There are many arguments against the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. I must confess, however, that I have never met a good one. I have only met bad ones. At the same time, I am willing to admit that though all the arguments are bad ones, there are some that are certainly worse than other ones. I do not know if the following argument is the worst one that I have ever come across, but it definitely ranks right up there. Here is how the argument goes:
I readily admit that the New Testament authors believed in and taught the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. You will not get any argument from me on that point. But even though the apostles taught it, that does not mean that we have to believe it. I have to disagree with the apostles because this understanding of the atonement goes against reason, it is incoherent, it does not make sense, it is illogical, it is counter-intuitive, it cannot be accepted by thinking people in this day and age. Therefore, I reject it.
The interesting thing about this argument is that it is not by any means new, even though it espoused by those who would denominate themselves as (so-called) “progressive” Christians. The past couple of weeks, I have been re-reading two volumes by the learned nineteenth-century Scottish theologian, George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Atonement, as Taught by Christ Himself, and The Doctrine of the Atonement, as Taught by the Apostles. I quote here a passage from the latter volume, where Smeaton, just after giving an exegesis of Romans 4:25, goes on to make the following remarks.
The words mean that Christ sustained our punishment, and was delivered to condemnation, human and divine, in consequence of our offences, which were charged to Him, and spontaneously borne on the ground of a union between us and Him. But it is proper to add, as showing the foregone conclusions with which many come to the interpretation of this passage, that even if it were affirmed in the plainest and most unambiguous language that sin was the cause of Christ’s sufferings, and that His death was the proper punishment inflicted on Him for human sin, the opponents of the vicarious satisfaction, by their own avowal, would turn away the point of the evidence. Socinus says expressly: Though the thing were said, not once, but many times, he would not believe it; for the thing cannot be, inasmuch as the doctrine contended for is contrary to reason. Hence their whole aim is to discover any other possible meaning. To meet that rationalistic mode of treating Scripture, there is only one way. We must plainly tell such disputants either to stand within the pale of Revelation, and be bound by its announcements, or stand outside its borders altogether. It will not do to accept a Revelation, and then reject the doctrines they dislike,—to take it, and yet refuse it, according to their arbitrary caprice. They cannot be allowed thus to expound the contents of the divine word. They must take it or go without it, for they cannot be allowed to argue on the sceptic’s ground when they please.
Smeaton is correct. A Christian theologian must either stand “within the pale” of God’s word, and “be bound by its announcements”—or “stand outside its borders altogether,” and give up all pretense of attempting to construct a truly Christian theology. “It will not do to accept,” to a point, the Scriptures as revelation from God, and yet “reject the doctrines they dislike . . . according to their arbitrary caprice.”
Above, I provided the titles of both of Smeaton’s volumes, because it is important to note that there is a relationship between the teaching of Christ regarding his sacrificial, substitutionary death, and the teaching of the apostles. Smeaton and a whole host of scholars have cogently argued that, even though there may well be development in the apostolic preaching of the atonement, it is all, nevertheless, either directly or derivatively dependent on Christ’s own teaching. If the apostles believed and taught penal substitutionary atonement, they did so because their Lord did so as well. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
To exegete the New Testament teaching on the atonement and to arrive at a different interpretation from that traditionally understood is one thing. But to admit that the traditional understanding of the New Testament teaching is correct, and yet reject it as being illogical, against reason, incoherent, counter-intuitive, etc., is to move into territory where no Christian theologian belongs. To recall the words of Martin Luther, “it is neither right nor safe.” I choose to stand with Christ and his apostles. The Christian theologian can do no other.
July 29, 2015