Monthly Archives: February 2011

Penal Substitionary Atonement, and the Dangers There of

The early church fathers for the most part did not ascribe to substitutionary atonement. For sure, some scriptures do very heavily lean that direction. Yet, other scriptures end up throwing a pretty massive wrench in that direction. Whats perhaps the most troubling, is it appears some contemporary preachers go so far as to nearly equate the Gospel to penal substitutionary atonement.

I’ve often found it interesting that the early church fathers did not hold so such. Origen (185-254 CE) presented the ransom theory

He suggested that, as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, Satan had acquired a formal dominion over, and ownership of, all of humanity and the rest of the world. In order to free people from the grip of Satan, God agreed to arrange the death of Yeshua, his son, as a ransom price to be paid to the devil. This would formally compensate for Adam and Eve’s sin, and would release humanity from Satan’s grip. Origen wrote: “The payment could not be [made] to God [be]cause God was not holding sinners in captivity for a ransom, so the payment had to be to the devil.” Origen believed that Satan accepted the offer because he assumed that he would end up with ownership of Yeshua. The devil didn’t realize that Yeshua would escape his clutches. God deceitfully pulled a “bait and switch” operation by resurrecting Yeshua a day and a half after his death on the cross. This left Satan without any reward. Yeshua had escaped Satan’s grasp and was reunited with God. Origen concluded that humans can then be reconciled with God if they trust Yeshua as Lord and Savior.

A couple disturbing things I’ve come across over the years are the following.

1. Folks who have seemingly walked away from Christ, often see God’s actions in PSA as cruel and barbaric.

A blogger over at arewomenhuman stated the following:

I couldn’t stomach the thought of standing in church and singing hymns thanking God for killing someone “for” me.

Another good discussion of this is presented in “The cross is an Insult to Forgiveness”

I’ve often wondered if the doors to trinitarian heresies are opened by PSA. For many in the pew, its almost as if the focus shifts to God torturing Jesus. Its as if Jesus was not God, and as such, it seemingly pretty much throws the trinity by the wayside. Anselm’s (1033 to 1109 CE) satisfaction theory (which predated PSA), in his Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) presents the following:

  • Chapter 6 “…the price paid to God for the sin of man [must] be something greater than all the universe besides God….Moreover, it is necessary that he who can give God anything of his own which is more valuable than all things in the possession of God, must be greater than all else but God himself….Therefore none but God can make this satisfaction.”
  • Chapter 9 “…God, he will possess omnipotence….He can, then, if he chooses, lay down his life and take it again….Therefore is he able to avoid death if he chooses, and also to die and rise again….the gift which he presents to God, not of debt but freely, ought to be something greater than anything in the possession of God….Now this can neither be found beneath him nor above him….In himself, therefore, must it be found….nothing can be more severe or difficult for man to do for God’s honor, than to suffer death voluntarily when not bound by obligation; and man cannot give himself to God in any way more truly than by surrendering himself to death for God’s honor. Therefore, he who wishes to make atonement for man’s sin should be one who can die if he chooses.”

2. It is possible that PSA may open doors for spiritual abuse and/or the replacement of God’s love and grace with toxic soteriology, even more so without the solid grounding of the trinity. Arewomenhuman presents the following:

Substitutionary atonement requires us to accept that it’s alright for God to behave in ways that would be considered cruel and capricious from anyone else. It requires that we claim God is “good” in a way that doesn’t resemble what we would call “good” in any other context. It preaches a patriarchal God who brooks no defiance and demands perfection from others that “he” doesn’t live up to, and doesn’t have to live up to. In so doing it provides a script and model for authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationships between human beings that mirror the authoritarian, hierarchical, abusive relationship between God and humans.

While I’d be in error to attribute causality, my experience with multitudes of de-churched folks over the years, has often indicated that when PSA leans towards or replaces the Gospel, spiritual abuse is often right around the corner.

I wonder if perhaps the early church fathers anticipated this danger, and thus shied away from PSA? They had the same scriptures we do today, and its not as if there were not historical discussions seemingly pointing to PSA… but it was left by the wayside.

If we are the body

For day after day they seek me out… they seem eager to know my ways. Yep, such is the first bit of todays lectionary reading. Despite the multitude of problems in contemporary Christian society, underneath it all, I think there is an eagerness to know God’s ways. I think there is a level of seeking going on, even amongst Sunday only Christianity.

Its also interesting how verse 9-10 of Isaiah ties right into todays Gospel reading… If we are to let our light shine before men, we ought not to be putting it under a bowl. If we are to let our light shine, we ought not to be doing the finger pointing and malicious talk.

We’ve been working on some Casting Crowns tunes on Friday nights, and both seem to hammer home todays scriptures.

The chorus of “Does Anybody Hear Her”

Does anybody hear her? Can anybody see?
Or does anybody even know she’s going down today
Under the shadow of our steeple
With all the lost and lonely people
Searching for the hope that’s tucked away in you and me
Does anybody hear her? Can anybody see?


The chorus of “If We are the Body”

But if we are the Body
Why aren’t His arms reaching
Why aren’t His hands healing
Why aren’t His words teaching
And if we are the Body
Why aren’t His feet going
Why is His love not showing them there is a way

My friend @tragicpizza hit on a couple key bits in this mornings sermon.

1. Jesus declares us salt and light, its not something we do on our own.

2. We are to act who we are. He hits home with the following.

If we view church as something we go to, rather than something we are; if it’s a once-a-week get-out-of-Hell-free card or if it counts as positive marks on our social acceptability meter, we miss the point, and I would contend that we are in danger of finding out how salt can become unsalty.

And if we, as Christians, are struggling to be accepted by God, to be doctrinally perfect and theologically blameless, we’re missing the point. We are already accepted by God. We are already salt and light. We don’t cease functioning because we’re already there; instead, knowing who we are and whose we are frees us to act in response to this incredible gift of God’s grace! We can’t be anything but salt! We can’t be anything but light!

He then follows up with what happened when Canvas Community Church saw a need in their community.

In early January, as temperatures in Arkansas were dropping far more than usual, the homeless shelters became filled to over capacity. People were, out of necessity, being turned away. There was no room. Canvas Community church members decided to open their doors so folks could get warm. There was no big pomp and circumstance, no running it through committee to make sure it didn’t violate the charter, no budget, and no plan for how to get it done.


What is striking to me, and not in a good way, is this: Canvas Community Church is all too unique, not because of what they did, but that they did it at all. They didn’t sit back and expect the shelters to magically expand their capacity to do the job. They didn’t wait on the government to step in. They were salt. They were light.

Seeing a need and actively, even recklessly, meeting that need? That is being the salt of the earth which brings nourishment, healing, and restoration. That is being the light of the world which brings hope, direction, growth, and life.

Disciples and Believers

When the ELCA Study Bible came out a ways back, there was a whole lot of muttering over Dr Priebe’s commentary on the great commission. So much so, that apparently later printings of it have that section redacted… most likely due to the fact it can easily be misread as to suggest universalism. On the other hand, in pulling out the following:

Jesus now sends the disciples to make disciples of all nations. That does not mean make everyone disciples. Most people who are helped by Jesus and believe in him never become disciples. Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or even know about him. Disciples are students, called for the sake of the world to learn from Jesus and to bear witness to the kingdom.

…we end up missing the discussion on disciples as well. Dr Priebe distinguishes between one who believes, and one who is a disciple, but the direction he chooses is vastly different than what is commonly understood, ie, what is presented in James 2:19.

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

In his offline commentary, Dr Priebe ties this into Acts 16:1 where Timothy’s mother was described as a believer, and Timothy was a disciple. If we then take this a tad further, and roll on over to 2 Timothy 1:5, we learn a bit more of Timothy’s mother and grandmother.

Paul writes: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.”

On first glance… what gives with this? If we take the common understanding that all those who follow Christ are disciples, things dont square up with Timothy’s mother not being called a disciple. Logically based upon the 2 Timothy text, she practiced her faith, she prayed, she taught her son, she was active in her community of faith, (in todays world, maybe she was at church 3-4 times a week or more, taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, and tithed to boot)… and yet, she is not considered a disciple?

If we go back to Dr Priebes commentary…

In the Greek philosophical schools or later in Rabbinic Judaism beginning shortly before the time of Jesus, a “disciple” is a pupil of a teacher – the two terms go together. In Matthew, those who believe in Jesus and are benefited by him, experiencing the transforming power of the kingdom – or even the crowds that follow him – do not become disciples even when they may want to do so. What is distinctive about being a disciple in the Gospels is that they do not decide to become disciples, Jesus calls them to be disciples – and in that sense “makes” them disciples, although that language is not used. Second, being a disciple entails not only a pupil-teacher relationship, as it does in the philosophical schools or in the Rabbinic tradition, but it also entails an attachment to the person Jesus Christ.


The idea that a small number of people who are called by Jesus and who bear witness to him fill the world with the light of the gospel and with his presence is reflected in a different way when Athanasius in the early 4th century speaks of the entire world being filled with the light of the Gospel and Jesus’ transforming power. The Christian missionaries in China in the 7th and 8th century say the same thing about the light of the gospel filling the entire kingdom. In neither case are Christians anything but a small minority. But what they refer to is that there are Christians who bear witness to Jesus Christ scattered throughout the Empires, and through their witness all things are being transformed.

In other words, Dr Priebe seems to put the role of being a disciple as a different calling in contrasted with those who are called to be believers. I think he may be onto something with that.

The thing is… even if folks are not disciples, if we look to Timothy’s mother and grandmother as non-disciple participants in his growth, their faith practices, and their entire lives pointed to Christ. They were likely anything but Sunday only Christians. They were believers making disciples!