Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Violent Atonement in Romans: The Foundation of Paul's Soteriology

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Violent Atonement in Romans: The Foundation of Paul's Soteriology

Article excerpt

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Interpreters of the NT have a long history of being interested in the nature of Jesus' death in Paul's theology.1 In both the UK and the US, many discussions of Jesus' death in Paul in both scholarly and popular literature have focused lately on penal substitution.2 A renewed interest in penal substitution has arisen in part because several evangelical and non-evangelical interpreters continue to argue that the NT does not present Jesus' death as a violent substitute.3

For example, in his recent essay on atonement, Joel Green asserts that penal substitution "divorces Jesus' life from the passion event, as though the only significant thing about Jesus was his death. Jesus was born in order to die."4 Green asks: Why did God become human according to the penal substitution view? The answer is simple: to bear on the cross the punishment for our sin. "But this proposal," Green says, "neglects what we know historically, fails to account for the nature of the witness of the New Testament itself, diminishes the significance of the incarnation, and unacceptably truncates the portrait of faithful human life as the imitation of Christ."5 Although Green claims that the cross is essential for salvation,6 he asserts that Jesus did not achieve salvation by means of absorbing the wrath of God on the cross on behalf of sinners.

Over against the model of penal substitutionary atonement, then, God's saving act is not his response to Jesus' willing death, as though, in a forensic exchange, our punishment by death was suspended by Jesus' execution. God sent his son to save, but this is worked out in a variety of purpose statements: to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17), to call sinners to repentance (Matt 9:13), to bring a sword (Matt 10:34), to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in the other cities (Luke 4:43), to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), and so on. Even the ransom saying is exegeted by the parallel description of Jesus' mission: 'The son of man came not to be served, but to serve' (Mark 10:45). God's saving act is the incarnation, which encompasses the whole of his life, including but not limited to his death on a Roman cross.7

Steve Chalke argues in his essay that "the greatest theological problem with penal substitution is that it presents us with a God who is first and foremost concerned with retribution for sin that flows from his wrath against sinners."8 Chalke states that penal substitution does not fit with the words or attitude of Jesus and that if the whole gospel centers on his death, then his disciples could not have preached a message of good news before his crucifixion. Furthermore, if God required an atoning sacrifice to placate his anger, then Jesus could not have forgiven sins before his sacrifice: "In fact, why did Jesus preach at all? The rest of his ministry was ultimately unnecessary if it is only his death that makes things new. Surely, we cannot embrace a theology in which Jesus' entire 33 year incarnation could be reduced to a long weekend's activity."9

Allan Mann argues that Christians should redefine Christian vocabulary for an emergent, postmodern, post-Christian, and post-industrialized culture, because this culture does not think about things with the same categories as the pre-modern, pre-Christian, and pre-industrialized culture. Mann suggests that such redefinitions should include redefining sin and redefining the significance of Jesus' death. Old ways of explaining the atonement (such as penal substitution) do not work anymore.10 Brad Jersak likewise recently contends that Jesus did not die as a penal substitute. The atonement is nonviolent as opposed to penal. The cross was not God's violent solution to sin, but expresses God's nonviolent love through Jesus' peaceful response to his accusers.11

In a recent book about redemption in Paul, David A. …

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