong with being religious. The noun translated “religion” also means “worship.” There is a “pure and undefined” religion. There is a God ordained worship (Col 2:23) and there is “will-worship.” What is wrong with a religion of salvation by works is not that it is a religion but that it teaches salvation by works.

 

Recently on Twitter, Tim Keller wrote,

The gospel is neither religion nor irreligion it is something else altogether. Religion makes law and moral obedience a means of salvation, while irreligion makes the individual a law to self. The gospel is that Jesus pays the penalty of disobedience so we can be saved by grace.

My interest here is not primarily to engage the contemporary juxtaposition of religion with the gospel except to say that Keller’s characterization is both quite popular and virtually without foundation in the history of Christianity until quite recently. I think I understand the point that he is making and I do not entirely disagree with it but it is unfortunate that so many have chosen to use the noun religion as a foil. Religion is unavoidable. Everyone has one, whether or not they admit it. There is what Paul calls “will-worship” (translated by the NASB as “self-made religion” in Col 2:23). As Keller well knows, James uses religion in a different sense in James 1:26–27:

If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion (θρησκεία) is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion (θρησκεία) in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:26–27; NASB).

According to James, there is nothing wrong with being religious. The noun translated “religion” also means “worship.” There is a “pure and undefined” religion. There is a God ordained worship (Col 2:23) and there is “will-worship.” What is wrong with a religion of salvation by works is not that it is a religion but that it teaches salvation by works.

The point of this essay is to engage a reply to Keller’s comment by Stuart Hazeldine, the director of the film version of The Shack, 2017, who wrote:

OR he paid a ransom to the powers of evil to free us from our bondage to sin – as most of the church originally believed before so many Western Christian thinkers fell in love with the idea of penalties and punishment.

I take Hazeldine to be repeating the widely held but erroneous notion that the earliest Christian doctrine of the atonement was some version of the Ransom Theory, whereby Christ died, as Hazeldine wrote, to pay a ransom to the Devil to free us. Think of the scene in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, when Aslan allows himself to be humiliated, placed on a stone table, and killed in order to break the power of the “deep magic.” That is a good picture of the Ransom Theory of the atonement. It has also been argued that the earliest thus most authentic doctrine of the atonement is the “Christus Victor” approach, in which Christ is said to have died to triumph over the power of evil. This view, it is claimed, was the authentic ancient Christian view until it was supplanted by the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement taught by Anselm in the late 11th century in Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-Man?).

About a decade ago I wrote part of the entry on “The Atonement,” for The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009). As I researched the question, of course, I read Gustaf Aulén’s Christus Victor. For many this volume has become the standard historical survey of the doctrine of the atonement. I found it quite disappointing. The categories are anachronistic and his principal types simply do not fit his categories neatly. Anselm’s “Satisfaction” (the penal substitutionary view) view was not new to him. Athanasius taught virtually the same doctrine, in the same categories in the 4th century. Abelard’s alleged “Moral Examplar” doctrine of the atonement in his commentary on Romans is not exactly what he wrote in his Sic et Non (This and Not This) his theological textbook. There is substitutionary language in his Romans commentary and text was intended more to give students an opportunity to work through problems than to give his views. Finally, though one certainly sees elements of Christus Victor in the ancient church there is no need to juxtapose that theme with the doctrine of satisfaction nor is it at all clear to me that the latter is not just as ancient and well sourced in the second, third, and fourth-century fathers as the Christus Victor view. Christ was both triumphant and the satisfaction of the divine wrath.

Each fall I have the privilege of reading the Apostolic Fathers along with several other Patristic texts with a group of students in the Patristics Seminar. Each time we go through these texts I am impressed not with the absence of the language about Christ’s satisfaction but with its presence in places where one might expect it and almost always without apology. In other words, the fathers who mention, even in passing, seem to take it for granted that this is apostolic doctrine. Of course, they knew their Old Testament. They knew about the sacrificial system. They understood the significance of the priest placing his hands on the head of a lamb or a goat, that those sacrifices symbolized the transference of sin and guilt and the execution of divine justice upon them in the sacrifice. The early Christians understood the significance of the Baptizer’s declaration: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Further, it is striking how freely and how often the Fathers either assume or say that there is a legal, hence penal aspect to our relationship with God. In the Greco-Roman world it was well understood that relationships were grounded in law. The early Christians did not do, as we often seem to do today, juxtapose relationships with law.

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