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.



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