Friday, February 25, 2022

Closing thoughts on the PSA series, Jon DePue and "penal" problems (8 of 7)

Time to wrap this all up before posting a link to Mike's response video. Andrew Rillera's posts (listed here) were meant to generate discussion about the claims made in Mike Bird's original post, here. I said in the first post, and will repeat here, "Mike’s post is short and not intended as an extended defence of PSA". That is worth bearing in mind. Nonetheless, truth claims were made about Paul's letters and Andrew's posts—anything but short!—are a sustained critique of Mike's exegesis of his own key texts. 

More could be said, of course, but I will merely add two further issues. 

1) Well, the first is not an issue as much as a single video, namely Jon DePue's trinitarian critique of penal substitution. Jon argues that PSA necessarily fractures the homoousion, leading to a functional tritheism and ultimately to an undermining of the centrality of Christ. These are things, to be clear, that we do not want. So watch his video and try to answer a crucial question: does PSA indeed necessarily lead to these ends? If not, why not? If it does, well, time to reject it and return to recapitulation or some other ancient account of the saving significance of Jesus, such as the Apostle Paul's *cheeky grin*! (FYI, I hesitate to speak of "models" given Khaled Anatolios's recent case in Deification through the Cross, which is def. worth checking out). The only other thing worth adding is that Jon has recently rethought the place of the homoousion in light of McCormack's wonderful new book on Christology (and Jon’s got some great videos on that, too!), meaning that he is now less concerned with preserving that concept per se than he used to be. Regardless, the logical problems are still there, as well as the resulting occlusion of Jesus's centrality. 

2) Andrew spent his time critiquing use of the word "substitution". An alternative exegetically based theological critique will take aim at the use of the word "penal".

"Penal" is deployed in atonement theology to bring particular forensic notions into play, namely those that associate justice with the exactment of a penalty, understood in terms of punishment and desert. It is related to the Latin punire to mean the infliction of a penalty, "to cause pain for some offense". Of course, words are flexible little buggers and need to be understood by how they are used, so I take two books from my shelf almost at random to allow defenders of PSA to express the import of "penal". So, as Bruce Demarest explains in The Cross and Salvation (in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series): "Penal substitution indicates that the Messiah died in the sinner's place and took upon himself the sinner's just punishment" (p. 193, italics mine). Or as Douglas Moo recently opines in A Theology of Paul and His Letters, "Christ's death atones because he suffers and dies in the sinner's place. This 'place taking' is then often elaborated in terms of punishment" (393, italics mine). It is worth allowing Moo
more space, here, to elaborate the logic involved, thereby helping us coordinate his account of what is "just" in this scheme: Those "in Christ can be certain of escaping God's wrath on that day because ... it has been fully absorbed by Christ on the cross". He continues: "In the face of human sin and the condemnation under which sinners stand, God has sent Christ to be a full and final sacrifice for sins as a means of 'justifying' believers—putting them in a legal state of righteousness—and remains 'just' while doing so because Christ is our substitute, bearing the full judgment we deserve" (398-99). 

It follows, I think uncontroversially, that "penal" as an adjective here names an attribute of the noun "substitution" to mobilise a particular account of justice, namely a retributive one understood negatively (i.e., as punishment. This is not about positive retribution involving compensation, which is an entirely different matter). It is one in which justice is served by means of the exactment of a penalty understood in terms of deserved punishment. 

Two lines of thought need to be brought to bear in response. First, why must this account of justice be assumed and prioritised? After all, Michael Sandel's Justice: A Reader proffers numerous accounts of justice and not one of them articulates it as negative retribution. So let's not pretend that it is the only option whenever words glossed with "just" or "condemnation" are used. Numerous other forensic notions can be and are deployed, which are specifically non-negative-retributive. (For the record, and here I am glaring at some NT scholars who should know better, questioning this particular negative-retributive account of justice a Marcionite does not make!)

Second, we can build on this insight to offer crucial interpretative aid. For Paul will insist that God's δικαιοσύνη (typical glosses being "righteousness" or "justice")—however we might conceive it—is revealed in the gospel (compare Rom 1:16-17; 3:21-22). Divine "justice" is thus the content of the good news not the problem that the gospel needs to solve. Justice for Paul is, in other words, to be parsed according to a gospel-driven grammar and cannot be projected into Paul's theology willy-nilly because of some pre-conceived and undifferentiated notion. 

This means that, to understand this Rom 1:17 δικαιοσύνη, one needs a broader account of the event of God in Christ, for Paul. Only this would respect the point that God's act in Jesus Christ is the content of God's δικαιοσύνη. As such it is an act of unconditional love and benevolence precisely "while we were still sinners" (Rom 5:8)—not when we had met certain conditions but when we were at our worst, so to speak. This is to say that it does not operate according to the dictates of negative retribution and desert (compare language used by Demarest and Moo above). It is an event of loving solidarity, to the point of death—even death on a cross—for one died, therefore all died (2 Cor 5:14; Phil 2:6-11), and we shall also be raised with him (2 Cor 4:14). It is an act which in resurrection and by the Holy Spirit liberates us from the powers of Sin and Death (Rom 6; Gal 5). This is further evidenced in the way Paul predominantly talks about freedom from enslavement rather than forgiveness from guilt (do a search for the word “forgiveness” in Paul’s letters and compare your result with the number of times, e.g., Luther uses the word [“Vergebung/Verzeihen” if you're really keen] in his commentaries on Paul. It’s a revealing exercise). It is, thus, an event that delivers, pressing us toward forensic liberative notions of justice. At least this would all be a good start in unpacking a Pauline account of justice. 

Defenders of PSA will need to mount a case that God's justice necessarily, in Paul, involves punishment and the causing of pain, and in a way that overtly overrides other central Pauline intuitions (if one wants to say PSA is the central or core of atonement). Good luck with that! 

A little more promising is to claim, if one wants to adopt a kaleidoscope view of atonement models (which is the best a PSA defender can hope for in reading Paul), that such retributive notions can cogently stand alongside Paul's alternative scheme of justice in the gospel, without generating devastating intrinsic, systematic and empirical problems. But this has not been done, to my mind; the compatibility is usually asserted without awareness of the problems generated. In fact, wider analysis of political dimensions (Hauerwas on western justice, Jared Diamond on tribes), the nature and deployment of metaphors in these debates (relating to "payment" and "compensation" working in both positive and negative directions—Lakoff, soon Campbell), and John Wayne masculinity scripts (the warrior who inflicts equal or greater harm in response to harm and distress) are perhaps making the gap between these alternative accounts of justice (negative retributive vs. Paul's gospel-driven account) wider—not more plausible. Further, this strategy would also need to show its concrete relation to the Christ event in general in Paul's theology, and not merely pluck out bits where Paul sounds retributive. In other words, the onus is very much on defenders of the word "penal" to demonstrate the case against considerable exegetical, theological and theoretical pressure. 

"But muh retributive justice is in these wider Bible passages" says someone while stabbing at pages of the NIV. OK, granted, but all manner of different notions of justice can be mobilized by various parts of Scripture, and most involve acts of judgement that do not end in punishment, but rather in the correction, education and redemption of God's people as a whole (a claim that would take me beyond the bounds of this post to defend, would present a positive account of retribution as compensation, and would relate to Revelation, the nature of OT prophecy, and more besides). This imaginary someone has a good instinct, of course. The scopus of Scripture needs to be respected, prayerfully received. But any truly Christian theological account must orientate its reading of the Bible as a whole to the Word of God, namely Jesus Christ (see, e.g., John 5:39-40), which is effectively what Paul insist in Rom 1:17. God's "justice" is revealed in the gospel. This must be our primary and most important orientation otherwise unevangelised notions of justice will determine our core theological axioms in inappropriate ways. And that won't end well. Taken to its worst (yet perhaps most logical) ends, penal substitutionary atonement risks inscribing unevenaglised notions of justice into the heart of the God-human relation. 

This has real world consequences that need to be faced; this is not an exercise in abstractions. At one level it will lead to confused preachers, unsure how to speak of love and justice/holiness "in balance", not only upsetting those who endorse divine simplicity, but also those who do not want to undermine the radical beauty of the Christ-centred good news of Paul with some zero-sum word juggling (e.g., the "God loves you but he is also just" kind of nonsense one often hears in some churches). At another level, once penal notions of justice are inscribed into the gospel, into the heart of core theological truths, we necessarily have a God who can endorse the death penalty. In parts of the world, like Texas or Belarus, this matters a hell of a lot. Our Bible exegesis is a public act with concrete consequences for which we are responsible.

So I question the "penal" part of penal substitutionary atonement. Andrew questions the "substitution" part. What kind of atonement are we left with, then? Well, if you want a positive account of Paul's theology of the cross, you might find this popular level article I wrote a few years ago useful.


Rillera’s Myth Busting Busting: Response to Discussion and a Conclusion (7 of 7)

In response to some social media responses and discussion to these posts on (mainly) Facebook, I asked Andrew to write up some thoughts. There are those who think Andrew is "throwing the baby out with the bathwater", and the reason given is something like "because Paul articulates the saving significance of Jesus's death in substitutionary terms earlier in Romans / elsewhere". However, as no texts have yet been referenced by these interlocutors it is difficult for Andrew to respond. Andrew adds that, especially given the 6th post in this series ("Substitutionary Resurrection?"), the onus is arguably now on folks who think there's some "substitutionary" magic bullet—to provide this evidence. Either way, the point of Andrew's posts was to tackle Mike Bird's top three texts, which is really how this mini series of arguments needs to be adjudicated. And we are looking forward to Mike's video response in due time, which I will of course repost here!

But one question, raised by an old University friend of mine, Matthew, deserves a little more discussion, and Andrew, it turns out, had something prepared. So this post will first talk about this proposed correction of Andrew's case before wrapping things up with a conclusion. 

In a—I promise—final post, I will provide a link to an important PSA critique from a trinitarian angle and add one other set of concerns about the word "penal". 

*Hands the microphone back to Andrew Rillera*


Some have asked about substitution in 1 Cor 5:7 because there Paul says clearly that Jesus is our paschal lamb (pascha). A few things need to be kept in mind here.

Image from
For one, as I said in Part 1: Many people are unaware that not all Levitical sacrifices have a kippēr function. The “peace” or “well-being” sacrifices (Lev 3, 7:11–21) do not have an atoning function. Conveniently, it’s pretty easy to know if a sacrifice is atoning or non-atoning: if the laity eat from it, then it cannot be an atoning sacrifice. E.g., we know that the Passover is type of corporate thanksgiving well-being sacrifice because it is eaten by the laity (and has unleavened bread and a one-day expiration date (compare Exod 12 with Lev 7:12, 15).

There are three types of non-atoning sacrifices, lumped into a single broader category called the “well-being” sacrifices (šĕlāmîm). What unites these three are two significant facts. (1) These are the only sacrifices that the offerer eats. And (2) these are all non-atoning sacrifices. If a sacrifice has an atoning function, then the offerer cannot eat from it.

Significantly, while the well-being sacrifices could be offered by individuals whenever they felt like it, there are two important corporate well-being sacrifices: the Passover and the covenant inauguration/renewal (cf. Exod 24:5, 11; Deut 27:7; 2 Chron 15:10–12; 29:31, 35; 30:22–24; 33:16). Paul undeniably associates Jesus with both of these non-atoning sacrifices in 1 Corinthians (Passover in 5:7 and covenant inauguration in 11:25).

What is important for our purposes is that right off the bat we need to exclude 1 Cor 5:7 as talking about “atonement” (kipper) because the Passover is not an atoning sacrifice by definition. But once that is out of the way, what about the notion of “substitution” in general?

If one was inclined to say that it substituted for the firstborn in each household since failure to paint blood on the doorpost would result in the death of the firstborn, then one would also have to say that leaven is substitutionary as well since failure to comply with removing it and not eating it would result in that person’s death also (Exod 12:15, 19). In other words, just because something averts being cut off does not mean it is “substitutionary.” Hypothetically, if the Hebrew family ate a lamb but didn’t remove the leaven the firstborn along with the entire family would perish. So the lamb was not really “substituting” for the firstborn otherwise that would be sufficient to automagically have spared him. The consequences for not partaking of the Passover properly cannot be reduced to a logic of an isolated discrete instance of the lamb substituting for the firstborn. The feast needs to be understood as a whole.

Moreover, the Torah already tells us who the substitute for Israel’s firstborns are: The Levites (Num 8). It was not as if the firstborn of every household was threatened every year with death unless as substitute was offered in its place on Passover. The firstborn aspect of the first Passover was dealt with in Exod 13 immediately after the instructions in Exod 12. Here the firstborn aspect takes the form of redemption, which eventually gets taken up in Numbers 8 with the dedication of the Levites for tabernacle service in place of the firstborns. So the firstborn aspect of the first Passover is literally never part of any subsequent Passovers. To all of a sudden think Paul calling Jesus the Passover in 1 Cor 5:7 is him talking about Jesus as a substitute for all humanity (so I guess “firstborn” has now lost all meaning if it applies to…everyone??) strains credulity.

In any case, the point of the Passover celebration was upon preservation, deliverance, and formation into a covenant people, not some substitutionary moment of atonement. To conceptualize the Passover with substitution would be to miss the entire narrative thrust of both the historical moment and its continued remembrance in celebration each year afterwards, especially after the exile. In its first instance, the Passover lamb was a protective shield of sorts in order to preserve the whole people of Israel for their coming liberation from Egyptian slavery (12:13, 23–27, 31–32, 42, 51). Afterwards, it was the cultic marker of the preservation of Israel in order for them to be made into a kingdom of priests (12:14, 17, 24–27, 42; cf. Exod 19:4–6).

When Paul refers to Jesus as the Passover sacrifice in 1 Cor 5:7 it is pretty easy to rule out that he is conceptualizing this has a substitution that otherwise should have been the Corinthians’ deaths. The point in this passage is about the necessity for the community to be pure (eilikrineia) and true (alētheia) (5:8); free from immorality and every kind of wickedness (5:1, 8–11). This is why they should “remove the wicked person from among [themselves]” (5:13)—the person sleeping with his step-mother (5:1).

If Paul thought of Jesus as a substitute for people’s sins, then the solution would be to reiterate that nothing ought to happen to this sinner because Jesus’s took his punishment instead of him. But this is exactly not what Paul writes. Indeed, Paul’s instructions to expel this immoral person are for the purpose of destroying this person’s flesh (5:5a). True, this has the further purpose of saving his spirit (5:5b), but importantly, it is the destruction of his flesh that leads to the salvation of his spirit not, as we would expect with a substitutionary understanding of Jesus’s death, the destruction of Jesus’s flesh in his place.

Crucially, Paul brings in Jesus only in order to justify why the community ought to expel this sinner from among them. That is, conceptualizing Jesus’s death as a Passover sacrifice serves Paul’s point of the need to excommunicate the immoral person. The rhetorical move is anything but talking about Jesus as the substitute for an immoral person.

Just like the Passover celebrated the preservation, deliverance, and formation of Israel into a covenant people, Paul says that Christ’s death signals their deliverance (from every kind of immorality and wickedness in its immediate context) and formation as an unleavened community that is pure and true.

Paul’s logic here runs this way: since Jesus is our Passover, then we have an obligation to “celebrate” this fact by removing all leaven, which Paul midrashically interprets as immorality and wickedness, from our community that has been brought into existence by this Passover and therefore, we need to remove this immoral person. The point, then, about using the image of Passover is to say that Jesus has delivered and formed a pure community, therefore we are under obligation to keep it pure and free from immorality. There is nothing substitutionary going on.

No matter which way one slices it, Paul is not operating with a notion of substitution in either 5:7 or 11:25. In between these passages in 1 Cor, Paul asks, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing [koinōnia] in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing [koinōnia] in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake [metechō] of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners [koinōnia] in the altar?” (1 Cor 10:16–18).

Here we get a clear statement that Paul is working within the logic of the non-atoning well-being sacrifices, of which Passover is a special corporate instance. First, this cannot be about substitution by definition, because it is all about “sharing” (koinonia) (1 Cor 10:16, 18, 20) and “partaking” (metechō) (10:17, 21) in the offering and thereby having fellowship with God (see part 5 for the definition used). Second, not only is it explicitly and undoubtedly about “participation,” but this also means Paul cannot be conceptualizing Jesus’s death as an “atoning” (kipper) sacrifice since these cannot be eaten by the offerer. And if there was any doubt about this, he actually quotes from Exod 32:6 earlier in 1 Cor 10:7, which is about the Israelites eating well-being sacrifices before the Golden Calf, whom they call YHWH, the LORD.

According to Paul, it is by partaking of the well-being offering that is Jesus’s body that we become made participants in his broken body and shed blood and made members of the new covenant (1 Cor 10:16–18; 11:23–25). It is by this that we become, “living sacrifices” “living well-being” sacrifices ourselves (cf. Rom 12:1). This is why Paul calls himself a drink offering, which accompanied the well–being sacrificial feast (Phil 2:17). And he says the Philippians’s gift can be thought of the smoke of the well-being sacrifices that pleases God (4:18).

So I think the well-being sacrifices are the key to understanding the way Paul conceives of the relationship between Jesus and the Church, which Paul calls Jesus’s body (1 Cor 12). The well-being sacrifices allow Paul a way to make sense of a believer’s very real participation and union with Jesus’s death (and resurrection) because these are the only sacrifices the offerer has a share in themselves. So it makes perfect sense that well-being sacrifices are used to make sense of Jesus’s death for a movement that saw itself as the Body of the Crucified Lord and called to share in his sufferings as well. If Jesus is a well-being sacrifice and we are his body and we sacrificially partake of his body and blood, then this means we become a collective “living well-being sacrifice” as a new covenant people united to the final Passover lamb.

Conclusion (Again)

Paul’s basic narrative logic of salvation seems to be this: (1) Disobedience/sin is ubiquitous in human beings. (2) This causes all sorts of problems for humanity and the biggest problem is that all this sin/disobedience results in death. (3) Jesus was truly human in every way and fully obedient, died, and was resurrected from the dead. (4) The resurrection means Jesus has defeated death. (5) Therefore, if Jesus defeated the ultimate result of sin/disobedience, then he in fact defeated sin/disobedience itself. (6) Therefore, if one is united with Jesus’s death (co-crucifixion), then one can walk in the newness of life—a life of obedience like his—and be assured of one’s own resurrection as well. Everything Paul says on the topic of salvation either illustrates, explicates in further detail, or provides the warrants for these points.

The remedy for Sin/sins according to Paul is deliverance and rescue. And this is because Paul conceptualizes Sin as a personified power and agent that deceives, enslaves, and kills, which leads people to commit sins, and so Sin needs to be conquered, subdued, and condemned. Sin for Paul is not conceptualized as a contamination that needs to be disinfected from holy objects through cultic atonement. Other NT authors such as 1 John and Hebrews go this route, but there is no evidence Paul himself does. Paul is using another conceptual framework than kipper and this framework is explicitly about union and participation.

At no point would substitution (penal or otherwise) properly conceptualize what Paul thinks is going on. If we are determined to pick a word to conceptualize Paul’s thought, then Irenaeus’s use of the Pauline word “recapitulation” would be it (see anakephalaioō in Eph 1:10). This whole thing is not “place taking” (substitution), but rather “place sharing” (solidarity, union, participation): The Son of God first shared and participated in the cursed condition of humanity albeit fully obedient (incarnation), delivered it from that condition (resurrection), and then and only then can anyone now share and participate in his divine condition (justification, sanctification) since he is the new “head” of humanity.


Thursday, February 24, 2022

Rillera’s Myth Busting Busting: Substitutionary Resurrection? (6 of 7)

(Your mum's resurrection body)
(By Andrew Rillera - though he distances himself from the added artwork and captions)

Finally, it’s important to see how it is the resurrection of Jesus that bears a lot of the soteriological significance—at least for Paul. But it only makes sense as a tandem with the crucifixion. The logic in Paul is never “Jesus died so that neither I nor you have to” but rather, “Jesus died and that allows for us to share in that same death so that his life might also be made known in our bodies and to others” (cf. 2 Cor 4:7–12; 5:14–15). In this participatory flow of thought, it would be rather jarring and incomprehensible for Paul to all of sudden turn as say: “Actually, never mind the whole thing about sharing in Jesus’s death; he died as your substitute.”

For those who insist that the phrase hyper hēmōn (“for us”) is inherently substitutionary in places like 2 Cor 5:21 they need only to read a few sentences earlier where Paul has already ruled out that connotation of the phrase in 5:15: “And he died hyper all, so that those living might no longer be living for themselves, but to the one who died and was raised hyper them.” If hyper is inherently about substitution, then this means that Jesus’s resurrection is substitutionary as well which of necessity means no one will ever be raised since Jesus was our substitutionary resurrection. He is resurrected so that no one else has to be. This, of course, is unthinkable.

Here for Paul hyper means “for the sake of” or “for the benefit of” and does not carry substitutionary overtones, but rather is grounded in his stubborn participatory logic. (Fn. If hyper is inherently substitutionary, then several passages that use the word become unintelligible: e.g., Acts 9:16; 15:26; 21:13; Col 1:24; Col 2:1: Mark 9:40; John 6:51; 13:37; 17:19; Heb 6:19-20 compared with 10:19, 22). Both Jesus’s death and resurrection are hyper pantōn/autōn (5:15). If there was a word to conceptualize this, it would not be substitution. The phrase “inclusive participatory representation” might be good or the word “recapitulation” that Irenaeus was so fond of (see its use in Eph 1:10). For Paul, both Jesus’s death and resurrection benefit “all/them/us” precisely because it means that human beings participate in his very death and resurrection.

Similarly then, when Christ was “made sin” or “became a curse” hyper hēmōn (2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13), Paul is not inserting a diametrically opposed logic—a logic of substitution—into his participatory mode of thinking and explicating the meaning of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Gathercole’s rather astute definition of substitution rightly recognizes how incompatible each line of reasoning is (see part 5 for a discussion of Gathercole's definition). Rather, Paul is only talking about how Christ’s full participation in the sinful and cursed conditions of humanity is actually a benefit for humanity. Similar to how both Jesus’s death and resurrection are hyper pantōn/autōn (2 Cor 5:15) because human beings are supposed to participate in them, Jesus’s coming under sin and curse hyper hēmōn is the first logical step in Paul’s thinking: Human beings can participate in Christ because he first participated in us by coming under sin and curse as we were; Christ did all of these things for our benefit. In all cases, then, hyper is Paul’s means of communicating both benefit for humanity and the solidarity and participation between both Christ and humanity.

Therefore, when Christ was “made sin” or “became a curse” hyper hēmōn (2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13), he was not doing something substitutionary because these statements are about the whole incarnation whereby Jesus was simply entering into what human beings already were; he is therefore not taking upon himself something that human beings never experienced, should have experienced, but now will not have to. These statements are about Jesus fully sharing in the already present conditions of humanity. It was his perfect obedience in these conditions and resurrection from out of these conditions that allows this incarnation to be for the benefit (hyper) of all “in him” (2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13) since they are freed from sin and curse insofar as they are united with him in his death and resurrection.

Again, if Jesus’s resurrection “on our behalf” (2 Cor 5:15) isn’t substitutionary—no one says, “Jesus’s substitutionary resurrection”—then it makes no sense to think his death is substitutionary. For, if his death is substitutionary, then so is his resurrection.

The fact that the resurrection is the basis for “dealing with sins” is made clear in 1 Cor 15:17: “If Christ has not been raised…you are still in your sins.” If it was Jesus’s death alone that dealt with sins in some substitutionary way, then the consequence of Jesus not resurrecting would not be that humans are still in their sins (1 Cor 15:17). It would be: Well, your sins are dealt with (forgiven, cleansed, whatever), but we still do not know what is going to happen for sure after your body perishes (but most of us Jews believe in a general resurrection of the dead so let us hope for that—let’s just be glad we do not have to worry about being judged for our sins when we die).

Paul is consistent with this emphasis upon Jesus’s resurrection as dealing with sins in Romans 4. First, Paul equates justification with forgiveness in Rom 4:6–7 in his only use of aphiēmi (“forgiveness”) in his (undisputed) letters denoting divine forgiveness of sins (and he is quoting its use in Ps 32:1). Second, in 4:25 he says that Jesus “was raised on account of our justification” immediately after saying “he was delivered over on account of our transgressions.” Thus, as with 1 Cor 15:3, 17, it is actually the resurrection that effects “dealing with sins.” If there is no resurrection, then according to Paul one is not justified/forgiven (Rom 4:6–7, 25b) and they are still in their sins (1 Cor 15:7). Therefore, in the same way that Jesus’s resurrection is for others, and no one ever attempts to conceptualize it as a substitution (cf. 2 Cor 5:15), I do not think Paul is conceptualizing Jesus’s death as a substitution in 1 Cor 15 (or Rom 4:25a) either. The two go together hand in hand. The death and resurrection of Jesus are for others only to the extent that others are joined with them according to Paul (1 Cor 15:22; Rom 6:3–8).

We need, then, to find an adequate substitute for the word “substitutionary.” Using “atonement” in a broader sense than sacrificial kippēr, what we have throughout the NT is a “participatory atonement” or “cursed solidarity atonement” theology.


Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Rillera’s Myth Busting Busting: Substitution? (5 of 7)

(by Andrew Rillera)

The inadequacies of the concept of “substitution” to construe the saving uniqueness of Jesus

Some modern proponents of PSA are starting to offer phrases and definitions of substitution that ring to my hears as unintelligible phrases that evacuate the word “substitution” from all common sense meaning. As much as I disagree with Gathercole, his definition of substitution is the most sane one out there. But some are bending around Gathercole’s precise definition of “substitution” just so that they can retain the word “substitution” but offer a view that is about anything but “substitution.” For example, you’ll hear substitution defined as “inclusive place taking.” Maybe I’m alone, but “inclusive place taking” sounds like trying to have a non-substitutionary definition of “substitution” just to say it’s still “substitutionary.” What’s so important about the word “substitution” that we have to create these odd phrases when what we are conveying is something other than the normal use for the words “substitution” and “substitute”? As I said above, surgeons do things for our benefit that we can’t do for ourselves, but if someone said “I’m so thankful for my substitutionary surgeon!” we would think they are talking about how another surgeon took the place of their original surgeon. To later find out that they were meaning to talk about the saving and healing act of surgery itself, we would think that person is confused about how to use the “substitution” word group.

Professor Simon Gathercole

Maybe Gathercole and I have too elementary a notion of substitution. But substitution only gets complicated when wielded by theologians and exegetes trying to salvage this word as an adequate descriptor of what the NT authors are communicating. In regular use, substitution means X instead of Y. Soy milk instead of cow’s milk. This player instead of that player. I don’t see this logic being applied to Jesus’s death in the NT. It’s always: he died so that we can share in his sufferings; he died so that we can die with him and like him; he died and was raised so that we can die and be raised with him; he broke Sin’s reign in and over the flesh so that we can refuse to let Sin reign over our mortal bodies by the power of his Spirit living within us; etc.

It is solidarity and participation all the way down. For instance, how is Jesus’s death “substitutionary” according to Mark if he says all his disciples must also pick up their own crosses and follow him to be crucified (Mark 8:34–35; 10:38–39)? A substitution means person A does something so person B doesn’t have to. When you substitute in soy milk in your latte, you don’t also mean that you want the cow’s milk sharing in the latte as well. This is why “substitute” is appropriate here. Something is replacing something else. But Jesus seems to think that he is just going ahead of his disciples into a fate that they will also have to share in. As he tells James and John as well as the rest, they too will have to be baptized with the same baptism and drink from the same cup as he has (Mark 10:38–39; cf. Matt 20:22–23). If this was “substitutionary,” then this would only be Jesus’s baptism and only Jesus’s cup. But this is clearly not the case.

All disciples are called to share in Jesus’s baptism and cup. So using “substitution” to summarize what is taking place here actually prevents us from seeing what Jesus is teaching. To go back to the latte metaphor, if someone wanted both soy and cow milk in their latte no cashier would use “substitute” to convey to the barista what the customer wanted because that word would actually obscure and confuse what the order was. The customer does not want a substitute; they want both soy milk and cow’s milk to have a share in the latte. Likewise, while not a perfect one-to-one corresponding metaphor with lattes, when we hear what Jesus is actually claiming and teaching in the Gospels, we shouldn’t use “substitute” to convey what Jesus actually wanted to have happen. He was expecting co-crucifixion with his followers and, while not happening during Jesus’s actual crucifixion, this—co-crucifixion—remained the ever present expectation and way of talking about Christian discipleship (Gal 2:20; 6:14; Rom 6:3–8; Phil 3:10–11; 2 Cor 4:10–11; Col 1:24; 2:12; 3:1, 3–4; 1 John 2:6, 3:16–18; 1 Pet 2:21). “Substitution” logically and necessarily resists this framing of Christian life.

Jesus’s taking on sinful flesh (Rom 8:3) and experiencing the curse of the covenant (Gal 3-4) is an act of solidarity and union—“cursed solidarity” if you like. No substitution detected that I can see. It’s only a prior commitment to PSA that shoehorns that concept of “substitution” into these acts of divine solidarity.

To return to the surgeon analogy, someone might respond that a key difference with Jesus and the surgeon is that the surgeon isn’t performing a task that the patient is expected to do for themselves whereas Jesus is doing just that. But to this I say: Where in the Torah, prophets, or apostolic writings are sinners ever expected to give themselves new hearts? And where in those Scriptures are sinners presented as not already existing under/experiencing the curses? Sounds like if we were going to come up with an analogy for the type of resolution needed, we might say that they need a divine surgeon to heal what they are incapable of healing themselves. So my above comments about surgery would appear to still hold up.

I want to be clear that I uphold the uniqueness of Jesus’s saving act, but I think “substitution” is a wrongheaded and potentially misleading term to conceptualize what is happening. Let’s use another analogy.

Based on a true story: If my kids are trapped to their knees in quicksand and I get in there and get muddy to rescue them, how do you conceptualize what I just did? What do you call me? I know one thing: you don’t call me a “substitute.” Replace “quicksand” with “curse” or “Sin and Death” and me with Jesus and you have Paul’s narrative of divine deliverance. “Substitution” doesn’t accurately conceptualize what’s happening. “Solidarity” is more on target.

Solidarity, participation, union, co-crucifixion are by definition non-substitutionary concepts. There’s a double solidarity/participation going on. Jesus first participated in the curse and death of human existence so that then we can participate in a very real way in his death as well as his resurrection. It’s solidarity all the way down.

I don’t know why Christians insist on a word that makes conformity to the cruciform image of Christ incoherent. If Jesus is my substitute why do I need to take up a cross? Why do I need to have fellowship with his sufferings? Why do I need to be co-crucified?

Since we don’t conceptualize many people who perform analogous acts of deliverance, rescue, or healing as “substitutes” (surgeons, rescuers, etc.), then I don’t see the need to do that for Jesus apart from an a priori problematic assumption about what salvation “must entail.” All I know is that whatever Jesus did, the overwhelming apostolic witness is that I’m called to share and participate in it. “Substitute” is a theologically impoverished way at trying to sum that up. Jesus is our deliverer and healer. He is not our substitute.


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Rillera’s Myth Busting Busting: 1 Peter 2:24 (4 of 7)

(by Andrew Rillera)

Here we read, “‘he [Jesus] himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’” As Bird observes, Peter is quoting from Isaiah 53:4–5 (the “Suffering Servant” passages) here. Again, what many simply refer to as “substitutionary” turns out on closer examination to really be “solidarity.”

It is less than clear that any use of Isaiah 53 automatically means the author is thinking of the concept of substitution because we have evidence of it being used in a non-substitutionary manner. Matthew, for instance, quotes from Isaiah 53 to explain Jesus’s healing and exorcism ministry (Matt 8:16–17). When Jesus heals or casts out a demon no one conceptualizes that event with the word substitution. Yes, Jesus is doing something for someone else that they cannot do for themselves, but it is obviously not fitting to conceptualize this with substitution. Surgeons do things for patients they cannot do for themselves, but no one ever says, “Thank God for my substitutionary surgeon,” unless they mean that their original scheduled surgeon couldn’t perform the operation for whatever reason and another surgeon had to take their place. This is actually the form of substitution operative in Rom 8:3 discussed above. The “Law” was the first scheduled surgeon, but it couldn’t accomplish one of its goals so God sent Jesus to fulfil that particular goal instead. But Jesus is not substituting for human beings there.

In any case, just because someone may employ Isaiah 53 does not automatically equate to employing the notion of substitution. What is necessary is to see how that author goes on to make use of that materiel and then decide if substitution/replacement best conceptualizes what that author is getting at since perhaps representation or solidarity might better capture and conceptualize the author’s point.

I think it is fairly obvious that Peter views Jesus as the “Suffering Servant” par excellence, but what prevents me from categorizing this as a “substitution” is that he simultaneously says we are called to the same servant lifestyle just as 1 Pet 2:21 explicitly says. Substitution, by definition, precludes any sort of participation as Simon Gathercole argues in Defending Substitution. Gathercole writes: “I am defining substitutionary atonement for the present purposes as Christ’s death in our place, instead of us. The ‘instead of us’ clarifies the point that ‘in our place’ does not, in substitution at least, mean ‘in our place with us’” (15; his emphasis). He later employs the word “replacement” (20) which makes clear that substitution is to be distinguished from representation even if it may be “possible that one can find an even more substitutionary sort of representation” (20n14). In other words, even if “some might argue that substitution is rooted in representation” (111), representation and substitution are to remain logically distinct from one another in the same way rectangles and squares are. A square may be a rectangle, but not all rectangles are squares; likewise, substitution may be a type of representation, but not all types of representation are substitutionary. This precise definition of substitution is important for the purposes of the present discussion and I will return in a later part to discuss more problems with the term “substitution.”

For now, though it is obvious so it seems superfluous to point it out, we need to recognize that the notion of participation and solidary with Jesus as a “pattern” or “example” for Christians to conform to in 2:21 is what immediately precedes and thus informs what comes after when Peter quotes from Isaiah 53 in 2:24. Jesus as the Servant is used to say that now we have a clearer paradigm for how we ought to likewise be servants as well. Jesus isn’t a substitute here on Gathercole’s definition, because what he is doing is not “instead of us” or “in our place” so that we are excluded from doing whatever it is Jesus did as our substitute. Rather, Jesus, and Jesus’s death in particular is held up as a model to be imitated. Whatever that is, “substitute” does not capture what Peter is talking about.

In fact, Clement of Rome in the later first-early second century AD quotes all of Isaiah 53 with reference to Jesus to make this very same point (1 Clement 16:3–16). That is, Clement reads Isaiah 53 in light of Jesus not to make some point about substitution, but to discern the following lesson: “You see, dear friends, the kind of pattern (hypogrammos) that has been given to us; for if the Lord so humbled himself, what should we do, who through him have come under the yoke of his grace? (1 Clement 16:17; Holmes translation). This word for “pattern” (hypogrammos) is the same word used in 1 Pet 2:21 to introduce the use of Isaiah 53 with reference to Jesus and the ethical claims that that has on Christ followers. Like 1 Peter, Clement introduces the quote from Isaiah 53 with an appeal to imitate Jesus: “For Christ is with those who are humble, not with those who exalt themselves over his flock. The majestic sceptre of God, our Lord Christ Jesus, did not come with the pomp of arrogance or pride (though he could have done so), but in humility, just as the Holy Spirit spoke concerning him.” These bookends to quoting Isaiah 53 demonstrate how shallow and insufficient the word “substitution” is to convey the concept being deployed here. The notion is solidarity all the way down. Jesus partook in the sufferings of our condition in order to heal us so that we might be able to do likewise.

1 Peter says that Jesus dies as an “example (hypogrammos) so that you should follow his steps” (2:21; cf. 4:1). In short, Jesus’s death is a participatory reality; it is something we are called to follow and share in experientially ourselves. The logic is not: Jesus died so I don’t have to. Rather it is: Jesus died (redeeming us from slavery and forming us into a kingdom of priests in 2:5, 9) so that we, together, can follow in his steps and die with him and like him; the just for the unjust (3:18) and trusting in God who judges justly (2:23; 4:19). This is what it means to “suffer…for being a ‘Christian’” (4:15–16). It doesn’t particularly matter why a Christian is suffering or being persecuted; it only matters that they bear the injustice of the world in a Christlike manner.

Again, Jesus’s death is opening up a participatory reality. Yes, Peter says Jesus dies “the just for the unjust” (3:18) but that beneficiary “for” is not as a substitutionary benefit, but is rather a means of opening up the possibility for shared participation in Jesus’s death. The death of Jesus makes it so that we are no longer “unjust,” but rather “just”/“righteous” (same Greek word, 2:24) and this is how we can now follow the example of Jesus’s death as we (now being made “just”) can suffer or die at the hands of the “unjust” (i.e., “suffer for doing what it right” in 3:17).

Also, Jesus’s “bearing our sins” in 1 Pet 2:24 more than likely doesn’t mean “atonement” (kippēr). Rather, bearing our sins means, as Peter goes on to make plain, Jesus handled well being treated unjustly. He responded justly to the injustice and to the sins he suffered (2:23). Then, Peter says that Jesus deals with our inclination to sin and thus we are now able to live righteously/justly (2:24). Atonement is about purging holy objects in the temple, but what Peter is talking about here is healing us of our proclivity to sin/live unjustly and thus enable us to live justly/righteously and follow Jesus’s cruciform example in suffering the injustices of others, which means bearing their sins, bearing their burdens (3:16-18; 4:19 compare w/ 2:23). Even if we want to say that Peter is making a similar move to what Hebrews makes regarding atonement and makes it mean purging humans (I’m not convinced, but this is a possible understanding), what we nevertheless have in 1 Peter (and Revelation 14:5, which quotes from the same bit of Isaiah 53 that Peter does) is a clear application of the theme of “bore our sins” from Isaiah 53 being used to support the theme of participation/union whereby we can now “bear” the sins of others against us in a Christlike/cruciform manner by his power and life within us. That is, at the end of the day, both texts which quote from Isaiah 53 apply it as the pattern/example all Christians are called to imitate/follow since Jesus is the preeminent “Servant.” This is all about solidarity and union with Jesus; not substitution.


Monday, February 21, 2022

Rillera’s Myth Busting Busting: Galatians 3:13-14 (3 of 7)

(By Andrew Rillera)

Here we read: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” To this Bird concludes, “The only explanation is that the Messiah had willingly taken on himself the dreaded curse that rightly belonged to others. Despite some protests to the contrary, I cannot imagine a clearer affirmation of penal substitutionary atonement.”

I’ll make my job harder and bring up that a few scholars such as Stephan Finlan have suggested that Paul is also evoking the scapegoat ritual on the Day of Atonement here. So not only do we seem to have Paul talking about substitution, he may be alluding to the Day of Atonement. So all the terms in PSA are at stake here, but only the “P” with sufficient covenantal nuance remains standing upon a closer examination (Editor's comment: See the final post for Chris Tilling’s qualification of even this).

Three observations will suffice in response to the ostensible Atonement allusions. 1) The scapegoat is not about curse transmission. Curses are not placed on the goat—the word does not appear in this ritual—but rather Israel’s ritual contaminations of “iniquities and transgressions” are placed on the goat (Lev 16:21–22). The Day of Decontamination is a disinfecting ritual that begins in the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the tabernacle. Once the purgation blood disinfects that area, the High Priest then moves to the Holy Place and decontaminates the curtain and the incense altar, then he proceeds to the outer altar. Once these are all purged, then he sends the scapegoat to the wilderness as it is ritually loaded with all the sin and impurity contamination of the people that was just removed from each of the preceding sancta. Liane Feldman likens this process to a person who is sweeping a house where one starts all the way in the back and works the dirt towards the front and eventually sweeps it all out the door. The scapegoat is the dust pan that is the vehicle by which the dust/contamination is carried away from the Lord’s presence.

2) Daniel Streett has argued in his article in the Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, “Cursed by God? Galatians 3:13, Social Status, and Atonement Theory in the Context of Early Jewish Readings of Deuteronomy 21:23,” against readings like Finlan’s that think this is about the Day of Atonement or the scapegoat ritual more specifically. This is because “becoming a curse” is used several times in places like Jeremiah to simply talk about becoming an object of derision, reproach, and scorn and has nothing to do with curse transmission or anything like “sin riddance” (cf. Jer 24:9 [katara LXX]; 29:18 [verse not in LXX]; 42:18 [ara in LXX, 49:18]; 44:12 [katara in LXX, 51:12]).

Before getting into how it is that Jesus has “redeemed” (exagorazō) those under the curse of the Law, it needs to be pointed out that all Paul seems to be getting at with his use of curse language is that Jesus shared in the same condition plaguing those now under the curse of the law. This is the language of solidarity, not substitution. Like Jeremiah who talks about those experiencing the curse of the covenant as “becoming a curse,” so too Paul is only saying that Jesus went so far as to become an object of reproach and scorn by being crucified in order to liberate his people. Paul is saying that Jesus underwent solidarity with the plight of Israel. This is akin to the prophets like Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel being hauled off into exile, that is, experiencing the curse of the covenant along with the whole people even though they themselves were righteous. But never does “become a curse” mean that curses are being draw away from others and onto something/one else.

3) As it is, the scapegoat ritual is apotropaic and preemptive. It is meant to “ward off” dire conditions that would threaten the community; not mitigate them once already present. Meaning, the Day of Atonement only has a function when there is a sanctuary to be purged in order to ward off the threat of divine abandonment, but it can only do this for sins that can be purged from the sanctuary—for many sins such as murder, sexual immorality, and idolatry, the only remedy is exile because these sins pollute the land, but atoning sacrifices can only purge the sanctuary. The Day of Atonement can do nothing for these types of sins. Once the divine presence leaves, it’s too late and no amount of purging sacrifices or scapegoating will bring it back. This is why Ezekiel only envisions a divine washing and resurrection (Ezek 36:25), not a Day of Atonement, to end the covenant curse of exile.

So whatever Paul means, it seems to have nothing to do with the Day of Atonement. But how is Paul saying then that Jesus “redeemed” us?

First Paul says that those “of the works of the Torah are under a curse” and then quotes the covenant curse from Deut 27:26 (Gal 3:10). Then Paul says that Christ likewise came under the covenant curse from Deuteronomy by quoting from Deut 21:23 as proof that he died a paradigmatically cursed death (Gal 3:13). Thus, Paul is at pains to communicate the simple point, not that sin or curse was transmitted to Jesus at the cross, but that God’s own Son participated fully in Israel’s cursed condition his entire life. Since all those “of the works of the Torah are under a curse” (3:10) and God’s Son was “born under the Law” (4:4), then Paul understands all of Jesus’s life from birth to death (hung upon a tree) as characterized by the curse of the Law that he thinks all Israel is living under. (Paul seems to believe that Israel has remained under the curse of the Law ever since Jeremiah—i.e., Israel was “still in exile” as certain NT scholars are fond of saying.)

The curse is not transmitted to him as sin is transmitted to a scapegoat; rather, Jesus is simply born a Jew, “born under the Law,” during a time in Israel’s history where the curses promised in Deuteronomy and prophesied about in Jeremiah are the lived reality for all, but also that Jesus’s death functions as a sort of “poster child” for Israel’s condition. This is not about substitution, but rather seems to be better conceptualized as “(covenantal) cursed solidarity.”

If this is the case, that Paul is communicating Jesus’s full participation in the negative conditions of Israel, then as Morna D. Hooker has asked, “But if Christ is identified with man’s condition, how do the conclusions follow? How are the Jews set free from the curse of the law, and how does the blessing come to the Gentiles?” (“Interchange in Christ,” 15). She goes on to observe that “underlying this there is an important assumption” (15); namely, “the resurrection” (16). Even though the resurrection is not mentioned explicitly it has to be in view even if it remains implicit (cf. Gal 1:16; 2:20). The resurrection is the only way Paul’s conclusions can follow. Paul says that “the blessing” (opposite of curse) comes “in Christ Jesus” (3:14) and this can only be because in Jesus’s resurrection the opposite of the curse he was living under (and died under) has occurred; the curse has been overturned in his resurrection. This point about the resurrection is made explicit in Rom 4:25 where Paul says that Jesus was raised for our justification, the very concern of Gal 3:11 (cf. 2:16–17).

The fact that it is Jesus’s resurrected life that breaks the curse poses significant problems for any attempts to push the scapegoat image through. The blessing comes not by forever banishing a once pure victim that has had a curse unloaded onto it (indeed, the scapegoat in Lev 16 doesn’t even bear a “curse”), but rather by the one who overrules and annuls the curse by being raised up (cf. 1:15–16; 2:20) after living and dying under the curse (3:13). Put another way, the curse is dealt with by construing it as a judicial sentence (hence the dikaioō language) and then reversing that judicial sentence in Jesus’s resurrection life. Paul gives no hint that the curse has been permanently carried away by banishing a living creature, which would be essential if the predicate “scapegoat” is to be remotely intelligible. By living and dying under the curse of the covenant, Jesus’s resurrection thus redeems (exagorazō) all those living under the curse since it means that the curse does not have the final word; the blessing of resurrection does.


Sunday, February 20, 2022

As I'm on blogger a bit more, here's something nobody cares about

Namely, an uneven bullet game; it's easy to play good moves against someone playing passively and who makes so many time-wasting Queen moves. Still, I enjoyed playing 15.Nxe6!

Rillera’s Myth Busting Busting: Romans 8:3 (2 of 7)

(By Andrew Rillera)

Here’s the text: “For God has done what the Law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin [peri hamartias], he condemned [katakrinō] sin in the flesh.”

First, I want to acknowledge that the concept of substitution is used here, but not at all in the way Bird thinks. The substitution taking place is between Jesus and the Law; not Jesus for other human beings. This is therefore not about “substitution” in the way it is construed by the terms of PSA. Jesus is not being substituted in the place of humans, but in the place of a particular function of the Law.

Second, this passage has been interpreted, as Bird does, as Jesus being a “sin offering,” which is one of the kippēr sacrifices in Leviticus, because of Paul’s use of the phrase peri hamartias. This is how the LXX translates the hattat sacrifice from Leviticus, which OT scholars like Jacob Milgrom, Liane Feldman, and Baruch Levine argue is to be translated as a “purgation” or “decontamination” sacrifice. The function of this sacrifice is to purge holy objects within the tabernacle (like the outer altar) from the pollution caused by sin that gets attracted to these holy objects, but do not adhere to the sinner. So, peri hamartias here in Rom 8:3 just might be an echo of atonement. But this ultimately fails to convince.

For one, throughout Rom 5–8 Paul uses hamartia repeatedly. Paul says throughout that “Sin” is “reigning” (5:21; 6:12), “ruling” (6:14), “enslaving” (7:14; 6:14–22), “deceiving” (7:11), and “killing” (7:11). That is, “Sin” is the personal subject of active verbs. So Paul would have to go from consistently using hamartia as a personified agent doing all these actions, to suddenly using hamartia to mean an impersonal “purgation sacrifice.”

The most natural interpretation, however, is how the NRSV translates it. Paul is basically saying “and to deal with this tyrant ruler, Sin, God condemned it in the flesh, the domain where Sin rules.”

Another reason peri hamartias is unlikely to be a sacrificial reference is because when this phrase is used in Leviticus (LXX) to mean “sin/purgation sacrifice” it never is the means of “condemning” (katakrinō) sin, but rather of “making atonement” (exilaskomai) (e.g., Lev 5:6; 12:8; 16:9, 15–16). Also, the peri hamartias is always “offered” (prospherō) (9:2; 12:7) or “slayed” (sphazō) (14:13; 16:15).

And it is worth noting here that in the LXX, while atoning sacrifices are always said to be “offered” (prospherō) (9:2; 12:7) or “slayed” (sphazō), the non-atoning well-being sacrifices only use the verb thyō (“to sacrifice”). None of these verbs appear here and in fact, Paul never uses the verbs prospherō or sphazō. But, Paul demonstrates he is familiar with the nuances of sacrificial verbs because when he says Christ our Paschal lamb was sacrificed, he correctly uses the verb thyō because he is referring to a non-atoning well-being sacrifice, which only takes that verb in the LXX.

In any case, Paul’s personification of Sin as an agent in Rom 5–8 and his use of the non-sacrificial verb katakrinō is a strong case against any sacrificial interpretation.

So what is Paul saying here in Rom 8:3 if it’s neither about human substitution or kippēr? Paul is first saying that God sent Jesus as a substitute for something the Law aimed at doing but ultimately couldn’t do. Then Paul says that it is sin being condemned, not atoned for. In this way Paul is saying that despite what a Roman crucifixion might imply, it was sin, not Jesus, that was condemned. Again, it is sin that is condemned; not Jesus, not human beings, and thus not Jesus instead of human beings. The only thing being condemned is sin. Therefore, there is no concept here of substitution being used where Jesus is being condemned instead of humans.

The remedy for Sin in Romans is deliverance and rescue. And this is because Paul conceptualizes Sin as a personified power and agent that deceives, enslaves, and kills and so needs to be conquered, subdued, and condemned. Sin for Paul is not conceptualized as a contamination that needs to be disinfected from holy objects through cultic atonement. Other NT authors such as 1 John and Hebrews go this route, but there is no evidence Paul himself does here. Paul is using another conceptual framework than kippēr because the verbs he uses don’t match any sacrificial, let alone, atoning verbs.


Saturday, February 19, 2022

Rillera's Myth Busting Busting: Introduction and “atonement” (1 of 7)

“Myth Busting Penal Substitutionary Atonement (Again)”

By Andrew Rillera


Recently, NT scholar Mike Bird wrote an article titled “Myth Busting Penal Substitutionary Atonement” in which he addresses what he takes to be five “myths” about the position (“Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” or PSA). While I definitely agree with his debunking of myth #2—“PSA is the central aspect of the atonement in the New Testament”—I only wish to respond to his myth #1: “There is no PSA in the New Testament.” I will leave others better equipped to affirm or correct the remaining three myths. 

Bird marshals three NT texts in support of the claim that “PSA is broadly affirmed in the New Testament.” These are Romans 8:3, Galatians 3:13, and 1 Peter 2:24 (with a passing citation of 2 Cor 5:21 in an embedded quote from N. T. Wright). I want to examine each of these and see if they support PSA (spoiler: I don’t think they do otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this!). 


But before that I want to offer an important preliminary point concerning the word “atonement.” In English, the word “atonement” means too many things at once. And this has to do with how that word came into the English vocabulary in the first place. To be clear, I have no inherent problems with this word, but because it can be used in both a sacrificial register (e.g., to translate the Hebrew word kipp̄er) and in a non–sacrificial register (to covey anything that falls within the broad realm of “the saving significance of Jesus’s death”), these conceptually separate domains are often conflated. And this conflation results in some major misinterpretations of NT texts, which in turn have resulted in problematic theologies about the nature of salvation.

Following John Wycliffe’s Middle English translation of the Bible in the 14th century, which used phrases like “to one” and “one-ment,” William Tyndale in the 16th century first standardized “atone” and “atonement” (at-one-ment). It began as a translation of the Greek word katalassō, meaning “reconciliation” in texts like 2 Cor 5:18–20 and Rom 5:10. Katalassō, “at-one-ment,” “reconciliation.” Makes good sense. So far, so good.

But Tyndale then used this noun “atonement”, and the verb form “to atone”, to translate the Hebrew word kippēr in the Torah. This already makes theological assumptions about the function of Israel’s sacrificial system that Hebrew Bible scholars almost unanimously have demonstrated to be misunderstandings, but that is beyond the scope of this response. But for a quick teaser: kippēr means “decontaminate” or “purify” or “purge,” not “reconcile” and not “forgive.” Anyways, for now I just want to note that because almost all modern English translations follow Tyndale with using “atonement” and “atone” to translate kippēr in books like Leviticus, atonement has come to mean, for NT scholars and Christian theologians alike, both “the totality of Jesus’s saving work” and kippēr.

Also, many people are unaware that not all Levitical sacrifices have a kippēr function. The “peace” or “well-being” sacrifices (Lev 3, 7:11–21) do not have an atoning function. Conveniently, it’s pretty easy to know if a sacrifice is atoning or non-atoning: if the laity eat from it, then it cannot be an atoning sacrifice. E.g., we know that the Passover is type of corporate thanksgiving well-being sacrifice because it is eaten by the laity (and has unleavened bread and a one-day expiration date (compare Exod 12 with Lev 7:12, 15).

This matters for the present discussion because none of the texts brought up by Bird (Rom 8:3, Gal 3:13, and 1 Pet 2:24) are about Jesus being a kippēr—i.e., “atoning”—sacrifice. So these texts are not about sacrificial atonement; but they are about the saving significance of Jesus’s death. This topic in itself deserves its own sustained treatment, which can’t be undertaken here. But, shameless plug, I’m currently writing a book on sacrifice and sacrificial imagery applied to Jesus in the NT, which should be coming out with Cascade towards the end of this year (tentatively titled: Lamb of the Free: Understanding the Death of Jesus in Sacrificial Terms in the New Testament).

I do think some NT text discuss Jesus’s death in terms of kippēr (e.g., 1 John and Hebrews), but my goal here is to show why the ones Bird offers are neither about “atonement”—kippēr—nor about Jesus as a “substitution” for human beings.


Friday, February 18, 2022

Mike Bird and Andrew Rillera on penal substitutionary atonement

Every day for the next 7 days I will be posting my way through an essay written by a brilliant up and coming NT scholar, namely Dr Andrew Rillera. I interviewed him here on OnScript, which will give you a taste of his razor sharpness and verve. 

This essay, which will come in 7 parts, emerged from a discussion Andrew, myself and a few other friends had having read my friend Mike Bird’s recent blog post, titled “Myth Busting Penal Substitutionary Atonement”. 

In it, Mike presented the sentence “There is no PSA in the New Testament” as a myth. 

Mike instead defended the proposition “I believe that PSA is broadly affirmed in the New Testament”, with reference to Romans 8, Galatians 3 and 1 Peter 2 (please do check out Mike’s brief blog post – to be clear: Mike’s post is short and not intended as an extended defence of PSA). 

I must admit, I was surprised by Bird’s claim. Not because someone might affirm PSA. After all, plenty do think it is possible to present a biblical theological case for PSA by drawing together various Scriptures from the four corners of the canon in a particular manner, namely by justifying isolated building blocks required to uphold PSA. Bracketing the question as to whether this is a convincing procedure or whether it treats the Bible sufficiently as Holy Scripture (which would have to present a reading under christological control – something required if it is to be “theological” in any Christian sense), my surprise was based on the fact that I simply do not see penal substitutionary atonement in Paul (or 1 Peter), key texts in Mike’s short argument. This may be my problem; I am just registering my reaction, which is why we discussed matters!

As we debated wider issues spinning away from Mike Bird’s original claims, Andrew’s comments were particularly thought-provoking, and so I asked if I would allow me to post his exegetical thoughts.

This is what follows: 

Pt 1 The language of “atonement” 

Pt 2 Romans 8:3

Pt 3 Galatians 3:13–14

Pt 4 Peter 2:24

Pt 5 Inadequacies of the concept of “Substitution”

Pt 6 Resurrection and “substitution”

Pt 7 Response to Discussion and a Conclusion


Pt 8 Closing thoughts on the PSA series, Jon Depue and "penal" problems


I’d love to hear what people think of Andrews rebuttal of Mike’s (and wider) claims about PSA as these are important topics touching on foundation blocks in many theological and ecclesial identities. 

They are not easy to critically dissect, in other words.

So what do you think needs to be accepted as devastating critique of PSA? Or what in Andrew’s argument needs to be tweaked or perhaps even binned?

You can bookmark this post as I will update it with the links as we go through the whole essay over the next week.