Back in the day

It is often assumed that any view of the cross must have at the centre the idea that the human race is to be punished, Jesus took the punishment, and so we go free (penal substitution). It works as an explanation though it raises serious questions if it is not nuanced extremely well about the inter-relationship of God (the Father) and Jesus (the Son). At worst it gives us a loving Son and a more-than-overbearing Father; a loving Son and a holy God who cannot look on sin, who turned his face away from his Son, abandoning him on the cross (thus ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me’). It divides the Trinity. Not only do I distance myself from such views, even the more nuanced ones, it might come as a surprise that the penal substitionary view is not the most ancient view – unless one ascribes it to the pages of the New Testament itself.

The two oldest views (developed soon after the NT period) seem to be what could be termed ‘Recapitulation‘ and ‘Christus Victor‘ (the defeat of the powers, though that term really owes itself to a certain Swedish Lutheran theologian / bishop who published a book with that title in 1930). Recapitulation was simply that Jesus assumed every aspect of humanity, ‘retraced’ the steps of Adam, so he redeemed what was lost, and sin was killed in the Son. There is a great emphasis on the reality of the humanity of Jesus, and also on the nature of two humanities – one in Adam and one in Jesus. The conquering of death for all is essential.

With Christus Victor we see how they wrestled with the idea of ransom. For those who suggested the ransom was paid to Satan, there was an acknowledgement that the devil had certain legitimate claims over humanity. The debt is paid for the release of humanity, and now with Jesus in his grasp the overwhelming goodness and holiness of Jesus just proved too much to hold and the devil having already lost the hold over humanity just could not hold on to Jesus – hence salvation for humanity and resurrection for Jesus.

In neither of the above views – which I consider historically are the two most ancient strands – are there any discussion of Christ appeasing the Father nor of the Father punishing the Son. Those discussions come later.

A big shift takes place with a certain Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm (1033-1109) who using the framework of his day put forward the ‘debt’ that is owed due to the universal failure to honour God, to pay him what is his due. The debt is paid by the one who honoured God, all offence is removed. The culture of the day is the background, with landlords and serfs, and in the case of God a supreme king. The debt is one that can never be paid. With Anselm there is a shift, and a further shift comes as the culture moves on to the time of the Reformation. Debt language can continue but justice and guilt become central. The innocent one dies in the place of the guilty, so the guilty go free. This shift has essentially made this, or a modified version of this, the central understanding.

As I consider further aspects in future posts here are a few thoughts:

  • Does God need appeasing? Can God not forgive without someone (Jesus) standing in the gap? Is forgiveness from God to be understood along the same lines as we understand forgiveness? In one of my books I suggest that ‘wrath’ when applied to God is righteous in Scripture, but we do not find such a description of human anger – thus we should not look to human anger to help us understand what the Bible means when it talks of the ‘wrath of God’. Likewise with forgiveness… Forgiveness at a human level is ‘I choose to let the offence (and therefore the person) go’, ‘You owe me nothing’. If we can do that without asking for recompense, why can God not do that… And if forgiveness is to ‘let someone go’ (the Greek being also a term used for example of untying a ship to let her sail) what is being forgiven, from what are we being untied? Untied from God and the need to pay back… or untied elsewhere?
  • Assuming we want to avoid an automatic Universalism, we will find it harder to do with the concept of a payment, or any ‘in the place of humanity’ as they seem to me the most likely follow through. If it is ‘the cross’ plus repentance in what sense is it ‘the debt paid in full’? Of course there are universalistic texts and one might be happy with that understanding. The solution of a ‘only died for the elect’ of course does not do it for me… hence I find debt payment, universal guilt condemnation not to wash.
  • Any view of the cross must take seriously the unified work of the Trinity. ‘God was in Christ‘ Paul says… God is not apart from Christ, and the work was one of restoration, for ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’. The cross does not reconcile God to the world, it does not change God (wrath to acceptance) but it changes the world. It restores a broken relationship, it restores all breaches, hence the ‘restoration of all things’ is the hope. In Genesis the issues are relational breakdown and alienation.
  • And finally (but far from the final post) the cross will never be worked out theoretically. Maybe the men are not seen at the final scenes of the death of Jesus (other than one… who was characterised by love) because it is the heart, the emotions rather than the head and logic that will grasp what takes place. That for me is sure, for something of heaven and earth meet, history and new creation, humanity and divinity all meet there.

4 thoughts on “Back in the day

  1. thanks Martin,

    on a slightly parallel track to your comments above, I find the story of the prodigal son helpful here

    Did the son need to be punished for relationship with the father to be restored?

    Judging from the father’s response, I’d have to say no.

    However, while the son may have misread the likely response to his return, was his feeling of remorse and maybe of guilt misplaced? I’d say no again here.

    In other words, just because no judgement is forthcoming, this does not mean no wrong has been done.

    In rejecting the penal substitutionary view (and I agree with almost all you wrote) we should perhaps be careful to reject the idea that humankind has not rebelled. Deep repentance and gratitude are still a correct response, probably the only genuine response I’d say to hearing the gospel.



    all opinions loosely and humbly held etc etc

    1. Thanks Nigel. Yes in rejecting xx view we must be careful not to… That is the challenge in and through all this. I am sure we do not understand the depths of rebellion / sin; the extent of non-judgemental love etc… And probably all ‘formulations’ are inadequate and approximations.
      Great pull on the ‘prodigal’. And the prodigal father undermines the accepted norms, the ‘righteousness’ of society. As per most of Jesus’ teaching leaves me with an open mouth and non-grasping.

  2. This is really interesting Martin thank you. It is so useful to see how views on the cross developed and varied throughout history and learn the proper terms for each view. I have often thought that penal substitutionary atonement fits in well with judicial systems that we have in ‘civilisations’. A crime is committed and punishment is meted out accordingly sometimes brutally and in proportion to the crime. We seem to like it that way or at least accept it with very little questioning. In some aboriginal cultures if a person committed a crime then he/she was made to sit down with the elders and face up to the crime, learn it’s implications etc. with the hope of restorative justice and reconciliation. This fits in more neatly with the idea of the cross being the means by which all things are restored I feel. Just a few thoughts

    1. Drawing on other cultures can be so enriching as we have such a narrow outlook, and given that the western courthouse seems to dominate the understanding we are left a little impoverished.

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