If you’ve been following the last six posts in my Rethinking the Atonement series (here, here, here, here, here, 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.
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…