Against ‘Penal Substitution’ and Transactional Models::For an Ontological Theory of Atonement

Matthias Grebe continues in his trek of offering a critique of Barth through Barth in regard to the loci of election and atonement. In his task he offers up a description, here in summary form, of various atonement theories propounded by the church fathers. He points out, rightly, that the fathers, in the main, (barring Augustine) would have rejected the penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) theory, and instead operated with a Christus Victor model, generally. He argues that the ’victim theory’ (his language for PSA) would not have been countenanced by them, and that instead something like Thomas F. Torrance’s theory of an ‘ontological atonement’ would have been the consensus patrum among these primarily Eastern ancient theologians. I agree with Grebe’s treatment, and thus wanted to share it.

However, the ‘Victim’ theory fails to grasp the breadth of the atonement, especially the second aspect of Christ’s death bringing humanity back to God. This in itself is problematic and thus led to a legal/forensic and practical as well as a transactional understanding of the atonement in much Western thought, emphasizing the human act of Jesus’ appeasement of the Father’s wrath. There is no doubt that the New Testament presents the death of Christ as a sacrifice (an idea based on the Old Testament cult), but the idea of appeasement rests upon an interpretation of the Old Testament cult in chiefly transactional terms. In contrast, for much Eastern scholarship the “cultus is much less a matter of sacrificial transaction than of mystical transplantation,” highlighting the death of Christ as the rescue and the cure from sin and the conclusion in the filial fellowship with God. Thus the answer to Cur Deus Homo? is therefore not only ‘mori missus,’ but also involves Christ’s entire life, death, resurrection and the ascension of humanity to the right hand of God, as well as the sending of the Spirit of Pentecost. . .. We will argue in this chapter that the atonement is not simply a dealing with something or rescuing from something, but a bringing into something. The New Testament testifies to the fact that we are not only brought out of darkness into light but are made sons and co-heirs of Christ and thus partakers of the divine communion (see Rom 8:17; Gal 4:7; Titus 3:7).[1]

Based on the closing clauses of Grebe’s we can see the direction he will be arguing. What he describes as the Eastern orientation over against the Western, in generalities, is key to understanding the type of alternative that an Athanasian Reformed (or ‘Evangelical Calvinist’) theory of salvation presents. It isn’t that ‘substitution’ is rejected, but that its frame isn’t forensic or ‘penal,’ rather it is ontological and re-creational. As such, the nature of the atonement itself is intrinsically tied to the incarnation, insofar that it is the total Christ, from before the foundations of the world, to their re-creation, that the atonement is entailed by. This offers a depth, and thus ontological dimension to a theory of salvation that the Augustinianly hued theory, of the Latin West, generally fails to grasp. Thomas Torrance, as alluded to, thinks, of course!, from the Eastern orientation; even as a Scottish Reformed theologian. Note TFT:

It is above all in the Cross of Christ that evil is unmasked for what it actually is, in its inconceivable wickedness and malevolence, in its sheer contradiction of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, in its undiluted enmity to God himself—not to mention the way in which it operates under the cover of the right and the good and the lawful. That the infinite God should take the way of the Cross to save mankind from the pit of evil which has engulfed it and deceived it, is the measure of the evil of evil: its depth is revealed to be ‘absymal’ (literally, ‘without bottom’). However, it is only from the vantage point of God’s victory over evil in the resurrection of Christ, from the bridge which in him God has overthrown across the chasm of evil that has opened up in our violence and death and guilt, that we may look into the full horror of it all and not be destroyed in the withering of our souls through misanthropy, pessimism, and despair. What hope could there ever be for a humanity that crucifies the incarnate love of God and sets itself implacably against the order of divine love even at the point of its atoning and healing operation? But the resurrection tells us that evil, even this abysmal evil, does not and cannot have the last word, for that belongs to the love of God which has negated evil once and for all and which through the Cross and resurrection is able to make all things work together for good, so that nothing in the end will ever separate us from the love of God. It is from the heart of that love in the resurrected Son of God that we may reflect on the radical nature of evil without suffering morbid mesmerization or resurrection and crucifixion events, which belong inseparably together, has behind it the incarnation, the staggering fact that God himself has come directly into our creaturely being to become one of us, for our sakes. Thus the incarnation, passion, and resurrection conjointly tell us that far from evil having to do only with human hearts and minds, it has become entrenched in the ontological depths of created existence and that it is only from within those ontological depths that God could get at the heart of evil in order to destroy it, and set about rebuilding what he had made to be good. (We have to think of that as the only way that God ‘could’ take, for the fact that he has as a matter of fact taken this way in the freedom of his grace excludes any other possibility from our consideration.) It is surely in the light of this ontological salvation that we are to understand the so-called ‘nature of miracles’, as well as the resurrection of Jesus from death, for they represent not a suspension of the natural or created order but the very reverse, the recreation of the natural order wherever it suffers from decay or damage or corruption or disorder through evil. God does not give up his claim that the creation is ‘good’, but insists on upholding that claim by incarnating within the creation the personal presence of his own Logos, the creative and ordering source of the creation, thereby pledging his own eternal constancy and rationality as the ground for the redemption and final establishment of all created reality.[2]

TFT’s long statement offers something of a magnum opus in summary, in regard to the entailments of what we might call an ‘Athanasian’ theory of salvation. But this extensive passage was offered up to help illustrate how it is that a Reformed theologian, of TFT’s stature, thinks along the lines that Grebe is describing for us vis-à-vis the consensus patrum of the Eastern church fathers. Salvation requires something more than, not less than a forensic frame. If the human condition is fallen, it isn’t simply a bail payment that is required, but an absolute resurrection and/or re-creation of all of reality; primary of which is humanity simpliciter. This is what Western or Latin notions of penal substitution fail to grasp, and what the Eastern fathers understood all too well. If the fallen human being is going to be ‘saved’ in the depths of their being, and the Western model is understood as the definitive theory of salvation, then salvation has not obtained, and we are of all people those to be pitied. It has not obtained because genuine salvation requires more than a legal payment, since this only has to do with external behavioral failures, it requires a depth ontological reorientation (and thus re-creation) insofar that this represents the relational breach between the triune God and us. Without this new creation of humanity in Christ’s humanity, in the ‘wonderful exchange,’ we cannot countenance God who is Holy.

[1] Matthias Grebe, Election, Atonement, and the Holy Spirit (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), Kindle ed. Loc., 5312, 5316, 5321, 5325.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 115-16.

3 thoughts on “Against ‘Penal Substitution’ and Transactional Models::For an Ontological Theory of Atonement

  1. Amen. Indeed, “it isn’t that ‘substitution’ is rejected, but that its frame isn’t forensic or ‘penal,’ rather it is ontological and re-creational”. Moreover, it is a re-creation in which the ‘new creation’ of humanity is conjoined—brought into union—with Christ.

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