An Interview with Darrin Belousek on Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Part 1

Darrin W. Snyder Belousek graduated with a doctorate in philosophy from the History and Philosophy of Science program at the University of Notre Dame in 1998, after which he has spent several years studying at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana. He currently teaches philosophy and religion at Ohio Northern University, and is executive director of Bridgefolk, a Mennonite-Catholic ecumenical organization based at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. His book Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church was published by Eerdmans in 2012. A significant portion of the book is dedicated to a critical analysis of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as articulated by Reformed evangelicals such as J.I. Packer, John Stott, Mark Dever, and Jeffrey, Ovey, and Sach in Pierced for Our Transgressions (Crossway, 2008). 

Darrin, thank you for taking the time to talk. Can you give us a summary of your book’s primary thesis/theses?

atonement-belousekThank you for the opportunity to participate in this interview. I hope what I have to offer here, and through the book, will be of benefit to readers.

The book, in general overview, does two main things. First, it presents a comprehensive, critical examination of penal substitution and offers a biblically grounded, theologically orthodox alternative account of substitutionary atonement. In developing my understanding of Jesus as God “for us and for our salvation,” I draw from the gospel narratives of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the apostolic witness of Jesus’ death “for us” and “for our sins,” and the early Christian writings and Eastern Orthodox tradition that think of Jesus’ death in terms of divine-human interchange and representative-redemptive solidarity.

In this way, it not only challenges those already convinced of the biblical basis of penal substitution but also demonstrates how it is that one might, for biblical-theological reasons, reject penal substitution yet still affirm a form of substitutionary atonement.

Second, the book reorients our thinking about justice and peace—economic justice, capital punishment, the war on terror, ethnic-religious conflict—from the perspective of the cross. It will thus challenge both “evangelically”-minded Christians to become concerned with social issues precisely on account of the cross and “socially”-minded Christians to engage such issues from a “cruciform” perspective.

In this way, the book aims to overcome the common but counterproductive divide between a “gospel of salvation” (or “Pauline gospel”) that emphasizes the death of Jesus and God’s action to forgive sins and a “gospel of justice and peace” (or “Jesus gospel”) that emphasizes the teaching of Jesus and our action for God’s Kingdom. What is needed is a theological framework—centered on the cross—that integrates both emphases into a single gospel that the church can proclaim to the world and put into practice. And I have sought to develop such a framework in this book.

What motivated you to undertake this book project? And why spend ~200 pages investigating penal substitution?

The book began in my thinking about things other than atonement theology. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, after finishing my PhD, I had begun seminary studies and was focusing on biblical foundations for Christian thinking about justice and peace. I was concerned with issues such as abortion, criminal justice, capital punishment, violence, war, and so on. I was also, flowing out of my faith journey to becoming a disciple of Jesus, personally involved in ecumenical engagement with Roman Catholics—and, on that account, was thinking also about Christian division and church unity.

In all of this, I was most keenly interested in the implications of the cross for matters of justice and peace. In fact, I wrote a paper for my first seminary course on the implications of the cross for ecumenism (more on that below).

As I was working out the practical implications of the cross for Christian ethical conviction and missional action, I kept bumping against theological assumptions about the cross as God’s work of salvation. In particular, I found myself repeatedly returning to the atonement theology from the evangelical formation of my Baptist youth—penal substitution. At this point, I simply took penal substitution for granted and tried to work with it; I wasn’t yet even aware that there might be other, or better, ways to think about the cross.

It was my endeavor to sort out a Christian view of capital punishment, in particular, that made it apparent to me that the assumptions of penal substitution were impeding my attempts to make sense of the matter. I wanted to think about this from the core of Christian faith—the cross. Jesus’ death, after all, was a death penalty. If there was a definitive Christian answer on the question, it must be found there.

Yet, I found myself confounded. Penal substitution is premised squarely on a theory of justice as retribution—as also is capital punishment. Yet, Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that the way of righteousness in God’s Kingdom transcends retribution: retributive justice requires that evil (crime/sin) be repaid in kind (punishment/death); but the children of God are to imitate the perfect love of God, which repays evil with good (Matthew 5:38-48). Can one put the retributive logic of penal substitution and capital punishment together with the retribution-transcending teaching of Jesus?

Puzzling over this question led me to the two insights that generated the writing of the book. These two insights comprise the “Copernican Revolution” in my thinking around which the book pivots.

First, because the cross is not some abstract term in a theological theory but is, as the gospel narrative presents it, the cross of Christ, a concrete reality continuous with the life-ministry and messianic purpose of Jesus, I thought, our thinking about the cross ought to cohere with Jesus’ teaching about God’s Kingdom.

Second, because the cross is not only a saving event in God’s economy but is, as Paul’s gospel testifies, the revelation of God’s justice through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26), I thought, rather than our thinking about the cross conforming to our assumptions about justice, our thinking about justice ought to conform to the revelation of the cross.

To work all this out I had to rethink atonement and justice together from the beginning—and do so in the proper order: to think about justice one had first to think about the cross as the revelation of God’s justice; and to think about the cross as the cross of Christ, one had to think about the cross in accord with Jesus’ teaching of God’s Kingdom.

Of course, if I was going to do all that, and do so in a way that not only could potentially persuade readers sympathetic to penal substitution, but also would be convincing to myself in my evangelical heart and philosophical mind, I needed first to thoroughly examine penal substitution. And I needed to do so in a way that both fairly represented penal substitution in the terms by which its apologists defended it, and that critically assessed penal substitution by the standard against which evangelical Christians test all theological claims, a careful exegesis of Scripture. This thorough examination of penal substitution eventually amounted to a book within the book (13 of 36 chapters)! But I think that it has proved to be the most important part of the book, especially to me personally.

One might begin reading your book and say, “Of course he doesn’t like penal substitution: he’s a pacifist Mennonite.” How would you respond? What presuppositions did you bring to your study, and how do they relate to your Scriptural and philosophical analyses in the book?

Actually, readers might be surprised to find that, while I share with most Mennonites a commitment to nonviolence as concomitant with discipleship under Jesus in the way of the cross, I do not follow the “nonviolent atonement” view that has been presented recently within certain Mennonite circles, most notably in Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement (2001). In fact, even before undertaking to investigate penal substitution in the book, I devote ten pages to critiquing Weaver’s account, precisely so that readers who might be sympathetic to penal substitution can see the difference between his perspective and mine. (Unfortunately, some Mennonite readers seem to miss this and keep confusing my view with “nonviolent atonement”!) I would highlight two differences—hermeneutical and theological—from Weaver’s approach that will illustrate the kind of presuppositions I bring to my study of atonement.

Weaver approaches atonement on a “presupposition of nonviolence,” which he deploys as both a hermeneutical criterion for interpreting Scripture and, consequently, as s theological criterion for knowing God. In this way, Weaver’s method mirrors that of some penal substitution apologists: just as some penal substitution apologists presuppose “propitiation by retribution” as the premise of atonement and read all of Scripture through that lens to support their theology, so likewise Weaver presupposes “nonviolence” as the premise of atonement and reads all of Scripture through that lens to support his theology. Consistent, true, but circular—and unconvincing except to the already converted.

By contrast to Weaver’s sectarian and self-reinforcing approach, I seek to persuade the reader (and, as noted above, persuade myself!) by adopting three hermeneutical rules for interpreting the cross that can be directly motivated from the biblical witness and find agreement among scholars across a broad confessional spectrum:

(1) Jesus’ death and resurrection are continuous and consistent with his life-ministry and teaching, woven together by the gospel narratives into a seamless story of messianic purpose, such that the cross should be understood in relation to Jesus’ teaching about God’s Kingdom.

(2) Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are coherent with the covenant, bringing to fullness what God had promised Israel “according to the scriptures” through “the law and the prophets,” such that the cross should be understood in relation to Jesus fulfilling God’s covenant with Israel and Israel’s mission “for the nations.”

(3) The cross of Christ reveals the justice and peace of God (see my response to the previous question).

Weaver’s nonviolence hermeneutic entails a theological inference: whatever in Scripture is violent neither reveals God’s character nor fulfills God’s purpose nor works God’s salvation. Insofar as Jesus’ death was manifestly violent, therefore, the cross neither reveals God’s faithfulness to the covenant nor fulfills God’s purpose in Israel nor works God’s salvation for the nations. Jesus saves, Weaver maintains, only by his life and his resurrection, not by his death; indeed, he states explicitly that Jesus’ death contributes nothing to God’s economy of salvation. Weaver has been followed in this denial of the saving effect of Jesus’ death by another Mennonite theologian, Ted Grimsrud, in his book, Instead of Atonement (2013).

I could not disagree more. Taking at face value the manifold testimony of the gospel narratives, I affirm from the outset that Jesus’ death, as well as his life and resurrection, was integral to his messianic purpose and necessary to his saving work. Likewise, taking at face value the repeated affirmations of the apostolic writings, I affirm from the outset the ancient faith and evangelical conviction that Jesus’ death was sacrificial (“he offered himself”), vicarious (“for us”), and atoning (“for our sins”). The theological matter in question pertains to understanding how God works through Jesus’ death, in continuity with his life and resurrection, “for us and for our salvation” (as the Nicene Creed puts it).

What do you appreciate about the motivations of those who make penal substitution as central as they do to their theological system?

Too often lacking in doctrinal disagreements between fellow Christians is a mutual respect for each other’s motivations. In the atonement debate, especially, it has been too easily assumed that the other party wants to “gut the gospel”—whether “liberals” who supposedly want to drain the cross of its saving power for sinners, or “conservatives” who supposedly want to whitewash Jesus’ concern for the poor and oppressed. I expect that most penal substitution proponents devote their hearts and minds to studying the gospel and proclaiming the cross for much the same reason I do: as a good-faith response to having found salvation in Jesus Christ! I still commend John Stott’s classic The Cross of Christ (1986) as one of the best expositions on the subject, motivated by a love of the gospel, even as I diverge from his view on specific points.

At various places in my book, I thus emphasize points at which I agree with penal substitution proponents, both its ardent apologists (e.g., Packer, Morris, Dever, and Jeffery, Ovey & Sach) and its moderate reformers (e.g., Stott and Marshall). Nothing is to be gained for the gospel by painting the other party as completely mistaken or exaggerating differences of perspective.

As a preface to presenting my own constructive account of Jesus’ action “for us and for our salvation” through his life, death, and resurrection (chapter 18), I highlight my concurrence with the four “positive assumptions” of the penal substitution model that are identified by Peter Schmiechen in his fine tome, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church (2005): (1) “sin offends God and disrupts all human relations,” (2) “the problem cannot be resolved simply by ignoring or forgetting it,” (3) “from our perspective as sinners, Jesus dies the death of a sinner and in this way doe in fact take our place,” and (4) “from the standpoint of the history of Israel and faith in the risen Christ, there is a certain kind of necessity in the death of Jesus.” The crucial differences between my view and penal substitution concerns how these four points are interpreted—and it is especially points (3) and (4), concerning Jesus’ death as vicarious and necessary, where I diverge from penal substitution and offer an alternative account.

Stay tuned for Part II…

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