My Article in Evangelical Quarterly: Penal Substitution and the Church Fathers

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

UPDATE: See below for details

I just heard that my article on the Church Father's view of the atonement will be published in the upcoming (May) issue of Evangelical Quarterly! EQ is an international peer reviewed academic journal of Bible and Theology edited by I. Howard Marshall and published in the UK by Paternoster. So I've doing a happy little dance right now :^)

The article is a response to the book Pierced for our Transgressions claim that penal substitution was taught by the early church. The authors back this up with a host of citations from Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Augustine, and other big guns from the early church, all who seem to be espousing penal substitution. After this book came out there was quite a bit of buzz across the internet of folks exclaiming that the PfoT authors had pretty much conclusively "disproved" the misconception (taught by folks like me) that penal substitution was not taught for the first 1000 years of church history. So I was understandably a little bit irked by this claim which went against the larger tide of patristic scholarship. The problem was that it had been considered so self-evident for so long that the early church did not teach penal substitution that most historians and scholars would simply state it as fact without feeling the need to back it up. So against that the detailed array of quotations marshaled by the PfoT authors was pretty impressive. In fact, it was the one positive thing that NT Wright had to say about the book(!)

The problem is that the quotes they cite are all taken out of context and thus misrepresent what the the early church was saying. So in my EQ article I take a look at the citations they give, paying attention to the larger context, and showing that the early church not only did not teach penal substitution, but in fact explicitly denies it. Here's the tricky part though: What they do teach is substitutionary atonement, and so to folks who think that the only way to understand substitutionary atonement is in the way Calvinists do, this of course looks like the Calvinist doctrine. Only if you really listen to what the church fathers are saying, actually reading them in context, they are understanding substitutionary atonement in a very different context - one which has to do with healing our sin and liberating us from bondage.

In correcting the record, I thought it would be important to say this via an academic peer reviewed journal in order to take the conversation beyond the blogosphere and get it in front of theologians and scholars as well. My hope that it will open up the possibility of some dialog here, because while I think that the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions are definitely wrong in their representation of the fathers, at the same time I also know that they are good guys who love Jesus and are all pretty sharp to boot. What I really appreciate about the atmosphere of debate in England (both EQ and the PfoT authors are in the UK) as opposed to here in the States is that while we tend to have polarized sides on issues that shut down communication, they are more accustomed to lively debates. That's true specifically of Evangelicalism here, and across the pond as well. So I hope that this will spur a healthy discussion, even though we obviously disagree significantly.

UPDATE: I have now posted a PDF of my article. More here.
I also have a follow-up article responding to a rebuttal of my article by one of the key players in PfoT: 


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34 Comments:

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Andrew Tweedy said...

"What they do teach is substitutionary atonement ... and liberating us from bondage".
I think Gustaf Aulen made the same point in 'Christus Victor' way back when. Is that right? Anyway I'm glad you are getting a hearing in a mainstream academic journal. It will be interesting to see what responses you get.

 
At 2:36 PM, Blogger Rick Gibson said...

I read several of the quotes they used up through Augustine, and even without the larger context you can tell the authors are reading 'penal' back into statements about substitutionary atonement or recapitulation.

 
At 9:35 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Rick, yup that's what I thought too.

 
At 9:39 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Andrew,

Yes this is exactly what Aulen claims. The problem is that Aulen does not really go into much detail in quoting the fathers as he is attempting in a short space to cover a broad picture of their view(s). As a result he assumes that his audience will be able to fill in the gaps with their own knowledge of the fathers, which I suspect is much less the case now than it was back in 1930 when he wrote Christus Victor.

 
At 10:28 AM, Blogger Bones said...

I'll be looking forward to your article in EQ, Derek! And I'll probably order PfoT as well, so as to add them both to my library on this topic, along with Aulen and others. Reading your articles here and following their reference trail over the past couple of years has set me free from the Penal Substitution illusion I lived in most of my believing life. But it has also brought me into direct conflict with our in-laws, to whom we have become outlaws, specifically because I'm neither a Piperian Calvinist, nor an adherent to Penal Substitution. They refuse to meet or even talk with my wife and I, despite the fact that our children are married to each other, being convinced that we are at best heretics, and at worst deceivers leading others astray, and thus worthy of a millstone necklace! This is an excellent and very personal example of the incivility in debate that dominates on the U.S. side of the pond. Pray that our Prince of Peace may lead the four of us into the peace and reconciliation that have been His purpose for us from all eternity!

 
At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I certainly do pray that God will find a way to bring reconciliation between you and your in laws. This is a theme that the Spirit has really been hammering into my hard heart over these past years. I am by nature not meek and mild. I have the temperament of a fundamentalist. But God keeps showing me that as ticked off as I get at injustice, grace is the better way. That's so hard for me to learn. My flesh will wrap itself in righteous garb and say "but you need to tell them they are wrong!" That's why I've been so impressed and humbled by the grace that people like Steve Chalke have exhibited in the face of vicious attack. It speaks volumes. So my prayer for me and you is that we would both not only be ambassadors of peace and grace in our theology, but also in our actions, and that God would use that to bring about reconsilation and the mending of relationships. I pray this in Jesus name, Amen.

 
At 12:21 AM, Blogger Sharktacos said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2:15 PM, Blogger The Misfit Toy said...

I'm doing a happy dance for you as well.

 
At 7:32 AM, Blogger dave said...

That is exciting! Keep up the good work.

 
At 5:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across this website and am fascinated by what I've read so far. I've considered myself something of an "armchair theologian" for a number of years but I've never read a clearly articulated argument for anything other than the standard Penal-substitutionary view that was based on the scripture and was presented as an iteration of the historic faith rather than being novel doctrine or post-modern criticism.

 
At 8:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Derek, Andrew Sach here (one of the co-authors of PfoT). Just found out about your article, and obviously interested to see how you will argue - in the spirit of the lively debate that you praise in your blog post!. Just wondered whether there was any chance of seeing a pre-print before May? Fair enough if I need to wait until May like everyone else, but thought I'd ask in case you were feeling generous.

 
At 10:02 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Andrew,
Yes I'd be happy to send you a pre-print. I just need to know where to send it. If you click on the "email" link on the right of my blog here then I can send it to you.

-Derek

 
At 4:10 PM, Anonymous KAM said...

New to your site, and still poking around, but so far I haven't found an account of human GUILT.

Please tell me I'm wrong.

 
At 4:37 PM, Anonymous KAM said...

P.s. And I don't mean the FEELING of guilt.

 
At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Kam,

I would say that we as people are both hurt and also hurt others. Both of these can potentially separate a person from God's love and grace. So we need to take responsibility for the hurt we have done, and also find healing and restoration for the hurt done to us.

Why is it important to you to find an account of guilt? Is that something you struggle with? Have you experienced God's healing forgiveness in your life?

 
At 11:46 AM, Blogger Peter Gurry said...

Derek,

I'll have to dig up your article when it comes out. I have the volume you referenced (Pierced for our Transgressions) and have found it wonderfully helpful in thinking through the issues.

I've often wondered though about the citations of the Fathers. In my reading of Athanasius I keep wondering, "Is he substitutionary? If he is, he doesn't seem to be penal substitutionary." It is hard for us Reformed folks, sometimes, not to see penal substitution everywhere we see substitution but, alas, the two are not the same.

I look forward to the continuing discussion!

 
At 12:39 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Peter, I have posted a PDF of my EQ article. You'll find a link to it at the bottom of the above blog post as well as in the Essays and Articles side bar to the right.

 
At 1:39 PM, Blogger E.K. said...

Derek,
I thank God that I unintentionlly found your web article(s) while searching for something else! I knew there were inconsistencies in substitutionary atonement doctrine and had spent a great deal of time over the years doing mental gymnastics of sorts to reconcile this with my loving God. For this reason I had been very drawn to Eastern Orthodox teaching, but was unable to swallow some of their traditions. I was unaware of Christus Victor. Many others must be as well. In fact, I would like to start a blog myself in order to post link to yours and further spread this message of radical Love.

 
At 12:47 PM, Blogger simmmo said...

You know, Derek, you really could have gone to town if you had included Saint John Chrysostom in your analysis. The authors of PFMT provide one quote from Chrysostom about the atonement which he is actually making in passing. He's actually not talking about the atonement. Yet the authors simply conclude that Saint John Chrysostom is clearly teaching penal substitution!!! From one single quote. What's even more striking is that Saint John Chrysostom delivered a famous and enduring Easter homily in which he deals with the atonement directly!!! That they ommitted this is telling. Of course, in that homily, Chrysostom focusses on the victory of Christ. Furthermore, the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is still used in Eastern Orthodoxy. They are devoted to Chrysostom. What is their view of the atonement? It is clearly more in line Christus Victor. And this is because the Early Fathers overwhelmingly saw something like Christus Victor as the best way to understand the cross.

I was reading the Patristic section of PFMT yesterday at a Christian bookstore here in Sydney. It was absolutely barren. It consisted simply of prooftexting from the Fathers. They provided one single solitary quote from the Fathers in the first 300 years of Christendom. I usually agree with NT Wright, but I think he's absolutely kidding when he says this was the best part of the book. It says a lot about the book if the Patristics was the best part of it. Seriously, though, we have to really stand up to the neo-Calvinist bullies that seem to be emerging. I'm thinking of such people as Piper, MacArthur, DA Carson, JI Packer etc... these men are really divisive. There's no other way of putting it. I think they can simply be waved away if we have a good understanding of scripture and church history. I also think there are serious Gnostic tendencies with the kind of Puritanical Calvinism they espouse. They are noisy and irritable uncle at a family get-together. We shouldn't pay any attention to them.

 
At 1:31 PM, Blogger simmmo said...

Derek, just re-read your article... It was such a clinical takedown of the Patristic material in PFOT. The illogical leap from merely using substitutionary language to the authors' assertion that the Fathers "clearly" taught (this sort of triumphalistic language is used throughout the book) penal substitution really amounts to a school boy error. I'm not an academic theologian, but even picked this out whilst reading the book. I think, in future, we should really ignore a lot of the stuff coming out of the Reformed camp in America. A lot of the "scholarship" published in their books (usually published by extremely sympathetic houses like Crossway) are not peer reviewed. Many fundamentalist neo-Calvinists have their own private apologetics institutions and are not based at proper universities. Many of them simply set up their own seminaries to teach extremely fundamentalist doctrine. They have lost the battle on real university campuses, developed a persecution complex within academia, and simply set up their own institutions, publishing houses, journals etc to escape reality whilst labelling others as "liberals" and other perjorative terms. PFOT is an example of this conservative sub culture within evangelical Protestantism. It's a bit like the neo conservative movement in politics. Set up your own "think tanks" like Heritage, Cato, AEI etc and try to control the debate according to your own ideology and agenda. This is what is going on with the neo Calvinists. Publishers like Crossway aren't really interested in publishing good research. They're interested in promoting an angenda and an ideology. The "seminaries" set up by the likes of Francis Chan and John MacArthur aren't really interested in scholarship, rather they are interested in indoctrination. This book was simply hopeless in its attempts on the particular matter you address in the article. Others, including NT Wright, see the exegesis as very poor too. It's very sad to see the Reformed resort to these kind of measures in a vain (I think) attempt to protect their own ideologies.

 
At 5:02 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Simmmo,
I originally had a section on Chrysostom but I had to cut it because of space. I agree that he is a fruitful source to read.

The main problem that I have with the neo-Calvinists (or hyper-Calvinists if you prefer) is the spirit of ungrace that often characterizes their interactions. There is room for disagreement, heck I disagree with a lot of what scholars say, but our dialogs need to be characterized by grace. I think it is the lack of grace that makes them truly wrong, rather than a mistake in logic or accuracy, because that lack of grace makes them deeply hurtful. Because they also lack empathy, they are oblivious to how much their doctrines can hurt people, so when people disagree out of hurt, they just dive in even stronger.

What I really hope we call can get is that it is profoundly more important to be loving than it is to be "right." I'd say the only real heresy is ungrace.

 
At 7:27 PM, Blogger simmmo said...

You are right about the heresy of ungrace. Perhaps I should be a little more careful than to be baited by the inflamatory comments of the hyper Calvinists. I think at this point its simply better not to listen to what they are saying or doing. At some point Christendom has got to get on with the job of doing the Kingdom work. The hyper Calvinists can continue to argue their quasi Gnostic soteriology and complain that we are all Pelagian... and if they are ignored, as I think they should be, no doubt they would claim victory but so what. I think its about time for the broader Christian community to leave them behind. The fruit our work will ultimately tell who is right I suppose... I'm personally excited about the vision of men like NT Wright and Rowan Williams even tho I'm not Anglican. I think Eastern Orthodoxy has a lot to offer Christendom theologically and intellectually - particularly on doctrines such as hell and eschatology more generally. I have also been really inspired by some of the stuff Greg Boyd is doing. I once read a critique of Boyd's view of hell on John Piper's Desiring God blog. It actually brought out some very good points Greg made, with some rather weak attempts at refutation by Piper! Far from refuting Boyd's view, Piper inadvertently showcased them! So I really do think its time to move past these tiresome debates with fundamentalists lest we get baited and dragged into circular arguments... There's plenty of good stuff we can actually do rather than spend time arguing

 
At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Amen! We can get a lot further when we are not tethered to these neo-Pharasees.

 
At 5:14 PM, Blogger simmmo said...

By the way, did the authors of PFOT ever respond to the arguments against them in you article?

 
At 8:02 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Nope.

 
At 9:03 PM, Blogger simmmo said...

hmmm that's interesting.... i'm not sure whether the silence is telling about their argument or whether the authors are just too busy to respond to every criticism. But given that your argument against them was published in a peer reviewed journal and not just some opinion piece or blog you'd think that, if they had a response, it would have been forthcoming. Journals are usually willing to publish rejoinders, particularly coming from the authors criticized. Anyway, i thought your article was really good. Perhaps they did too.

 
At 6:21 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I don't really know. I should mention however that I did correspond via email briefly with two of the authors of PFOT, before the article came out, and gave them a pre-press version of the article to read. They were both very gracious and kind in our exchanges.

 
At 11:58 PM, Blogger simmmo said...

I've since realized the authors of the book are British, not "fist in the face" American Calvinists. Perhaps that explains the niceties... But did they provide any comments or criticisms? I'm curious as I would like to see a critical evaluation of your article for completeness of the debate.

I suspect that you can not sustain what appears to be their thesis in the book's section on the Fathers: that is, that the Fathers view of the atonement was exactly identical to theirs. Of course they didn't say this in so many words, but this is what is implied. The fact remains that no where in the early church was the penal substitution theory put forth as the central, or even an important, way of thinking about the atonement. Anyways...

 
At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Simmmo,

Garry Williams just wrote to tell me that he has written a rebuttal to my EQ article (his article is also in EQ). You can find his post as well as a link to his article here:
http://www.therebelgod.com/2010/04/substitutionary-atonement-and-church.html
(in the comments towards the bottom)

 
At 12:59 AM, Anonymous simmmo said...

hmmm I'm clearly not familiar enough with the Patristic material to evaluate who is right here. Just a few thoughts though...

Williams has a go at you for making an unnecessary dichoctomy between Christus Victor and Christus Vicarius. Then he states

"My plea is not for Christus Vicarius to the exclusion of all other language and concepts. Again, let Aulén have his prize. Certainly the themes of restoration and victory were present, and in some writers they were the primary categories."

So does he mean, with NT Wright, that there are a number of ways of thinking about the atonement, including penal substitution? And when he says "let Aulen have his prize", is he agreeing that Christus Victor or Ransom were the dominant way the Fathers saw the atonement, but that this does not necessarily exclude penal substitution? Because if Aulen is to have his prize, surely this means that Christus Victor should be the dominant way we think about the cross.

So even if he is right in this particular argument, and there is some teaching of PS in the Fathers, this doesn't settle the question of whether it is right to go about saying that Jesus died primarily to save us from an angry God. And that this is the PRIMARY, indeed, the ONLY (as it is so often presented), way to think about the atonement. Didn't Aulen win the battle here? Whatever we can find in the Fathers about the atonement, surely the Christus Victor and associated themes are the categories we should be thinking in if we respect their witness. Because the whole issue for the Reformed on this matter is to show that their theology of the cross is rooted in historic orthodox Christianity. If penal substitution doesn't occupy the place they have given it in their theology, then we do have to wonder whether their emphasis on penal substitution is warranted.

I just listened to an interview by Justin Brierley with Mark Driscoll, which actually ended up with Driscoll interviewing Justin Brierley. Driscoll quizzed Justin Brierley on his belief of the cross. Justin Brierley indicated that there were a number of ways we can think about the cross and be faithful to scripture including PS. But Driscoll insisted that penal substitution is THE dominant way and any other way was not doing justice to scripture. Well sorry Mark, if Aulen is to have his prize, then you've got to back off with your penal substitution theory and allow other ways of thinking about the cross to be central.

This is what is at stake here. I think we've got to step back and ask the Reformed whether they are doing justice to scripture and the fathers by putting undue emphasis on Penal Substitution. To me Williams' article, even if he were right on the particular cases he looks at, doesn't settle that bigger question. Taken together, what is the Fathers' witness on the atonement? Does it warrant the sort of preaching we see amongst the Reformed? That's the deeper issue I think. I'm still persuaded by Aulen, by NT Wright, by the Eastern Orthodox (who are no mugs when it comes to the Fathers - if they say penal substitution is not taught then this should be taken seriously). Anyways it will be interesting to see your comments.

Cheers

 
At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The second last sentence of your EQ article: "But in a restorative model it is through God’s action to transform and heal our sin that our relationship with God is set right, rather than through retribution."

You're mixing metaphors. Something that's normally healthy but gets infected, injured or broken needs to be healed. Sin is not in that category. It needs to be confessed, forgiven and abandoned, not healed or transformed.

 
At 4:33 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

The idea of sin as something needing healing is one that is all over the church fathers writing (not to mention the Bible where it is equally prevalent). I give quite a few examples of this in the article. To restrict our conception of sin to a legal paradigm is to take a view that is foreign to theirs.

 
At 7:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just asking for precision. Sin wounds and corrupts and makes us sick. (That's what your examples underscore.) But it's WE and our sinful nature that need to be healed, not the sin that afflicts us. When I'm sick, I don't say "My flu needs healing." The flu is doing just fine. I'M the one who needs the medical attention.

 
At 8:14 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, that is the way that everyone would understand healing and sickness I think. If a doctor speaks of "healing cancer" then this would mean they heal *us* of the cancer, and consequently that the cancer cells are destroyed or removed.

 

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