Why the emerging church should believe in penal substitution
The doctrine of 'penal substitutionary atonement' remains a major bone of contention between the yapping, excitable Jack Russell of the emerging church and the snarling pit bull of reformed theology. There may be some dispute over the choice of dogs, but the seriousness and persistence of the disagreements is apparent from, for example, the 9Marks Forum and this paragraph from an essay by Albert Mohler in which he quotes from D.A. Carson's Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:
The general argument that I want to put forward is that a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is certainly biblical but that it has to be framed narratively. Problems arise when we extract statements about justification from their narrative or historical or eschatological context and treat them as a universal theological propositions with an ugly label slapped on such as 'penal substitutionary atonement'. This is the repeated error of reformed-evangelical theology: biblical texts are found wandering the streets like lost children, but instead of being returned to their original homes they are adopted into new modern families and told to shut up and behave themselves.
The particular and limited contention here is that the statement in Romans 3:25 that God put forward Christ as 'a hilastērion through faithfulness by his blood (or: through faith in his blood)',1 which is usually considered central to the theory of penal substitutionary atonement, has to do specifically with the 'salvation' of Israel as a nation from historical judgment. Other texts (eg. Isaiah 53:6-10; Romans 5:8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 9:11-28; 1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 4:10) will have to be looked at separately.
The wrath of God
The starting point is quite clear: the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness (Rom. 1:18). This stands as a universal premise, but Paul's argument in Romans has in view two particular historical categories of people who face 'tribulation and distress' on a day of wrath (2:9): the Jews, who boast in the law but do not keep it (2:23), and the Gentile/Greek world, which is characterized by idolatry and sexual immorality.
The 'day of wrath' has to be understood theologically as an expression of God's anger towards sinful people, the Jews first, but also the Greeks. But it also has to be understood in historical terms: it refers, as characteristically in the Old Testament (eg. Zeph. 1:14-16), to some form of national, political, and probably military disaster. We should keep in mind that Paul is writing before AD 66. For Israel, as Jesus had predicted, the day of wrath would be the war against Rome, with its massive loss of life and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. For the Gentile world I suggest we need to think in rather less precise terms of the collapse of the sort of civilization depicted in Romans 1:19-32 - analogous to the defeat of the Babylonian régime that took Israel into captivity by the Persian Cyrus; but this is not crucial to the argument here.
The question that arises is this: Given the foreseen judgment of God on Israel, the descendants of Abraham, how would the original promise to Abraham be fulfilled? How would the family of Abraham be preserved? How would the people of God - all of whom are under the power of sin - survive the coming tribulation?
'Israel' at this point includes Gentiles (9:24; 11:17). When Paul says in Romans 3:23 that 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God', the 'all' refers specifically to 'all who believe' in the preceding verse. So when the question is asked about Israel and the coming wrath, it is a question about the righteousness or justification of both Jews and Gentiles. They are being, or will be, justified as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 'Redemption' is probably to be understood as the future event of rescue on the day of wrath (cf. Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:14; 4:30).
Atonement for Israel's sins
The righteousness of God in justifying that remnant of the people of God (including Gentiles) that believes has been shown or demonstrated by the fact that he put forward Christ Jesus 'as a hilastērion through faithfulness (dia pisteōs) by his blood' (3:25).
In the LXX the word mostly refers to the 'mercy seat' that covered the ark of the covenant (see Ex. 25:17-22). In Paul's argument the association with Christ's 'blood' or death suggests that the ritual on the day of atonement is in view: Aaron is instructed to take the blood of the 'goat of the sin offering that is for the people' and sprinkle it on and in front of the mercy seat; in this way he made 'atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins' (Lev. 16:15-16). He uses an idea, therefore, that is intimately associated with an act of atonement for Israel's sins. Jesus' faithful obedience culminating in his death at the hands of Israel's enemies was in some sense equivalent to, or analogous to, the action on the day of atonement by which Israel was cleansed of its sins.
There are other textual antecedents that should be taken into account.
1. The narrowing of the scope of the sacrificial argument, the emphasis on the connection with the salvation of first century Israel, is supported by the Theodotion text of Daniel 9:24, where the cognate verb exilaskomai is used for the atonement of the sins that have been responsible for Israel's state of protracted exile:
Seventy weeks were determined for your people and for your holy city for sin to be completed and to seal up sins and to expunge lawlessness and to make atonement for wrong-doings (tou exilasasthai adikias) and to bring in righteousness of the age and to seal a vision and a prophet and to anoint the holy of holies.
2. We have to recognize that in some manner Paul's argument is anticipated by the martyrdom theology of the Maccabean literature. The most important passage is 4 Maccabees 17:20-22 (RSV):
The death of the faithful martyrs (Eleazar, the seven brothers and their mother) at the hands of Israel's enemy resulted in the liberation of Israel from tyranny, the punishment of the tyrant Antiochus, and the cleansing of the nation (cf. Lev. 16:19): the language of the atonement is used to express the redemptive effect of their deaths for the nation at a time of political and religious crisis.
2 Maccabees 7:37-38 reinforces the connection between the sacrificial death of the martyrs, who suffer because of Israel's sins (7:33), and the theme of the wrath of God against Israel:
This barely differs from Paul's argument in Romans: by his righteous death Christ justifies sinful Israel, averts the wrath of God which is justly directed against the nation.
3. As N.T. Wright points out, it is difficult not to hear echoes of the description of the suffering servant in Paul's argument in Romans 3-4 (N.T. Wright, Romans, 475-476). But the servant suffers punishment (Is. 53:5) not for the sake of the world but because Israel sinned: 'stricken for the transgression of my people' (53:8). This is not personal sin, it is not a universal atonement. It is the sin of the nation that brought the judgment of God upon it - exile, and the devastation of Jerusalem. At least, we must place the personal transgressions, the sins of individual Jews, within this story. In his suffering the servant experiences the judgment of God against Israel; through his suffering many in Israel are accounted righteous; he bears their sins (53:10-12).
Both Israel and the pagan world face a 'day of wrath' when God will punish both Jews and Greeks because of their sins. This punishment must be understood in historical terms: we should think of this as judgment on the ancient world. The believing remnant of the people of God, which unexpectedly now includes Gentiles, will be delivered from this wrath because God put Jesus forward as an atoning sacrifice, expressed in his faithfulness to the point of shedding his blood. What was saved by this was a nation, not Tom, Dick and Harry. Because Jesus died, the people, or at least those who believed in him, lived. Jesus was 'destroyed' so that a community that identified itself with him might survive the conflagration. The question then arises: how do people subsequently participate in this restored people? Wright thinks that the narrow argument about the salvation of Israel opens up later in the letter to include the whole of humanity: 'The wider dimension at which this hints is God's faithfulness to the human project itself, and indeed to the whole cosmos' (Romans, 478). We shall see.