Adrian Warnock has posted his definition of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), and also the definition in the book Pierced for Our Transgressions. But these definitions are by no means the only ones; for example Bishop Tom Wright‘s understanding is quite considerably different. Much of the recent unfortunate controversy has in fact been based on misunderstandings, because different people are working from different understandings of this doctrine.
I can happily and wholeheartedly endorse most of Adrian’s definition, including phrases like
Jesus died to take our punishment or penalty … and to turn away the wrath of God
he has punished sin in Christ.
For I understand “take our punishment” in the sense “take away our punishment” rather than “be punished by God with the punishment we deserve”. The only real problem I have is with
He could justly be punished for sin.
Now if Adrian means that Pilate could justly punish him, “justly” seems inappropriate; but if, as is more likely, he means that God could justly punish him, I reject that. Note the distinction I am making: Pilate punished Jesus, unjustly; God punished sin in Jesus, or better, God in Christ punished sin, which was just; but God did not punish Jesus, which would have been unjust.
As for the Pierced for Our Transgressions definition:
The Doctrine of penal substitution teaches that God gave himself in the person of his Son to suffer instead of us the death, punishment and curse due to fallen humanity as the penalty for sin . . . the Lord Jesus Christ died for us — a shameful death, bearing our curse, enduring our pain, suffering the wrath of his own Father in our place.
The problem I have here is with the word “suffer”, used twice here. Yes, Jesus suffered pain. But I don’t accept that he suffered punishment and wrath if that is taken to mean that God punished him and was wrathful towards him.
Just to clarify that this is my understanding. Whether anyone allows it as a variant of PSA is up to them. But it seems to me to be in clear agreement with the Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith and I think with PSA as described by Wright and by Packer. None of these say that God punished Jesus. Indeed my understanding is even compatible with that of Jonathan Edwards, as quoted by Packer:
God dealt with him as if he had been exceedingly angry with him, and as though he had been the object of his dreadful wrath.
Note “as if … as though”. It may have looked as if God was angry with Jesus and punishing him. But, as the more careful scholars have always realised, that cannot have been really and objectively true, because it would imply a breach in the Trinity. And even Isaiah, who didn’t know about the Trinity, realised the problem, which is why he wrote (as translated) “we considered” and “But” in the following:
… we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities; …
(Isaiah 53:4-5, TNIV).
So, what does Bishop Wright have to say about PSA? Well, he writes:
this leads to the key point: there are several forms of the doctrine of penal substitution, and some are more biblical than others. … [The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions] seem to assume that all references to propitiation, penal theories, substitution and so forth are basically saying the same thing, so that to affirm one is to affirm all, and to question one is to deny all.
This is indeed a key point, which applies to these authors and to many others who have condemned people like Steve Chalke: they have simply failed to realise that there is great variety in what different people mean when they talk about PSA. Indeed they show their confusion when, in blog comment after blog comment, they simultaneously accuse Chalke of describing a straw man caricature of PSA and condemn him for rejecting PSA. Well, make up your minds, guys: if what Chalke condemns is PSA as you understand it, then it cannot be a caricature; and if it is a caricature of PSA which you don’t accept, then you are agreeing with him!
Meanwhile, while Wright gives some interesting pointers to his own view of PSA (and refers to his book where he has gone into this in more depth), in place of a definition he offers the following:
when Jesus was going to his own death, … to help his disciples get the full meaning and benefit of what was about to happen, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal. That meal … contains in itself not only all the various meanings of ‘atonement’ that are worth considering, but also the means by which theories can be turned into real life.