I’ve had to write this piece. I promised. But I can’t say that I’ve found it very easy. Systematics is not really my thing — I’m more your “jobbing parson” than I am theologian. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained!
I headlined penal substitution as a doctrine, though that isn’t strictly a true designation. The doctrine is “atonement” — Jesus saves! All Christians agree on that. Penal substitution is a theory which attempts to explain how Jesus saves. That’s much more controversial.
Penal substitution is a development of the thinking of the medieval church leader Anselm. He lived in a feudal society, and his thinking reflected that. For Anselm, sin represented an offense against the honour of God. A dishonoured monarch demanded satisfaction. The sacrifice of Jesus was the means by which God’s honour is restored and forgiveness is made possible. The Reformers (Calvin, Luther and all that crowd) took Anselm’s thinking a stage further. In their scheme of things, sin is not an affront against God’s honour but rather a debt which has to be paid. The punishment due to the crime must done before restoration can be offered. God in Christ pays the penalty himself and makes atonement possible. That’s it, I think, in a (very small) nutshell.
Because of its origins with the Reformers, the penal substitution theory has been central to the faith of many evangelical Christians, hence the controversy about Steve Chalke. For example, in the statement of faith of UCCF we find
Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of their representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God
There is no doubt that this view of the atonement as primarily a judicial matter, ie there being a real penalty for sin that God exacts from Christ, is the theory that evangelicals have always held dear. The wrath of God against sin is very real and needs to be turned away.
My problem with penal substitution is not with the theory itself, which has proven its worth as a way into an understanding of the reconciliation which has been won by Jesus. My problem is that it seems to me that what should be one theory among many (or at least several) has been raised up to a place that makes it the only acceptable way to understand Jesus and his Cross. Rather than being treated as a metaphor, the model of penal substitution has been given an objective reality which does not belong to it.
An understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus has to seen in the context of the Jewish sacrficial system. As Keith Ward rightly points out in “What the Bible Really Teaches”, the function of sacrifice in the Hebrew scriptures does not remove the need for punishment of offenders. Sacrifices are principally about submitting to the will of God. The sacrifice is not effective because a literal transaction is being done, it is effective because God says it is. Nothing in the animal on the altar or the blood which spills from it is of itself effective. The scriptures are clear that when sacrifices are offered without true devotion to God they serve no purpose. A sacrificial understanding of the Cross does not have to imply the satisfaction theory in the way that is often thought.
The penal substitution theory breaks down completely when it is pressed too far. If Jesus is a “ransom”, to whom is he paid? But seen as a metaphor rather than an entirely objective understanding there is no need to press it to those limits. It serves us as one of a range of ways into an understanding of the Cross.
We should approach this as the writers of the New Testament did. They did not begin with a theory of human sin and the way it would need to be addressed. No one was reading Isaiah 53 and saying, “When this Suffering Servant comes along to die on our behalf, all will be well.” No, the New Testament is written knowing that “the answer” is Jesus. Those first Christian communities knew themselves to be saved. They experienced God’s grace through Christ. So in a real sense they work back from the answer to a statement of the question, a statement that is bound to be incomplete, or at least metaphorical.
To ask questions of “penal substitution”, as dear as it is to evangelicals, is not to question the fundamental fact of the power of the Cross. I think Steve Chalke has done us all a favour by raising the issue and making it clear that the Cross of Christ cannot be reduced to a single theory but is an eternal mystery beyond our comprehension and before which we can only fall to our knees in worship.