If you’ve been following the last six posts in my Rethinking the Atonement series (hereherehereherehere, and here), then you know that I’ve spend a good deal of time arguing against Penal Substitutionary atonement, in favor of Christus Victor atonement.  Now I want to take one final look at this issue with an eye toward reconciling the two views.

A Christus Victor Penal Substitution Blend

In college, when I first tried to formulate which view of the atonement I believed, I sort of came away with a hodgepodge theology that combined the Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, and Moral Government views. Basically, it went something like this – Moral Government explains how Jesus lived a perfect Spirit-filled life as an example for us, Penal Substitution explains why Jesus had to die to pay for our sins, and Christus Victor explains the significance of the resurrection to defeat sin and death. And for a long time I sat rather comfortably with this medley of theologies. I hadn’t really bothered to question why an undergrad student like me could easily combine opposing views when scholars and theologians with Ph.D.’s couldn’t. I arrogantly assumed that they must just be stubborn and I was simply more humble and open-minded.

As it turns out, I was sadly mistaken (shocker, right?). You see, while it is simple enough to combine different atonement theories when we only consider their basic ideas, it becomes much more problematic when we actually think through the implications of each view and the sort of picture of God that they each provide us with. It seems to me (and this is just my understanding) that in the Moral Government and Penal Substitution views God’s most fundamental characteristic is His transcendent holiness out of which grows a legalistic insistence on moral behavior. This makes sense with regards to the Penal Substitution view (at least) since, as I’ve stated before, this view gains most of its steam and prominence from the Reformers who ultimately define God by His immutability. On the other hand, the Christus Victor view suggests that God’s most fundamental characteristic is His immanent affection out of which grows a relational desire for unobstructed intimacy. Like it or not, how we understand the atonement will certainly influence what sort of God we believe in, which in turn will affect how we live in response.

Now, that being said, as I have tried to understand the differing views, I’ve quickly come across a number of noble attempts to marry Christus Victor and Penal Substitutionary atonement. (I won’t deal with Moral Government theory because … well, honestly, I don’t feel like bothering with it right now) Below I’ll explain two attempts that I have found which I think make the most sense.

The first Christus Victor Penal Substitution (CVPS) blend that I found compelling is the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice is not God judging or punishing Jesus in our place, but rather God is using Jesus’ sacrifice to punish sin and death. This view of CVPS claims that God was not venting His wrath against mankind or Jesus, but against sin itself. From what I understand, this is essentially the view of atonement that Karl Barth espouses in his book, Church Dogmatics. As ardent Christus Victor advocate Greg Boyd says, not only is this view of Penal Substitution compatible with Christus Victor atonement, “it actually presupposes it.” Now, while I like the idea that the object of God’s wrath was sin and not mankind or Jesus, I wonder at the need to call this a form of Penal Substitution. Certainly it is penal in the sense that God is here punishing sin, but it isn’t exactly substitutionary, at least not in the way that the Reformers talk about substitution … which actually leads me to the other blending of CVPS.

This other view claims that Jesus is our substitute in that his sacrifice and the results of it (salvation, reconciliation, defeating Satan) as a whole are a substitute for what the alternative might have been (eternal separation from God and ongoing enslavement to sin). So, in this view of CVPS, it’s not that Jesus himself took our place and punishment, per se (e.g., our whipping boy). Rather, through Christ’s sacrifice God was merely substituting one reality for another. Admittedly, this view is much more compatible with (and even intrinsic in) Christus Victor atonement. The one drawback I see to this approach to Penal Substitutionary atonement is that it is just emphasizing one aspect of Christus Victor atonement and, though it is substitutionary, it isn’t exactly penal.

Ultimately, I don’t have any major qualms with either of these attempts to blend Penal Substitution and Christus Victor. A couple of hiccups I see are that (1) both of these blends advocate a view of Penal Substitution which differs significantly from that of the Reformers, and (2) though these two views aren’t necessarily reliant upon one another, you still need both in order to have a view of the atonement which is both penal and substitutionary. To me, at least, both of these blends seem like ways of affirming aspects of Christus Victor atonement while still trying to hold onto the title of “Penal Substitution.” My question for people who claim one (or both) of these CVPS blends is, why not just admit to holding a Christus Victor view of the atonement and leave it at that?

Personal preference, I suppose.  Anyhow…

Peace!

Ready for another article?

Rocky Munoz
Jesus-follower, husband, daddy, amateur theologian, former youth pastor, nerd, and coffee snob. Feel free to email me at almostheresy@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter (@rockstarmunoz)

3 Comments

  1. Lindsay Aiello, May 17, 2014 at 12:57 pm:

    Hey Rocky,

    Long time no see since the Q. :) I have been following your blog for sometime and would love to engage you on this particular concept of atonement which you seem to favor over the penal substitution atonement. (Please pardon the length of this message- I have a bit to say). The most blatant problems, among many, that I see with the Christus Victor theology is that it renders God powerless and man unaccountable for his sin. If the story of our salvation plays out more like a comic novel, as Christus Victor does, it undermines the unique difference Christianity has to any other religion. Our repentance is on us, our salvation is on God’s grace. Satan is a shelter for man’s sin, but he is not responsible for it…man is.
    On the video introducing the Christus Victor, I came across what I consider to be a number of fallacies, both explicit & implicit:
    (If you can refute any of this with scripture, please do so.)
    1. Regarding Lucifer: “Yahweh gave to Lucifer the task of governing the physical world, of maintaining order and ensuring rules were kept” – the only explicit Biblical knowledge we have on Satan (Ezekiel 28:11-19) is that he was an anointed Cherub who covers (v. 14), he was perfect til iniquity was found (v.15), he was vain and conceited (v. 17). We have much of what Satan has done after his fall, but very little on what he was like BEFORE the fall. Satan is only first (chronologically) mentioned in Job; all previous accounts of Lucifer are records of his actions, not his identity. Other verses referring to after or during his fall are: Matthew 25:41, 2 Peter 2:4, Daniel 8:10, Isaiah 14:12, 2 Cor 11:14, & Rev 12:9.
    2. “He became arrogant, he saw Yahweh’s love as weakness.” Speculation unless you can ground this in explicit scripture. This video and theology seems to borrow from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy far more so than it does the Bible.
    4. This view makes it clear that Satan brought death to Adam and Eve…Satan DID NOT bring about death to Adam and Eve & by association the rest of humanity. We did. God may be the judge, jury and executioner…we are the reprobates, the offenders.
    5. This view equates Satan with sin by holding Satan responsible for our enslavement to sin. In sin, we serve Satan, yes. BUT rebellion/sin is a state of being, not a source or a being in itself. Satan may orchestrate through temptation for us to eat the forbidden fruit but he is not the forbidden fruit himself nor does he force it UNWILLINGLY down our throats. Christus Victor cripples our freewill and accountability before God. It makes us victims rather than enemies of the Lord. If we were victims, that would mean we were wronged, we were the ones offended and enslaved against our wills. We would not have any need for forgiveness, for indeed, we would not have committed a crime. One would have to refute every passage that explicitly states God’s forgiveness. No wonder you cannot reconcile with a God that damns victims to hell. You have our identity and God’s character confused. We are NOT victims and God is not unjust for carrying out his wrath (which is mentioned 95 times explicitly in the Bible…I don’t think that was a typo).
    6. God is sovereign- this view treats God as if he were neither omniscient nor omnipotent.
    7. I know you didn’t create the video (right?) but it talks about the flood. “God caged a number of fallen ones during the great fall in the underworld…” What? Is this presumed (emphasis on presumed) based on the existence of Nephilim?
    8. Jesus’ death was foreshadowed. That was God’s will, that he die, not as a casualty of war but as a planned course for victory and yes, sacrifice.
    9. “The rule keeper had broken his own rules” Satan represents chaos and destruction, not order, not rules. Furthermore, Satan’s rule did not break and is not over- We are still left to our own passions, Satan is still prince of this world, and this is still his domain. While the war is won, the battle still wages and we are caught in the middle of it. But it isn’t only Satan on one end and only God on the other…it’s man on both sides, choosing which he will fight for. Either way, WE choose our enslavement.
    Lastly but far from least: “It isn’t God that points out our sins and shortcomings. It isn’t God that demanded blood sacrifice.” You might as well throw out the entire Old Testament and half the New Testament with Christus Victor if that is part of your theology. “…it was Satan.” Satan that demanded blood sacrifice and pointed out our sins? No way. Satan is the one that silences conviction, that silences God’s voice in our hearts. He would have us believing we are not sinners, that there is no hell and that God has the pearly gates wide open for us all. He mocks a congregation that takes their salvation for granted and sits comfortably week to week as so-called Christians sit unconvicted with no spiritual growth on a straight path to hell. The Law points to how damned we are without God’s grace. To the ancient Israelite, there was no greater grace than in the giving of the Law (remember Moses, Mt. Sinai, Ten Commandments, etc.?). Blood sacrifice was the method/demonstration/symbol for covering the sins of an individual and a nation. Explain to me why God would have instructed that His Holiest of Holies only be entered when a bull was sacrificed once a year on…wait for it, the day of atonement? It would make no sense!
    I didn’t mean for the first time in a while since we’ve spoken to be a slew of criticism…I’ve been mulling this over for a while and seeking out scripture, mentors, and the Lord on it. While I could say more, I’d love to have an engaged response.

    Wish you the best,
    Lindsay

    • Rocky Munoz, May 17, 2014 at 4:30 pm:

      Lindsay,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! It is really exciting to see that people actually read my blog, not to mention engage with the material through critical reflection. You’ve raised some really good questions here, most of which I have wrestled through myself. To be sure, these objections are not insurmountable. However, because these are such good questions, and because it is clear that you have put a lot of time and thought into them, and because I am still finishing up with this semester, I want to take my time in responding, being sure to support my thoughts with Scripture and sound reason. But I will definitely get back to you on these. Thanks again!

      • Lindsay Aiello, May 18, 2014 at 10:29 pm:

        Thank you! I’m looking forward to it. And focus on the rest of semester- that can be stressful!


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