One of the terms used in the early fathers when interpreting the Scriptures was the “scope” of Scripture. By this they meant backing away from the detail of the text to see the larger picture, the “scope” of a broad reading. This technique was particularly valued in the so-called Antiochene School of interpretation, which is usually associated with a more historical/literal reading of Scripture. The failure to see the “scope” of the text all too easily exalts stray details to an unwarranted position. You cannot understand a tree until you see its place in the forest. This understanding of the “scope” of Scripture is particularly devastating to the penal-substitionary atonement theory.
Penal substitionary atonement argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive their sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.
I have written previously about the lack of Scriptural warrant for this teaching, as well as its creation of a false image of a wrathful God who must be satisfied in order to be reconciled to man. I will point out here that this theory falls outside the scope of the New Testament, particularly the gospels where a definitive scope can be discerned: that of Christ as our Passover.
As noted in my previous article, a central theme of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection is found associated with the feast of Passover. At Passover, the Jews celebrate and remember their deliverance from Egypt by the miraculous intervention of God.
“So you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this same day I will have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as an everlasting ordinance. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats what is leavened, that same person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread.”
Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Pick out and take lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning. For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you. And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your sons forever.” (Exo 12:17-24)
It was during this festival in Jerusalem that Christ was crucified. For the Primitive Christian community, it was clear that Christ is Himself now our Passover. He is the Passover Lamb. His blood saves us from death and hell (the destroyer). And like the earlier Passover, this miraculous intervention of God is remembered with a meal. The Eucharist is the New Passover, the New Covenant. It is not kept annually, but weekly (if not more often). And it is kept weekly on Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection.
This change in worship is a radical departure from the mainstream life of 1st century Judaism. There is mention in the book of Acts that the early community continued to go to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. But it also says:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and communion, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42)
The gospels reflect an understanding of Christ as the New Passover that supersedes the Old. This is so dominant that it results in a changed pattern of worship – the primacy of Sunday (now called “the Lord’s Day”) as well as the eating of a new, weekly Passover meal (the Eucharist) as the center of worship.
The Penal Substitionary model of the atonement simply has no place within this scope. The blood of the lamb applied to the doorposts of Israel is not an atoning blood. It is not an offering or sacrifice of substitution. It belongs uniquely to Israel as the people of God. Only the children of Israel may eat of the meal (the lamb) – it is a meal of belonging and communion – in which no forensic or legal imagery plays a part. Strangers in the land, in years to come, are allowed to eat of the meal, only if they submit to the law of circumcision (and thus “become” part of Israel).
The essential imagery of the Passover is of an oppressed people. Their deliverance does not hinge on how they found themselves to be in bondage. “Let my people go,” is God’s word to Egypt. In essence: “They don’t belong to you – they belong to Me.”
This same imagery is at work in the New Passover. The people of God are in bondage (to sin and death). Christ constantly intervenes in their lives, healing them, setting them free and forgiving their sins.
Matthew (9:2ff) describes Christ’s healing of a paralytic. In that action He begins by forgiving the man’s sins. When those standing around question His authority to forgive, He says to the man, “Arise, take up your bed and walk.” And He explains that He has done this in order to show that the “Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.”
In the Penal model of the atonement, we would have to ask how Christ could forgive this man since no justice has been satisfied. Is the man healed as a loan from a payment that will be made at a later point?
In the Scriptures, we do not have a legal problem. Sin is not a legal debt or an infraction demanding the satisfaction of justice. Sin is death (Romans 6:21-23). Sin is a life lived out of communion with God, the Lord and giver of life. As such, it is a spiritual entropy, a life that is collapsing. It is slavery and bondage to a growing process of nothingness.
For the gospel writers and the early Church, nothing describes this slavery better than the imagery of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. Their deliverance does not flow from a balance of accounts nor the satisfaction of divine justice. It is the love of God for His people. This imagery continues throughout the early Church, preserved especially in the Christian East. St. Basil’s Eucharistic prayer offers this summary:
Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He brought us to knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He obtained us for Himself, to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending through the Cross into Hades that He might fill all things with Himself, He destroyed the torments of death. And rising on the third day, He made a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be overcome by corruption.
This is the story of the New Exodus. Baptism is the new Red Sea. In it are destroyed all of the enemies of God’s people.
St. Basil uses the language that is often described as belonging to a “ransom theory” of the atonement. I think this overplays but a single part of the “scope” of his imagery. The “ransom” is simply a ransom “to death.” It is a counterpart to the imagery of our being “sold under sin.” The scope of St. Basil’s account is that we were held captive and God sent His only Son to come and get us. And since we were held captive by death, He entered death itself to get us out. Christ’s resurrection is indeed the New Exodus, making a “path for all flesh from the dead.” Death is the ultimate Egypt, the last bondage.
St. Basil additionally makes this statement:
He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being conformed to the body of our lowliness, that He might conform us to the image of His glory.
It is a use of Philippians 2 which Basil extends into the language of Divine solidarity. God has become what we are, that we might become what He is. In this New Passover, God Himself becomes the Lamb. God Himself enters into our bondage and death. God Himself leads us triumphantly back from the dead (through the Red Sea, etc.).
And now the meal, the feast of the Passover, is God Himself: “This is my body…this is my blood.” The first Passover was but a shadow of the second (and last). In in this account of Christ’s work, there is simply no imagery of a legal payment, a propitiation of the wrath of God. God is not the enemy of man.
A weakness of penal substitutionary theory is its inherently pagan character. The God who must be satisfied (whether we chalk this up to His justice or not) is a diminished God, rather than the Ground of All Being revealed in Christ.
All atonement theory makes use of imagery, and imagery always falls somehow short of reality. But imagery that actually distorts reality is another question. The Passover imagery of our deliverance was a long-standing theme of Jewish thought. It was and is central to Jewish identity. However, the justice-hungry God of propitiatory sacrifice actually has no history whatsoever in Jewish thought (including the OT temple sacrifices). If anything, there is material in the Old Testament in which God “despises” Israel’s sacrifices.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all its fullness. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? (Psa 50:12-13)
Another prominent set of images within the Old Testament are deeply reflected within the New Testament treatment of Christ’s suffering and death: those of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Its words are deeply familiar:
Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. (Isa 53:4-5)
This passage (and its accompanying verses) have played a prominent part in theories of Penal Substitution. But that reading, assuming the passage into a sacrificial scheme is nowhere required or indicated by the passage itself. Instead, within the New Testament context, particularly that of the gospels, it should be conflated and read together with the Passover imagery. It is, above all, part of the “ironic” character of the Passover victory of God.
That Divine Irony is especially seen in Christ’s repeated identification of His coming crucifixion with His glorification.
But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (Joh 12:23-25)
And at the very moment of His betrayal:
Having received the piece of bread, he [Judas] then went out immediately. And it was night. So, when he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him.” (Joh 13:30-31)
This Divine Irony is present in the Old Testament Passover story as well and there, too, it is described as “glorification.” The perceived weakness and helplessness of God (and His people) become the very means by which God draws His enemies into their defeat. In the Exodus account, God clearly directs Israel into an impossible position in order for the wonder (glory) of His victory over Pharoah to be seen yet more clearly. It is glorious precisely because it is revealed at the moment of most complete weakness.
The same is true in Christ’s glorification (crucifixion). He is silent before Pilate and Herod, making no defense for Himself. His quiet submission to the insults and charges leveled against Him are also tokens of His voluntary suffering.
As a sheep led to the slaughter, or a blameless lamb before His shearers is mute, so He opened not His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7).
That “we esteemed Him stricken and smitten by God” (Is. 53:4) is not a description of the Father pouring His wrath upon Him, but a reflection of the confusion voiced by the bystanders of Christ’s suffering:
He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him. (Matt. 27:43).
The envy and ignorance of those witnessing Christ’s humiliation is utterly ironic – for what Christ does – He does for them!
But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; (Isa 53:5)
The language of Isaiah meshes seamlessly with that of the Passover, adding depth and insight into the saving work of God. It is not a framework for penal imagery.
Penal imagery represents one of the most serious deformations of Christian thought, a sad detour for theology. That it has now passed into fixed dogma within some circles should be of great concern to all Christians. Those who hold to this dogma would do well to return to the fathers and consider the scope of Scripture. The labyrinth of proof-texts that are often assembled to argue for the penal model are but isolates. They belong in no over-arching theme of Scripture or central story of the faith. They are foreign to the sacramental life of the Church as it lives its life in union with Christ.
Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.