Accept no Substitute? a book review.

In recent years the idea of substitutionary atonement is often attacked. Substitution is the hallmark of classic Protestant thinking about the way Christ’s cross saves us from our sins; however many are questioning whether the language of substitution does adequate justice to Christ’s cross and biblical theology.  In Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul, Simon Gathercole surveys the contemporary discussion on substitution and its merits, the strongest exegetical challenges to the doctrine, and examines two key texts from the Pauline literature that explore the nature of substitution in Paul’s thought (1 Corinthians 15:3 and Romans 5:6-8). Gathercole is not attempting to eradicate the insights of substitution’s critics. He merely seeks to demonstrate that the language of identifying, representation and apocalyptic views of Christ’s atonement do not do full justice to the totality of the atonement or Paul’s theology of the cross. Gathercole is bringing the notion of substitution back to the table so we can see a richer picture of Chris’t work.

This book originated as an SBL paper in 2006 which underwent revision as Gathercole presented the material as a  academic lecture series  at three different institutions (Concorida, Biola and Acadia). Published here as part of the Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology series (ed by Craig Evans and Lee Martin McDonald), it still maintains the accessibility necessary for a public lecture format (10). Gathercole, here, is as brief as he is suggestive of the ways substitution rounds out our contemporary understanding of the atonement.

After an introduction, Gathercole’s argument unfolds in three chapters, a brief excursus and a conclusion.  In his introduction, Gathercole describes the importance of substitution for both Christian doctrine and pastoral care (14). He defines substitutionary atonement as ‘Christ’s death in our place, instead of us’ (15). While substitution is associated with penal models, Gathercole untangles this, claiming, “Substitution is logically distinguishable from related concepts such as penalty, representation, expiation and propitiation” (18). He t sharpens the idea of substitution by profiling the distinctions between substitution and penalty (18-20), representation (20), propitiation (21-2) and satisfaction (22-3). This helps set limits on what Gathercole’s claims in this essay. It is conceptually possible to speak of punishment, representation, divine appeasement and satisfaction apart from the idea of substitution. Substitution does not necessarily entail all (or any) of these other ideas. Gathercole closes his introduction with a survey of various contemporary criticisms of subsititutionary atonement (i.e. that it is a legal fiction, an immoral doctrine, its rejection on philosophical and logical grounds).

In chapter one, Gathercole turns to what he feels are three strongest antisubstitutionary exegetical cases for the atonement. He profiles the Tübingen understanding of representative ‘place-taking,’  Morna Hooker’s Interchange, and apocalyptic deliverance. The Tübingen school (building on the work of Gese and Hofius) describes Christ’s death through the lens of the Day of Atonement rituals (Lev. 4-5, 16). In the sacrifice of the bull and the goat, the priest and the people were invited to identify in the sacrifice through the laying on of hands. In a similar way we are set free by identifying with Christ in his sacrifice (36-7). Hooker’s interchange emphasizes our union to and participation with Christ in his death (41). The apocalyptic view focuses on how Christ’s death sets us free from the powers (46). Gathercole praises each of these approaches for the way they handle some biblical texts and describe aspects of the atonement; however, he also observes where each fails to do justice to everything that Paul says on the atonement. One area that he critiques  all of these approaches is in their failure to grapple with how Christ saves from our ‘sins’ (individual infractions) and not just our ‘Sin’ (our condition).

Chapter two and three provide the exegetical case for where Gathercole sees the language of substitution in Paul. Chapter two focuses on 1 Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our Sins according to the Scriptures.” Chapter three explores the vicarious death of Christ as described in Romans 5:6-8, “For although we were weak, yet at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Between these chapters is a brief excursus on why if Jesus died in our stead, we still die. Gathercole argues convincingly that 1 Cor 15:3 builds on the notion of substitution with Isaiah 53 in the background whereas Romans 5 describes vicarious atonement with Roman and Greek parallels in the background.

Gathercole isn’t out to debunk contemporary discussions of how we participate in Christ’s death and his atoning sacrifice. He has no bone to pick with idenitfication, representation or Christus Victor undderstandings of the atonement. What this essay highlights is the way these, in various ways, fail to describe all that happens in the atonement (and even all that Paul has to say about it). Nor is Gathercole foisting on us an either/or understanding where we ought to see the atonement as substitutionary only. Rather he helps us see a fuller picture of the atonement where in a very real way, Christ died so we don’t have to. This book helps illustrate the richness of God’s work in Christ. Personally I found it helpful because while I appreciate some of the developments in atonement theology, I’ve found the blanket criticisms of all things substitutionary puzzling. Another insight I gained from the way Gathercole profiles the alternative views, is he shows how a totalizing vision of the atonement determined what a passage is allowed to say. When our conceptual framework is too rigid we fail to see the full richness of what is described in Paul’s theology (or other writers). Gathercole has a fuller atonement theology because he allows for the diversity in the meaning of Paul’s material. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

3 thoughts on “Accept no Substitute? a book review.

  1. At odds for me–and for a lot of us who take issue with Penal Substitutionary Atonement–is not the vicarious nature of what Jesus did. I’d say that’s pretty obvious. It’s the idea that Jesus had to accept God’s punishment for every sin anyone ever committed in order for God to be reconciled. It’s not the substitutionary (I prefer vicarious–we experience reconciliation THROUGH Jesus) part that’s troubling; it’s the penal. Even if we allow a shade of Isaiah 53 influence on the penal side, it should be clear that the curses of the Law (the Deuteronomic curses) would be falling on Jesus. That’s particular to the covenant between God and Israel, not a plan to make Jesus God’s whipping boy for everyone that ever lived.

    • Thanks for your comment. This is’t a defense of penal substitution, as such, it is a defense of substitution. Gathercole interacts with several authors which take issue with the idea of substitution, especially in the writings of Paul. What you are saying isn’t in conflict with Gathercole’s argument. He is careful to seperate ‘penal’ from ‘substitution’ in this essay. He also uses the language of vicarious, though he is distinguishing aspects of the atonement that we participate in (through identity with Him, our dying with Him, his representation of us) from the aspects of the atonement that Jesus did for us, so we don’t have to. Vicarious still names the participatory dimension of the atonement (if we take words to mean what they mean) which Gathercole isn’t arguing against so much as highlighting something else.

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