Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Penal Substitution and Christus Victor

For years, J. I. Packer has argued with passion and logical perpspicuity for the truth that the doctrine of penal substitution is the heart of the Gospel and the center of the multi-faceted and marvelously complex doctrine of the atonement. See, for example, his classic article: "The Logic of Penal Substitution."

Recently, the doctrine of penal substitution has come under heavy attack from certain Evangelicals (notably Brian McLaren in the US and Steve Chalke in Britain). Liberal Protestants have been attacking it for over a century now, but for those calling themselves Evangelicals to do it is a new development and one which portends significant changes in the years ahead for the Evangelical movement as it grapples with this innovation.

One of the ways Evangelicals have tried to straddle the fence on this issue is to argue that downplaying (or even denying) the logic of penal substitution (and sometimes of substitution of any kind) without losing an objective doctrine of the atonement is to emphasize the doctrine of Christus Victor. But, clearly, not all versions of Christus Victor are actually objective; this doctrine can (and often is) be deployed in a subjective manner that makes it into a kind of example of victory that inspires us to fight all the harder to defeat the powers too.

Justin Taylor, at his blog Between Two Worlds (which is now hosted at the Gospel Coalition site) has written a succinct and lucid explanation of how Christus Victor is related to penal substitution. He points out that Col. 2:14-15 says specifically that Christ triumphed over the principalities and powers by his cross. (Note: an objective Christus Victor doctrine must emphasize the death and not merly the resurrection of Christ.) Taylor quotes John Murray to the effect that redemption from sin cannot be conceived properly except as it comprehends Christ's victory over Satan and the powers. The victory of Christ over sin, death, hell and the Devil has always been an integral part of the orthodox doctrine of the atonement.

But then Taylor asks the excellent question of how exactly this victory is attained and and in what sense is it attained specifically through the cross? He quotes George Smeaton, a 19th century professor of exegetical theology at Edinburgh who provides the answer:
"Sin was (1) the ground of Satan’s dominion, (2) the sphere of his power, and (3) the secret of his strength; and no sooner was the guilt lying on us extinguished, than his throne was undermined, as Jesus Himself said (John 12:31). When the guilt of sin was abolished, Satan’s dominion over God’s people was ended; for the ground of his authority was the law which had been violated, and the guilt which had been incurred. . . .

[A]ll the mistakes have arisen from not perceiving with sufficient clearness how the triumph could be celebrated on His cross. (The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement (Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1870), 307–308; my emphasis and numbering)."

So Christus Victor is based on, and effective only because of, the sin-bearing work of Christ on the cross. Penal substutution is necessary for a doctrine of Christus Victor to have an application to the real world; without it Christus Victor is just pie in the sky or, at most, an inspiring myth designed to encourage us to try a little harder. But trying harder is not what the Gospel is about; the Gospel is the sublime announcement that despite the fact that all our striving is in vain, God in Christ has already accomplished salvation for all who believe. This makes Christus Victor good news.

So J. I. Packer is right; penal substitution is the heart of the Gospel and the heart of the doctrine of the atonement. As the heart, it is not the whole of the organism, but it is the part that pumps the blood to the whole organism thus keeping it alive and healthy. If the Church ceases to preach penal substitution, the whole significance of Christ's work will wither and dry up leaving only moralism, works righteousness and the social gospel in the place where a full-orbed Gospel used to be.


Anonymous said...

Someone once said that "The common charge that the preaching of the biblical gospel is "pie in the sky" is simply re-cycled Marxist propaganda."

Curious that you are now deploying this Marxist propaganda against Christus Victor.

Craig Carter said...

BS, your comment doesn't even make sense. I have no idea what you are going on about. Nobody ever said that the expression "pie in the sky" itself was Marxist. Good grief, try to get in the game if you are going to comment.

Anonymous said...

Dude, check the second to the last paragraph of this post of yours from like, yesterday:

I'm pretty sure my head's in the game here. If you don't even remember what you wrote yesterday perhaps you should question whether yours really is.

Craig Carter said...

Hey BS, I know what I wrote. It's what you wrote that makes no sense. You said I was employing Marxist propaganda by saying that Christus Victor without penal substitution was pie in the sky, ie. has not objective or ontological reality.

If I now say that Toronto winning the Stanley Cup this year is "pie in the sky" have I just applied Marxist analysis to hockey? Or engaged in Marxist propaganda?

Anonymous said...

I think I'm starting to get it. When someone says of penal substitution "that's pie in the sky" they are engaging in evil Marxist analysis.

On the other hand when you say that Christus Victor is pie in the sky you're doing something utterly different and eminently reasonable. I think I get it now.

Craig Carter said...

BS, if you interpret Scripture like yo interpret me, that must be a pretty entertaining sight. BTW, are you sober?

Anonymous said...

Sadly I am, yo. Apparently sobriety really makes it difficult to see things from your point of view.

Craig Carter said...

OK, BS I think it is time for you to go home. I'm going to ban you from this site, since you are just being a troll and not engaging in acutal debate or discussion.

BTW, I think only cowards and those with something to hide post comments anonymously. If you send me an email and let me know who you are and promise to be reasonable instead of just engaging in inane nitpicking, then I'll let you back on. Otherwise, it has been not so nice having you as my guest.

Andrew said...

I think there is a danger here of slipping into a kind of Owenite limited atonement, if we imply Christ only died for those who believe, and so only defeated the powers with respect to them.

Christ objectively defeated the powers, period, regardless of whether anyone recognizes that fact. His death had an irrevocable effect on world-history (reading DBHart is just confirming that for me).

Craig Carter said...

I'm not sure what exactly in my post makes you think that what I said leads to or supports limited atonement. The victory of Christ over the powers is universal and cosmic, not merely personal for believers. But his Lordship will be recognized in two ways: (1) with joy by those who believe and are saved and (2) grudgingly by those who do not believe and epxerience damnation along with the Devil and his angels.

Andrew said...

You got me there... I guess I was more reacting to what I know your sources (Taylor/Packer support limited atonement) would do with some of your comments. But nothing you said really leads that way.