A Christus Victor AND Penal Substitution View of the Atonement?

Hello fellow spiritual pilgrims,

Just flew back from a two day visit to Whitworth University in Spokane Washington. Twenty years ago I almost entered a 50 mile trail race in Spokane that’s held every fall, but a lingering knee injury kept me out. The race was billed as the most beautiful trail race in the States, and now I can see why. What a beautiful area — especially this time of year! I loved the campus and staff as well. Everyone was friendly, fun and engaging. Thank you Whitworth!

In the two days I was there, I participated in a debate over Open Theism, had dinner with some staff and students discussing faith and politics, gave a talk on “The Myth of a Christian Nation,” taught a fun class on Open Theism and then gave the chapel sermon on Being the Church.

The debate on Open Theism was especially fun and, it turned out, informative for me. At one point my sparring partner (a very nice professor of philosophy named Keith) raised an issue over the atonement, claiming that Open Theology doesn’t do justice to Christ’s work on the cross because God doesn’t foreknow with certainty what particular people will exist in the future and what particular sins they’ll commit. I expressed sincere bewilderment over how that could possibly matter for a God whose love and willingness to forgive is unlimited. The cross is like a blank check, I argued, backed up with unlimited funds and thus more than sufficient to cover every possible sin anyone could ever commit. Where sin did abound, Paul says, grace did much more abound (Romans 5). What more do we need to say? It’s not like God is on a conservative economic plan by which he needs to ensure that Jesus’ blood isn’t “wasted” on sins that aren’t actually committed!

Well, to my surprise, my answer seemed to hit a nerve and the moderator (a professor named Adam) jumped in and pressed me further on my view of the atonement. This then got us talking about the Penal Substitution view of the atonement and my problems with it. Among other things, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful, or biblical, to think that the Father had to vent his wrath against sin on Jesus in order to forgive us. (For other criticisms, see my response to the Penal Substitution view in the “Jesus: Atonement” category of the Q & A section of this web site). We bantered back and forth a bit, but it’s the discussion I had with Adam after the debate that I found especially enlightening.

It turned out that Adam, who had defended the view that Jesus’ work on the cross appeased the Father’s wrath, agreed with me that the Father wasn’t wrathful toward Jesus. It’s just that God’s wrath against sin was expressed by him delivering Christ up to the Powers in our place. Sin was judged and Christ was our substitute — hence, Penal Substitution. Adam informed me that this is basically the view of Karl Barth, expressed in his Church Dogmatics (which I will now certainly have to look into). Well, I replied, if that’s what you mean by the Penal Substitution view of the atonement, consider me a card carrying member!

And notice, this version of Penal Substitution is not only compatible with the Christus Victor view of the atonement (the view that the main thing Jesus did on Calvary was defeat the devil and free us from his oppression): it actually presupposes it. So, without retracting any of my criticism of the view that God needs to vent his wrath against Jesus in order to forgive us, maybe I can now espouse a Christus Victor Penal Substitution view of the atonement.

Thanks Adam for that helpful clarification. And thank you Whitworth for an exceedingly fun couple of days.

Greg

Category:
Tags:
Topics:

Related Reading

The Cross and Cosmic Warfare

Since the time of Anselm in the 11th century, Western theology has focused almost all of its attention on the anthropological dimension of the atonement. In the most popular understanding, the chief thing that God was accomplishing on the cross was satisfying God’s perfect justice and thereby atoning for our sins. The work of the…

The Most Quoted Old Testament Verse

No other passage from the Old Testament is quoted more by New Testament authors than Psalm 110:1. Its frequent citation should cause us to pay attention to what is being said. It reads: The Lord says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”  In David’s day, it…

A Brief Theology of Salvation

In the NT, one of the most frequent and fundamental images used to depict our salvation is “redemption.” The root of this term lytron means a “ransom” or “price of release,” and the term itself (apolytrosis) was used as a kind of technical term for the purchase of a slave. If we apply this to…

Atonement, Christus Victor & Aslan

No one illustrates this Christus Victor view of Christ’s work on the cross more beautifully than C.S. Lewis in his famous fantasy, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The gist of the story is that four children find their way into another world called Narnia through a magical wardrobe. They quickly learn that an…

Greg and N.T. Wright at the Missio Alliance Gathering!

The Missio Alliance North American Gathering will be held April 27-29 in Alexandria, Virginia. The theme this year is Awakenings: The Mission of the Spirit as the Life of the Church. Featured speakers this year include Jorge Acevedo, Greg Boyd, Ruth Padilla Deborst, Tammy Dunahoo, Todd Hunter, Dr. Charles A. Montgomery, Jr., Cherith Nordling, Rev. Dr. Howard-John…

Did the Crucifixion Allow God to Atone for His OWN Sins? (podcast)

Greg considers God’s nature and if he could sin. Dan confesses an old gambling habit. Episode 477 http://traffic.libsyn.com/askgregboyd/Episode_0477.mp3