Book Review: Christ Died For Our Sins

Christ Died For Our Sins  
Edited by Michael R Stead   ISBN 9781921577185
Barton Books, 2013
Reviewed by Ben Underwood

This book of essays on the atonement has been produced by the Doctrine Commission of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia. As Philip Freier remarks in his introduction, 'The Doctrine Commission reflects the theological diversity of our church’ (2), and if that leads you to expect some theological tussling in the book, you would not be misled. However, in publishing these essays the Commission wishes firstly to highlight the unanimity shared by its members on substantial points regarding the atonement (2). And the points of agreement articulated are substantial: that the atonement is grounded in God's love, not his wrath; that Father and Son are united in the atonement; that sin makes the atonement necessary, that the atonement demonstrates God's justice; that it depends on more than Christ's death; that no single image is sufficient to encapsulate it (2-3). The commission wishes also to identify clearly points of difference and to model respectful dialogue over those differences (142).

The most contentious point is penal substitutionary atonement, the idea that Christ's suffering and death was our deserved punishment diverted onto him by God, and this disagreement is the subject of a dialogue between John Dunnill and Peter Adam in a dedicated chapter of the book. Aside from the debated differences over penal substitution, there are also conflicting views expressed about the universality of the benefits of Christ's atonement, and whether the wrath of God has any proper place in an account of God's action in the atonement.

 Since a stoush is more interesting than a survey, I will focus in this review on the main controversy in the book, hoping that iron will sharpen iron. Bluntly put, there are those who believe the atonement is legitimately, importantly and perhaps even essentially characterised as penal substitution, and those who reject this. Not all contributors seem keen to tug on a team guernsey, but here Peter Adam captains team Penal Substitution (PS) and John Dunnill captains team No Penal Substitition (NPS).

Adam kicks off with an exposition of three principal New Testament images of Christ's atoning death (sacrifice, paschal lamb and righteous sufferer). Adam sees all these images presenting Christ's death as a propitiatory, expiatory, substitutionary sacrifice achieving forgiveness of sins, redemption from evil powers and the justification of those otherwise under judgment. This atoning work is founded on the triune God's holiness and love, and the biblical images which describe it are revelatory, combined in complementary ways and irreplaceable. Adam asserts that this view is biblical, and reflects the historic faith of the church and the liturgy of our Anglican tradition, and he garners a range of quotes to back this assertion. He avoids using the term penal, but the chapter is not less than a presentation of the cross as penal and substitutionary. In chapter 10 Adam seeks 'to present a theology of penal substitution which is Biblical, theological and defensible.' (143). To defend the 'most debated point […] the notion of Christ suffering punishment within his sin-bearing sacrifice' (146) Adam argues that this is a necessary understanding of Christ's work, because the penal curse of the holy God upon lawbreakers is death and Christ breaks the curse of God for our salvation by undergoing it himself in our flesh, dying accursed by God instead of us (146-7).

Team NPS counterattacks with two main lines of objection to the use of penal and substitutionary in speaking of the atonement. First, they object that the PS understanding of sacrifice is distorted and illegitimately conflated with notions of ransom or punishment, and second, that the notion that God punished Christ in our place is unworthy of God and unnecessary. On the first count Dunnill objects to sacrifice being understood as substitutionary. The sacrificial offering 'represents me in this action, but it is not my “substitute”, for I am still involved’(150). Dunnill is, however, happy to think of a substitution or exchange when the atonement is described in terms of a ransom, but he thinks it incoherent to fuse these separate images into a thing called 'substitutionary sacrifice’(107, 151-2, 158).

Further to this first line of resistance, Dunnill objects to sacrificial death being equated with penal death, arguing that these are two quite different things. Even a propitiatory sacrifice, Dunnill says, is a symbolic gift that has no true connection with any kind of legal punishment. He goes so far as to say 'there are in fact no examples of  “penal-sacrifice” in the Old Testament.' (150). Jesus' death may be a sacrifice, even to some degree a propitiatory one (115), but that is not to say Jesus is punished by God in any sense. The New Testament may say Jesus became a curse for us, but it does not say God cursed him instead of us (152). There is nothing in the New Testament to require us to think of Father punishing Son in our stead on the cross.

The second line of objection from team NPS is a moral one. The PS notion that God punished Christ in our place is unworthy of God. The God who sets things right by requiring the infliction of a punishment involving suffering and death has a destructive violence in him that it is claimed must be expressed somehow. How can this be the God of light and love? Dunnill grants that it is 'possible to present penal substitution in a way which is in accord with Biblical witness and a defensible theology', indeed it 'contains essential elements' in its 'passive sense’(157), but its 'active sense, according to which God the Father directly and actively imposes on the the Son the pain and penalty which was our due […] glories in violence [… ] presents an unbalanced focus on legal offence', and shifts “wrath”and judgement into the personal “unmitigated”frenzy of an angry God […] turning God into God's dark shadow'.

These debates about penal substitutionary atonement and the involvement of God in redemptive violence are hot right now, and several books and collections of essays have been published lately in different corners of the English-speaking world.  Charles Taylor argues that in our culture
‘the idea of human flourishing according the modern moral order has no place for violence and rage, but only for pacific mutual benefit. […] So in this anthropocentric climate, where we keep any idea of the spiritual, it must be totally constructive, positive. It can't accommodate Kali, and is less and less able to allow for a God who punishes.'

The wrath of God disappears, leaving only His love.’ 

This rings true, and it is difficult to articulate the atonement persuasively in a culture like this, and Dunnill expresses his desire to find a way in the first chapter he writes, exploring Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. His resistance to penal substitution comes across at some level as a desire not to speak about God in an objectionable and unnecessary way. On the other hand the desire of Adam and team PS seems to be to resist the cultural anthropocentrism and preserve the biblical testimony to God's wrath at human sin, the penalty of death to which sin makes us liable (since lawbreaking is one way to characterise sin) and the way the judgment of God which would otherwise impose that penalty upon us is  dealt with for us by Christ in his death, so we sinners may be justified before him.

There is far more in the essays than I have indicated – I have focussed on the sharpest dispute. In two chapters focused on the OT Michael Stead and Glenn Davies work the ball up the field for team PS, arguing that the Bible itself fuses the originally separate semantic fields of atonement and redemption and their associated terms pace some critics of penal substitutionary atonement.  Dorothy Lee, not decked in any obvious team colours, writes deft surveys of the various ways that the imagery and detail of the Gospels, John's Epistles and Revelation suggest understandings of the achievement of Jesus' death and resurrection. (They suggest a universal atonement to her – 90, 96). John Dunnill treats the Pauline writings and Peter Adam tackles Hebrews.

Later, the ball goes to Andrew McGowan, for team NPS, who argues that sacrifice had no single meaning to the ancients, and it was not until the Christian invention of sacrifice as simply 'atoning death' that any sacrificial language of the death of Christ seemed necessarily to cast it as expiatory. Heather Thomson receives the pass from McGowan and underscores the enormity of the idea that God could be 'engaged in the same murky business as causing death and suffering in the name of “justice”as were sinful humans’(190). By considering Jesus' death from the standpoint of his resurrection, Thomson presents an account of atonement without wrath or punishment coming from God, who is all and only love, grace and hospitality. Just before the whistle, Mark Thompson makes  a last run for team PS, examining Cranmer's exposition of the death of Christ. He shows that Cranmer taught that Christ 'paid a sufficient ransom for our sins'; 'whose bitter and grievous passion is the only pacifying oblation, that putteth away from us the wrath of God his Father’ (212); whom God sent , 'to make a sacrifice and satisfaction, or (as it may be called) amends, to his Father for our sins, to assuage his wrath and indignation conceived against us for the same’(214).

It is good to see such a central topic as the atonement engaged with at such length by the Doctrine Commission, it is good to see the real mutual engagement at the point of sharpest dispute – which must be instructive for everyone – and it is good to see such a cohort of evangelicals on the General Synod Doctrine Commission, making their case. May God bless the labours of the Commission to the growing benefit of his people and especially the Anglican churches in Australia.