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December 19, 2007


Derek Rishmawy

That's an interesting quote but again, like most critiques of penal substitution, I think it falls prey to Wright's critique of these anti-penal substitutionary views that you posted in his article. (The part where he critiques Jeffrey John's attack on Penal substitution.) For one thing, it seemingly ignores the Biblical evidence in Paul, Hebrews and elsewhere in the NT and also, I take very seriously the Servant Passages in Isaiah as a way of understanding the Atonement, particularly Isaiah 53 (Or ripping off Wright, for "jesus' own self-understanding.") Also, his talking about God regularly being depicted as forgiving others as a way of showing that God forgives all the time in the Bible without it is just plain confused. For one thing, he falsely splits off God's forgiveness in all these cases from their ground which is precisely the Cross of Christ whose effect is transhistorical. Its because of the Cross that God forgives all those times. I mean, Paul says as much in Romans 3 where it talks about God having "pass over" sins in the past but now dealing with them in Christ. The whole reason that God is so forgiving is because of the Cross, not aside from it.

Also, his implication that the debt metaphor is necessarily impersonal and that reconciliation is personal and so on and so forth really doesn't fly. For one thing, there can be debts owed to persons, individuals. For another thing, there can be personal debts owed to individuals like cops, government officials, judges so on and so forth who do not stand in relationship to us only as individuals but also as representatives and functionaries of principles and governments. In these cases, the merely "personal" reasons might not be the only ones they have to consider in dealing with those "personal" debts. They might have to consider their duties to uphold justice, truth, and so on and so forth also to be a necessary element in the way the resolve the issue of that personal debt.

Beyond that, penal substitionary atonement is not merely the elevation of the debt metaphor. There is far more going on there than some debt that needs to be paid off. There's moral guilt and the seriousness of evil and all that which I won't go into at this point except to say that he takes a reductionistic view of PSA which turns into one of the "Caricatures of the Cross."

As for his moral reasons, well, yes, when you divorce penal substitution from its historico-religious context and turn it into this timeless system apart from the whole history of Israel, Jesus as Messiah and so forth, its bound to make less sense. I mean, this critique against penal substitutionary atonement is at least as old and probably older than Immanuel Kant, in his "Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason" where he makes the same point(A more boring and uninspiring theology is hard to find.)

Beyond that, I think he makes, what to me, has become the most common mistake in theological discourse on the atonement and that is the mistake of drawing or introducing a false dichotomy. I see no reason why one ought to think of reconciliation instead of or in opposition to penal substitution. I mean, why not both? Why not try to understand how it is that because our debt has been paid, because emnity has been removed between God and man, now the two can be reconciled. They're both there. They're both important. And this brings me to another point. Why the heck don't so many of these guys try to make sense out of all the different aspects of the atonement like propitiation, redemption, expiation, reconciliation, Victory? They're all there! Why not try and use all of it instead of just reacting against an overemphasis on one by trying to deny that its even there?! And that's what half of this is. Its a reaction. Its the pendulum swing effect of an overemphasis on this part of the atonement and now its swinging too far.

I mean, honestly, The Cross of Christ by John Stott is so bloody balanced on this point I wish I could just buy all of these guys a copy and make them read it. His chapter on the problem of forgiveness addresses just this question of "Why can't God have just forgiven us? Why can't he just practice what he preaches?" Well, there are many reasons, but go ahead and read the chapter. I'm too tired to go on.


Derek... thanks for taking the time to comment. Maybe we'll have to hang for lunch sometime to talk more. Anyway, here are a few thoughts...

Okay, let me start off by saying that in no way was McGrath saying that we need to abandon penal substitutionary atonement, which he makes pretty clear in his post. What he is bringing is a critique of the understanding - not an call of heresy upon it.

That being said, I would add a few things.

Every vision of the meaning of the work of the cross is a theological interpretation upon the text. Meaning that while scripture speaks of the work of the cross, it is how we make sense of that event that brings about our atonement interpretation. As I have mentioned before, to see the atonement through one singular interpretative lens and call it the biblical interpretation is naive at best. I am not here to negate, nor say that we must abandon all substitutionary models. What I am saying is that I believe that penal substitutionary atonement needs to be re-examined and the texts read through a different set of presuppositions.

Here's one of the main issues. Substitutionary atonement is quite foreign to Jewish thinking and interpretation. When Israel engaged in the sacrificial system, they believed that their sins were expiated, not merely propitiated for. [Jacob Milgrom's work on Leviticus through ABD is one of the best treatments on this I've read.] They did not believe that the sacrificial animal "took their place." On the day of atonement, their sins were "removed" via the goat sent into the wilderness. In addition, it is quite questionable as to whether the sacrificial system was seen as what somehow made atonement efficacious, as if God could not forgive outside of the system.

[One of the issues that needs to be resolved with a pure penal substitutionary atonement model is the reality that now God is somehow bound to some higher punishment system. If God is bound to something higher than himself, then how can he be all-powerful? In other words, can God really forgive on his own accord, or does something need to happen in order for him to forgive? If we need to do something [like a sacrificial right] in order to make forgiveness efficacious, then are we approaching salvation by works?]

As for Isaiah 53, I'm with you - there is much to be cleaned about the atonement there. At issue though is what does it communicate about the atonement. How do we read it? There simply is no Jewish understanding of that passage as being substitutionary in nature. Once again, it seems that bringing a strictly substitutionary interpretation into the Isaiah 53 passage was a Christian interpretive movement. Does the suffering bring about something on behalf of the many? Yes. But that is slightly different than saying that it was brought about in a substitutionary model. Nowhere in the passage does it explicitly say that we were the ones who should have suffered.

When we say that "Jesus died for us" - we are saying that the work of the cross and the resurrection have been for our benefit, on behalf of us. I don't know if it has to be read only as some punishment being done to Jesus instead of us.

As for Wright, I don't believe that he holds to a "penal substitutionary" atonement model in the strictest sense. I believe that he favors the Christus Victor model as the overarching atonement theme. This is the reason he endorsed Steve Chalke's book The Lost Message of Jesus, which caused quite a stir in some conservative ranks.

Derek Rishmawy

Lunch: I'd totally be down.

Everything else: Actually, when we look at the theology of the maccabean martyrs who thought that they could take upon themselves the suffering and punishment of Israel in place of the whole, we have an example in 2nd-Temple Judaism of PSA. Wright, JVG 580s.

Beyond that, the PSA model and the Christus Victor model are not mutually exlusive. They can be integrated quite easily. C.S. Lewis did it in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So, While Wright clearly likes Christus Victor themes, he also endorses PSA as a valid and Biblical understanding of the Cross as you can see in the quotes below:

Wright about his own work and the work of Steve Chalke: "Imagine my puzzlement, then, when I heard that a great storm had broken out because 'Steve Chalke has denied substitutionary atonement'. After all, the climax of my book Jesus and the Victory of God, upon which Steve had relied to quite a considerable extent, is the longest ever demonstration, in modern times at least, that Jesus' self-understanding as he went to the cross was rooted in, among other Old Testament passages, Isaiah 53, the clearest and most uncompromising statement of penal substitution you could find."

Wright on PSA:
"Or what account does Dr John give of Romans 3.24-26? Here, whatever we may think about the notorious hilasterion ('propitiation'? 'expiation'? 'mercy-seat'?), in the preceding section of the letter (1.18-3.20) God's wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness, and by the end of the passage, in accordance with the 'justice' of God, those who were formerly sinners and under God's wrath are now justified freely by grace through faith. To put it somewhat crudely, the logic of the whole passage makes it look as though something has happened in the death of Jesus through which the wrath of God has been turned away. It is on this passage that Charles E. B. Cranfield, one of the greatest English commentators of the last generation, wrote a memorable sentence which shows already that the caricature Dr John has offered was exactly that:

We take it that what Paul's statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved. (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. 2 vols. Edinburgh: T & T Clark; vol. 1, 1975, p. 217.)"

Or: "It is with the Servant, and the theology of the whole of Isaiah 40-55, that we find the explanation for the otherwise bizarre idea of one person standing in for the many (which, as Dr John says, we might otherwise find incomprehensible and deeply offensive). The sense which penal substitution makes it does not make, in the last analysis, within the narrative of feudal systems of honour and shame. It certainly does not make the sense it makes within the world of some arbitrary lawcourt. It makes the sense it makes within the biblical world, the Old Testament world, within which the creator God, faced with a world in rebellion, chose Israel - Abraham and his family - as the means of putting everything right, and, when Israel itself had rebelled, promised to set that right as well and so to complete the purpose of putting humans right and thus setting the whole created order back the right way up. And the long-promised way by which this purpose would be achieved was, as hints and guesses in the Psalms and prophets indicate, that Israel's representative, the anointed king, would be the one through whom this would be accomplished. Like David facing Goliath, he would stand alone to do for his people what they could not do for themselves. It is because Jesus, as Israel's representative Messiah, was therefore the representative of the whole human race, that he could appropriately become its substitute. That is how Paul's logic works. 'One died for all, therefore all died,' he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5.14; and thus, seven verses later, 'God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin,' he concluded seven verses later, 'so that in him we might become the righteousness of God' (5.21). And it is within that argument that we find the still deeper truth, which is again rooted in the dark hints and guesses of the Old Testament: that the Messiah through whom all this would be accomplished would be the very embodiment of YHWH himself. 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself' (2 Corinthians 5.19).

Underneath all this discussion is a deep concern which has emerged again in our own day, notably in the writings of the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. In his magisterial Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), he demonstrates, with sharp examples from his native Balkans, that it simply won't do, when faced with radical evil, to say, 'Oh well, don't worry, I will love you and forgive you anyway.' That (as the 1938 Doctrine Report already saw) is not forgiveness; it is belittling the evil that has been done. Genuine forgiveness must first 'exclude', argues Volf, before it can 'embrace'; it must name and shame the evil, and find an appropriate way of dealing with it, before reconciliation can happen. Otherwise we are just papering over the cracks. As I said early on, if God does not hate the wickedness that happens in his beautiful world, he is neither a good nor a just God, and chaos is come again. Somehow I sense that Dr John knows this, since he writes movingly of Jesus Christ as God coming down into the midst of the mess and the muddle to be with us and . . . to rescue us - though he never says how this rescue is effected. But again and again I sense in Dr John's writing the problem which Anselm already identified: you have not yet considered how serious sin is. It isn't that God happens to have a petulant thing about petty rules. He is the wise and loving creator who cannot abide his creation being despoiled. On the cross he drew the full force not only of that despoiling, but of his own proper, judicial, punitive rejection of it, on to himself. That is what the New Testament says. That is what Jesus himself, I have argued elsewhere, believed what was going on. That is what the classic Anglican formularies and liturgy say."

All of these quotes were taken from Wright's article "The Cross and the Caricatures." at ntwrightpage.com

In light of all of these and more that you can find in his New Interpreters commentary on Romans especially chapter 3, we can safely say that Wright most definitely does not reject penal substitutionary atonement and in fact has defended it at length.


I was thumbing through a book called _Four Views of the Atonement_ the other week. Here is the link:


I thought it was a really good, balanced book. Greg Boyd presents the Christus Victor view. Thomas Scrheiner presents PSA (penal sub. atonement). Reichenbach argues for the Healing View. And Joel Green is the proponent for the "Kaleidoscopic View" (i.e. all motifs/themes have equal weight of importance). After each author presents his case, the other three give a response.

I still believe in PSA, but I think the effects of ONLY preaching that particular motif/theme (at the expense of neglecting the others: healing view, Christus victory, governmental theory, etc.) of the atonement has had some devastating effects in the church. Perhaps if some of the other motifs/themes were preached more, there would be less of a "ticket to Heaven theology" (quoting you Mike) that unfortunately encapsulates contemporary Christendom.

I resonate with this issue very much. What has helped me with is not trying to think of PSA in terms of it being true or false. Because I definitely think the concept is there (at least in the NT, I am still researching it in the OT). But I have been trying to think of it in terms of degrees (How much/little priority does it have over the other motifs/themes? Are the various themes on atonement equal in importance? Etc.).


Great article. More food for thought...

I was especially impressed with the idea that there might be various versions of "penal substitutionary" atonement. I went back and re-read portions of Chalke's book and it seems that the version of penal substitutionary atonement that I've struggled with is the same that Chalke and Wright struggle with. [I've even had this conversation with Wright personally.]

Interesting that Wright and Chalke see that "on the cross, as an expression of God's love, Jesus took into and upon himself the full force of all the evil around him, in the knowledge that if he bore it we would not have to; but this, which amounts to a form of penal substitution, is quite different from other forms of penal substitution, such as the medieval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son. In other words, there are many models of penal substitution, and the vengeful-father-and-innocent-son story is at best a caricature of the true one."

I'll have to do some more thinking and reading...

Like I said before, I'm not for abandoning a substitutionary understandings of the work of cross altogether, I just think there needs to be a better nuanced understanding than what is often offered in the evangelical world.

Derek Rishmawy

What's interesting is that so many of these views of an angry father taking it out on a innocent son to turn away his wrath introduce a split in the Godhead which is unpardonable. I read the Crucified God by Jurgen Moltmann and one of the things that he underlined in it was the Trinitarian dynamics of the Cross and the pain of God. On the Cross, the Son suffers separation from the Father, the Father suffers the loss of the Son, and the Spirit is torn by the pain of the two. It is the whole Godhead who suffers on the Cross because of their love for the world. This realization, I think, is one of the ways we avoid the caricatures.

Wes Ellis

Looks like there's already been good conversation on this subject. I really resonate with McGrath's points. Although, I agree with McGrath, I don't think he does away with Substitutionary atonement altogether. What he certainly does do away with is a "simple" view of substitutionary atonement. I have read some pretty solid explanations of this view but most church-people hold a very simplistic understanding, which says that God's wrath was poured out on the innocent so that the guilty could go free (this hardly sounds just). There are several stories where God holds back his wrath and forgives (see Jonah), so God does not "need" to kill Jesus in order to forgive us. Although God holds back his wrath sometimes, the people of God are just as familiar with God's Wrath as they are with His love. We can't take Jesus' story out of this context: wrath and love go hand-in-hand. I think there is plenty of room for substitutionary atonement but it might need to be re-explained to most of the church in America if it should survive.

Wes Ellis

James McGrath is of no relation to Alister McGrath, right?


Don't think so...


i haven't had a chance to read through the comments yet but i will soon. i talked to rob bell after his gods aren't angry message here in the bay area. i mentioned that george macdonald had a huge issue with penal substitutionary atonement and rob said that that was the one that he was coming out swinging against in his message because it portrays God as some cosmic child abuser. interesting.

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