This is continuation of my series about Easter and the atonement. If you haven’t done so already, please read part one first. It will provide a helpful context for our continued discussion here.
This post is almost supplemental or parenthetical to the main subject at hand, but would be good to talk about before we go further, so I will call it part two.
Another way of looking at interpretation would be like drinking water through a garden hose. While the water itself may be pure, it will still taste a little like the hose.
We’re all drinking through a garden hose, we all have our glasses on. It not only affects how we interpret Scripture, but how we interpret life and solve problems. For instance, a carpenter sees the solution to problems with a hammer and saw, a lawyer with writ of law, a scientist by conducting experiments.
How is this relevant to our discussion about the atonement? Well, because there are several theories of atonement, not just one. They are called theories because there is no way to conclusively prove which theory of atonement is correct. While they all have their strong points, they all have their problems.
This is why we must take care not to get too dogmatic or combative about opposing views. In the end, God is always right and we’re all in His family. 🙂
For instance, every single passage that supports Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA), or the earlier Satisfaction theory, can be understood in at least two different ways. What you read into these verses all depend on which “glasses” you have on. I will show this when we look at some of them in the future.
But what makes my job harder here is that PSA theory has dominated the Western church for 500 years. You would be hard pressed to find a Bible school or seminary in the United States that doesn’t teach PSA as THE doctrine of atonement.
These “satisfaction” assumptions that we bring into our reading of Scripture are so deeply embedded in our thinking that it’s tempting to just dismiss or, worse, treat any opposing view as heresy. (No change there in church history!)
While I fully understand the difficulty I’m facing, it’s still a very worthy task for the reasons I will discuss in this series.
I want to be very clear at this point that I’m not dogmatic in my particular view of the atonement. And I do NOT have a problem at all with someone holding to the PSA view. I believe there is much to gain from all positions on the atonement.
The point of all of this is that we should be mindful of the fact that whenever we look at a doctrinal position, read commentaries, use lexicons and Bible dictionaries, even read various Bible translations, we are looking through the particular lens of those editors and translators, perhaps even looking through the paradigm of the culture they come from.
While the original Scripture text, in the original language, is the inspired and infallible Word of God, the translations aren’t necessarily inspired. Something does get lost in the translation. Even with the original text we still need inspired understanding. After all, Paul said our glasses are pretty dim (1 Cor.13:12).
This doesn’t mean we can’t know the truth, it means we need spiritual discernment, do our homework and, above all, have lots of love and grace for one another.
Furthermore, I believe truth has a flavor. It’s multifaceted and even relational. Like the garden hose, certain aspects of a truth may be emphasized during specific times that aren’t necessarily wrong, just better understood that way at that time.
Let’s briefly look at the PSA “paradigm” in this light.
In the 16th century, John Calvin took Anselm’s Satisfaction theory model and turned it into the more legalistic Penal Substitution view of the atonement that we all know very well today.
It should not be lost on us that Calvin was a trained lawyer, or that the religious culture he was immersed in was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and Roman jurisprudence.
I don’t mean this in derogatory way, only to show how he and his contemporaries might “see” Scripture more legalistically than someone without that discipline. We can simply look at the Eastern church to see this because they developed a very different view of atonement.
Through my glasses…
Of course, I also have a lens by which I view Scripture. Here’s my interpretative lens and why I don’t embrace doctrinal theories like PSA.
I see all Scripture through the interpretative lens of Love and the finished work of the Cross. Any doctrine that contradicts this needs adjustment in my view.
I reject any doctrine that makes the Father different than Jesus. Scripture reveals Jesus Christ as the exact representation of God. Everything Jesus did perfectly expressed His Father’s heart for mankind. Whatever is not like Jesus, including how He interfaced with sinners, is not like the Father either.
PSA contradicts what I believe to be the biblical view of a loving Father. It makes Him more like the angry pagan gods who must be appeased or we will be punished.
PSA focuses on retributive justice instead of forgiveness. As I pointed out last time, these two concepts are mutually exclusive.
I do believe that God is just, but His justice is restorative rather than punitive.
PSA gives a ritualistic view of Christ’s sacrifice; I see it more as a heroic sacrifice. His sacrifice was not to appease an angry God, it was a rescue mission!
While PSA does pardon our sin, it doesn’t adequately deal with our sin nature. It makes us legally right with God but not transformed. We’re just a pardoned criminal, a saved sinner. Our sin nature is still very much intact when Scripture says it was crucified with Christ.
PSA does not deal with our identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Jesus not only died for us, He died as us. We died and our life is now hidden in Christ. This is the very center of Christianity in my view.
The incarnation of Christ is not emphasized in PSA because the main purpose is seen as an offering for sin with little or no emphasis on Jesus being the prototype or “first fruit” of a new creation. As Jesus is, so are we in this world.
PSA doesn’t emphasize how the incarnation, death and resurrection was the necessary means to bring us into the eternal fellowship between the Father, Son and Spirit. This purpose is practically unknown in Christianity today. I demonstrated this point here.
PSA places no emphasis on Jesus’ ministry of healing the sick and settings captives free from Satan’s bondage. His ministry not only defined salvation (rescue, healing, liberation, wholeness), but it’s inextricably linked to the purpose of the atonement.
Finally , NO one in church history taught PSA or a satisfaction theory for over 1,000 years! So, if I have to choose a theory of atonement, I choose to stand on the solid ground of the early church fathers closest to the Source.
But the primary reason I don’t embrace PSA is because it makes the Godhead conflicted and shows the Father in the wrong light. I did a whole series on the different ways we do this here.
Next time, I will take a look at a couple of Scriptures that seem to argue for PSA.