[The following blogpost is re-edited from a series of posts originally published on 9/15/09-10/17/09
I first began thinking about coming to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, my
pastor at the time warned me that seminary education can often involve reading
more attacks against Christian faith than edifying reflections on the Word of
God, and thus time at seminary can, if one is not careful, leave one
spiritually drained rather than enriched. Thankfully, my teachers here have
seemed aware of this reality and the great majority of my textbooks have been
enlightening and beneficial. For the sake of academic integrity and due to the
desire to accurately represent various viewpoints, we do occasionally have to
read material that attacks a core doctrine or doctrines of our faith. In this
vein, one book I'm required to read this semester is Recovering the Scandal
of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts by Joel B. Green and Mark D.
Baker. Despite its promising title, this book is an extended attack on the
doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.
doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the teaching that the Lord Jesus
Christ died in our place to pay the penalty of our sin and bring us into a
right relationship to God. J.I. Packer describes this doctrine as follows:
notion which the phrase 'penal substitution' expresses is that Jesus Christ our
Lord, moved by a love that was determined to do everything necessary to save
us, endured and exhausted the destructive divine judgment for which we were
otherwise inescapably destined, and so won us forgiveness, adoption, and glory.
this post, I plan to look carefully at Green and Baker's critique of this
doctrine and to offer a response. In my critique of Green and Baker's attack on
penal substitutionary atonement, I will focus on their assessment of Charles
Hodge's teaching on this subject.
Moral Law and Blood Sacrifice
the heart of Hodge's explanation of the atonement is a legal metaphor that would
have been readily understood by people of his era. That may be less true today
with the dissolution of an accepted framework of universal moral law. Hodge
also, however, leans heavily on the biblical image of blood sacrifice,
something very distant from his students in nineteenth-century New Jersey. His
concern does not appear to be to develop a presentation that will connect with
people's reality but to articulate a logical, intellectually sound, and
biblically correct theory of the atonement. He cites many scriptural passages
to support his explanations, thus at least giving his position the appearance
of being biblical. Upon closer examination, however, we find that Hodge's model
actually falls short in this regard. [Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering
the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 2000), 146.]
and Baker first criticize Hodge's "explanation of the atonement"
(i.e., penal substitutionary atonement) by calling into question two concepts
"at the heart" of a penal substitutionary understanding of the
atonement, namely: "universal moral law" and "blood
sacrifice." Green and Baker are correct in identifying these concepts as
fundamental to penal substitutionary atonement, for "penal" indicates
the death penalty
incurred by humanity for breaking God's "universal moral law" and
"substitutionary" indicates that one life may be substituted for another in accordance
with a system of "blood sacrifice."
and Baker are also correct to point out that the concept of universal moral law
may be less readily understood by people today than in the past.
Green and Baker fail to mention is that the concept of universal moral law is a
thoroughly biblical idea (they give the impression that "universal moral
law" was invented by 'modernists'). Psalm 119:160 declares, "All your words are true, all your righteous laws are eternal"
(NIV 1984); in Matthew 5:18 Jesus says, "I tell
you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not
the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until
everything is accomplished" (NIV 1984). This everlasting Law is not
merely an artifact in a museum, but as Psalm 19 makes clear, it is vitally involved
in "reviving the soul" "making wise the simple" as well as in warning
Green and Baker (rightly) label blood sacrifice as "biblical," they
apparently believe that the concept of blood sacrifice is dispensable and that
other concepts may be used instead of blood sacrifice to communicate about the atonement
in cultures that do not have experience with a sacrificial system. The idea
that blood sacrifice may be dispensable only makes since after the idea of
universal moral law has been rejected. If people do not stand under
condemnation for breaking a universal moral law, then they do not need the
God-ordained means (the biblical blood sacrifice) for re-establishing a right
relationship with God in light of their law-breaking.
concept of blood sacrifice is truly irreplaceable. When we lose the concept of
blood sacrifice, as biblically developed, we lose vital knowledge about who
Jesus is and what He has done for sinners. Without blood sacrifice we cannot
understand John's declaration that Jesus is the "Lamb
of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Without
blood sacrifice we cannot understand the presentation of Hebrews that Jesus is
our great High Priest who offers his own blood for our redemption (Heb
9:11-14). Without blood sacrifice we cannot understand the vision in Revelation
of Jesus as a "Lamb looking as if it had been
slain" who is praised because with His blood He purchased men for
God (Rev 5).
Justice and Western Criminal Justice
Hodge read the Bible through the lens of the criminal justice system of his
era, the Bible appeared to support his explanation. In other words, if readers
come to the biblical text with the presuppositions Hodge has about justice,
God's wrath and judgment, and the mechanics of biblical sacrifice, then indeed
his model seems biblical. If, however, we attempt to allow the Bible itself to
shape the way we think about those same terms, his model appears fundamentally
flawed because it operates with an understanding of these terms that is foreign
to the Bible. [Ibid.]
Green and Baker see similarities in the traditional evangelical interpretation
of God’s justice and the Western criminal justice system, they consistently
attribute this similarity to an influence of the Western understanding of
criminal justice upon biblical exegesis that is illegitimate, at least in our
and Baker may be guilty of committing the false-cause fallacy. Observing similarities
between the Western criminal justice system and traditional evangelical
explanations of God's justice, they consistently assert that the traditional
evangelical explanations of God's justice are shaped (and distorted) by the
Western criminal justice system.
But similarity does not necessarily indicate causation.
the other hand, Green and Baker never seem to consider the following question: What
if the traditional understanding of criminal justice in the West was actually
influenced by the biblical presentation of God's justice? In other words: if there is a
demonstrable causal relationship, might this relationship not flow in the other
direction? And if the Western criminal justice system was actually shaped by a
biblical understanding of justice, might the similarities between the criminal justice
system and the traditional evangelical interpretation of God's justice be
legitimate after all?
Rather than presenting a Father and Son who are one,
Hodge has one member of the Trinity punishing another member of the Trinity.
this assertion, Green and Baker present their readers with a false dilemma: EITHER the Father and Son
are one OR the Father punished the Son.
Hodge's presentation of the Covenant of Redemption holds both of these ideas
together, not setting them at odds. Of the Covenant of Redemption, Hodge writes:
is only one God, one divine Being, to whom all the attributes of divinity
belong. But in the Godhead there are three persons, the same in substance, and
equal in power and glory. It lies in the nature of personality, that one person
is objective to another. If therefore, the Father and the Son are distinct
persons the one be the object of the acts of the other. The one may love,
address, and commune with the other. The Father may send the Son, may give Him
a work to do, and promise Him a recompense. All this is indeed incomprehensible
to us, but being clearly taught in Scripture, it must enter into the
Father and the Son are one God AND the Father punished the Son (who willingly
took the punishment that we deserved upon Himself): "the punishment that brought our peace was upon Him... it was
the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer" (Isaiah 53:5, 10).
Straw Man of God Subservient to Justice
a penal substitution model, God's ability to love and relate to humans is
circumscribed by something outside of God- that is, an abstract concept of
justice instructs God as to how God must behave.
the above statement, Green and Baker present their readers with a straw
man. If Charles Hodge and others who hold to penal substitutionary
atonement actually argued that God is "circumscribed by something outside
of God," then the "penal substitution model" would OBVIOUSLY be
false for the Bible clearly teaches that NOTHING is greater than God.
studying Charles Hodge's actual writings about the justice of God (from a
section of his Systematic Theology titled "Satisfaction Rendered to Justice")
it becomes clear that the justice that informs God's actions and with which sinners
must deal is not an "abstract concept" but comes about due to God's
own character. For God is a just God and has revealed His own intention to reward the
righteous and punish the wicked: this is not something that is forced upon God
from outside, but is in accordance with His own will.
order to both fulfill the intention just mentioned above–to reward the
righteous and punish the wicked–and to also fulfill His intention to save
sinners, God provides a righteous substitute who takes the punishment due to
the wicked and who covers the wicked in His own righteousness, thereby saving
sinners. This act of salvation in Christ is, again, not something imposed on
God, but which flows from His own purposes and character.
Substitution and the Prodigal
Green and Baker's fourth paragraph against Charles Hodge's presentation of
penal substitutionary atonement, they argue against the idea that a substitute
must pay the penalty for a sinner in order for that sinner to experience the
benefits of atonement. To this end, Green and Baker utilize Robin Collins’
illustration of how Collins claims the story of the Prodigal Son must be changed if
penal substitutionary atonement is true:
the son returns and recognizes the error of his ways, Collins has the Father
respond, “I cannot simply forgive you… it would be against the moral order of
the entire universe… Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation
will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath–my avenging
justice–must be placated.”
above illustration assumes that no penalty is paid for the son’s sin in the
parable, and that the Father in the parable “simply forgive[s]” the son. (As if
true forgiveness for great offenses–like those committed by the son–is a ever a
is true that penal substitution (or any other particular model of the atonement) is not
explicit in this parable. As John MacArthur notes in his great book on the
parable, A Tale of Two Sons:
that Jesus did not mention anything about the actual means of atonement in the parable of the prodigal son. That, after all, wasn’t the point of the story. But our Lord
did nevertheless directly confront the heart of the Pharisees’ error, which was
their insistence that all sinners need to perform certain works to atone for
their own sin– and thus earn the forgiveness and favor of God. (123)
careful analysis of this parable, MacArthur also demonstrates that a kind of
substitution was, in fact, made. The Father in this parable runs to the returning Prodigal,
which would have been considered extremely undignified in his culture. The
Father embraces and kisses the Prodigal, thus taking on himself the uncleanness
(physical and ceremonial) that the Prodigal had from living with swine. The
Father, in a culture that demanded a man seek restitution from those who had
wronged him, freely forgave the Prodigal. In all of the actions just mentioned,
the Father took shame upon himself–shame that the Prodigal alone deserved–while
granting the Prodigal forgiveness. Also, remember, that the Father suffered
loss from the Prodigal when the Father had to pay out the Prodigal’s
inheritance before its time, but the Prodigal did not have to go on suffering
the poverty he incurred due to wasting away his inheritance. Rather, he is
restored into the family with full rights and privileges.
the idea that the Father forgives the Prodigal without suffering on behalf of
the Prodigal is ludicrous. Robin
Collins is no more accurate in his reading of Jesus’ parable than Green and
Baker are in their reading of Hodges’ Theology.
Resurrection Unnecessary? An Empty Accusation Rebutted
and Baker begin their fifth paragraph of their section assessing Charles
Hodges' presentation of penal substitutionary atonement with the following
could also mention that because of the singular focus on penal satisfaction,
Jesus' resurrection is not really necessary according to this model.
the sentence above, Green and Baker move on to other accusations. At this point
Green and Baker fail to provide documentation by way of any kind of interaction
with Hodges' writings (or the writings of any other person who has held to
penal substitutionary atonement) that would serve to demonstrate a "singular
penal satisfaction" of such a nature that would exclude the necessity of
the resurrection for atonement. I would like to counter their simple accusation
with a simple denial. Charles Hodge (and others who take a similar view of the
atonement) are not blinded to the necessity of the resurrection.
unlike Green and Baker's accusation, the "simple denial" stated above
can be supported by an argument from the relevant source material.
in his Systematic Theology, includes fourteen chapters under the major heading
"Soteriology;" these chapters cover a
range of topics. Two chapters of "Soteriology" in Hodges' Systematic ("Intercession of Christ" and "The Exaltation of Christ") are
specifically focused on Christ in His resurrection and post-resurrection
existence. Several other chapters include consideration of the resurrection and
Christ's work post-resurrection as well (for example, each of Hodges' three
chapters on the offices of Christ include consideration of how these offices
are still being performed by Christ in His exalted state). This resurrection
and post-resurrection work of Christ is presented as "really necessary" for atonement).
Corinthians 2:2 the Apostle Paul writes, "For I
determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified"
(NASB). The Apostle refers to his gospel preaching as "the word of the cross." Because of statements
like these, an opponent of Paul could easily charge, 'Because of his singular
focus on the cross, the resurrection is not really necessary according to this
model.' But such an accusation would ignore the rest of Paul's teaching. Green
and Baker have made a similar mistake in their accusation against penal
Substitution Unintelligible? An Assertion Self-Refuted
from Green and Baker's fifth paragraph against Charles Hodge's presentation of
penal substitutionary atonement:
reality is that in may societies- at the time Hodge lived, and even more so
today- people have different concepts of justice, so that for them penal
substitution is simply unintelligible.
above statement is in keeping with a criticism that Green and Baker make
throughout their book: that the concept of penal substitutionary atonement is
missiologically deficient because it is not understandable by people in other
criticism is contradicted, however, by the experience of one of the authors
recorded on page 140 of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. The author recounts a
situation in which he spoke to "a group of indigenous pastors in
Panama." In response to the question of "why Jesus died on the
cross," these pastors responded with an answer that (as the author himself
claims), "communicate[d] the heart of the penal substitution model of the
atonement." The author then comments, "the basic ideas of this model
can be communicated even to children."
the author's anecdote and comment are true, then how can he claim an objection
to penal substitution on the basis that it is "simply unintelligible"to people of other cultures? Obviously, they can be led to understand the idea
that Jesus died in our place to pay the penalty for our sins.
though the idea that "people have different concepts of justice" is
certainly true, should gospel ministers not seek to teach people the biblical concept of justice and then
to explain the atonement in light of that concept, rather than to formulate a
"model" of the atonement based on [mis]understandings of justice that
have not been influenced by biblical teaching?
Substitution and Christus Victor
their fifth paragraph against Charles Hodge's presentation of penal
substitutionary atonement, Green and Baker also criticize Hodge for linking the
model of the atonement to penal substitution. (Christus Victor refers to the teaching that
Christ by His death and resurrection gained victory over Satan and the power of
sin.) Green and Baker write:
weakness of forcing all atonement thinking into the mold of one image became
especially apparent when Hodge attempted to explain victory over Satan and the
power of sin in terms of penal substitution. In contrast with the tight logical
arguments of other sections, in these it appeared he was trying to force a
square peg into a round hole.
That man by sin became subject to the penalty of the divine law.
That Satan has the office of inflicting that penalty in so far as he is allowed
to torment and degrade the children of men.
That Christ by his death, having satisfied the penalty of the law, of course
has delivered us from the power of Satan.
appears to be neither a 'loose argument' or an attempt "to force a square
peg into a round hole." But, since Green and Baker's attack of Hodge's
presentation at this point consists simply of assertions with no arguments
offered, they do not open the way for dialogue about any specific points to
which they may object.
Green and Baker criticize Hodge “for forcing all atonement thinking into the
mold of one image,” the reader cannot help but feel that they are being
disingenuous. Green and Baker had already made it clear that they believe penal
substitution to be an invalid model of the atonement. One suspects that Green and
Baker would not accuse a writer for “forcing all atonement thinking into the
mold of one image” if that writer demonstrated inter-connectedness between other models of the atonement: say,
for example, the Christus Victor and recapitulation models.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the
law by becoming a curse for us. (Gal 3:13a NASB)
the Scandal of the Cross, Green and Baker deny the true scandal of the Cross. The
offensive message of the Cross is that we have all broken God’s universal moral
law (summarized in terms of loving God heart, soul, and mind and loving our
neighbors as ourselves, Matt 22:37-40), that violation of this Law deserves
death, that we in ourselves could do nothing to escape this penalty, and that
God Himself has provided a blood sacrifice in place of sinners: sending His own
Son–true God and true Man–to die upon the Cross in our place, taking on our
condemnation. Christ rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and He is now
seated at the right hand of the Father, offering free forgiveness and eternal
life to everyone who trusts in Him. Forgiveness and eternal life are only given
to those who acknowledge that they need forgiveness: that there is a penalty we rightly deserve.
Forgiveness and eternal life are only given to those who trust in Christ as
and not in their own works. In denying the true scandal of the Cross–intimately
tied to the message of penal substitutionary atonement–Green and Baker risk
becoming guilty of denying the power of the Cross for salvation.
Labels: apologetics, Reformation Theology