Friday, May 10, 2013

The apostles didn't preach PSA and neither should we

Between posts here and posts on Liturgy about 'wrath of God was satisfied' a very interesting and erudite discussion on questions of atonement has emerged, including the doctrine* known as the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (PSA). There have been some painful moments in the discussion, but setting those aside, I have enjoyed the gold which has shone through the dross.

As it happens I dipped during this week into one of the (IMO) great books of modern biblical scholarship, Francois Bovon's Luke The Theologian (Second Revised Edition, Baylor Press). If I went to a publisher and said, "Look, I have read everything there is to read on Luke and Acts and I would like to give a report on that reading," I suppose the publisher would show me the door. But Bovon manages to do just that with brilliant energy which takes the reader on a journey into hidden nooks and crannies in the journey which is Luke the theologian using history as a vehicle to set out christology, missiology, soteriology, ecclesiology and pneumatology.

Relating to PSA, something I learned this week is an insight of Charles Moule about preaching in Acts. Bovon's whole paragraph is this:
"Finally, if the expiatory virtue of the death of Jesus does not appear except in Acts 20 it is because of the literary genre of Luke's texts and the editor's theological reticence. It was not usual in early Christianity to underscore the salvific power of the cross in the sermon. Rather, this was done in the catechism. This is why the hyper emon [i.e. Christ died for our sins] appears in the Epistles, reflecting a catechism, and in the sole speech in Acts addressed to Christians (Acts 20:28 [...the church ... which he obtained with his own blood])." [p. 175]
Sometimes scholars worry about the differences between Luke's theology and Paul's theology, precisely because if Paul is the great hero in Acts then that begs the question how Luke could get Paul so wrong. A particular difference is the seeming lack of a theology of the cross - the centre of Pauline theology - in Luke's writings, especially in Acts.

I understand Moule (via Bovon) as saying that an explanation for the difference is that Paul's writings are catechetical - instructional for Christians - whereas most sermons in Acts are evangelistic with a non-Christian audience.

In relation to the atonement as a specific subject for preaching and teaching, Moule via Bovon is saying that it is missing in Acts where we would expect it to be missing, in the proclamation of the gospel, and present where we would expect it to be present, in instruction to Christians.

So, here is an intriguing possibility: the apostles did not proclaim atonement (let alone penal substitutionary atonement) in their preaching of the gospel, but they did teach atonement in their instruction of Christian disciples.

Should we follow their example?

*I acknowledge that some would say there is a 'doctrine of atonement' but not a 'doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement', rather within the doctrine of atonement PSA is a model or one understanding of 'how' atonement 'works'. I also acknowledge that although the case is made (particularly by evangelicals) that the ancient fathers taught atonement in such a way that PSA was front and centre of their understanding, we do not find the phrase' penal substitionary atonement' in their teaching (as far as I know) and thus a list of 'doctrines the ancient fathers taught' is unlikely to include 'the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.' However, in my view, PSA is a distinctive doctrine within the doctrines or teachings which evangelicals both wish to make the case for within Christian discourse and to acclaim as a distinctive doctrine relating to definition of the 'evangelical' movement within Christianity. Putting that another way, an evangelical is distinguished from those not wishing to so identify themselves by virtue of commitment to PSA.


Father Ron Smith said...

Peter, thank you for this thoughtful, and eirenic, understanding of the argument around the propagation of the theory of PSA. I should think every thinking Christian would be prepared to accept the sacred truth of the self-offering of Jesus 'for our sake' as a great mystery 'hidden in God'. Both the motivation and the actuation of this mystery is perhaps beyond our human comprehension.

That 'God so loved the world" ought perhaps to be the salvific basis of our faith journey towards God.

Perhaps the reason PSA was not specifically taught by the Apostles was the fact that - although their Jewish converts would have understood the premise - based on their knowledge of O.T. sacrificial theology - the gentile world may not have been drawn so readily towards what might to them have been perceived as God 'desiring sacrifice' of his human creation.
This would hardly have been a factor that would have appealed to an aesthete.

However, we Christians are taught the basic truth of the Sacrifice of Jesus as - not the requirement of a God of Wrath; but rather, the self-offering (kenosis) of a God of Love - for us. Remember Jesus said "You do not take my life - I offer it".

Andrew White said...

Why can it not be both?

Peter Carrell said...

It could be, Andrew!

I am trying to be discussion-provocative in posing the alternatives. :)

Any gospel preaching today in the Western world can build on a different cultural background to the apostolic preaching around the Mediterranean in the 1st century and thus need not precisely mimic the methodology of the apostles.

Bryden Black said...

I have always been intrigued, Peter, by St Peter’s use in the earlier sections of Acts of the word “tree” (5:30 & 10:39). If we are to still take that classic of CH Dodd’s, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments seriously, then we have to ask what this feature of the “Jerusalem kerygma” might have meant, to both preacher and listeners. In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians we have of course his own answer - 3:13. Richard Hays takes this and the subsequent 4:4ff to be not only part of the “narrative substructure” of the entire section but explicit examples of pre-Pauline creedal formulae incorporated into that narrative by Paul. The relevance to your discussion is on account of my wishing to take a very early date to this Letter’s composition. FF Bruce would conclude, “..., Galatians is the earliest among the extant letters of Paul ... Galatians, whatever its date, is a most important document of primitive Christianity, but if it is the earliest extant Christian document, its importance is enhanced.”

Of course I have not read Bovon! Yet I’d wonder whether he has mentioned anything of this; and if not, then why not? For Paul begins his entire narrative section with the declaration that he publically displayed before his hearers the crucified Jesus, 3:1. And I’m sure you know well the commentators on this passage: his reference is to his initial preaching to them his Gospel message; just so the point of Gal 1:6-9. So all in all, I am not sure of your/Bovon’s thesis ... Although I agree naturally with the reference to Charlie Moule re the distinction between kerygma and didache or catechesis - which is where Dodd too starts! So; might not Peter’s preaching, and Paul’s similarly, torpedo the thesis?! Over to you, matey.

Peter Carrell said...

Doesn't it depend, Bryden, on whether 'tree' relates to the cross-as-atonement rather than (say) cross-as-suffering-prior-to-exaltation?

I do not necessarily have a personal dog in this race; but I have often wondered about the size of the gap between Luke and Paul. Thus Moule/Bovon offers an explanation for bridging the gap. But, as you are observing, it may not be a very strong bridge!

Bryden Black said...

Re the length/size of that bridge: I think you will find the brief section in Richard Hays The Faith of Jesus Christ, pp.60-64, re his own thesis and that of CH Dodd, might suggest it is a rather small span!

Shawn Herles said...

The 'tree' reference to the cross in Acts always fascinated me, not least because of the centrality of such imagery in both Celtic and Norse mythology.

MichaelA said...

"Finally, if the expiatory virtue of the death of Jesus does not appear except in Acts 20 it is because of the literary genre of Luke's texts and the editor's theological reticence. It was not usual in early Christianity to underscore the salvific power of the cross in the sermon."

In a sense this is correct - the book of Acts is narrative. Even when it quotes an excerpt from a sermon, it does not purport to tell us the entire sermon, rather the opposite (see e.g. Acts 2:40). Thus the idea that there is inconsistency between Luke and Acts is an artificial construct - no "bridge" is required where no gap exists.

But in the last sentence quoted, Bovon goes further than he needs to: Paul tells us explicitly that he DID underscore the salvific power of the cross in his sermons:

"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" [1 Corinthians 15:3]. In this, Bovon is incorrect.

Add to this the explicit statement in Acts 2:28: "Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood" and the adoption of the penal substitutionary teaching of Isaiah 53 by Christ in Luke 4 and by Philip in Acts 8, and there are simply no credible grounds for thinking that Luke and Paul held different doctrines. Luke emphasises different issues to other biblical writers (as they all do) but this is nothing new.

MichaelA said...

The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is not only found throughout the Bible, it was also seen as an important bulwark against heresy by the Church Fathers. For example, St Athanasius emphasised it in his arguments against Arianism:

"and on hearing, ‘Christ hath become a curse for us,’ and ‘He hath made Him sin for us who knew no sin,’ we do not simply conceive this, that whole Christ has become curse and sin, but that He has taken on Him the curse which lay against us (as the Apostle has said, ‘Has redeemed us from the curse,’ and ‘has carried,’ as Isaiah has said, ‘our sins,’ and as Peter has written, ‘has borne them in the body on the wood’)" [Athanasius Contra Arianos IV, Disc II, xix, 47]

In his earlier work on the incarnation, Athanasius reminds his readers that God could not simply "freely forgive" sin, without violating his own laws:

"But just as this consequence must needs hold, so, too, on the other side the just claims of God lie against it: that God should appear true to the law He had laid down concerning death. For it were monstrous for God, the Father of truth, to appear a liar for our profit and preservation" ["Of the Word Incarnate" 7.1]

Therefore, the only solution was for Christ the perfect one to take the penalty on himself:

"Seeing, further, the exceeding wickedness of men, and how by little and little they had increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves: and seeing, lastly, how all men were under penalty of death: He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption … And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire. [Athanasius, "Of the Word Incarnate" 8.2]

"But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man's account with death and free him from the primal transgression." [Athanasius, "Of the Word Incarnate" 20.5-6]

MichaelA said...

"Doesn't it depend, Bryden, on whether 'tree' [in Galatians] relates to the cross-as-atonement rather than (say) cross-as-suffering-prior-to-exaltation?"

I would have thought Paul makes that pretty clear. At the beginning of the letter he writes:

"Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever" [Gal 1:3-5],

Given that his readers were familiar with Old Testament teaching, they could hardly have missed the reference to giving of a sacrifice for sin on Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16 and 17:

"This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites ... For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life." [Lev 16:34, 17:11]

Paul drives this home in chapter 3 of Galatians:

"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole." [Gal 3:13]

Note also that, whilst some modern teachers try to draw a distinction between atonement and redemption, yet in both Old and New Testaments redemption itself is an aspect of penal substitutionary atonement. Those who are redeemed are those who were justly condemned to death, and they are redeemed by Christ taking their penalty on himself. Hence why the redemption price is blood, not money.

Bryden Black said...

Michael, I wonder if you'd consider cut and pasting all these three comments on Liturgy site?! It might of course prompted some adverse reactions but it might also demonstrate rather clearly (I'd say convincingly) the errors of some people's ways. said...

Unfortunately, Bryden, "the errors of some peoples' ways" may not be immediately discernible by the very people trying to correct 'other peoples' errors.

I think that 3 postings in a row by the same individual can sometimes betray a predilection for the circumstances that have rightly provoked the criticism: "Methinks thou protesteth too much!"

Lengthy posts do not always signify either truth or purity of vision.

MichaelA said...

Hi Bryden, thanks for your kind words.

But I already have trouble keeping track of the blogs I contribute to now (about six). I am sure if someone wants to refute something I have written, they will post here. So far no attempts at refutation have been posted, but who knows what will happen!