Jesse, if, as you rightly emphasize, we are only responsible for what we know, then you could not be held responsible for knowing the premial explanation of the Atonement…until now. If I have somehow hit the mark, and the punitive overcast of Augustinianism can at last be expeditiously dispelled by the sunny rays of God’s premial justice streaming through the misty formulas of traditional Protestant dogma, the question arises: what now? This exposé seems to demand some kind of accounting for the rise and development of penal necessitism over the centuries. I shall have more to say about this later on, especially as a result of my very recent picking through Grotius’s compilation, at the end of his book, of quotations from earlier centuries on the nature and rationale for the Atonement. We all have seen similar lists in recent treatments of the topic, but I must say, more than any of the other compilers, Grotius (I cannot challenge his Latin translations) has forced me to admit that penal necessitism has been building steadily, almost exclusively during the post-Nicene era. Prior to this reading, I was undecided whether the penal position was simply an innocent, fair, and even natural attempt at elaborating the high-water mark of apostolic proclamation, or whether the penal development reflected a growing corruption of biblical doctrine by other influences insinuating themselves over the centuries. The language of a score of those authors now seems quite unequivocal to me. I want to return to this later, with greater attention. Only to say now that this conclusion affects much that I have previously written that attributed to John Calvin a novelty that he does not deserve, although only partly mitigating the blame for culminating a late tradition he might have exposed as a distinct departure from ante-Nicene tradition, much less the purely New Testamental. But, then, Augustine was Calvin’s most esteemed guide to doctrine, and such a filter would predispose anyone to overlook the premial character of divine justice.
So although it is too late for Calvin to repent of his over-reliance on Augustine, it is not too late for me to repent of making Calvin the whipping boy for my antipathy to Atonement by penal satisfaction. It has validly been spotted numerous times earlier. Which still doesn’t excuse it or render it apostolic by concession. But I can see why Grotius might be forgiven for thinking he had a legitimate warrant to push a variant on that theme. He had enough precursors to give it plausibility. But more interesting, it means that Socinus was simply giving belated voice to at least aspects of the previous consensus of ante-Nicene authors on this point. Who would have thought! He certainly did not restore the full potency of premial atonement by resurrection and beyond, or he might have defused the furious opposition (but maybe not…). Still, it was a worthy effort at restoring Biblical truth, and from what I have seen so far, his arguments against the penal explanation are mostly sturdy and should have been heeded. The next frontier is to account for the widely scattered formulaic expressions about “satisfaction” that had accumulated well before even Anselm’s century.
Moreover, it is passing strange that pivotal figures Luther, Calvin, Socinus, and Grotius all had legal training before pursuing theological concerns. Or is it? The same was true of the influential Tertullian, thirteen centuries earlier. Hmm. I wonder if there’s a pattern. Then I wonder how that kind of education plays into the spread of penal necessitism. No time here to pursue it among other personages, earlier or later, but this is probably no anomaly. And for good or ill it has certainly had profound effects on controversies and outcomes of theology as a “science.” This matter, too, I want to pass over for now, but please keep these facts in mind when considering how this penal frame of mind could have been perpetuated so tediously down to the present while obscuring the New Testament Explanation of God, for it surely did happen.
Having completely overlooked even the possibility that God’s premial or rewarding justice is the exclusive showpiece of the Atonement, all penal doctrines of the Atonement, although they may pay some lip service to the Biblical strains of saving or rescuing or delivering or preserving justice, play them like “grace notes”—“not necessary to the melody, added only for ornamentation” (Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language College Edition, [Cleveland & NY: The New World Publishing Co., 1962]). However, the grace is not dwelled upon! The graciousness is scarcely even heard! Or, as “Webster” goes on to define it: “It is usually printed as a small note just before the note that it embellishes, from which its time value is subtracted.” How apt. Penal substitution theories (whether Calvin’s commercial or Grotius’s rectoral—these two really culminate the history of the doctrine for most practical purposes) pass all too quickly from the mere embellishment of any premial grace appearing in Scripture’s melodic narratives, treating it as optional ornamentation, and then rumble on with the “necessary” and “dominant” penal melody line of their own transcription! In doing so, however, they in effect major on the minor harmonies and bring a grim overcast to obscure the sunny truth about God’s justice—the whole, integral truth…the rest of the Gospel Story.
The governmental, rectoral, or acceptilation theory of penal substitution, even as the commercial or economic exchange version to which it was reacting, is a monument to sophistry and rhetoric. They may both “preach” well, but we must beware our loyalties.
It’s not the death of Christ that atones for sins. It’s THE LIFE WHICH OUTLIVED HIS DEATH that atones for sins. Because since that life was returned to him GREATLY MAGNIFIED by way of just retribution, Christ possessed the right and capability to SUBDIVIDE and REDISTRIBUTE it via the Holy Spirit he had received without measure. Pentecost was the historic unveiling of that Gift of graciousness in superabundance…in transmission mode!
If “Penal Substitution” is finally recognized to be wrong and false, with any degree of near certainty, within our lifetimes, theologians and historians will be faced with the unsettling fact that, then, it must always have been wrong and false for, contrary to post-modern protestations, truth itself is reliably change-resistant. They must somehow deal with the fallout of such a theological cataclysm. Probing questions about the socio-cultural effects, searching investigations into the political-economic results of so many people believing so great a falsehood about something so fundamental for so many centuries are bound to make disturbing waves that upset entrenched interests and self-complacent certitudes along a wide front. Compensating for this shake-up, however, should be the fresh confidence and energizing joy of the more authentic Gospel. Picking up the pieces and rebuilding can be undertaken with new hope.
Can God “tolerate,” even “use” other “gospels”? He has! What was being preached before Augustine or Anselm or Aquinas or Francis of Assissi or Luther or Calvin or Loyola or Socinus or Grotius or Fox or Wesley or Campbell or Finney or Moody or Booth or Barth or Graham came along?—make your own list of heroes, gurus, epoch-makers. Each was a collector, rejecter, and re-arranger of received traditions and understandings. They all gained followers; most fostered whole movements; some started schools. “The Gospel” sounds quite different from each of their pens. Is God boggled by how to get us to get it right? Not so much. So let’s keep trying.
~to be continued~