Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Crossway Books, 2007.
If you are aware at all of the heated debates in Christian theology about the atonement, the title of this book will make clear to you the stance of the authors. One of the book’s contributions is to make clear, if anyone might have wondered, that the “penal substitution” doctrine (that in his sacrificial death, Jesus substituted for later Christians by receiving God’s punishment that all human beings deserve which then allows God to forgive sinners) is alive and well. “Alive and well” at least in the sense of widely held and vigorously argued for.
Pierced for Our Transgressions has many things going for it. It is pretty well written and covers a wide range of issues in its 373 pages. The forcefulness of the authors’ convictions does not help those who are not convinced by their assertions to feel a part of a genuine conversation, but it does make the book readable and engaging. The authors are quite aware of many of the challenges to their position and to their credit seek thoroughly to engage those challenges. I picked the book up because I wanted a wide-ranging and up-to-date defense of the substitutionary atonement position (for some reason, I find myself uncomfortable with the term “penal substitution”) and was quite happy with what I found in that regard. This book is up-to-date and lays out the position with clarity.
As is to be expected from evangelical Christians seeking to defend an essential truth they feel is under attack, the tone of the book does at times cross the line and become harsh and unfair toward theological opponents. But I have read books that are much worse on this score, and I do respect the authors’ attempt to be what they would understand to be fair and balanced.
Probably the two biggest contributions the book makes in developing its argument are (1) a long chapter 2 on “the biblical foundations of penal substitution” and (2) a discussion of “the historical pedigree of penal substitution” in chapter 5. Chapters 6 through 12 are a fascinating litany of responses to criticisms of the substitutionary atonement position. Most of the responses to the kinds of criticisms I would make seemed pretty superficial–and one major criticism (which I will discuss below) is not directly discussed. So I did not find this section nearly as informative as I hoped it would be.
The discussion of the biblical materials is wide-ranging and makes very clear how well thought through the authors’ position is. It’s internal logic is impressive and the support for that logic in terms of “prooftexts” does get one’s attention. However, this support comes much more in the form of small bits and pieces gleaned from throughout the Bible and not from wrestling with the large plot or storyline of the Bible. The larger plot makes clear that God’s mercy is the bottom line of the story, not the kind of “holiness” and “justice” that the authors see as underwriting God’s ultimately punitive response to human sinfulness. The big issue, then, becomes one of hermeneutics–do we interpret the small bits and pieces in light of the larger storyline or do we treat them as autonomous pieces of revelation in the form of bits and pieces? Given the authors’ hermeneutical choices, their conclusions are difficult to refute. But those choices are not based on a straightforward reading of the Bible nearly so much as emerging from theological conclusions seeking biblical support.
Likewise with the historical material. We are bombarded with a series of short quotes from all eras of Christianity but not given much in the way of context and the broader theological stories within which the quoted parts were written. I do have to admit to being impressed with the quantity of writers we are exposed to in this chapter–going back to the early church. Clearly, the theological dynamics that undergird the substitutionary atonement view do go way back. However, I am left with a couple of questions.
Even if the substitutionary view goes back to Eusebius, is that necessarily support for the assertion the authors make that this theology is thoroughly biblical? What about the gap prior to Eusebius (they quote just one writer from before the 4th century, Justin Martyr)? Is it a coincidence that theology with a more punitive and coercive bent emerges only after the Constantinian moment?
And, why is Anselm completely ignored? Normally in this kind of historically-oriented discussion you would find Anselm in the index between Ambrose and Aquinas (and playing a much larger roll than either). But not here. Certainly it is possible these authors want to differentiate their substitutionary views from Anselm’s “satisfaction” argument–but given how closely these views typically are linked, shouldn’t the authors have at least explained why they want them to be separate?
The one big issue that arises for me in considering this kind of understanding of salvation (and I would myself want to link Anselm closely with the view defended in this book), is this: Why does God need to be “satisfied” or “turned aside” from punishing sinners if God is the one who does indeed save us (as both Anselm and those holding to the substitutionary view insist)? Why does God need a sacrifice when God is the one who provides the sacrifice? These authors (along with everyone else within this school of thought) develop an intrictate theory that explains many details concerning the necessary sacrifice of Jesus as the perfect offering God requires in order to offer salvation–but they never really address my question.
If God needs this sacrifice in order to be able to be free to save, how can it be that God then is the source of the sacrifice and the one who offers it? What actually is the difference between a God who loves human beings enough to sacrifice his own son to make forgiveness possible and a God who loves human beings enough simply to offer forgiveness? If God truly is acting out of love, why are these mechanistic processes of sacrifice necessary?
The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions add a further wrinkle–echoing some but not all of their predecessors. They argue (briefly) in favor of what has traditionally been called a “limited atonement” (they prefer the term, “particular redemption,” pages 271-78). The gist of this idea is that “God did not will to save all” (page 270), but only those chosen by God before the beginning of time. The reason God “does not act to bring about the salvation of all…is that God sometimes allows something bad to happen (the death of the sinner) to serve a higher end. The highest end of all is his glory and, strangely perhaps to our minds, it brings him more glory not to save all: against the backdrop of the fate of those without Christ, God’s grace towards those in Christ is more gloriously seen” (page 270).
To say the least, this belief is troubling–and seems to run counter to the spirit of biblical faith. Maybe another reason these authors ignore Anselm is the other big idea Anselm has been known for, the ontological argument for the existence of God. God must exist since God is the “being than which no greater can be conceived” and if this being doesn’t exist then it’s not the greatest conceivable being since it would be a greater being if it did exist. Well, it is very easy to conceive of beings, imaginary or real, who are greater than a God who brings non-chosen creatures into existence in order to give “himself” glory when “he” condemns them.