April 11, 2012

Polar bears and penal substitutionary atonement

Last weekend was Easter weekend.  I am grateful that I got to spend a lot of time with my beautiful wife Sarah. At one point during the weekend we watched David Suzuki's "Polar Bears: A Summer Oddyssey". As we were watching it two thoughts kept bouncing around in my brain.

The first thought was regarding the power of a compelling story.  Because we were watching a show where the protagonist was a teenage polar bear we cheered for his survival (I had my "Polar Bear's #1" foam finger out and everything), but if we were watching a story about seals we would have thought polar bears were awful (spoiler alert: polar bears eat seals).

The second thought centered around the fact that our world isn't working like it should because of the fall. Intervention is desperately needed. Biking more than driving, reducing/reusing/recycling, and generally "going green" will help our planet greatly; however I don't think it can reverse the trend, mend what's ripped, or restore what's broken.

So there I was pondering the power of story (especially true ones) and the need for restoration. And there is good and true news - restoration is coming. This promised restoration is only possible because of what Jesus Christ willingly did on the cross.

There seems to be a trend amongst people in the Fraser Valley in general, and maybe even Abbotsford in particular, to dismiss or reject penal substitutionary atonement. I think this is ridiculous, unwise and deserving of loving, thoughtful and humble correction.

If you aren't familiar with "penal substitutionary atonement", it is essentially the belief that on the cross (1) Jesus Christ willingly and intentionally bore God's righteous wrath/the penalty for sin (i.e. death and alienation from God) {penal}, 2) in our place {substitution-ary}, and (3) therefore those who repent of sin and believe the gospel can be reconciled to God and have a relationship with him - which we were initially intended for {at-one-ment}.

There are other valuable angles of looking at Christ's atoning work on the cross in addition to penal substitution, but I think Professor Wally Unger says it best when he states:
"Substitution is the non-negotiable foundation of the atoning work of Christ, regardless of what particular model or theory one might espouse, and there are several helpful models. The atonement is a multi-faceted, multi-splendored doctrine, to be sure, and can be viewed from many angles. But any angle or theory which diminishes or denies the vicarious nature of our Lord's death is to empty the cross of its power (1 Cor. 1:17). / Now we do not believe we are saved by a theological theory of the atonement. We are forgiven and reconciled to God by the fact of the atonement - the finished work of Christ on the cross. But still one cannot get away from interpreting the baselines of the gospel - that which is of first importance, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. So here it is - Christ died for our sins / because of our sins / to atone for our sins (1 Peter 2:24)."

The perfect and sinless Christ willingly came to earth to teach us, to be an example for us, show us what love looks like, and become our perfection by dying for our sins, bearing God's righteous wrath on sin in our place so we can be reconciled to God. Christ was victorious over evil and the powers of this world, and he is Lord and King over everything. When God raised Christ from the dead it vindicated all of Christ's life, teaching and work, and points towards a new creation - where God's people will dwell with him for ever, the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and maybe polar bears and seals will swim and play together too!

As you reflect on polar bears, easter and the cross I urge you to consider that which is of first importance, that Christ died for our sins and rose again just like the Old Testament prophets - and he - said he would. The foundation for the true story surrounding Jesus (and the foundation for Christian faith altogether) is that Christ's death was necessarily penal, necessarily substitutional and effectually atoning.

That's good - and true - news!


  1. Thank you for your most recent blog post. It has allowed me to revisit a topic I haven’t reflected upon for a while now. I appreciate your thoughts on the matter, and acknowledge the fervency with which you speak. With that though, I think you may have looked a bit too narrowly at the topic.

    While you’ve outlined what penal substitution theory is, I cannot identify any direct support for its supremacy among other theories of the atonement. The quote from Prof. Unger could be used to support other violent theories, such as the Ransom Theory (http://bit.ly/5C5szs), which suggests our debt was paid to Satan not God (this is the theory held by the early church and amongst most Orthodox believers today).

    Further, it is important to note that the penal substitution theory is relatively new in the history of Christianity. The theory was inspired by the Roman law-courts and the feudal societies of the Middle Ages, but didn’t become its own distinct concept until the time of the Reformation. This doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but I believe it draws your advocacy for it as the ONLY theory into question.

    I’d suggest checking out Hans Boersma’s “Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition” (http://amzn.to/HLhiZB) for a broader look at the atonement. Hans is currently the J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College. Also, check out this video (http://bit.ly/fOz16o) for a brief look at the Orthodox view on the atonement. I believe it demonstrates other non-violent ways of approaching the atonement.

    Again, this isn’t to say that penal substitution theory is entirely wrong, but I do not feel that you have not shown any consideration for other theories; nor have you provided any proof as to why you believe thinking otherwise is “ridiculous”. The Christian Tradition is larger than you have presented it. To be frank, I find advocacy of such a narrow portion of the Tradition, to be “unwise and deserving of loving, thoughtful and humble correction.”

    1. Hey Derrick,

      Thanks for your feedback and the tone it was written. I'll respond in there main streams of thought, first to talk about what my intention wasn't, what my intention was, and general/additional responses to your comment.

      (1) My intention was not to say that other atonement theories aren't true. My intention wasn't to advocate that substitutionary atonement is the only theory. I didn't indent to advocate for a narrow view of the atonement in general - I tried to articulate that when I said "there are other valuable angles of looking at Christ's atoning work on the cross in addition to penal substitution..." and in my final paragraph where I tried to weave in language of Christ as both victor and example. My intention was not to write about the atonement in general or provide an overview of it (there are much better works for that than my blog). My intention wasn't to show that other theories of the atonement are ridiculous (they aren't!).

      (2) My intention was to say that substitutionary atonement is, as Prof. Unger stated, foundational. My intention was to emphasize this theory because it seems like it is being outright rejected at an alarming rate - not merely placed in balance with other theories but rejected as biblical theory. It is this rejection that I find ridiculous, not believing that there are other atonement theories (I believe there are other atonement theories!). My intention was to advocate for PSA as a necessary - and foundational - part of the atonement (which is what I think Paul intended when he wrote 1 Cor. 15:3-5), but not the only part of it. The atonement is like a multi-faceted jewel, when we look at it and turn it we see it from various angles, I just don't want us to forget what we saw before when see something different. (Hopefully that analogy was helpful).

      (3) You can twist quotes however you want, but I believe I quoted Unger well and that I represented his authorial intent by placing it in the context of discussion about substitutionary atonement. It was part of a broader paper that he delivered at a conference I was at where the atonement was discussed.

      It is arguable that PSA is relatively new. While the category or title itself may be new, I believe the idea is founded in the New Testament in general and Paul's work in particular. Garry Williams says it better than me though (http://www.ltslondon.org/joc/documents/EQGJWChurchFathersarticle.pdf).

      I haven't read Boersma's book, but I am hoping to start at Regent in the fall and I look forward to engaging with his work!

      It is evident that I came across as outright dismissing/rejecting other theories, so I am deserving of the loving, thoughtful and humble correction you provided. I'm thankful for your comment because it gave me a chance to nuance my language and clarify my intention. I'm sorry for coming across as narrow and dismissive of other (important!) atonement theories, I hope it is clear that that wasn't my intention. If you want to chat further about this in person, I'd love to connect with over coffee sometime. I want people to love and follow Christ, and I can tell from the tone in your comment you share that same desire.

      All the best Derrick!

    2. Hi Greg,

      Thanks for the response. I appreciate you taking the time to clarify your point. It is extremely difficult to tread this ground in this medium; misinterpretation is inevitable due to every person’s unique background, experiences and interests. I’ll move through each of your points and acknowledge, clarify and expand where appropriate.

      (1) Revisiting your previous post I can see that you did acknowledge other ways of approaching the atonement. Based on this, I’m guessing your comment about the “trend amongst people in the FraserValley” was directed to the more post-modern Christian crowd denying the deity of Christ in general; those who may directly downplay the penal substitution theory and atonement theory in general, as opposed to an indirect result of valuing other theories. I wouldn’t want to lay down a response based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what you are communicating, nor would I expect a full overview of the atonement in a blog post. That just isn’t fair.

      (2) So if I understand correctly, you are advocating that substitutionary atonement is required in general and that penal substitution is a necessary part of that, among other theories (Jesus’ life is an example, etc). Please correct me if I’m wrong.

      The multi-faceted jewel analogy does illustrate this very well; however, the difficulty lies in the details. I believe some aspects of the penal substitution theory say certain things about God that are incompatible with the best example of God we have: Jesus. Again, I’ll say, it is not that the theory is wrong (nor that I disagree with it entirely), but only that it is not an necessary belief for a Christian. There are other substitutionary theories that do not require God pouring his wrath onto our Savior.

      What I want to communicate is, when you assert that penal substitution theory is an essential, you are saying something about God, which we cannot know. Namely, He counts human sins and holds them against us, requiring punishment for them. How we view this has a lot to do with how we view sin. When we sin, are we breaking laws, therefore requiring God to punish us? (Much like our legal system). Or is sin that which moves us farther from God Himself? Not farther from His ability to love us, but farther from the peace that His example in Christ demonstrates for us. I’m not suggesting a binary answer; I am asserting that it is a mystery. Saint Augustine puts it best when he states, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”.

      (3) I believe you did quote Prof. Unger well, though I wouldn’t be in a good position to judge either way. If I somehow indicated you twisted his quote or if you believe that I have, I apologize. What I intended to communicate was that quote only supported substitionary atonement in general and not penal atonement specifically. I’m not familiar with what Prof. Unger believes or doesn’t.

      I’ll leave the debate of penal atonement’s appearance in history to those more qualified, though I certainly will give that article a read. Either way, I’m sure we can both agree it has no bearing on its validity. I just intended to place it within a broader context, to demonstrate foundational members of the church have not always espoused penal substitution as dogma.

      Again, thank you for the response. It is rare to find such elegance and humility in a person. I thank God that you did not hear my comment as an attack, as I am in no position to do so. My ability to engage with you is only due to the fact I’m standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before me.

      Keep up the musings.

    3. Hey Derrick,

      I think we are much closer than we originally thought. There are some things that I would still want to nuance and quibble over, but I agree with you that this medium isn't the most helpful for those types of conversations. In general, I think you are understanding what I meant and the next step (if we're interested) is working out some of those finer details. If you're interested in having a more nuanced conversation in person sometime over coffee or tea or something let me know by emailing me at gregorygerardharris@gmail.com.

      Thanks again - all the best!

  2. This made me laugh: "spoiler alert: polar bears eat seals." I was watching with my 3-year-old son and he got to learn this valuable lesson. I think he's looking forward to the day "polar bears and seals will swim and play together."

    Overall I think you've articulated the diversity of atonement quite well, even though it's clear that for you PSA is central. And even though I personally see substitution as part of the foundation (I prefer simply saying Jesus is the foundation) I appreciate the breadth of your approach to understanding atonement from a PSA perspective.

    That said, this comment is a bit surprising:

    "There is a trend amongst people in the Fraser Valley in general, and maybe even Abbotsford in particular, to downplay or outright dismiss penal substitutionary atonement. I think this is ridiculous, unwise and deserving of loving, thoughtful and humble correction."

    Well you articulate why you think PSA is central, I'm curious for a bit more on your concern for those, like myself, who place substitution as a part of the greater whole? What's at stake for you? I find the words "downplay" and "dismiss" to be unfair characterizations of what I see as a community of faith genuinely concerned to keep Jesus and all of his work central (I have yet to hear anyone in the Fraser Valley jump on the J. Denny Weaver bandwagon). I guess I'm simply saying when I hear phrases like "theological drift," which we heard at that same atonement conference, I just don't see it.

    Anyway, your post has made me think and reflect (and laugh!) as a good post should - thanks!

    1. Hey David,

      Thanks for the words of affirmation, the more we correspond the more we see eye to eye. I think it's good that people aren't "Weaver-ing" in their theology.

      I changed the paragraph you quoted so that I could nuance my language better. It now states: "There seems to be a trend amongst people in the Fraser Valley in general, and maybe even Abbotsford in particular, to dismiss or reject penal substitutionary atonement. I think this is ridiculous, unwise and deserving of loving, thoughtful and humble correction."

      I used the phrase "seems to be" because these are my observations and I'm open to correction. It may be that I am indeed confronting a theological straw-man, but I don't think I am. I took out the word "downplay" and added "reject" because I think that it communicates more clearly what I meant.

      I want to be clear that my concern isn't with people who want to place substitution as a part of a greater whole - because it is a part of the greater whole! My concern is with people who passively or actively dismiss it (thinking it unimportant) or outright reject it (thinking it's un-true).

      I like your "what's at stake" question. In general, Christological clarity. In particular, for those who dismiss PSA in their gospel conversations I think we aren't being as accurate as we could about the nature of the gospel and Jesus' work (this could rightly be argued about other atonement theories too, but from my observation it seems to be the "sin" and "wrath" part that is less popular than the Christus victor, example, etc. theories and that Paul himself places substitution as of "first importance"). Furthermore, for those who may reject PSA altogether, I think they are taking away a vital part of the atonement (and Christianity!) that ought not be taken away. I think it changes the nature of Jesus' life and mission. Furthermore, my fear is that casual dismissal of PSA (left uncorrected) may lead to outright rejection, and I think that would be a scary place for us to be. I want us to have Christology clarity, not so that we can have our theological ducks in a row (as important as that is) but so that we can follow and know him better.

      Hopefully we can still grab that coffee sometime!

      All the best!

  3. That helps, thanks for clarifying!

    And I think you're right on a shift from emphasizing sin and wrath to other important aspects of the atonement. Sometimes this is appropriate, like in pastorally sensitive situations, but other times it's just plain avoidance. The danger, of course, is losing any sense of sin or wrath altogether. Unfortunately the issue too often gets polarized, with some overemphasizing wrath and others dropping it all together. I think we need to continually examine how we share all facets of the gospel, however difficult those topics may be (and recognizing we all find different topics difficult - for some it's wrath, for others it's love).

    Let's try for something in the next few weeks?