Our first book for my seminar on the atonement was Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, by Joel Green and Mark Baker (IVP Academic, 2000, 2nd ed. in 2011). I learned a lot from reading it, and it certainly generated a great discussion in class last week. But on the whole I found the book’s criticism of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) to be unconvincing and at times unfair. While the authors rightly emphasize the importance of interpreting texts and events within their cultural narrative, I felt they downplayed the extent to which every cultural narrative is connected to a larger human narrative, which we are all a part of. For example, in their emphasis on retributive justice and individual guilt as Western phenomena they refer to “the huge populations of the world for whom guilt is a non-issue (45). But if all human beings are fallen, how is guilt a “non-issue” for any human culture? I’m not convinced that PSA is as rooted in Western conceptions guilt and justice as the authors suggest. And while the authors rightly emphasize that the New Testament contains many metaphors and images to communicate the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross, they are unduly skeptical, in my opinion, of the possibility of organizing these diverse images under a broader heading or rubric. Multiform presentation does not entail multiform meaning. The New Testament uses many images to communicate the meaning of the atonement, but it also gives us commentary and help in interpreting and organizing them. Further, I’m not convinced that the authors’ kaleidoscopic alternative turns out to sit well with the relevant biblical data (e.g., their discussion of Mark 14:22-25 does not draw out the connection the Passover meal [59-63]; their discussion of Romans 3:21-26 does not squarely engage with the meaning of hilasterion, etc.).
But my greatest objection to the book is that the book presents itself as critiquing PSA itself, but in reality it seems to be reacting against a reductionistic and unsophisticated version of PSA. The authors try to protect themselves from the charge of caricaturing and knocking down a straw man by protesting that they are dealing with PSA as it it portrayed at the popular level, not more sophisticated versions of it at the theological level (cf. their long footnote on 46). But if that were the case, then shouldn’t the book be about correcting the abuse of PSA, and show us what a good version of PSA should look like? In fact, the book gives the impression that PSA itself is reductionistic and unsophisticated, and at times their criticism seems to extend not merely to current articulations of PSA, but to the doctrine itself. For example, in dialoguing with feminist critiques of PSA, they state that “although Paul uses a wide array of metaphors to represent the significance of Jesus’ death, it is arguable whether penal substitution (especially as popularly defined) is one of them” (121). The word “especially” seems to indicate that the authors take issue not merely with the way PSA is expressed by many evangelicals today, but also with whether it is present in Paul at all. Throughout the book, a subtle criticism of PSA itself seems to be smuggled in with the authors’ protest against the reduction of the meaning of atonement to PSA.
To give one example, consider the authors’ treatment of atonement in Narnia on pp. 232-234, a subject which I addressed a few weeks ago here. The authors concede that atonement in Narnia has some similarities with PSA. After all, Aslan substitutes himself for Edmund to pay the penalty entailed by the Deep Magic. But then the authors argue that atonement in Narnia really differs from PSA because of the additional theme of “Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time.” I remember scratching my head while reading this, thinking, “why is this additional theme in Lewis in any way at odds with PSA? How is this taken to be a criticism of PSA? Couldn’t it apply equally to any atonement theory, such as, say, Christus Victor? Why do the authors not simply come out and acknowledge that PSA is present in the Narnia books?” What the authors should really be saying is, “PSA is not all there is, so lets make room for other metaphors alongside it.” Sadly, they give the impression that PSA is itself is a problem.