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

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