views of the cross

Views of the atonement generally break down into two camps, objective views and subjective views.  The objective views either aim at God (Penal Substitution, Satisfaction, Governmental, etc), or aim at Satan, Death, Powers (Christus Victor or the Classical View). The subjective views aim at humans and what takes place inside a person upon viewing the Cross (e.g. Jesus becomes our moral example, the inspiring revelation of God’s love, etc.).

A few of the lesser subscribed to theories were new to me, the Governmental Theory and the Vicarious Penitence Theory (although I recall C.S. Lewis arguing something like this in Mere Christianity). The mainstream theories, Moral Example, Penal Substitution, and the Classical View, I was more familiar with.

What I was most enriched by, I think, is by the way these theories hang together in the Scriptures. In my study, and with the help of Millard Erickson in particular, I found that instead of being alternative competing interpretations of the Cross these were instead different facets of the same reality. In fact one understands any given view better by affirming the other views, not by repudiating them.

The Penal Substitution Theory, seems to me, to stand somewhere near the center or root of what took place on the cross. By itself it does not offer a complete picture of what took place in Jesus’ crucifixion. Without it, the other theories are much more difficult to make sense of. As Erickson describes for example concerning the Moral Example Theory, if a fireman rushes into a burning house to save a parent’s child, saving the child but dying in the process, one witnesses a powerful and inspiring moral example. But if a fireman simply rushes into a burning house to save no one, simply because, and dies in the process, one isn’t offered a powerful moral example but an example of foolishness. It is the objective reality of penal substitution which supports and fills out the reality of Christ as a moral example to us. Christ dies for people, not rashly, but for the objective purpose of bearing their sin, becoming a curse, so that they may be reconciled to God. But likewise, the objective reality of Christ’s penal substitution is inadequately understood if the subjective elements such as Christ as a moral example are not embraced.

Likewise, the Classical View rests securely upon the foundation of penal substitution. If Christ defeated Satan but did not cancel the legal liability humans face for their sin, then Satan still has grounds to accuse those who trust God. But if we understand the power of Satan to come from the fact that we stand guilty, in our justification Satan is truly defeated not once, but for all time. Personally I’m curious about exploring further connections of the relationship between the Classical View and the Penal Substitution Theory.

In what ways might the Classical View align with a New Exodus understanding of the Cross? For instance, Israel was dramatically taken of of Egypt by God, the evil power over Israel was defeated, and then God spent the next 40 years getting the Egypt out of Israel. In the New Testament we find a people similarly afflicted with a deep sin nature (the Egypt within) and an external power over them (the Egypt without), the world (humanity organized against God, or as some might say, the anti-kingdom). The world itself is ruled by Satan and governed by the Powers. Jesus, by taking Sin and the Curse upon himself, frees his people from the bondage of these, defeating the power of sin in their lives, Satan’s rule over them, the world’s control of them, and the ability of the Powers to define them. But it seems to me that like the Classical View, an emphasis on Christ inaugurating a New Exodus also needs to be informed by an understanding of Christ functioning as humanity’s objective substitution.

What do you think?

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6 Responses to “views of the cross”


  1. 1 Nick June 10, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    I am glad you distinguished between “satisfaction” and “Penal substitution,” the former is Biblical, the latter is not.

    I had a debate with a Calvinist on Penal Substitution, showing it was without Scriptural warrant:
    http://catholicdefense.googlepages.com/psdebate

  2. 2 gknipp June 11, 2009 at 5:08 am

    Hmmm…I’d have to agree. We can’t “get away” from penal substitution because of the truth of it. From the Fall itself we see that blood must be shed for sin (God kills an animal when A & E already have clothes)…and we see this again and again throughout the Old Testament. So, I think any complete view will hold penal substitution as part of it. But, from a literary standpoint, New Exodus works on so many other levels: it incorporates a blood sacrifice, a death (signified by baptism), it even foretells a rising on the third day (God appears on Mt. Sinai on the third day; the Israelites enter the Promised Land on the third day). God also “creates” the nation of Israel as he recreates us…oh, there’s so much.

    So, perhaps the penal substitution view works in concert with others, but are there downsides to penal substitution? I’ve heard it claimed that penal substitution creates too much of a bifurcation in the character of God. I don’t know. What do you think? You’re the one in seminary.

    • 3 tayloru10 June 11, 2009 at 3:40 pm

      I’ll reply more later but to quickly address the thought that penal substitution creates a bifurcation in the character of God I would say that that opinion appears more readily when the Church has an inadequate Trinitarian theology. Yes, some sort of tri-theistic theology where the angry Father sacrifices the innocent Son is clearly unbiblical.
      I think any truly Trinitarian understanding of the cross needs to account for Jesus’ wrath against sin, Biblical statements which say the cross reveals the Father’s love, the voluntary nature of Jesus’ death, and an understanding of how all three members of the Trinity always act in accordance.
      One member never acts independently. The classic term for this is perichoresis, referring to the how all three members of the Trinity interpenetrate one another while preserving their personal identities. One prof I had described it like a Broadway show where three similarly dressed characters were on stage and always standing in a way where one was in front and the other two were directly behind. Whatever the first member did, the other two where right behind the scenes, whether the audience saw it or not.
      I’ll write more later.

  3. 4 Ken Knipp June 12, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    I like your comments, Tim, and Gabe you asked a good question. I think that the penal substitution theory is clearly Biblically rooted, yet often gets presented as the only way to understand the Atonement….and presented sometimes in a way that diminishes/eliminates the unity in the Trinity.

    I find II Corinthians 5:21 helpful. God (the Father) was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself…i.e. God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) reconciles the world to the Trinity, not that Jesus reconciles the world to the Father.

    John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ” is also helpful. “We must not, then, speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other. We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects, not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners.” p.151

  4. 5 Browning June 23, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    I hope I’m not intruding on the Knipp family blog… but Dan Nicholas passed this on and I really dig the thoughts here…and I agree with pretty much what everyone said … though I think I would slightly disagree on the ordering… I would spin it the OTHER way… I would say Christus Victor (what I understand to be something very close the to Classical View) would be the base/root (borrowing a couple words from the post)… But what I didn’t see done was an attempt couch any of this in the history of the church… It’s really hard to argue against the fact that the Classical View IS classical because it WAS the base for the church’s understanding of the atonement for fifteen-hundred years…

    …That said, I think I can fall off on one said, but was simply suggest rearranging things a little… that’s all… and I would do that not just (or even mostly) because of how I read scripture… because I know my inability to see w/out my own lens infecting my views… I would do that because that is how the fathers and mothers of my faith for THOUSANDS of years have understood the atonement based on the scriptures and based on the spirit… that’s the only way I know to get around my lens even a little is to look to how those who could never possibly have my same lens and see how they understood something… of course that is not an end all be all, but it’s a start…

    Thanks for the convo!


  1. 1 A Little More on Story… « the.philadelphia.project Trackback on June 11, 2009 at 4:47 am

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