Penal substitution and the OT narrative of judgment

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Andrew Perriman responding to my blog on a non-penal understanding of Isa 53 proposes that while we should not see the Servant Song as a picture of the satisfaction of the demands of justice, he does want to retain a penal view understood in the context of the Old Testament narrative. He writes that,


“There is at least a difference to note between God directly punishing Jesus in order to satisfy the demands of justice and Jesus being implicated in the direct punishment of Israel (in order to satisfy the demands of the Law).”



This is indeed much more Jewish and historical than the classical Calvinist presentation of penal substitution, but it is something I would also want to ultimately reject as well, in particular that last part about “punishment... in order to satisfy the demands of the Law.” The reason not because I reject the biblical narrative, but because I think this only tells half the story.


Much of the book of Isaiah indeed conveys exactly this above narrative: Israel has sinned and now, Isaiah tells them over and over, they are suffering calamity, oppression, and death for their sin. This is not just in Isaiah, it is all over the OT. Andrew writes further that, “in the biblical setting we should recall that sickness is a consequence of Israel’s failure to keep the covenant (cf. Deut. 28:20-22).” Again this is quite true. In the Old Testament mindset, sickness is conceived of as both impurity, and punishment from God.


While this represents the broad picture of sickness in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is important to note that the Old Testament does not present a single static view, but a dynamic one containing internal critiques and developing understandings of who God is. In the book of Job for instance we find a divine critique of the view of Job’s friends, who assumed that Job’s afflictions must have come as the result of his sin. In contrast to their judgment, Job is declared by God to be “a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1 :8). The rest of the book that follows proceeds to give us one long and colorful protest against judging the sick and suffering. Similarly, in Isaiah we again find a critique of the connection of sickness with sin in the story of the suffering servant who, Isaiah tells us, was falsely considered “struck down by God, and afflicted” (Isa 53:4). Yet it is through the righteous suffering of the servant that healing is to come to Israel: “by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:5). One might even say that the suffering servant song serves as an internal critique of the view in Isaiah itself that suffering comes as the result of sin.


This inner-biblical critique of the view that sickness and suffering are punishment for sin finds its strongest statement in the gospels. At times Jesus seems to associate sickness with sin (for example in the healing of the paralytic Lk 5:20ff), and other times he explicitly denies it (as with the blind man in in Jn 9:2-3), his focus throughout however is never on ascribing blame, but that “the works of God might be displayed” through a reversal of the curse of sickness and affliction. Andrew is again spot on when he writes, “when Jesus heals the sick, it is to be understood as a sign that the curse is being lifted, that forgiveness is being offered to Israel.” The paradigmatic statement of Jesus here is “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31–32). Here a connection is indeed drawn between “sinners” and “those who are sick,” but the order is reversed: instead of saying that the sick are guilty, he is saying that sin is an illness in need of healing, rather than judgment. This reflects a significant shift: even if sickness is the result of sin, God’s action in Jesus is now to reverse that judgment via healing.


Now here's the part that I think Andrew leaves out: The primary way in which sickness is expressed in the gospels is not in terms of God’s curse, but of demonic affliction. By the time of the gospels, a major shift had occurred in Judaism, and the idea that affliction and sickness stemmed from Satan had become widespread. So while there was still the sense in Second Temple Judaism that Satan served as an “agent of God’s wrath,” and thus that sickness was ultimately the result of God’s judgment, there was now also the notion that sickness came from “the enemy.” This later focus is what we observe in Jesus, who saw the Satanic reign as something to be opposed and overcome. Jesus frames his healing ministry in terms of the kingdom of God advancing against Satan’s kingdom (cf. Lk 11:17–20). This approach to sickness carries over into the approach Jesus took to sin: people are in need of being liberated from both sickness and sin. Jesus "came for sinners" because "it is the sick who need a doctor." Here we have a more sophisticated understanding of sin and sickness: it is not just something to be quarantined, it is something to be healed. The full narrative is not "do good and be blessed, do bad and be cursed" but a way to make the rotten pure and new again.


That is why I would ultimately disagree with a view of the atonement that views Jesus as bearing the “punishment of Israel in order to satisfy the demands of the Law.” In one sense this may be true. I would agree that (as Martin Hengel puts it) Jesus bears the full weight of human wretchedness. But I have a big problem with the idea that this “satisfies” the “demand” of God’s law. The picture I see in the NT and the early church is that the punishment itself is seen as evil, and identified with the will of the devil and not with God’s will. It is something that needs to be opposed and overcome, not fulfilled or satisfied.


God did not kill Jesus, nor did justice or the law. Injustice did. Evil did. We did. As Peter says on Pentecost, “wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 2:23) That’s Isaiah 53 in one sentence.

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How to do a Bible study in Hebrew even if you don't know Hebrew

Thursday, June 17, 2010

People are always impressed when you can talk about what the original Hebrew or Greek means in a Bible study. So I thought I would share an easy way to look up words in the original biblical Hebrew. It's easy to do, can greatly expand your understanding of God's word, and will only cost you 50 bucks.

First the free part: look up a passage in the Bible using the Greek and Hebrew concordance function of Blue Letter Bible. You can search for a passage in the Bible and it will show you the corresponding Hebrew or Greek text for that verse. Just hit the "show me" button below to see an example of Psalm 34:2 (it will open in a new tab so you can continue reading).



You can see there that verse in the NASB and the corresponding Hebrew lemmas for each word. Click on the Strong's number for a word and it will open a page that will give you a definition for it. Pretty awesome. If you want to look up your own verse, just click on the "C" to the left of your verse.

Now comes the money part. The dictionary. There are two sections, one called "outline of biblical usage" which is not a dictionary at all. Don't use that. Below that is the famous Gesenius lexicon. It's not bad, but it is quite dated (this one is from 1847!) so you should really have something more up to date one. It can be quite challenging to find a good Hebrew dictionary. Some like the HALOT are outrageously expensive, and others like the BDB (Brown-Driver-Briggs) looks like a bunch of gibberish to non-specialists and really doesn't give definitions at all. Fortunately for Hebrew there is the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) which is reasonoallby priced and very practical to use. It gives long, detailed, and understandable definitions of all important Hebrew words, and what's more: you don't need to know Hebrew to look stuff up in it. Blueletterbible.com gives you both the Strong's number, and even the TWOT number which you can use to find your word in it.

So let's try that out with Psalm 34:1-2. The NASB reads

My soul will make its boast in the LORD; The humble will hear it and rejoice.

If you look up the word translated "humble" you'll find it can also mean "oppressed" which is how that line is rendered in the NIV

My soul will boast in the LORD; let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

Or how about if we look up the word translated "rejoice." It's not really the kind of thing anyone says outside of a religious context. Even from the Gesenius we can see that the word has to do with having a joyful disposition. So what if we translated it more in the way we talk today and said "let the afflicted hear and be happy"? This can help us to think more about what the text is actually saying where the familiar religious words tend to just roll over us. Of course you could go on and on like this, which is the point. It's a fairly simple way to dig into a text and see things in it that you might have missed otherwise by exploring it in the original language.

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A non-penal understanding of Isaiah 53

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I got an email recently asking me to explain how the song of the suffering servant in Isa 53 can be understood a non-penal substitution way. So I decided to turn my (rather long) answer into a blog post.

One question that was brought up was the difference between the LXX (the Greek Old Testament read by the Apostles) and the Hebrew OT. For example take verse 10 where it says in the Hebrew

"Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering..." (NIV)

but the LXX has,
"The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of His wound, and if you give an offering for sin..."

These two texts clearly have different meaning, but let's step back for a moment and look at the big picture. The whole narrative of Isa 53 is one of a travesty of justice. It begins in 52 by saying that "kings will shut their mouths" when they finally get what no one was able to see coming. Then in 53 it begins by saying "who has believed this message?" and goes on to show how everyone in fact completely got it wrong and did not realize that the one who " took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows" was not someone they should despise as "stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted." The picture here we are seeing is one of a travesty of justice. The servant is treated unfairly. Though the people thought the servant deserved to suffer, really we were the sinful ones. It is not at all a picture of the fulfillment of justice, but of something is lamented as horribly unjust "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth... By oppression and judgment he was taken away."

Clearly this is not a picture of the satisfaction of the demands of justice. No legal system would ever say it is just to punish the innocent. This goes completely against the entire thrust of the OT law, and indeed against all legal systems. Luther commenting on this says that it goes against "all law, custom, and reason." And that is the whole point. The big picture is that this is supposed to be a shock, something hard to swallow. Isaiah tells us this repeatedly. Paul similarly speaks of the cross as being "foolishness" and a "scandal". So with that in mind let's return to that verse in the LXX...

My guess is that a scribe changed it from "crush" to "cleanse" in an attempt to make sense of the text. The idea that this travesty of justice was somehow God's will was too much for him. So he "fixed" the text. Penal substitution tries to do the same thing by presenting the cross as a reasonable fulfillment of law, even though as I said this really makes no sense (punishing the innocent is not just). Here we who want to get away from a punitive understanding of the cross might also want to adopt the LXX reading and avoid the idea that Christ suffered for us too. But I think that is a mistake. The cross needs to stay a scandal and a shock. It needs to be intimidating. As Moltmann says "if we do not have the feeling that we must flee the cross of Christ, we have not yet understood it in a sufficiently radical way"

The crazy picture we get is that even though it is totally unfair, the servant bore our sickness, suffering, and hurtfulness and that somehow acts to cleanse us. Isaiah does not directly deal with how that works. He says that we are healed, brought peace, and carried, and alludes to the idea of sacrifice, speaking of lambs and guilt offerings (i.e. offerings of restitution). As I have argued here and here, sacrifice has nothing to do with punishment (sacrifice is the alternative to punishment) and everything to do with cleansing - that is with sanctification. So the purpose of Christ bearing our pain, doubt, fear, and ugliness is not so that God can be appeased, but so that we can be made new. This is as I have argued in my article here the way that the early church understood Christ's death for us. So with that in mind, let me "fix" the LXX

"The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of us by His wound, and if you give an accept his offering for sin..."

While I'm at it, let me offer a thought about doing biblical exegesis. Most people read the Bible one verse at a time. When doing this it is very easy to miss the larger story or narrative point (like the one we saw in Isa 53) and instead to simply plug in our preconceived doctrinal understandings onto the words and phrases we see in those little verse snippets. This is not at all helped by the fact that the majority of biblical scholars read in this same way, fussing over single words, arguing about the exact grammatical form of this or that word. Commentaries go on for pages like this, and if you asked me the result is that we focus on the crumbs and miss the cookie. We get so focused on some minute detail that we miss the big picture - not just of this chapter, but of how atonement works throughout the entire narrative of both Testaments, how it was understood by the Apostles, and by the early church. How all the pieces fit together. It is that BIG picture we need to focus on as the primary goal of biblical interpretation, and if you think about it this makes perfect sense. If we were interpreting any other novel or story we would certainly not fuss so much over some little sentence fragment or tense of a verb, we would read the whole story and talk about that. Likewise when people read this blog post I hope they focus on the points I am making and don't write a dissertation on my use of the word "of". It is really not that hard to interpret Isaiah 53 if we simply read it as a whole and look at the theme that it is developing. You don't need to know Hebrew or Greek, you just need to read the whole thing and get your head in the narrative. Someone who does this really well is Eugene Peterson. Here's his rendering of Isa 52:13-53:12:

13-15"Just watch my servant blossom!
Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!
But he didn't begin that way.
At first everyone was appalled.
He didn't even look human—
a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.
Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback,
kings shocked into silence when they see him.
For what was unheard of they'll see with their own eyes,
what was unthinkable they'll have right before them."

1 Who believes what we've heard and seen? Who would have thought God's saving power would look like this?

2-6The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.
We're all like sheep who've wandered off and gotten lost.
We've all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we've done wrong,
on him, on him.

7-9He was beaten, he was tortured,
but he didn't say a word.
Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered
and like a sheep being sheared,
he took it all in silence.
Justice miscarried, and he was led off—
and did anyone really know what was happening?
He died without a thought for his own welfare,
beaten bloody for the sins of my people.
They buried him with the wicked,
threw him in a grave with a rich man,
Even though he'd never hurt a soul
or said one word that wasn't true.

10Still, it's what God had in mind all along,
to crush him with pain.
The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin
so that he'd see life come from it—life, life, and more life.
And God's plan will deeply prosper through him.

11-12Out of that terrible travail of soul,
he'll see that it's worth it and be glad he did it.
Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant,
will make many "righteous ones,"
as he himself carries the burden of their sins.
Therefore I'll reward him extravagantly—
the best of everything, the highest honors—
Because he looked death in the face and didn't flinch,
because he embraced the company of the lowest.
He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many,
he took up the cause of all the black sheep.


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