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.



At 2/24/2022 12:16 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Not all aspects of the atonement can be categorised under substitution, indeed. I think in many ways Christ is our representative, rather than substitute. However, there are some aspects where He is. Take for example the types and figures, the Passover lamb was killed as substitute for the firstborn, and they were passed over from judgment. Christ is our Passover, sacrificed for us. 1 Cor 5v7. So there is still substitution going on, along with other aspects as well.

At 2/24/2022 5:13 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Thanks for your good question! I think I know what Andrew will say, but I will leave it to him to comment once he returns from a short break.

At 3/02/2022 12:57 AM, Blogger Paul Smith said...

How do you figure that the Passover was a substitute for the firstborn? The text certainly doesn't say that. And the logic of that idea completely breaks down with the concept of the Israelites having to redeem all of their firstborn. If they were already "bought" with a substitutionary Passover lamb, why do they need to be paid for again? Plus, the plague of the firstborn struck all the animals too, meaning if the Israelite households weren't "passed over" they would have a bunch of dead lambs AND boys, and whatever other flocks they had. Offering Yahweh a lamb instead of a human son, when he would have killed both, is a really poor trade. Something else entirely is going on with Passover, not a substitution.

At 3/02/2022 1:03 AM, Blogger Paul Smith said...

How do you figure the Passover lamb was a substitute? The text certainly doesn't say that. The logic of that idea completely breaks down with the concept of the Israelites having to later redeem their firstborn sons. If they had already "bought" their sons' lives with a Passover lamb, why did they need to pay for them again? Also, the plague of the firstborn fell on animals too, so if the Israelites hadn't been "passed over" then they would have had dead sons AND dead lambs and whatever other animals they had. Offering Yahweh a lamb instead of a son when he would have killed them both is a very poor trade. Something else entirely is going on with Passover, not substitution.


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