Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers (my EQ article is now online)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

 UPDATE: I have a new follow-up article (See details below)

The new April issue of Evangelical Quarterly is out (vol. 82 no. 2) with my article Substitutionary Atonement and the Church Fathers: A Reply to the Authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions. I've posted a PDF of the article for folks to read. Here's the abstract:

This paper offers a reply to the claim of the recent book Pierced for Our Transgressions that the doctrine of penal substitution did not originate with Calvin, but was taught by the church fathers. A survey is presented of the writings of Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Ambrose, and Augustine’s respective understandings of the atonement, understood within their larger soteriology. From this it is concluded that the church fathers did not teach penal substitution, rather the dominant pattern found in these patristic writers is substitutionary atonement understood within the conceptual framework of restorative rather than retributive justice.Since I announced the upcoming article in a previous blog post a couple of the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions contacted me. (It still amazes me how connected the internet makes us!) They were quite gracious, and I look forward to being in dialog with them more in the future.
So have a look at the article, and let me know what you think in the comments section below.


 UPDATE: See also part 2: The Abolishment of Retribution in the Church Fathers

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A Subversive Easter Message

Sunday, April 04, 2010

I've been spending a lot of time lately looking at the way the Old Testament is quoted in the New, and I've found something pretty surprising: 9 times out of 10 the New Testament citation completely flips the original meaning of the Old Testament passage on its head! Take for example Paul's Easter message in 1 Cor 15 where he writes that "The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Cor 15:26). Paul then quotes the familiar line "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" and declares that "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 15:55-57). As Paul is using the phrase, Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? is addressing a defeated death: where is your sting now, O death? For you have been defeated by Christ! But take a look at the original passage in Hosea that Paul is quoting from:

"Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your destruction?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes." (Hos 13:14 NRSV)

The sense here is the opposite of what Paul is saying. It is about inviting death to come and destroy Israel in punishment. The NET translation makes this difference quite clear:

"Will I deliver them from the power of Sheol? No, I will not!
Will I redeem them from death? No, I will not!
O Death, bring on your plagues! O Sheol, bring on your destruction!
My eyes will not show any compassion! (Hos 13:14 NET)


Now in both Hebrew and Greek there are no question marks (or any punctuation at all), so you can't really tell whether it says "Shall I redeem them from Death?" (a question) or "I Shall redeem them from Death" (a promise), but it is pretty significant that most English translations (NAB, NASB, NCV, NRSV, TEV, CEV, NLT, NET) read this as a rhetorical question that implies a negative answer "Do you seriously think I will rescue you from death!?" The only exceptions to this reading are the NIV and KJV. Similarly, most English versions translate the part quoted by Paul to mean "What's keeping you death? Come!" meaning Hosea is not mocking death, but calling for death. Now how do we know that this is what Hosea meant? Context. Look at the last line: "Compassion is hidden from my eyes" and then read the whole chapter too and you'll see it ends by saying,

"They will fall by the sword;
their little ones will be dashed to the ground,
their pregnant women ripped open."
(Hos 13:16 NIV)

This was not good news when Hosea said it, but Paul has turned it around. He has taken a passage which in its original context was about death being poured out on people and made it about humanity being liberated from death because of the Resurrection where Christ overcame death. Again, if you look at how the NT quotes the OT you will find that most of the time it is reversing the original context, subverting it, redeeming it. It takes the original context which says "I hate my enemies and want to destroy them" and makes it about redemption, forgiveness, and making things new again. I love that.

I could go on for pages and pages with other examples of this. If you want to see for yourself, just pick any passage from the NT that is quoting from the OT and then read the whole OT chapter to see what the original context was. You'll see that over and over the NT turns the original meaning around. If you ever wondered why it was that the disciples were so shocked that Jesus had to die on the cross, it's because this was a complete reversal of everything they had learned about the messiah from the prophets. They had learned from reading the OT prophets to expect the messiah to come as a warrior and kill all the bad people. The NT takes all of these messianic prophesies that are about violence and destruction and reverses their meaning. Instead of being about an oppressed people getting revenge, it makes it into a story where all of us need mercy and grace.

Now this kind of crazy exegesis that takes the meaning of a passage and turns it on its head is also exactly how we need to read life. The very heart of the gospel is that God has turned everything around at Easter. The one condemned to die is shown to be victorious. Jesus in his death has conquered death. So while we might look at our lives and see darkness, while we might see pain and hurt, while we might be hopeless screw-ups, God says to us through the resurrection, "behold I make all things new!" God takes what we see around us and flips it right-side up.

Christ entered into our hurt and helplessness and overcame it. That's why the early church could have hope in the middle of horrible persecution, that why people who are suffering can find hope in the middle of that blackness, that's why those who are wracked with guilt and feel helpless to change get so overwhelmed by grace. So my prayer for you this Easter is that you could find a way to see yourself the way God sees you, that we all would learn to see grace in the middle of our messed up lives, to have eyes that see hope in a dark world. It can be really hard to see that sometimes. But that is the truth of the Resurrection. Love has and will overcome hate and hurt. Because of that, nothing you have done, nothing that has been done to you needs to define who you are. In Christ we can be re-defined by grace.

Happy subversive Easter. Christ is risen!

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